January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I’ve been spending every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.
Story Title: “The Origin of the Silver Surfer!”
Published: August 1968
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: John Buscema
In 1961, comic readers everywhere were introduced to Marvel’s “First Family” of superheroes, the Fantastic Four. Doctor Reed Richards/Mister Fantastic, Susan Storm/The Invisible Girl, Johnny Storm/The Human Torch, and Ben Grimm/The Thing were characterised as a dysfunctional, but loving, family of superpowered scientists and adventurers and their creation was not only the first collaboration between the legendary Stan Lee and Jack Kirby but also the beginning of the unique “Marvel Method” of writer and artist collaboration. In 1966, the team faced their greatest challenge yet when they faced the God-like Galactus, who came to Earth looking to devourer it and satiate his unending hunger for worlds. When Kirby turned in his artwork for the story, he included a brand-new character that had not been part of his previous discussions with Lee; Kirby crafted a herald for the all-mighty being and, tired of drawing spaceships, had this silvery being ride a surfboard instead. Though initially hesitant, Lee ran with the idea and, following the conclusion of the Galactus arc, the Silver Surfer received his own self-titled series in 1968 that, while short-lived, was one of Lee’s favourites to work on. Since then, the Silver Surfer has appeared consistently within Marvel Comics; he’s been a part of the Defenders, joined and fought against his old master numerous times, and featured not only in the Fantastic Four’s animated and live-action adaptations but also received his own self-titled cartoon that ran for thirteen episodes in 1998.
When he was introduced in the pages of The Fantastic Four, the Silver Surfer was a mysterious and enigmatic cosmic entity about whom we learn very little; he was painted as Galactus’ obedient herald and servant, wielded vast and ill-defined cosmic powers, and was compelled to defy his master’s intentions to consume the Earth after a desperate plea from Alicia Masters. Having grown to care for the fate of the human race, if primarily out of pity, the price for the Silver Surfer’s defiance was to be forever (well, obviously not forever as nothing in comics is ever “forever”) banished to Earth by his master and, accordingly, The Silver Surfer #1 finds the cosmic entity still bound to the world he chose to save.
In the opening pages, the Silver Surfer immediately acts to save the life of Colonel Jameson, whose space capsule crash-lands in the ocean depths. Of course, for the Sentinel of the Spaceways, things such as water, air, and metal are of little concern and the Silver Surfer is easily able to dive beneath the ocean and rescue the Colonel. Despite returning the astronaut to a military vehicle, the Silver Surfer finds himself hounded by fighter jets and, similarly, as he streaks across the skies of the planet he now calls home, the Surfer is attacked by missiles and encounters only discord and war. Lamenting the foolishness of men that would seek to harm the lush and fertile world that has captured his heart and imagination, the Silver Surfer is compelled to recall his own home world, a planet far across the galaxy called Zenn-La which, unlike the Earth, had long ago eradicated war, crime, and disease after ten thousand centuries of conflict. Back then, the Silver Surfer was known as Norrin Radd and was simply a man who, though he lived in a virtual nirvana, was left despondent that his people and world no longer had any drive or ambition to achieve anything new. Having inherited the peace and advanced technology of their forefathers, Zenn-La’s inhabitants are largely happy to indulge in the luxuries and benefits of these; they have lost the spirit of adventure and seem content to simply allow technology to fulfil tasks they would have once sweated over.
Restless and eager to understand why only he seems to find their utopia so stagnating, Norrin reviews the history of his world through advanced virtual reality and discovers that an age of enlightenment put an end to all conflict and that his people ventured far out into the universe before eventually settling on staying put on their home world. Back in the present, the Silver Surfer comments that the Earth is at a similar crossroads between destroying themselves through war and being united in a common cause; even while being randomly attacked by savage yetis, the Silver Surfer laments the innate sense of distrust and fear that touches the hearts of men and turns even beasts such as those (and Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk, whom the Silver Surfer once hoped would be an ally as they have both been unfairly ostracised by humanity) into hate-filled barbarians. Similarly the Silver Surfer recalls how Doctor Victor Von Doom/Doctor Doom easily duped him and briefly stole the mysterious “Power Cosmic” from him, an event that caused the Silver Surfer to never again trust another human lest their selfish and manipulative nature get the better of him.
Stumbling upon the ruins of an ancient civilisation now forever lost to the ravages of time and the elements, the troubled Silver Surfer is again haunted by his lost world, and his beloved Shalla Bal. Despite Shalla’s plea that he turn his focus back to the wonders offered by Zenn-La, Norrin finds himself alone in a world where indulgence is the norm, knowledge is simply gifted rather than earned, and the citizens want for nothing. However, Norrin’s lamentations and concerns for the stagnation of his people are interrupted when a gigantic spacecraft breaches the planet’s “nuclear defences” and the people are warned to prepare for an invasion; while Shalla weeps at the prospect of war, especially as Zenn-La has no space fleet or weapons to speak of, Norrin practically relishes the idea of such an event forcing his complacent people into action. With the people giving in to panic, Zenn-La’s computer system decrees only one course of action: the deployment of the “Weapon Supreme”, a solution that literally rips the neighbouring planetoids from their orbits and hurls them at the orbiting craft with such force that it devastates the entire infrastructure of Zenn-La. This devastating solution is ultimately futile, however, as the invading probe simply slipped into the fourth dimension to avoid being damaged and, having decimated their world and with no hope left, the entire planet gives in to despair. All, save for Norrin Rad who, fuelled by the spirits of his ancestors, urges the remnants of Zenn-La’s scientific community to craft him a ship so that he can commune with the craft as he refuses to lose hope.
