Silver Surfer is Marvel's gold standard of a sulky superhero
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In many ways, the Silver Surfer is as much an enigma now as he was when he made his debut in the pages of "The Fantastic Four" 41 years ago. The Marvel Comics character, who makes his big-screen debut in "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" today, is suitably alien and wholly consistent with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's original vision of the character.
The Silver Surfer achieved his iconic status with fans early on. Unlike Superman, another alien who found himself exiled on Earth, the Surfer never considered assimilation an option. He was offended by the violence and poverty that saturated his adopted world. He wasn't the first comic-book character to whine about the bad hand life had dealt him, but he was the first to wallow in existentialist dread before doing battle against whatever cosmic or supernatural evil threatened the world.
As powerful as he was, Norrin Radd, a k a the Silver Surfer, was something of a mope. He spent an inordinate amount of time sulking on his board, floating high above the Earth. He missed Shalla-Bal, the lover he left behind on his utopian homeworld when he made a Faustian deal to become the herald of the world-eating Galactus. It was the Surfer's betrayal of Galactus when he came to eat Earth that led to his exile on our planet.
In the Surfer's journey from emotionless alien to tragic conscience of the cosmos, he also became a self-righteous loner. Although he spoke many hard truths about the human condition, he never used his cosmic power to cause deserts to bloom, stop civil wars or alleviate famine.
Born during the disillusionment of the Johnson administration, the Silver Surfer developed into a full-blown moral scold during the Nixon era. The cynicism of the times pained him like a kick in the gut. As a finger-pointer in morally contentious times, the Silver Surfer was superb. As a superhero, he was often one-dimensional to the point of parody.
When the Surfer got his own series in 1968, it flopped spectacularly. It lasted 18 issues before Marvel pulled the plug -- one of the company's rare failures at a time when every project it launched seemed to turn to gold.
Although many readers, including myself, found the Silver Surfer's deeply conflicted nature refreshing, he was best enjoyed in small doses.
Over the years, Marvel has tried to humanize the character by giving him a back story that seems all too human and limiting. At one point we find out that on Zenn-La, his homeworld, his scientist father committed suicide after being accused of plagiarizing research and that his half-brother married the great love of his life, Shalla-Bal. Later we discover that contrary to decades of story lines, Zenn-La really didn't "exist" anymore and that all of the people the Surfer thought were alive had died decades before. Galactus had created an illusion Zenn-La and its people were intact to comfort the Surfer. Say what?
In any case, the Surfer became something of a cosmic playa' after discovering Shalla-Bal was dead. He went on to have relationships with the cosmic babe Moondragon and Ben Grimm's ex-girlfriend, the blind sculptress Alicia Masters. He's not nearly as boring as he used to be, but it's still difficult to find a story line that takes full advantage of his potential.
The Marvel universe is full of characters endowed with cosmic powers, so the Silver Surfer is not as unique as he once was. Still, he remains the gold standard for characters who start off reflecting the times before eventually learning to transcend them.
First Published June 14, 2007 7:37 pm