My interest in Marvel Comics’ Silver Surfer series seems to have been somewhat sporadic in the first half-year or so of its original run. As I’ve written in earlier posts, I bought the first issue in May, 1968, and though I liked that book a lot (at least, that’s how I remember things), I opted to pass on both the second and third issues (unless, of course, I never saw either of them on the stands, which is quite possible). Issue #4, however, was most likely a no-brainer purchase decision for my eleven-year-old self, what with its absolutely iconic cover (by John and Sal Buscema) depicting the Surfer and the mighty Thor about to come to blows. And considering how spectacularly that book delivered on its cover’s promise, my picking up the following issue when I saw it was probably a given, as well –even though its cover (by John Romita, according to the Grand Comics Database), while good, wasn’t quite in the same exalted class.
The splash page, while confirming that the series continued to be produced by the team of Stan Lee and John Buscema (with John’s brother Sal staying on as the inker of his older sibling’s pencils, following his debut on issue #4), also appeared to indicate that this issue would, like the last one, feature a guest appearance by another Marvel star — or, in this case, a group of stars:
Re-reading this page today, of course, I’m immediately struck by the implications of Mister Fantastic and the Thing sharing a bathroom. I mean, Reed Richards has a wife and infant son. Surely the Fantastic Four isn’t so cramped for living space in their Baxter Building headquarters that everyone has to use the same bath! Did Reed and Sue have a fight or something, so that he had to sleep on Ben’s sofa? Inquiring minds want to know such things. (Or, at least, allegedly grown-up ones do. If I recall correctly, the implied living arrangements of this scene didn’t faze the eleven-year-old me in the slightest.)
Reed, Ben, and Johnny race to the lab, only to find that the window’s standing wide open and, yep, the “space-scrambler” is gone. “I knew we shouldn’t have let the newspapers and magazines give it such publicity!” Reed fumes in self-recrimination. Johnny quickly flames on and flies out the open window; seeing a gleam high up in the sky, he soars off in pursuit:
The hapless Human Torch proceeds to plummet helplessly back to Earth, though he manages to ignite himself again in time to save himself from going splat. “But…” he muses as he zips back home to the Baxter Building, “I wonder if we’ll ever know… who took the space scrambler… or why??”
But if the FF ever do get an answer to that question, it’s not one that’ll be shared with us readers. After this scene, the super-team disappears from the story — their guest appearance proving to be a mere three-page cameo. (To the best of my recollection, my younger self wasn’t bothered by this, either, back in January, 1969. It wasn’t as though the FF had been featured on the cover, after all; and I always enjoyed it whenever Marvel’s heroes turned up briefly in each others’ books. The liberal use of that storytelling device added to the sense of a cohesive, interconnected “universe”, and it was invariably interesting to see other artists’ takes on characters they didn’t usually draw — even if they sometimes seemed a little “off-model”, as the Buscema brothers’ Fantastic Four did here. Of course, little did I know then that in just a couple of years, following Jack Kirby’s departure from Marvel, John Buscema’s renditions [as inked by Joe Sinnott] would become the new “model” versions of the FF.)
As the page above shows, it may be a good thing that the Surfer did “borrow” the space-scrambler, since the thing explodes just about as soon as he fires it up. That could have made for a real mess if Reed had tried to do a demo at, say, a press conference. (OK, I guess we should give Reed the benefit of the doubt, and assume the Surfer just didn’t know how to operate it properly.)
A brief appearance by our hero’s long lost love Shalla Bal, such as we have at the bottom of the page, was pretty much de rigueur for Silver Surfer stories by this point.
The Surfer’s benefactor explains that he’s Al B. Harper, a physicist by trade — though he was in the woods indulging his hobby, rock collecting, when he saw the Surfer fell out of the sky.
Harper tells the Surfer that he’d like to apply his expertise to the latter’s problem, but to do the necessary research, he’ll need new equipment — “and that takes money! Which is one thing Al B. Harper just ain’t got!” The Surfer tells the physicist that he, himself, will acquire the needed funds, and heads out to do just that — though not before accepting a loan of some street clothes, offered by Al to help his new alien friend be a bit less conspicuous.