Drawn within the mighty spherical craft, Norrin is overwhelmed by his insignificance next to the craft’s size and technology and is then driven to his knees by a blast from the ship’s owner and operator, all-mighty Galactus! Though he has no desire to, and takes no pleasure in, destroying Norrin’s people, the World Devourer is adamant that his quest cannot be assuaged as he is compelled to feed his unending hunger lest he be consumed by it. Harbouring no malice or ill-will, Galactus compares his mission to that of a man casually stepping on an ant hill and states that it simply is, but Norrin pleads with him to spare Zenn-La and instead feed upon a world devoid of sentient life. When Galactus laments that he has not the time to seek out such a world since even he is but one being, Norrin offers to become the World Devourer’s herald, to seek out lifeless worlds in order to appease Galactus’ hunger, and gladly sacrifices his personal well-being in order to be transformed by the all-mighty’s vast cosmic powers. Reborn as the Silver Surfer, Norrin is rendered immune to the ravages of space and gifted his trademark board with which he can swiftly travel the stars to seek out ne worlds for Galactus to consume. Thrilled to have a lifetime of adventure and exploration amongst the stars finally within his grasp, Norrin bids an emotional farewell to his beloved and departs Zenn-La fully committed to serve his new master, alone and haunted by Shalla’s face in every star and sun he comes across. The Silver Surfer finds his pain eased as he successfully spares worlds teeming with sentiment life from Galactus’ ravages but had no choice but to lead his master to Earth as the gnawing hunger grew unbearable for the God-like being. And it is there that his story ends, with Galactus stoically removing his herald’s ability to travel amongst the stars and the man once known as Norrin Rad left exiled to another world he hoped to spare from destruction.
“The Origin of the Silver Surfer!” is indicative of many of Marvel’s tales from back in the day; featuring a number of references, flashbacks, and cameos, the story is as much a recap of the Silver Surfer’s prior appearances as it is an exploration of his beginnings. Crucially, though, it’s not just the Silver Surfer’s unconquerable cosmic powers that separate him from other Marvel superheroes; the character is perhaps the most loquacious of Stan Lee’s comics characters (matched only by the verbose Dr. Doom) and probably the second most conflicted character he’s created next to Peter Parker/Spider-Man. But, whereas Dr. Doom boasts only of himself and his needs and Peter laments such day-to-day problems as money and relationships, the Silver Surfer’s concerns are with being denied access to the vast cosmic skies and observing the sheer animosity that threatens to consume his adopted world.
The Silver Surfer’s previous life as Norrin Rad was hardly a carefree existence either; while the inhabitants of Zenn-La were perfectly content to life stagnated lives where they wanted for nothing and had sacrificed ambition and advancement for peace and tranquillity, Norrin finds himself concerned for the long-term welfare and overall development of their society since they no longer need to apply themselves to do or achieve anything. Everything around them was left to them by previous generations; knowledge is simply downloaded directly into their brains and all of the thinking and decisions are made by advanced computer systems and a puppet government. Where once Zenn-La had fought tooth and nail for survival and reached out beyond the universe, now they were content to simply indulge their whims and life lives free from the burden of struggle or failure. Amongst the entire planet, only Norrin feels as though the world has lost its way and should strive for more and thus it is only he who has the temerity to face their would-be conqueror head on.
As is generally always the case, Galactus is presented as a force of nature; something unconquerable and inexorable and a force beyond any in the known universe, and certainly beyond the peaceful people of Zenn-La. Ironically, it isn’t Galactus that leaves Zenn-La in ruins but the people themselves as they decimate their world by tearing small planets out of their very orbit, making them, for all their enlightenment, no better than the World Devourer himself. Indeed, while Galactus doesn’t act out of any malice or emotion, the same can’t be said for Zenn-La’s people, who first react in violent fear and panic and then give in to despair entirely; Galactus takes no pleasure in his destructive existence but must consume worlds to survive and even he is willing to listen to reason. Galactus makes Norrin his herald not because he is won over by his desperate plea but simply because it makes logical sense for him to have a herald out there finding new worlds for him to consume and to spare lives from his nature because, while Galactus does consume inhabited worlds, it’s only because he is forced to by his great hunger.
In the end, this was a poignant and fascinated story; the Silver Surfer makes for one of the most emotionally complex and layered characters in all of Marveldom, especially in his earliest appearances where he is both captivated by the Earth and saddened by our propensity towards destruction and violence. Seeing Norrin Rad as a man dissatisfied with utopia and craving the thrill of scientific and societal advancement was an interesting twist and witnessing him sacrificing his very being and all he knows in order to spare his people only adds further context to the Silver Surfer’s somewhat abrupt decision to aid humanity in his debut arc. The comic is beautifully rendered by John Buscema, who perfectly evoked the grandeur of Jack Kirby’s artwork to deliver wondrous and imaginative technology and surroundings, to say nothing of his awesome rendition of the towering Galactus, who fittingly appears both fearsome and God-like in his regality. While I haven’t actually read a great deal of the Silver Surfer and can understand people having trouble connecting with him due to his near-limitless powers, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the Sentinel of the Spaceways, especially his early appearances where he was exiled to Earth, and found this to be a captivating glimpse into his unique backstory.
Have you ever read Silver Surfer #1? If so, what did you think to the title character’s origin story? What did you think to Zenn-La and Norrin Rad’s troubles with his society? What did you think to Norrin Rad’s sacrifice to save his people? What are your thoughts on Galactus, his motivations and his characterisation? Are you a fan of the Silver Surfer? If so, what is it about him you like and, if not, why is that? Who would you like to see portray the Silver Surfer in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Whatever you think about the Silver Surfer, leave a comment below and thanks for joining me for Sci-Fi Sunday.