Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Most Overrated Comic Book Series Ever

Marvel's Silver Surfer is commonly regarded as the groundbreaking title that introduced adult themes and political commentary to mainstream comic books. 

It's also possibly the single worst title of the Silver and Bronze Ages! But the story of The Silver Surfer title is a tragic tale, full of betrayal and resentment, one that changed the comix world forever.... just not in the way the principals involved expected.

Comics fans know the legend. The Surfer was the creation of Jack Kirby, who threw him into  Fantastic Four #48 without discussing it with editor-scripter Stan Lee. Kirby plotted his own books, and Lee filled in the word balloons, based on Kirby's margin notes. Stan considered this "writing" and has trumpeted himself as the creator of all Marvel's classic characters and stories ever since. Only in the last decade has that lie unraveled.

The Surfer became an instant fan favorite with the hippie college kids who were, for the first time, reading comix. With Lee's careful cultivation, the Surfer was granted his own title in 1968 and became a cult sensation unlike anything Marvel had published before. For 18 classic issues, from 1968 until the book was lamentably canceled in 1970, writer Lee kicked down barriers, elevated the comic book genre to unknown heights as legitimate literature and paved the way for the modern comix of today. The critical acclaim showered on Lee made him the first comic book writer who was taken seriously as an author.

Well, that's Stan's version, anyways. As with most of Lee's self-aggrandisement, it's total bullshit. 

The reality is The Silver Surfer was a tiresome dog of a book, a preachy, nonsensical parable that is one of the worst titles Marvel published at the time. It was also a commercial flop, and rightly so. By the time the ham-handed Lee had finished with him, the Surfer had lost virtually all his appeal. 

It was also the character that cost Stan, and Marvel, the creative heart and soul of the company, Jack Kirby,

Back to the beginning. In 1967, fandom was just beginning to organize and be a force. Stan was starting to get speaking gigs at colleges and universities. Lee admits in his accounts of these early gigs, that he was completely flabbergasted by the rousing welcome he received from college audiences. Neither Lee nor Marvel had much of a clue, in the days before marketing and computer tracking, and when Marvel was the crappy lowest rung, operating on a shoestring, in Martin Goodman's publishing empire, that anyone outside of 11-year-old boys were buying their books, let alone college students. Here was an unexpected, and untapped, market. More importantly, here was an escape for Stan, a way to become more than the funny book hack he'd always been and a way to make a lot more dough than he was making at low-paying Marvel. He was overjoyed. Speaker fees started piling up, Stan was feted and worshiped at every appearance... and transformed into the Funky Flashman of comix legend.  He hasn't stopped since! For the last 40 years, Lee has made millions simply being Stan. This started in 1967, with the Surfer, a character he didn't create but claimed as his own.

After Fantastic Four #48-50, when the mail started pouring in praising this cool, chrome character, Lee realized he had a hit on his hands, maybe one to rival Spider-man! And the way the college kids were digging the Surfer, maybe this was Stan's ticket to greater things. Lee was already thinking Hollywood and getting out from under the boot of the tyrannical Goodman. Lee had big plans for the Surfer and carefully guarded the character. All other writers were, according to reports, barred from using the Surfer in their books unless Stan gave the ok. And in 1968, when the onerous distribution contract that limited the number of titles Marvel could publish each month ended, a new Surfer solo title was announced with the usual bombast and choruses of "Excelsior!"

But, surprise, surprise, Kirby, the Surfer's creator, wasn't the artist! That gig went to John Buscema, then relatively new to Marvel and best known as the penciler on The Avengers. Kirby stayed on Fantastic Four and Thor, and got the new Captain America title instead.

So Stan pilfered a character that Jack solely created, and was, curiously, the only one that Lee ever admitted was Jack's creation alone, to cash in on Marvel's first cult hit. And then kept Kirby off the book! 

Why? Could it be that Stan wanted all the glory? Or maybe he just wanted to prove to everyone he could flourish without Kirby? Or was Stan reluctant to take Kirby off the best-selling titles Fantastic Four, Thor and Capt. America for an experimental project? Stan, to my knowledge, has never offered his reasoning behind this decision, but it proved to be a fatal one. Kirby wasn't on board with this at all. In fact, He was furious. So much so, he refused to offer Marvel any new characters from then on, retorting to Lee's pleas for new ideas with a curt "You're the writer. You think them up." In conversations with his inner circle and allies, he was more blunt: he would never again give Marvel a Silver Surfer to steal from him. Stan, of course, had no clue of Kirby's feelings. The theft of the Surfer was the last straw and Kirby secretly decided to bolt to rival DC with his New Gods concept as soon as his Marvel contract ended in two years. Lee's machinations cost Marvel its star artist, the guy who had pretty much single-handedly created the entire Marvel cast and the wildly successful house style. 

And once Kirby stopped furnishing new ideas in 1968, Stan didn't conjure up a single new character of significance in his remained three years as Marvel's chief scripter. Not one!

The Silver Surfer debuted with full-page promos in nearly every Marvel book. And this was no mere comic book. This was a double-size, 25-cent squarebound, usually reserved for Marvel's annuals. All original from from to back! Even the annuals were usually a 22-page original story, followed by a couple reprints. Clearly, this title was something special. 