“That… that strange white face!” It would seem to be obvious that a character called the Silver Surfer should be, well, silver; the original renderings by his creator Jack Kirby (in the pages of Fantastic Four) certainly suggested a metallic appearance, as did those of John Buscema and inker Joe Sinnott on the early issues of Silver Surfer. Stan Lee, however, apparently didn’t see it that way — or, at least, he didn’t by the time he and the Buscema brothers got around to producing issue #5. As the elder Buscema himself put it in 1994, when asked why his approach to drawing the Surfer changed over the course of the series:
When Stan gave me The Silver Surfer, I assumed this guy was coated with silver. I assumed everybody would assume that, right? Well, Stan wasn’t happy. He said, “It’s not silver, John, it’s a white plastic styrofoam covering” [laughter] It wasn’t my idea!
It’s hard to fathom why Lee would have thought this was the way to go, back in the day — after all, the character was never called the Styrofoam Surfer — but it seems clear that he did (at least by the time he scripted this particular issue), just to go by the dialogue he had characters use to describe the Surfer’s appearance. (For another prime example, see the employment agency guy’s “washing that white gook off your face” remark on the next page.) Whatever the reasons, however, I think we’re probably all glad that Marvel abandoned the notion in later years, and allowed the Surfer to be Silver once again (as evidenced most strikingly by the painted versions produced by illustrators like Alex Ross, whose cover for 1994’s Marvels #3 is shown here).
It’s a measure of how age and experience inevitably changes one’s perspective, I suppose, that when I first read the preceding sequence, at age eleven, I wholeheartedly decried the injustice and callousness with which the Surfer was herein treated by his fellow sentients — just as I’m sure Lee and J. Buscema intended for me to do — whereas at age 61, with a whole career’s worth of workplace experience in my rearview mirror, I find that I now have at least a little sympathy for those nasty ol’ human beings. I mean, it’s only reasonable for a prospective employer to request some kind of I.D. from a job applicant, right? And labor unions serve an important function in our society, so there.
Ah, well. At least I can still see that those guys didn’t all have to be such dicks about it.
Driven to desperation by his failure to find honest work, the Surfer decides to go right to where humans keep a whole lot of money; and so, late that night, he breaks into the First National Bank:
Leaving the bank empty-handed, the despondent Surfer soon finds opportunity in an unexpected quarter:
Readers have been finding religious symbolism in Stan Lee’s Silver Surfer stories pretty much from the beginning. (Lee himself, of course, while tending to be cagey about his specific intentions, didn’t exactly discourage such speculation.) “– And Who Shall Mourn for Him?” includes a considerable number of situations that seem to allude to themes from Jewish and Christian religious traditions; more, perhaps, than any other Surfer story not directly involving Mephisto (who, after all, is a straight-up take on the Biblical figure of Satan). On this page, for example, it’s easy to see a parallel between how the Surfer, a social outsider, comes to the aid of a beaten man lying in an alley, and Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, where it’s a detested Samaritan — the “other”, for Jesus’ audience of 1st century Jews — who offers succor to a stranger who’s been robbed and beaten and left half-dead by the side of the road.
The beating victim in our present story (who’s never named) tells the Surfer that he’s a former gambler who swore off the practice when he got married. Recently, however, his wife has been seriously ill, and so — desperate for cash to pay her medical bills — earlier this evening, he returned to a gambling den he used to frequent. Unfortunately, as the night wore on, the recidivist gambler found his losses mounting; but then, upon examining the dice he’d been throwing, he realized they’d been weighted; the game was rigged. When he called the men running the house on this, they beat him up, leaving him in the alley where the Surfer has found him.
