Pipeline

Tue, January 26th, 2010 at 1:58pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

PIPELINE RETRO: SILVER SURFER

The letters column for the "Silver Surfer" was in no way an influence on the naming scheme for this column.

One of my earliest memories of collecting comics is of my nascent collection's organizational system. It was three shoe boxes, with signs taped to the front to define what was in each. I don't remember the exact classifications, though I suspect the first box simply would have said "Spider-Man" on it. I do remember, though, that one of the boxes had Ron Lim's name on it. Early on, he was an artist whose worked I could easily identify and enjoy. It also helped that he was drawing two books a month that I liked. The first was "Captain America," during the legendary run of Mark Gruenwald. (There's a "Captain America Visionaries" series that Marvel needs to do.) After the Spider-Man books, "Captain America" was the next series at Marvel I decided to collect. It might have had something to do with Cap's appearance in that summer's "Assassin Nation" storyline in "Amazing Spider-Man," but my memory says that I started just before that. Kieron Dwyer was drawing the bi-weekly run on the series, but Ron Lim took over shortly after.

In late 1990, I started reading "Silver Surfer." I don't know why. Maybe I knew "Infinity Gauntlet" was coming from a hint in "Marvel Age?" Maybe I just wanted to try a cosmic book? Maybe I was following Ron Lim? In any case, it was a regular part of my comics reading habit for the next couple of years. I recently went back to it for the first time in at least a decade to read those issues again, after discovering both runs of "Silver Surfer" and "Captain America" in the same longbox hidden in the back of a closet, still together after all these years.

The first part of the run, issues #43 - #50 (except #49) were written by Jim Starlin, who had come onto the series a few months earlier and had ramped things up to the well-remembered fiftieth issue and on to "The Infinity Gauntlet." Starlin was legendary by that time, for his work on "The Death of Captain Marvel." In "Silver Surfer," he crafted a cosmic book that worked both as a solo series and, very subtly, a team book. Yes, Surfer starred as the tortured soul travelling the universe on his surfboard and running into grand adventures. But Starlin gave equal time to a small family of characters around him. Stories finished quickly by today's standards, but recurring themes and on-going issues carried through.

Starlin also had a wicked sense of humor in these issues. Drax, in particular, had been reborn as something of the cosmic Rain Man. When trapped in Soul World, for example, all he wanted to do was destroy the world to escape it. His simple-minded nature made him dangerous and funny, by turn. He made for great comic relief, great visual bombast, and a slightly tragic character, given his near-lobotomy in the process of his resurrection.

But the Surfer was the ultimate tragic figure, doomed to travel the universe "alone" and to help the people in need, all to help satisfy the soul he lost to Galactus in order to protect his home world. Starlin goes back to that origin story in these issues to fill in a couple of character points to better define Surfer, before revealing a new twist in Surfer's origin in the 50th issue to add new weight to his shoulders.

From there, Ron Marz took over the writing duties, and would handle them for the next 50 continuous issues. Early in his run -- which, I grant you, is the only part of his run I've read for this column -- he carries Starlin's themes forward, delving further into the mind of the Surfer: his guilt, his pain, his inability to forgive. As you can imagine, such cerebral concepts aren't easy to put forth on the comics page without boring the readership to death. So Marz (and Starlin before him) create fight scenes out of these mental battles. Surfer swaps punches with his dark half. He gets caught in Virtual Reality (in 1991, that was hawt!). He winds up fighting a cast of Orcs from "Lord of the Rings" with naught but a sword. A three-person bounty hunter squadron looks as though it came out of central casting from a Cameron "Aliens" movie, like so many of Todd McFarlane's villains were. And along the way, he saves the universe from a vicious virus, destroys Thanos' "Infinity Gauntlet" world, saves zoo animals from the threat of Rhino, and even has a two-issue dream sequence/"What If?" scenario. (This is completely unrelated to the actual "What If?!?" issue that Marz did with Lim, about Surfer remaining on earth with the Fantastic Four.)

When Marz started with the series, he focused first on the supporting cast, with turns in the spotlight from Galactus' then-current herald and an issue dedicated to politics on the Kree homeworld. There was a blatant fill-in issue during "Infinity Gauntlet," where Surfer decides to take a break from the meetings on earth amongst all the heroes and goes for a walk in the park -- only to run across the Rhino letting all the zoo animals free before the rest of the world disappears. There's some interesting character-based back and forth between the two on the topic of zoos and conservation, though it does hit you with very little subtlety.