What it turned out to be was the soapiest, sappiest, dreariest comic book Marvel ever published. Lee concocted a ponderous back story for the Surfer, without the input of Kirby, and strained mightily to make it philosophical and deep. He failed. The book was a weepy bore. The supporting characters were totally forgettable. The villains were lame. Stan couldn't produce a single character of note in 18 issues. There was a dead love interest, and frequent battles with the devil (!!). But not the Biblical devil, no, the Comics Code prohibited that, so this was Faust's Mephisto, appropriated to be one of Marvel's many Lords of the Underworld, along with Pluto and Hela in Thor, who ruled over, I guess, completely different hells. 

Lee hacked out one repetitive story after another. The humor that infused other Marvel books, and which was Stan's great strength as a dialogue filler, was totally missing. The Surfer wails about the madness of humanity and war and suffering. He moans about his lost love. He agonizes over being trapped on earth. Blah blah blah. Stan hoped this book, his and his alone, would prove he was the brains behind Marvel. It proved the opposite. Without a genius like Kirby, Stan fell flat on his face. "Face front" indeed!

Poetry! Sheer Poetry! The question mark after The End adds
a philosophical twist that reduces the reader to tears.

Problem was, Stan was never really much of a writer. He was a great persona, the "Stan the Man" of legend, and a genius at promotion, particularly self-promotion. He didn't really "write" at all. The famous Marvel Method required most of the actual writing to be done by the artist. In the case of geniuses like Steve Ditko or Jack Kirby, or a pop-art savant like Jim Steranko, it was a method that produced the best comic books ever made. The art was brilliant, the plots were full of action and surprises. When the pages came in, with notes suggesting dialogue written by the artist in the margins, Stan punched out the word balloons. Lee could only really write one way, and there wasn't a whole lot of difference between his characters. Spider-man, Daredevil and Ben Grimm all talked like Stan, all quibs and cracks. The books were also filled with notes from "Ye Editor" or "Smiley" cracking jokes about what was happening on the page. We kids ate it up. To us, it was a homey neighborhood club and we were all in on the lingo. Then you reached the Bullpen Bulletins page in the back and were treated to unfiltered Stan. Excelsior! Face Front! Mighty Marvel is on the move! Good writing? That it most certainly wasn't.

Some have suggested that Lee hung on to the "writer" credit to pad his paltry income at the time. He was a salaried employee at Marvel, one of the few in the tiny Bullpen of the Silver Age, but he got a freelance writing rate for every book he worked on. Lee did this at home in the evening, all twelve or so new books that Marvel published every month (remember, Marvel was operating under the distribution deal that greatly limited their titles, that's why they had all those funky double-feature titles like Tales of Suspense). Stan was a master at squeezing every dollar he could out of his gig. That's not a criticism. It was a brutal business and Marvel's owner, Martin Goodman, who was the uncle of Stan's wife, was a picayune overseer. But this money grab didn't sit well with Kirby and Steve Ditko, who were really writing the books, only to see Stan get paid for their work!

Someone start throwing fruit at this ham.

Compounding the syrupy dialogue and ponderous plots was the art of Buscema, easily the hammiest of Marvel's artists. Buscema is akin to a stage-eating hack in a local Shakespeare troupe. Every gesture, every facial expression, is exaggerated to comic extremes. If a character is sad, he doesn't just frown, he buries his head in his arms and bends over in abject emotional agony. If he's angry, his back is arched and fist raised in utter fury as he thrashes around the panel. Reading a Buscema story is like the Richard III ward in the Monty Python sketch The Home for Bad Acting. Don't get me wrong, Buscema was great on superhero books like The Avengers, which was great duke-it-out fun, but here on the weepy Surfer, ugh. And Stan was much more heavily involved in The Silver Surfer than he was in any other book. Buscema recalls Lee tearing apart his pencils on the first few issues and ordering much revision, something Lee would have never dared try with Kirby.

Here's the cosmic crybaby shedding tears again

Marvel pumped out 18 issues of this dreck. Stan desperately tried to be "relevant", which was the hot trend in comics as the Seventies unfolded. Problem was, he was too square to really take a stand. Staid DC was making headlines with its groundbreaking Green Lantern/ Green Arrow title in 1970, which tackled everything from bigotry to drug use head on, but Lee, as much as he lusted to be "down with the college kids," just couldn't bring himself to drop the ponderous parables for real social commentary. He was what he was: a 50-year-old square in a toupee whom lived in the burbs and worked for Uncle Marty. He was the "hip" Dad, trying to "rap" with the kids in the basement rec room. And as soon as he went back upstairs to watch Laugh In, the kids broke out the marijuana. 