The Surfer decides to aid his new acquaintance and himself at the same time; and so, after getting a crash course in how this particular game of chance is played, he enters the den:
The newly-flush Surfer exits the establishment without incident — but as he passes by the adjacent alley, he’s jumped by “Tiny” and his confederates:
This page, in which the Surfer willingly submits to his assailants’ brutality, is suggestive of another Biblical episode — the submission of Jesus Christ to the humiliations, beatings, and woundings of his Passion. If such an allusion was actually Lee and J. Buscema’s intention, however, its effect is significantly undercut by the Surfer’s swift resorting to “righteous” violence as the scene continues:
Before the car can strike either the Surfer’s new friend or the Surfer himself, it’s suddenly tossed up into the air:
The Surfer now soars back to Al Harper’s place, his borrowed pockets stuffed with cash. Of course, Al is a little suspicious of how his space-born friend has managed to make so much money, so quickly:
Um, the Surfer believes that he’s “justly earned” this money? It seemed pretty clear he was using his “power cosmic” to cheat, earlier — but, of course, the house itself was cheating before that, so… two wrongs make a right, I guess? Or — maybe he thinks he “earned” it by coming to the aid of the mistreated gambler? Fifty years later, your guess is as good as mine.
Harper’s musings in the third panel above allude to the unjust discrimination he faces every day as a black man in America, as did his “pushed around” remark back on page 7. This subtlety of approach to the topic of race, reminiscent of Lee’s work in Daredevil #47’s “Brother, Take My Hand!” just a few months earlier, will be maintained throughout the story.
Here, on page 20 — a little past the midway point of our story — the villain of the piece finally makes his entrance. This was my first encounter with the mysterious cosmic entity called only “the Stranger” — and I’m sure my younger self wasn’t alone in that back in 1969, as the character had only appeared a handful of times prior to this.
He’d been introduced by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in X-Men #11 (May, 1965). In that story, he’d come to Earth with the purpose of searching for, and then collecting, mutant specimens. He’d soon encountered the “evil mutant” Magneto, and then… well, actually, he gives a pretty good summary himself over the next couple of pages:
About the only interesting detail the Stranger doesn’t provide in his monologue here is that Magneto managed to escape back to Earth several issues later, requiring the Stranger to show up in X-Men #18 just long enough to corral the Master of Magnetism once again. But since that event has no real bearing on the events of Silver Surfer #5, it’s easy to forgive the omission.
Similarly, Lee and J. Buscema provide just enough information about the Stranger’s later return to our planet in Tales to Astonish #89-91 (1967)* for us to understand that, since his initial visit here, the enigmatic alien had come to have a decidedly negative view of our species. Fans who’d actually read those issues would know that the Stranger’s scheme at the time involved using the Hulk as a Weapon of Mass Destruction — his intention being for the jade giant to go on a deadly rampage which would obliterate human civilization and leave but a few survivors, who would then build a new, “better” world under the Stranger’s direction. By the end of the three-part tale, however, the bravery demonstrated by the Hulk convinced the Stranger that he’d been a bit too hasty — or, as he put it at the time, “If a brute — such as the Hulk — can be so valorous — perhaps there still is hope for the rest of humanity!” — and he decided to leave the Earth alone. Obviously (and unfortunately, for us puny humans), he’s changed his mind since then.
(This “Hulk” storyline was also where the Stranger picked up his spiffy, Gil Kane-designed costume — an outfit he’s worn consistently pretty much ever since.)
En route to Earth, the Stranger once again sees the mysterious energy blasts he noticed before — and tracking them to their source, comes upon the Silver Surfer. Their subsequent dialogue echoes yet another Biblical story, this time from a source sacred in Jewish as well as Christian tradition, the Book of Genesis. The eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of that text describe how, when God indicated to the patriarch Abraham that he intended to bring violent judgement upon the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham pleaded with his Lord not to sweep away the righteous with the wicked; but rather, to spare the iniquitous populace if even ten righteous people could be found within their midst. Compare that with the Surfer’s plea to the Stranger to spare the human beings of Earth: “Though men seem mad… they are not without hope!”
