"You’ll Never See His Like Again!": Revisiting Comics Legend Stan Lee’s Best, Most Literary (and Vastly Underrated) Story, The Silver Surfer (1978)

"You’ll Never See His Like Again!": Revisiting Comics Legend Stan Lee’s Best, Most Literary (and Vastly Underrated) Story, The Silver Surfer (1978)

By Jarret Keene

Stan “the Man” Lee is dead, but his creations are alive, pouncing across theaters, game screens, and t-shirts with equal parts vitality and sorrow. Today, Spider-Man and Thor and Captain America and Black Panther and so many others dominate our media landscape to a degree unthinkable 40 years ago when my father bought me The Silver Surfer graphic novel from a B. Dalton inside Tampa Bay Mall.

Back then comics (22-page floppies) were relegated to a single spinner rack in mall bookshops, a gimmick to draw kids into the store so their parents felt obliged to pick up garbage like Sidney Sheldon’s thriller Bloodline. But The Silver Surfer didn’t fit in a metal rung; instead it was displayed amidst the regular literary trade paperbacks. Today it is vaguely praised on obscure blogs as being among the very first efforts to push comics into the realm of the literary epic during a brutal moment in the history of the comics industry. Staggering inflation, a crushing 1977 (and then a 1978) blizzard, and rising paper costs nearly sank DC Comics. Marvel, though, endured such challenges with Stan Lee’s relentless cheer, his grace under pressure, his courage to always try something new when everyone else cowered, caved.

In the late 1970s, the U.S. continued to fall apart. There was the ongoing energy crisis, serial killers like Ted Bundy lurked in every shadow, the Jonestown mass suicide played out like a dress rehearsal for a larger and more diabolical event, toxic waste burbled in landfills adjacent to pleasant neighborhoods, and Soviet Russia  rattled its nuclear saber. You wouldn’t know this from reading Marvel Comics, every issue offering a column called Stan’s Soapbox, wherein Lee waxed passionately, positively, and with the eloquence of a poetry-reading pitchman, about what was forthcoming from “the House of Ideas.”

Today Marvel is an idea-resistant shell of the company Lee built and oversaw, a house of ideology teeming with dour, OMG-chirping social-justice superheroes (gay mutant Iceman, lesbian Latinx warrior America Chavez, Muslim teenager Kamala Khan a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, female cancer-stricken Thor). Instead of debuting new characters, the current editorial team is content to reverse race and flip gender of, and add a dash of disability to, classic characters. In its prime, though—and starting in 1961 with the first issue of Fantastic Four — Marvel excelled at depicting authentic outcasts who felt a fierce responsibility to protect even those who hated them, feared them, wanted them dead. Lee’s characters — which he co-created with Jack Kirby, the artist who visually defined comics for an international audience — didn’t nurture wounds of identity and grievance; they waged their internal battles on a mythic scale. In the same way Oedipus confronted the ignorance of his birth, in the same way petulant Achilles struggled to overcome his narcissism, so did hapless high school reject and science nerd Peter Parker combat his own teenage doubt and ego and feelings of inadequacy.

Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962) containing the debut of Spider-Man, is arguably the single greatest and most important comics story ever written, its 11 pages defining not just the Marvel superhero but also the last half-century of U.S. comics. “With great power comes great responsibility” wasn’t merely an inspirational and moral slogan; it was also a metaphor for American exceptionalism, which could only result in senseless death (like, say, the murder of Peter’s uncle, Ben) if not applied toward just and proper ends. Parker is spoiled, his own worst enemy. He’s a purveyor of fake news, taking photos of himself in action as Spider-Man and selling them to the Daily Bugle to cover the cost of college tuition. We love Parker for his flaws, though, and for his commitment to overcoming them. We cherish his humanity even as we’re thrilled by his brawls with violent predators like Kraven the Hunter, bulky crime boss Kingpin, hideously armed Doctor Octopus.

The Silver Surfer isn’t human like Parker. The Surfer is carved from the “doomed messiah from beyond” mold a la Superman (or Beowulf or Jesus). But he isn’t adopted as a baby and given a Midwest upbringing. He is a silver-skinned alien riding a floating board, arriving on Earth to determine if it’s suitable for his planet-eating master Galactus. Lee and Kirby made a wise choice in never pinning down the exact size of this god of interstellar death, who, like the Surfer, was first introduced in the pages of Fantastic Four #48–50 (1966). That three-part story is a must-read, yes, but then, a decade later, Lee and Kirby collaborated on a 100-page retelling of the Surfer-and-Galactus saga, only this time the superheroes were removed, leaving just the god and his fallen angel. The result is a romantic, philosophical, and artistic statement that outstrips everything else Lee and Kirby collaborated on prior — which is saying a lot. It is also the last major work either of them would produce for Marvel, or for any company thereafter.

