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Fantastic Four: The Mad Birth of the Silver Surfer

The Silver Surfer

With this summer’s second superhero sequel—Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer—opening in mere days, it seemed like a good time to check out the inspiration for the new film. The Silver Surfer first appeared in Fantastic Four #48, in a riotous story of cosmic proportions that spread over all or part of three issues. The Surfer was the herald of the world-devouring creature Galactus, and his arrival on our world was a harbinger of doom. The FF alone stand against the alien invaders and save the planet.

This storyline, perhaps the most famous in the FF’s 46-year run, is the exact opposite of the first Fantastic Four film—it is breathlessly exciting, relentlessly paced and executed on a grand scale that pushed the limits of its medium. The first movie had two significant handicaps: A fair amount of time had to be devoted just to getting the team empowered (a key reason the excellent first Spider-Man was surpassed by the Doc Ock sequel), and the project had gone through so many writers and directors that a mess was inevitable. The new FF film has none of that behind-the-scenes chaos, and there’s certainly nothing to handicap the story—it’s drawn from a classic example of the absolute glory of superhero comics.

During their historic hundred-issue run on Fantastic Four, Jack Kirby drew the stories from rough written or verbal plots (or less) tossed out by scripter Stan Lee. Starting with his FF work, Kirby grew increasingly cosmic as his work took on ever-greater ambitions. Rather than the mundane soap opera that made Spider-Man great, Kirby seemed to go for real opera, with his stories often filled with godlike alien beings, threats to entire civilizations and planets, and visceral, potent moral and emotional dilemmas.

Reading the dense, compressed storytelling of these early comics is often a peculiar experience for modern audiences used to the slower, more “realistic” pacing of most movies, or of today’s comics, which do in elongated six-issue arcs what Kirby and Lee used to do in 20 runaway pages. But rather than dismiss the intense melodrama and arbitrary, fanciful pseudoscience of these stories, a sympathetic reader can find an unparalleled sense of wonder, a pyrotechnic production of ideas, each exploding for an incandescent moment before the next one overtakes it.

I’ve got a friend (son of some very good friends) who is six years old and hardly ever allowed to watch television. This combination, along with amazingly engaged parenting, has created a kid who is all imagination. He phones me at random to discuss story ideas for Green Lantern comics, or to describe the villains he’s created (“It’s a robot, and it releases dinosaurs from inside it, but they’re robot dinosaurs …”). I have read comics with this guy and watched his imagination light up with the wonder of it. As soon as I get this piece written, I’m calling his parents. If he hasn’t read the Galactus story yet, I’m telling his parents not to let him until I can drive down and read it to him. Because this stuff will make his six-year-old head absolutely explode, and there is no magic better than that.

So, the story: In Fantastic Four 47, the heroes continue a battle involving the Inhumans, a secret race of superpowered beings, whose rightful king has been deposed by his mad brother, Maximus. The FF get caught up with the Inhumans because Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, is puppy-crazed with love for one of them, Crystal. The issue ends with Maximus activating a device guaranteed to kill every human on Earth!

FF 48 arrives a month later with a cover that has nothing to do with the Maximus cliffhanger, and instead trumpets the horrifying arrival of something called Galactus. Inside, Lee and Kirby wrap up the Inhuman storyline by the middle of page 7 before a dramatic jump cut to the latest cosmic infatuation of the relentlessly creative Kirby—a shiny alien who surfs the spaceways on an interplanetary longboard.

While aliens cower in fear at his relative proximity, the Silver Surfer catches a wave of energy and gas off an exploding supernova and (don’t think too hard about this, gang) rides it right into our solar system. fantasticfour48_13.jpg Meanwhile, New York is going mad as first the sky is filled with flame, then with floating stones. We learn they’re illusions cast by the Watcher, an ancient, immortal being dedicated to observing, but never interfering with, humanity. Only he’s interfering now, because nigh draws the Silver Surfer, dreaded herald of the terrifying Galactus, eater of planets.

fantasticfour48_16.jpgThe Surfer reaches Earth and naturally heads right to New York, where he encounters the Torch, in a two-panel scene that is a hint of the chase scene featured prominently in the trailers for the movie sequel. The Thing slugs the Surfer, but it’s too late, and fairly ineffective, anyway—the Surfer has signaled Galactus, who arrives with enormous machines to suck all life outta mother Earth. The final panel reveals the giant, armored figure of Galactus. That the ancient, inhuman Big G speaks English could be No-Prized away by theorizing that he’s communicating psychically, say, but that doesn’t explain the actual big “G” on his armor. Screw it—look at that character design! Jack Kirby is a mad genius, a god of the Number 2 pencil!

fantasticfour48_20.jpg(In the film, sensibly, they use an alternate “Ultimate” version of Galactus that is not humanoid, but a big cloud of space evil.)