The Stranger vanishes, and the Surfer — forgetting all about Galactus’ barrier — hightails it back to Earth to let Al Harper know what’s going on, so that he can warn the people of Earth. (It seems like it would have made more sense to try the Baxter Building, first — our hero was on good terms with the FF when last they met face-to-face, and they don’t know he stole Reed’s space-scrambler — but never mind.) Al goes right to his local constabulary with the tale — but though the cops on duty know the physicist and appear to respect him, they can’t countenance his wild story. He proceeds on to other civic authorities, but with no better luck:
The Surfer informs Al that he’s flown over every single mile of Earth since his exile to our planet, thank you, and he’s prepared to do it again. Al hitches a ride on the Surfer’s board, and they’re off:
The Surfer sees “a strange and awesome glow” coming from the peak of a tall mountain — he flies there to find the Stranger standing in its midst, looking every inch the part of an wrathful deity:
The Stranger has teleported both the Surfer and himself to the streets of the unnamed city where Al Harper’s device has tracked the bomb. Increasing his physical form to the size of a giant, the cosmic entity attempts to flatten the Surfer under the sole of his boot; but the Surfer lashes back with a blast of cosmic energy to the Stranger’s eyes:
The Stranger again goes on the offensive, keeping the Surfer occupied and unable to fly to warn his friend about the bomb’s being booby-trapped.
Lee and J. Buscema don’t call attention to the fact that everyone in the mob that first surrounds, and then assaults, Al Harper is white — but they were surely cognizant of it, and must have expected their audience to pick up on it as well. Sadly, the image of a lone black man being battered to the ground by the fists of angry whites is no less chilling today in 2019 than it was in 1969; indeed, it may be even more so.
Following the pattern of religious symbolism we’ve already identified in this story, it’s almost impossible not to see Al Harper’s lonely and heroic sacrifice as paralleling the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus in Christian doctrine; though, of course, the valor and selflessness of Harper’s action need no religious context to be meaningful, or moving.
Convinced now (for the second time) that humanity is not entirely worthless, the Stranger turns away his wrath,in proper godly fashion, and makes his exit. And though the character would return many, many times over the next five decades to bedevil one Marvel hero or another, to the best of my knowledge he would never again try to exterminate the whole human race.
The story’s wrap-up — which, like many another story in Marvel’s late-Sixties comics, feels a bit rushed, as though there were some pacing miscalculations on the long and winding road to page 39 — leaves the perceptive reader with more than a few questions. Wouldn’t the guys who followed Al Harper out of the city contact the proper authorities after they found his body, rather than take it upon themselves to bury the guy on their own? And since we see headstones, does that mean that Harper died in the immediate vicinity of a cemetery, or are we supposed to think that these men loaded a stranger’s body in a car and drove to one? And speaking of cars, isn’t it convenient that at least a couple of the guys were driving around with shovels in their trunks? All that having been said, though, it’s still undeniably poignant — and also vaguely reassuring, after the ugliness of the mob scene a few pages earlier — to see these men demonstrating their basic human decency by giving a nameless “poor Joe” a proper burial.
But that still leaves the Surfer himself, and his tribute of an eternal flame to mark his friend’s grave. That’s great, of course, but what about notifying Al Harper’s other friends? His family? Just because the man lived alone, one can’t assume that he had no loved ones. Did the Surfer fly back to Al’s cabin, check his address book, make a few calls? The story doesn’t say.
I have to be honest here,however, and admit that none of the above troubled me as a reader in January, 1969. My eleven-year-old self thought the ending was very sad, but I didn’t find it frustrating — well, actually, I did, but for a different reason. My frustration stemmed from the last of the important questions that the story leaves unanswered — the last, and probably also the most serious, from a storytelling standpoint: What happened to Al Harper’s anti-barrier device? The Surfer was in the process of using it when he was interrupted by the Stranger on page 24, and it was intact when he flew back to Harper’s cabin at the end of that scene. Presumably it’s still sitting in the cabin — so why doesn’t the Surfer retrieve it and use it to escape Galactus’ barrier? OK, sure, we readers can imagine that maybe he does go back, after the story’s conclusion, and uses the device to try to break free of Earth — tries, and presumably fails, since he’s still trapped on our planet at the beginning of the next issue — but it’s a major flaw in the story’s structure that this isn’t addressed within the pages of the comic itself. The whole first half of the story has been concerned with the Surfer’s attempt to escape his planetary prison with Al Harper’s help, after all.