Lim's art is something I used to trace from, to "learn" to draw. In thinking back, it's an obvious way to go. Silver Surfer is nothing but a naked man neutered and spray painted silver. What you see are his muscles. For drawing superhero comics, can there be any better place to start? So I learned some basic line work from him there, but I also learned how to draw something to look shiny, which came in very handy that year in my art class when I used those techniques to draw some ice cubes...and got an "A" from my teacher for it.

Looking back at the issues now, there are some little inconsistencies in the art I likely didn't pick up on back then. The occasional leg looks too short or head is too small. But it's a remarkable job, overall, for such a young artist who gets no cover fire. You can hide anatomical issues with a costume, or any kind of clothes, really, but Surfer doesn't give you that. It's a lot of full body posing and odd angles and over-the-top images. (The titular character is riding a surfboard through space. Think about that.)

Tom Vincent's coloring scheme adjusts over the time, as he tries to reflect the light off Surfer from his surrounding environments. Sometimes, it's effective and looks "realistic" (or at least as realistic as pre-Photoshop coloring could get), while other times it looked like random colors in the right spots. And, to be fair, that might have been the fault of the color separators at the time, back when a colorist and a color separator were often two different people.

I hope there's an "old school" colorist out there reading this now who can explain to me why there had to be blocks of color under the solid black areas of the line work. It always shows up to my eye, and never looked good. That went away in the age of computer coloring. Perhaps it came from better printing processes. I don't know. Can someone explain it?

Ken Bruzenak was the letterer, and an amazing one at that. His letterforms are stylized and instantly recognizable without being distracting. His sound effects and title pages are always interesting to look at.

My run on "Surfer" ended at issue #65, for reasons I'll likely never remember. Since I was buying comics with lunch money at that point, I suspect it might have been a budgetary issue. Maybe I'll chance across more at a convention someday. I'll keep an eye open.

Rereading this run of comics brought me back to a personal fun time in comics. Everything was still so new, and this book threw lots of things at the reader to absorb. It clung onto the storytelling format of portraying inner emotional struggles through third party agents that could makes things more visual. But it also finished a lot of stories in an issue or two, and then built upon it as the series progressed.

Coincidentally, Marvel is announcing in "Previews" this week a pair of hardcovers to almost tie into this edition of Pipeline Retro:

INFINITY GAUNTLET PREMIERE HC
Written by JIM STARLIN
Penciled by GEORGE PÉREZ & RON LIM
Covers by GEORGE PEREZ
For the dark Titan, Thanos, the Infinity Gauntlet was the Holy Grail, the ultimate prize to be coveted above all else. With it came omnipotence: the absolute control of all aspects of time, space, power, reality, the mind and the soul. The gaining of supreme might meant the beginning of a black nightmare for the entire universe. Now, on the edge of Armageddon and led by the mysterious Adam Warlock, Earth’s super heroes join in a desperate attempt to thwart this nihilistic god’s insane plunge into galactic self-destruction. Should the heroes fail, the astral gods of the universe wait to step into the fray. But in such an awesome cosmic conflict will anyone prevail? Will anyone survive? Collecting INFINITY GAUNTLET #1-6.
256 PGS./Rated T+ …$29.99
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4549-3
Trim size: standard
INFINITY GAUNTLET PREMIERE HC – VARIANT EDITION VOL. 46
256 PGS./Rated T+ …$29.99
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4550-9

I would have preferred an "Omnibus" with all three original mini-series (maybe even the post-2000 mini-series sequel that nobody read, too?) or just a plain old oversized hardcover for released. That said, this is an acceptable compromise.

Also:

SILVER SURFER: REBIRTH OF THANOS PREMIERE HC
Written by JIM STARLIN
Penciled by RON LIM
Covers by RON LIM
The quest that led to Infinity Gauntlet begins here! Back from the dead, Thanos is after the power to bring the rest of the universe with him on a return trip! Can the Silver Surfer, Drax the Destroyer and others stop the cosmic iconoclast before he uses reality as a token of his affection for Death? Special guest-appearance by the Impossible Man! Collecting SILVER SURFER (1987) #34-38, THANOS QUEST #1-2 and material from LOGAN'S RUN #6.
224 PGS./Rated T+
$29.99
ISBN:
978-0-7851-4478-6
Trim size: standard
SILVER SURFER: REBIRTH OF THANOS PREMIERE HC – VARIANT EDITION VOL. 47
224 PGS./Rated T+ …$29.99
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4479-3

This is the batch of issues immediately preceding what I'm reviewing here, which leads me to believe they'll solicit a volume 2, should this first one sell well enough. I've never read "Thanos Quest" before, so I'm adding this book to my shopping list very soon.

