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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, June 8, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "THE PEERLESS POWER OF THE SILVER SURFER" (FF ANNUAL #5, 1967)

In my essay on the first appearance of the Silver Surfer, I wrote:

For all that the Surfer is not integral to the conflict's resolution, he combines some fascinating Judeo-Christian motifs. It's hard to say whether or not either Lee or Kirby drew any conscious parallels between the Surfer and the Christian Son of God, not least because the latter does not rebel against his heavenly father. Rebellion is more the department of Satan/Lucifer, who is generally characterized as being opposed to the good fortune of humanity. Nevertheless, I think it possible that Lee and Kirby's collaboration brought a fortuitous confluence of ideas, possibly one that neither creator could have pulled off alone. In the Surfer's later appearances, the character became more visibly an Imitatio Christi, though Kirby still tended to emphasize his inability to comprehend human mores.
The Silver Surfer made a few appearances in the FANTASTIC FOUR title before the character finally received his first solo appearance in a short tale in FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #5, about a year and a half after his first appearance. I have the sense that though both creators hoped to find some way to spin off the hero into his own series, they might not have quite known what direction to pursue. Yet this story-- the only solo-starring role for the Lee-Kirby Surfer, before Lee decided to launch a Surfer series in 1968 with John Buscema-- does touch on some of the same themes that Lee would explore without Kirby. For instance, many Kirby stories begin with a little gratuitous action, and this one is no exception: the Surfer is just flying around on his board when some duck-hunters fire at him.



After the Surfer sends the hunters running for cover, he moralizes on the unique penchant of human beings to hunt other creatures for sport. I recall that in the day this prompted a letter from a fan who's seen a Lee-Kirby tale in which the alien Skrulls were seen in hunting-activities, but even without this continuity-cop input, it does sound pretty unlikely that the Surfer has never seen any other sentient beings hunting for sport.

More successful on the next page is a moment where the Surfer, far from being a stranger to human emotions, now seems attuned to the massed emotions of humankind. I view this as the real beginning of the Surfer's "Christ complex," in which he takes on the appearance of a secular savior toward humankind. Prior to this story, the Surfer tended to keep his distance from the sufferings of humans, like a distant deity. But where Galactus took the role of a "destroying angel" in the Galactus trilogy, here the Surfer becomes a de facto  "creator-god."

The sky-rider's sensitivity to emotions leads him into the company of Quasimodo, a sentient computer created by the Mad Thinker, last seen in FF ANNUAL #4. The Surfer feels pity for the mechanical being, and liberates him from bondage.



However, Quasimodo isn't immediately impressed with the form he receives. Kirby, a long-time fan of the 1923 HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME film, clearly modeled the living computer on the tragic freak from the movie. But that Quasimodo, despite his crude upbringing, tried to show some kindness to the gypsy girl Esmerelda. This Quasimodo not only fails to thank the Surfer for the alien's act of largesse, he immediately starts bitching about how his "creator" didn't give him a better looking mug. Lee or Kirby may have also had in mind something like the attitude of Mary Shelley's Monster, when he quotes Milton about not getting a good break in the looks department:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?



Of course, Quasimodo is also the creation of a super-villain, so maybe the apple simply doesn't fall far from the tree. The villain blasts the Surfer, apparently killing the alien. Then Quasimodo goes on a rampage, tearing up New York (at least one King Kong visual quote appears here), until the Surfer shows up. Following a seesaw battle, the Surfer takes back his gift of life, and returns Quasimodo to stationary status-- though of course later stories resurrected the villain for further use.



It should be noted that there's a strong psychological motif here regarding physical appearance. Quasimodo is so sensitive about his looks-- even though he's only been ambulatory for a few minutes-- that during the battle he thinks the New York citizens are worried about the Surfer because "he is handsome, and I am ugly!" It's long been a commonplace trope in comics to pit ugly villains against handsome heroes, and even though the Lee-Kirby FANTASTIC FOUR mitigates that trope somewhat with heroes like the Thing, clearly Kirby didn't mind playing up to the audience's tendency to equate ethical superiority with physical attractiveness. It's possible that on some level the rejection of the "ugly villain" also represented for Kirby-- and possibly for Lee-- the rejection of what are usually called "baser instincts," such as cruelty and envy. This would accord with the tendency of Lee and Kirby in their Surfer-collaborations to see the "handsome" Surfer as the embodiment of the "higher instincts," even though, truth to tell, a number of the Lee-Buscema stories portray the hero as being somewhat corrupted by his interactions with human culture.But that's another story.



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