And it’s not too difficult to imagine a way that the matter could have been addressed within the story. What if Harper had been compelled to cannibalize the device he built for the Surfer to create his “Geiger-scope”? The Surfer would thus be required to make a voluntary sacrifice to help save humankind from the Stranger’s bomb, just as Al Harper must, later on. That would have actually added to the pathos of the story’s conclusion, in my opinion, as well as tying up a huge loose end. It could have made a good story an even better one.
And I do think it’s a good story — a very good one, in fact — in spite of all the time and space I’ve just spent taking it to task. If it had simply been a poor story, or even a mediocre one (like the subject of my last post, for example) it wouldn’t be worth the effort. As it is, however, one has to regret the flaws that mar one of the finer efforts by Stan Lee and John Buscema during their seventeen-issue Silver Surfer run. “– And Who Shall Mourn for Him?” still stands with the aforementioned “Brother, Take My Hand!” as one of the finest examples of Lee’s “serious” writing — a story whose humanistic message of empathy and selflessness doesn’t depend on its religious allusions for its effectiveness, but is nevertheless enhanced by them.
Like all the other issues of Silver Surfer published at the 25-cent double-issue size, issue #5 includes a 10-page “Tales of the Watcher” backup story. The script is credited to Stan Lee (as are all these tales) and the pencilled art to Howard Purcell, who took over the feature from Gene Colan with the previous issue.
As with his initial effort in issue #4, the artist opens the story with a double-page spread:
The narrative actually begins on page 3, where we readers learn that our protagonist, the “Roco” of the story’s title, is a car thief on Earth in the year 2061:
Things are getting hot for Roco on Earth, but he’s heard good things about the criminal justice system on Jupiter: “…they hand out the easiest jail terms in the galaxy!” So, he hops a space freighter to the giant planet. Plying his regular trade there, Roco is scooped up by the cops after only a week, but he’s not worried — until his trial, where the judge hands down a life sentence! Ack! And hard time on Jupiter is really, well, hard:
After only a few days of this, Roco is desperate to break out. A cellmate shows him a secret tunnel out of the cell block — though, the con warns, “those who entered it have never returned!”
Roco exits the tunnel into a Jupiterian jungle, where he’s immediately set upon by huge, dinosaur-like beasts. But the desperate escapee perseveres, and soon…
It’s not a bad little story, though certainly not anything that would make a reader forget about the comic’s lead feature. But what’s most interesting to me about it, fifty years on, is its relationship to its source material. As has been discussed in previous posts, all of the “Tales of the Watcher” in Silver Surfer were supposedly adaptations of stories that had run earlier in one of Marvel’s anthology titles — or, as a caption on the splash page of issue #2’s “Watcher” story put it: “We are constantly besieged with requests to reprint the most imaginative science-fiction tales of Stan Lee, acclaimed as one of the greatest fantasy writers of our time!** In compliance with your demands, the highly-gifted Gene Colan*** has enthusiastically volunteered to illustrate anew these now-classic works of wonder!” But whereas the “Watcher” stories in both issue #1 and #4 were both very close adaptations of their antecedents, “Run, Roco, Run!” is very different.
According to the Grand Comics Database, “Run, Roco, Run!” is based on “Run, Rocky, Run!” — a tale from Tales to Astonish #26 (Dec., 1961), illustrated by Bob Forgione (the writer is uncredited — though, if the editorial note from Silver Surfer #2 is taken at face value, it would have to have been Stan Lee).