Today Marvel is an idea-resistant shell of the company Lee built and oversaw, a house of ideology teeming with dour, OMG-chirping social-justice superheroes

The Silver Surfer was published by arrangement with Fireside Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster in New York known for publishing a famous chess book. Based on a Kirby sketch, the cover is by artist Earl Norem, known for painting the covers of men’s adventure magazines and more than a few Marvel mags (like Savage Sword of Conan). Indeed, the painted cover gives the book literary gravitas. The interior art is all prime Kirby, with eloquent inks by Joe Sinnott, colors by Glynis Wein (first wife of the late Len Wein, who created Wolverine). The Silver Surfer is a feast for a comics-lover’s eyes; my battered copy still radiates visual power. But it’s the heartbreaking story and dialogue that set this effort apart from anything else in the history of comics and in the bibliography of Lee and Kirby.

Here the protagonist must choose between living forever to serve a devourer of worlds, or else die alongside eight billion earthlings to be rejoined with the obliterated love of his life, lovely and golden Ardina. In The Silver Surfer, Lee gives us a hero who sells his soul to the devil so as to thwart a holocaust and save a populated globe. He only meets a few dozen — many of who attack him physically. But he understands their potential to grow beyond their limitations. It’s not a story in tune with the 1970s, that post-Vietnam, post-JFK, post-Watergate era during which Marvel delivered dark, humorous characters like Ghost Rider. No, this was something else entirely.

The opening splash page is the closed fist of the planet-eater: Behold! The hand of Galactus! Behold! The hand of him who is like unto a god. Behold! The clutch of harnessed power — about to be released! The tone here is elevated, serious, Lee is writing in a style that evokes the Old Testament of the King James. The second page is a splash, too; in it, the mitt of Galactus opens and from it erupts the Surfer, who “streaks through the currents of space — ever-seeking, ever-searching — for he alone is herald to mighty Galactus.” The image is the visual distillation of an artist’s self-confidence, his arrogance. After all, doesn’t every artist believe himself to be God as he  manipulates his characters, his images, to suit his imaginative fancy? It’s also a breathtaking rendering of a big bang, or a biblical birth of the universe, without a benevolent designer in control. Here the god of the universe is a destroyer.

The universe seems endless and infinitely alluring to this mysterious star-wanderer, who yearns for  his own homeworld, Zenn-La, lost to him forever for reasons Lee doesn’t initially explain, but we presume Galactus ate it.

The Surfer enters the atmosphere of “a verdant sphere” unlike any he’s seen before. Soaring high above the streets of New York, he doesn’t hide from view. He is fascinated by the fear in the eyes of people, noting “how it is always the young who are the first to accept — and to trust.” He sees a woman who reminds him of Shalla Bal, a woman the Surfer loved on his own world. Haunted by her memory, he pursues this woman through the alleyways of Manhattan while imagining a conversation with this Shalla Bal lookalike. We learn that, years ago, the Surfer sacrificed his mortal body to Galactus to save Zenn-La from destruction.

Finally, the woman abandons him to his painful recollections… and then Galactus suddenly appears in a whirlwind of crackling energy, ready to devour Earth.

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He congratulates the Surfer on a job well done and articulates in excruciating detail how he plans to sate his appetite: “Here shall I drain the gently rolling seas. Here shall the bountiful land yield to me its gift of life.” It is an impending act of reverse creation, a backward Genesis. But the herald of Galactus isn’t having any of it. When the Surfer fails to convince his master that the price of eight billion souls is too high, he lashes out at Galactus with “the power cosmic,” using it seal the destroyer in a concrete cocoon. It doesn’t hold Galactus for long. Disgusted, the world-eater blasts the Surfer from the sky, cursing the herald to live amidst “the dunghills of man” for a spell in order to ponder his mistake. Then Galactus disappears.

The Surfer recovers from his fall, then disguises himself by altering his appearance to resemble a male fashion model from a billboard. He wanders the city with admiration for its denizens until muggers approach him in Central Park. The Surfer shoos them away with a pyrotechnical display, then pledges to walk around without hiding his identity; concealment did nothing for him anyway. Meanwhile, we witness Galactus gorging on a planet in another solar system. Sated, his thoughts turn toward his missing herald. What can Galactus do to make the Surfer submit? The world-eater’s counsel, a sniveling Master of Guile, advises Galactus to provide the Surfer — our alien Adam — with an Eve, someone to betray the Surfer’s heart.

