Monday, June 25, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Silver Surfer

(or "Before and After")

The nice thing about writing this week's column, on the Silver Surfer, is that Steve Englehart basically wrote it already and was even nice enough to ensure that it got collected in 'The Essential Silver Surfer', Volume Two, for me to read. Since I'm a shameless plagarist, I'm going to cannibalize it, summarize it, add a few token thoughts of my own, and then pass the whole thing off as original work! (Note to self: Delete opening paragraph before passing whole thing off as original work.)

In all seriousness, Volume Two does include a nice set of essays by Steve Englehart, writer of the second Silver Surfer series, on why the original Lee/Buscema series only made it to issue #18, and what changes he'd be making to the storytelling engine (even if he didn't term it as such) to make the Surfer a more viable title. Some of the reasons were marketplace-related, such as the price and the use of fewer panels per page (which let Buscema's artwork show, but which made it harder to tell a complete story in one issue.) But the third reason Englehart cites is the big difference between the two series, and time proved him right when he suggested that it was an important factor in the failure of the old comic and the success of the new.

In the original Silver Surfer series (and, indeed, all appearances of the Silver Surfer prior to the beginning of the new series), the Surfer was trapped on Earth, behind a barrier placed there by Galactus as punishment for defying him. Shalla Bal, his one true love, was out there in space, and he was stuck on Earth with the crazy ape-people.

Why didn't this last? Because it's our old friend, the "false status quo". Every issue has to revolve around the Silver Surfer trying to leave Earth, because it's his all-consuming obsession. But he can't leave Earth, because that's where his comic is set, so we're stuck with an endless repetition of his being doomed to failure, which is no fun for anyone concerned. (There's also the small problem that the Surfer is so powerful, it's hard to find good opponents for him on Earth, something Englehart didn't touch on but I think is worth mentioning--Mephisto was created solely to give the Surfer someone to face off against, and is really the only opponent for most of the series.)

Englehart, who you can tell put a lot of thought into the storytelling engine of his series, cut through the Gordian Knot and resolved the false status quo in the very first issue of the new series. By giving the Surfer a way off of Earth and dealing with Galactus, then (in the second issue) finishing his relationship with Shalla Bal, he sets up the Surfer to no longer be a character constantly trying to achieve an unachievable goal. Which does leave the question, "What do you do with him?", but by bringing him out into space, Englehart found that question quickly resolved itself. The Surfer is an immensely powerful being whose favor or disfavor can be the equivalent of a fleet of alien spaceships; a guy like that keeps busy, one way or another.

So suddenly, a Silver Surfer story goes from being, "The Surfer tries to escape Earth to be with Shalla Bal...and fails", month in and month out, to "The Surfer investigates the heart of a black hole with Reed and Sue Richards," or "The Silver Surfer gets caught up in the Second Kree/Skrull War", or "The Silver Surfer battles the machinations of the Elders of the Universe." Much more potential for stories, a much better storytelling engine, and sure enough, a much longer-lasting series (146 issues, a respectable run by any standards.) Interestingly enough, Volume Two also includes Englehart's first attempt, which has the Surfer remaining trapped on Earth but giving him a new purpose as protector of a human/plant hybrid (one of Englehart's recurring characters). It's an intriguing curiousity, but you can see why he stuck to his guns and convinced Jim Shooter to go with a more open-ended engine.

That Steve Englehart was a pretty smart guy. I hope he doesn't find out I stole his column...


x-height said...

Funny thing with the Surfer is that the moment his engine turned over he also lost that iconic quality Stan set-up. I might be the only one but that first run gave us something of a the modern mythic as Surfer was a kind of angelic everyman that peter parker could never be. That is why he faced off with Mephisto and was a 60's byproduct. I'm not saying you (or is it Englehart) are wrong about opening up the potential but that potential was in plot not as a psyche/cosmic struggle.

Tyson said...

I just finished reading through the Silver Surfer Essentials, and it strikes me that they are two totally different books - the character, settings, art, everything, are so different because of the differences in the engines. While the second version had a broader appeal, I understand why fans of the first one didn't like the second series, because it's really not the same thing.

I'm about half-way through the Essential Super-Villain Team Up, and I really hope that's on your schedule for an engine analysis - I'd love to see what you think of it.

magidin said...

I don't really have anything specific to the Silver Surfer to add, but I wanted to mention how much I'm enjoying the "Storytelling Engines" series. It's affected my appreciation of several things, including television! I find myself thinking about series that did well their first year and then bombed, and most especially about the role of pilots in setting up the storytelling engines. I can now recognize many of the phenomena you mention (such as the fake status quo) in many a tv show. Thanks for increasing my appreciation of more than one medium!

Fred W. Hill said...

Personally, I think another problem with the first series is that a character like the Silver Surfer seems to work better in epic storylines that span several issues rather than the repetitive villain/monster of the month. Then there's the facter that in the original series, the Surfer had no true supporting cast, only recurring appearances by Shalla Bal, whom he could never really be with again, and Mephisto, his chief tormentor. Lee managed a few really good stories, but overall it didn't really work. Ben Grimm & Peter Parker certainly had their regular bouts of misery, but they were also shown experiencing occasional genuine joy in the company of their supporting cast. Norrin Rad, however, was depicted as truly isolated and trapped, unrelentingly frustrated and miserable.

Anonymous said...

One drawback for the Silver Surfer of the time was also one of his greatest strengths: his misery.

Most of the great fans of the Silver Surfer I have known first really encountered him in reprints of the first series back when they were in their angry, miserable teen years or very early twenties. The fact that he was endlessly and unrelentingly miserable but in a grand, almost messianic fashion seemed to perfectly represent in mythologized form their own adolescent angst.

The problem is that adolescent angst of such unrelenting nature lasts only a year or two, and once the angst was outgrown, so was the Silver Surfer.

The Silver Surfer of the first series perfectly epitomized an ephemeral part of the American teen's life, and that made him both perfect for the moment but ephemeral in the long run.

The second series presented us with a Silver Surfer who had been decoupled (to use John's own language) from a single lifestage, so he could be enjoyed by teens, twentysomethings, thirtysomethings, etc.