The original story starts much the same as the later one, quickly establishing the protagonist as a criminal on the lam from the police…
…but it quickly veers in another direction on page 2. The setting isn’t 2061, but the present — or, at least, the very near future. Here, Rocky’s hope of beating the criminal justice system isn’t centered on permanently relocating to Jupiter, but on the somewhat more mundane (if still science-fictional) possibility of commandeering a rocket as a getaway vehicle:
Over the next three pages, we follow Rocky as he makes his desperate way to the aircraft factory, staying one step ahead of the pursuing police, until, at last…
The tale ends with a twist (as so many of Marvel’s “fantasy” tales this era did), and with the crooked protagonist getting his comeuppance — but otherwise, “Run, Rocky, Run!” plays out as an entirely different story from its “adaptation”.
Why, one wonders, with so many old fantasy stories in inventory to choose from, did Stan Lee choose this one — one which ultimately drove him (or Howard Purcell) to come up with a whole new plot? Had Lee always liked the title, but been unsatisfied with the story itself? Alas, fifty years down the road, answers probably aren’t forthcoming. It’ll likely have to remain a minor mystery of “the Marvel Age of Comics”.
Silver Surfer #5 was the third issue I bought of the series. It would also be the last one I’d buy, up until #18 (Sept., 1970) — the only one not illustrated by John Buscema (it was drawn instead by the Surfer’s creator, Jack Kirby), and also the final issue. What had been a sporadic interest on my part up until this time seemingly cratered into non-interest.
Why did I, for all intents and purposes, drop the book after issue #5?
A half century later, I’m really not sure. I don’t have any specific recollection of looking at any of the later issues on the stand and deciding not to buy them. It’s possible, of course, that I never saw certain issues at all, but surely at least some of them made it to my local convenience stores’ spinner racks (and were around long enough for me to encounter them). And it wasn’t the 25-cent price tag — after issue #7, the series went from double to standard size (losing the “Tales of the Watcher” feature in the process), and cost 15 cents, like most other comics.
And in spite of my having been irked by the botching of the major plot thread of Al B. Harper’s barrier-confusing device, I don’t think I actually disliked the lead story in issue #5. I know that, in particular, the scene of the physicist’s sacrifice was moving to me at the time, and it unquestionably made an indelible impression — fifty years on, the Buscemas’ rendering of that scene on page 38 is still the first thing that comes to my mind when I consider this issue.
And I don’t believe that I was bothered by the religious references — indeed, I doubt I even picked up on them, at least in any conscious way. If I had recognized any parallels between stuff I’d read in Silver Surfer and stuff I’d read in the Bible, however, I probably would have taken it as a positive thing, considering how central religion was in my household growing up. (As the saying goes: if the doors of the First Baptist Church of Jackson, MS were open, my family was there.)
But I do think it’s probable that even if my eleven-year-old self liked the story, it seemed a bit too much of a downer. And that might have figured into my later decision-making at the spinner rack, even if unconsciously. Given options, I might have decided to spend my coin on a comic book I could reasonably expect would leave me feeling happy, instead of one that might leave me sad. I likely would have made a different calculus just a few years later — but in January, 1969, I simply wasn’t that mature.
And if there were a whole lot of other comic book fans like me at that time — and a lot fewer who were mature enough to appreciate a variety of emotional tones in their entertainment — it might help explain why Silver Surfer ultimately failed, commercially.
It’s a thought, anyway.
*Stan Lee’s editorial footnote referencing “Hulk #89 &90” erred in dropping the third part of the story, as well as in citing the title it appeared in as Hulk rather than Tales to Astonish — but since the second solo Hulk series was technically a continuation of ToA, you could call that a case of “reverse” legacy numbering.
**This caption was credited to “the Bullpen”, but I see no reason not to assume that it was written by “one of the greatest fantasy writers of our time” himself, the book’s editor, Stan Lee.
***Gene Colan drew the first three “TotW” strips in Silver Surfer, before being replaced by Howard Purcell in issue #4.