And so beautiful Ardina enters the picture. She sneaks the instantly smitten Surfer beyond Earth’s atmosphere, and they share in the pleasures of the spaceways. Floating now on a patch of green ringed with bright flowers in a neighboring galaxy, our hero is tempted to give up his standoff with Galactus. In the same way Dido tempted Aeneas to give up his destiny to found Rome, so does Ardina begin to entice the Surfer to submit to her — and by extension Galactus. He refuses, says he’s willing to die to save Earth, and so Ardina leads the Surfer on a journey into human darkness. “You will perish for a worthless cause,” she warns. She shows him “brutal images, a morbid montage of heart-rending scenes filled with carnage and strife.” Domestic violence. A child killed by a hit-and-run driver. A mass execution. Bombed ruins of a once-thriving city. The Surfer is jarred but not dissuaded.

And then something interesting happens: Ardina, designed to coldly seduce the Surfer to make him betray his convictions, ends up feeling a warm love for him.

So much so that the Surfer is driven mad from having set foot inside a suburban home where the walls seem to be closing on him:

The ceiling — almost touching my head! No room to move! No place to soar! I see no sun — no sky — no endless reaches of rolling space! Wherever I face — wherever I turn — I am surrounded by smothering objects! Shelves and books! Pictures, clocks, and lamps! Chairs and drapes and shuttered windows! But where is the sky? Where is the cold, crisp touch of rolling space? Where are the hills, the seas, the nourishing stars in endless profusion? Without them I perish! 

Interestingly, the aspect of humankind that nearly causes the Surfer to surrender his mission is man’s stultifying existence inside tract-housing boxes.

Troubled by the experience, the Surfer races to escape Earth’s atmosphere. Riding bitch, Ardina screams: “The barrier! You have forgotten the barrier!”

The Surfer falls to Earth while Ardina re-materializes before Galactus inside his giant space vehicle. She admits she has failed. She confesses her love for the Surfer. Displeased, Galactus recalibrates her cloned body for one last mission. A mission that involves shattering the Surfer’s heart.

Meanwhile, the Surfer continues to be attacked by various humans. He is shot at, shackled and hammer-smashed, then the U.S. military blasts him with an ultra-sonic cannon, which nearly kills him. Ardina consoles him for a moment, kisses him, telling the Surfer she is with him and by his side, even after death. Which is when Galactus dissolves her into dead particles using a matrix-drone.

Now Galactus asks the Surfer to again join him in scouting the universe for other edible planets. It’s the only way Earth can be saved. The command is agonizing, for what Galactus offers is a living hell. To save Earth, the Surfer must cast off death, the ultimate escape and the one chance he has at being reunited with Ardina. But as the Surfer himself says: “Never was there a choice!”

The curse of immortality at the cost of true love is a familiar idea in ancient epics. The sea nymph Calypso offered Odysseus eternal life, but he refused it in order to be with his wife Penelope. But the Surfer has no options; he can’t be selfish enough to die and thus doom the Earth. What makes him a hero is his refusal to surrender and his willingness to embrace the agony of existence, of enslavement. He must deny himself every exit for humans to live on until they hopefully change themselves for the better. They must have a chance; the Surfer and Galactus give them one. 

The Surfer returns to the gauntlet of Galactus, disappearing within the destroyer’s fist.

In this story, there is no Fantastic Four. No cameo appearances by Lee and Kirby. No clever narrative captions. Just the purest narrative of a hero fighting for an ideal, for the steadfast belief in our ability to one day rise above our petty evils, our arrogance and wrath. Lee wrote so many masterpieces of comics literature, but this one is his best because it best speaks to the principle he and his characters lived by: Never succumb to nihilism and despair. Never forget that we are similar in our anxieties and weaknesses, and that our individual identities matter less than our collective aspiration to improve our world and the lives of the people who inhabit it.

It’s a moral stance that today remains obscured by Internet social-justice frothing and the political insanity of being ruled by a reality-TV star. But the embers of Lee’s views are there for anyone to ignite and carry forward. Make no mistake: the world is poorer now without Lee. As the blurb on The Silver Surfer ’s back cover announces: “You will never see his like again!” We can, however, always see Lee’s passion and his love for humanity — for life! — in the work he and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and others left for us to enjoy.

Lee didn’t need to die for our sins. He endures, and so will we.

Never was there a choice.

Jarret Keene is an assistant professor in residence in the English Department at UNLV, where he teaches creative writing and ancient and medieval literature. His fiction, essays and verse have appeared in literary journals such as New England Review, Carolina Quarterly, and the Southeast Review. He is the author of several books and editor of acclaimed short-fiction anthologies. He is currently working on a critical biography of comic book legend Jack Kirby.

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