Next, in FF 49, we get “If This Be Doomsday.” The Watcher and Galactus have stilted words, and then the FF attacks.
fantasticfour49-03-small.JPG Galactus brushes them aside, and repeated references are made as to how they (we) are but insects to such as him. In fact, the Big G uses insect repellent on the Thing. Insect repellent! The ideas are in total free-flow now, associations and whims piling on top of each other, and before you can appreciate (or scratch your head) over one twist, three more pile up. So, in the interest of the unexpected, the team’s next move is to go home and take a long bath. Well, the Thing does. Stretchy leader Reed Richards goes for a shave. The Invisible Girl has just given herself a new hairstyle, so no telling how she’s passing this interlude … All this gives the Surfer time to check out New York, and of all the places he could end up, he finds himself slipping through the skylight into the apartment of the Thing’s girlfriend. (It should be noted that this apartment was destroyed in FF 47, but is perfectly restored here, which seems to be only days later. Things happen in the Marvel Universe, baby!) Because “blind sculptress Alicia Masters” is, you know, blind, she’s strangely not afraid of the bizarre alien who has broken into her home. The Surfer waxes on (ha!) about his cosmic loneliness, and the often lonely Alicia is enthralled, touched by his “nobility.”
fantasticfour49_07.jpg

At the same time, in another amazing coincidence, the Original G has set up his Earth-eater on top of the heroes’ headquarters, the Baxter Building. And what a device—no one drew wacky alien technology like Jack Kirby. fantasticfour49_08.jpg Hell, no one drew anything like Jack Kirby. As the FF prepares to rush into another fruitless battle, the Watcher pops up to helpfully terrify them by showing images of how utterly Galactus’ device will ruin the Earth. Then he says he knows where the Torch can get a gizmo that will undo Galactus.

Meanwhile, Alicia and the Surfer talk. She tells him it sucks to eat people’s planet, and he tells her she’s a babe. But he must serve his purple-armored boss. “And yet,” sayeth the Surfer, “… never have I felt this new sensation … This thing some call … pity!”

Galactus turns on his world eater! It doesn’t work! The Thing is tearing bits off it! Galactus the All-Powerful responds by sending a robot dwarf to fight the Fantastic Four! (Say it with me, people, “A Robot Dwarf!”) Except for Johnny, who—courtesy of the Watcher—is running a spacetime gauntlet to reach Galactus’ giant home planet, which is actually a giant space station! Cut to more Alicia, where the Silver Surfer says, what the hell, maybe I could take a swing at Galactus the Infinite! fantasticfour49-11-small.JPG Then the Watcher says, “Didn’t see that coming,” and “Crap! The Surfer might now have doomed the already totally doomed Earth!”

CLIFFHANGER! fantasticfour49_20.jpg

FF 50 promises the Surfer’s Saga Cosmic—and Johnny starts college! So I guess that means Earth ain’t getting eaten!

The story starts with SS confronting G. They fight, but the Surfer is totally getting his clock cleaned ’cause Galactus has an Absorba Shield and Solar Destructogen blasts and stuff. Sucks to be the Silver Surfer! This strikes us jaded adults as absurd absurdity, and that is because our imaginations are tiny, atrophied things unworthy of the brilliance of Jack Kirby. This is a cosmic battle, beings who can tear planets asunder are slugging it out over the fate of the Earth, and it’s a wild, passionate fight. [FF50-04] What, you’d rather go rent Bridges of Madison County and watch middle-aged losers sigh heavily over how getting old is a bummer? Or gay cowboys who lack the cajones to just go be gay together in defiance of cultural expectation so they grow old with nothing but the lies that are their lives to keep them company? Pinch-faced Renee Zellweiger worrying in a faux-British accent that Hugh Grant won’t love her ’cause she’s fat and insipid? That’s what passes for art and entertainment these days, mis amigos, and I ain’t buyin’. Save my planet, Stan and Jack!

Johnny returns with a gizmo the size of a mid-eighties cell phone—the Ultimate Nullifier! The Watcher warns Reed not to accidentally set it to “wipe out the solar system in a fraction of a second.” Galactus continues the glorious battle with the Surfer until Reed arrives. See the Big G cower to see the Ultimate Nullifier in a human’s hands! It’s magnificently over-the-top stuff—a giant alien has come to eat our planet! What can top that? A remote control for turning off the universe! Standoff, bitch! Galactus tries to put a tough face on, but he completely backs down and goes his way—after fantasticfour50_08.jpgtaking a revenge shot at the Silver Surfer, fantasticfour50_09.jpg trapping on Earth as punishment. Then, poof, Galactus is gone and now it’s only page 11, so whole new adventures, some of them involving college, kick off and rise to their own inevitable cliffhanger.

Yeah, people, that’s right—all of the above takes place in less than two full issues’ worth of Fantastic Four comics. Maybe this is what Sam Raimi was going for with his overstuffed “Spider Man 3,” but that’s no Lee-Kirby production, that film.

I had never read these three issues of the Fantastic Four before. I’ve known the bare outlines of the story for years, and had encountered Galactus and the Surfer in numerous subsequent appearances. These issues, targeted to a pre-teen audience in a world before “Star Wars” effects and XBox-fueled ADD and ironic self-awareness, are just spectacular pop masterpieces. How much of this divine madness makes it into “Rise of the Silver Surfer”? The filmmakers had clearly digested these issues and subsequent work, and tried to convey the madness of Jack Kirby and the humor of Stan Lee on the big screen, but that translation is a tough challenge that these filmmakers weren’t quite up to.

But after memory of the live-action fades, I’ll be rereading these comics. And soon — I’ve got a six-year-old’s head to blow up.

fantasticfour50-10-small.JPG

[Astonishingly, Marvel appears not to have put out an inexpensive Best o' Galactus/Surfer vs. the FF trade paperback in time for this movie. But Fantastic Four 48-50 are reprinted in Essential Fantastic Four Volume 3, which presents issues 41 to 63 in cheap black and white for about 12 bucks at Amazon. For glorious full-color on high-quality paper, there's the Fantastic Four Omnibus Vol. 2 (issues 31-60, hardcover, $99, or $62 at Amazon).]