The first sales numbers came in and were not good. The 25-cent format was a disaster and was dumped after a year for the normal 15-cent one. Sales didn't improve. Had this not been Stan's pet project, The Silver Surfer would have likely been canceled after a couple issues. Halfway through 1970, Buscema left the book. Herb Trimpe was to be the new artist. That was an interesting choice, and Trimpe was one of the better Kirbyesque artists at Marvel, but a fill-in was needed for one issue. The assignment was given to Kirby himself. It was the first time Jack had penned a Surfer story since the title began. The character had been noticeably absent in Fantastic Four. Trimpe actually inked the issue, the only time he worked on Kirby pencils, to my knowledge. Perhaps Stan wanted him to learn from the Master before taking over the art chores. New artists frequently worked over Kirby layouts. Silver Surfer #18 looks rushed, as do all of Kirby's books from 1970, because he was already secretly working on The Fourth World series for DC, but it is head and shoulders above any of the previous 17 issues. It's full of action and energy. Buscema's sleek, lithe crybaby is replaced by Kirby's regal alien. Makes you wonder what the title could have been if Jack plotted and drew it from the beginning. It drives home just why Jack was called The King.
Fuck yeah! THAT'S more like it!

Silver Surfer #18 was one of the first comic books I purchased. I was 10. I loved this issue and read it over and over. Couldn't understand why there wasn't a #19. Eventually, I shelled out for the earlier issues hoping for more like #18. Man, was I disappointed.

Kirby turned in Silver Surfer #18 and with his other books for August, along with his resignation letter. The raging Surfer at the end of Jack's final story would serve as his "fuck you" send off to Marvel. Stan was blindsided by Kirby's defection. Publisher Martin Goodman delivered the next blow. Cancel this lame title. 

It was the biggest disappointment in Stan's career. He complained about it in interviews for decades. It was too before its time, he groused. The college students loved it (I doubt that they did), but "the younger kids just didn't get it." That being the under-13 crowd that then made up the vast bulk of comic book readership, as opposed to today when the average age is more like 50. So it was their fault, the unsophisticated little bastards! Had nothing to do with Stan's epically awful writing! But we fan boys all just nodded our heads as Stan spun this tale over and over throughout the Seventies. And since those original Surfer stories weren't reprinted in one of Marvel's many re-run titles until the tail end of the Bronze Age, we had nothing to go on except Stan's spin. When I finally bought a couple Surfer back issues, I couldn't believe how rotten it was. This is what all the fuss was about?

In 1978, out of the blue, a Silver Surfer graphic novel appeared, by Lee and Kirby. We fans weren't tipped off months in advance like you are now. There was no comix press to speak of, or the publicity war machine of modern comic book publishers. This thing landed unannounced. I bought my copy at Walden Books in the mall. It was a fat trade paperback, published by Simon & Shuster (not Marvel) through its Fireside Books imprint. This is the same outfit that published Lee's nauseating Origin of Marvel Comics series, where our favorite gasbag first claimed sole credit for the creation of all of Marvel's characters.  

But, hey, Lee, Kirby and inker Joe Sinnott together again? The same trio that produced that original Fantastic Four arc and possible the greatest superhero comics ever made? Hell yeah! Kirby's art is great, and for the first time in his long career, was properly displayed on good paper and with top-of-the-line printing.  Comic books were still printed on newsprint then, remember. In fact, the repro was getting worse as comic publishers switched from metal printing plates to to cheap plastic plates. This is late-period Kirby, and his hand was loosening considerably, and who knows how much Sinnott cleaned up the pencils, but it's still a treat. Sadly, it was also the end of the line for Jack. He had returned to Marvel in 1976, but his contract had just ended and he was leaving the company for good, sick of being mistreated and underpaid. This book was his final project for Marvel. Stan hadn't written anything but Stan's Soapbox blatherings for six years. Only Sinnott was still at his peak. But the book looked good as I leafed through it in Walden's, certainly far better than the boring schlock Marvel and DC were publishing week in and week out in the late Bronze Age. So I plunked down $12 and made it mine.

Unfortunately, reading it for the first time was akin to watching a re-run of Star Trek on the tube. How many times have I seen this one? Yawn. Oh well, I'll just watch it awhile until the pizza delivery guy shows. It's a significant book, the first all-original GN published by one of the Big Two, and one of the earliest GNs period, but it's not a particularly good book. It was the original storyline from FF #48-50, stripped of the Marvel Universe continuity and of the Fantastic Four. It was Stan Lee trying once again... and failing once again... to be deep. Lee was still doggedly chasing that adult "sophisticated" audience. They weren't interested any more now than they were in 1968. Nor were the comix fans, since this was just a re-hash, and a dull one at that. There were lots of philosophical sermons, and a ridiculous love angle. Not even Kirby could save this dreary bore of a tale. The book was a critical and commercial  flop. 

"The icy touch of dread disaster?" Does disaster have an icy touch?  Luckily she's a woman and stands with him fulfilled. God, what doggerel. Not even Kirby could save this dialogued manure. 

This time, Lee couldn't blame it on "the kids."

Lee tried a few more times. A one-shot  in 1982 with John Byrne, by then Marvel's star artist and heavily channeling Kirby as the writer-artist of  Fantastic Four (a very enjoyable stint btw, especially the first few years) was another snoozer. Then one last time in 1988, when the great Moebius volunteered to draw Silver Surfer: Parable. As much as I love Moebius, it's the same old, same old from Stan, and in the end the Surfer is (surprise!) brooding again.