AND NOW, A WORD FROM THE AUTHOR: RON MARZ

I had a brief chat with Ron Marz last week about his time on "Silver Surfer," helping to fill in the gaps of how his run on the title came to be and what it was like working on the title. Special thanks, in advance, to Marz for being so kind with his time and responding so quickly and honestly to my questions.

Augie De Blieck Jr: I always assumed that you had started at a smaller company somewhere, maybe worked on an indy black and white book during the boom or something. But, no, you started right out at Marvel on "Silver Surfer." So, how did you get that "Silver Surfer Annual" assignment? How long were you attempting to break into the industry for, before this happened?

Ron Marz: I actually hadn't been attempting to break into the industry. My story is the polar opposite of the guys doing self-published and indy stuff and carpet-bomb the Big Two with pitches. I didn't have to bang on the door to get in; I had the door held open for me, for which I am eternally grateful. I was working as a journalist for a daily newspaper, and had been friends with Jim Starlin for a few years. I copy-edited one of Jim's novels for him, and he asked me if I'd like to try my hand at writing comics. I still remember exactly what Jim said: "It's a good way to put food on the table." I had obviously read comics and been a fan of the medium, but it's not like I was out there writing pitches.

Jim showed me how to do this job, and gave me the chance to co-write a few issues of "Silver Surfer" with him, really more as a way to teach me the process. One of those co-writing gigs was the lead story in "Silver Surfer Annual" #3. Another of Jim's friends, artist Jim Sherman, was supposed to write and draw a pretty lengthy backup story in the Annual. But Sherman was down in the Yucatan somewhere and ended up not turning in the job, so I got the chance to write that story solo. Ron Lim drew it. I still a page of original art from that story that Jim got from Ron and gave me. So that was the first thing I wrote solo, though I'm not sure if that or "Silver Surfer" #49, my next solo job, came out first.

So I was incredibly fortunate. I got to jump to the Major Leagues without going through the minors. I've been steadily employed at it ever since.

ADB: How, then, did you become the solo writer on the book a few months later?

RM: I'm sure there was much arm-twisting from Starlin on my behalf. Jim left Surfer to ramp up "Infinity Gauntlet" and launch his Warlock ongoing ["Warlock and the Infinity Watch"], so Jim convinced the editor, Craig Anderson, to turn "Surfer" over to me. So obviously I'm indebted to Jim, but I also owe a lot to Craig Anderson for giving me a shot. I suspect there must have been a promise from Jim that if I flamed out spectacularly on "Surfer," he'd come back and fix my mess. But I guess they liked my stuff well enough to let me stick around. It was one-the-job training, but I ended up writing 50 issues of Surfer in a row.

ADB: You land the gig of "Silver Surfer" as a solo writer, and you're smack dab in the middle of a company-wide crossover, on arguably the flagship title for it, aside from the mini, itself. Your first couple of issues were standalone stories that filled in little gaps of time with Surfer stories that wouldn't impact "Infinity Gauntlet." Then, the next three issues tied directly into events of "Infinity Gauntlet." Most writers hate interrupting their series to stop everything and tie into the Big Event of the Day. You walked in and had no choice. Was it better for you, perhaps, as a novice comics writer, to have that structure to plug a story into? Was that easier than starting from scratch and filling in gaps with the supporting characters of the series?

RM: Obviously at that point I was just thrilled to be getting the chance, whatever the parameters were. But I think you're right, it was probably easier for me to have a framework for what I was doing. Though to be honest, I don't remember being handed overly-specific plans for those issues, just a general idea of what plot points needed to be hit. It certainly taught me how to deal with a crossover project, and how to coordinate with other titles, which comes in pretty handy at Marvel or DC. Crossovers and tie-ins are a fact of life, probably now more than ever.

ADB: What's the secret to a successful "Surfer" series? Emphasizing the guilt and the angst, playing up the science fiction trappings, selling Surfer as a superhero, or something else? Is it one of those things that lead to your longevity on the title?

RM: You know, looking back, I think all of those things play into. The Marvel Universe, and in particular the cosmic aspect of it, is a great playground. So we could do large-scale cosmic storylines, and then bring the Surfer to Earth and do something smaller and more character oriented. He works especially well as a mirror for mankind. It's important to keep an alien or "other" quality to him, even if he's the lead in the book. The Surfer actually might work better as a guest star than a lead character, which I suppose sounds strange coming from me. I think I've probably written more Surfer stories than anyone. But preserving the alien nature of the character, and keeping him at arm's length, is important. That's something you get from Surfer that you don't get from many other characters in comics.

ADB: What eventually led to your departure from the title?

RM: More than anything, after 50 issues plus various specials and annuals, I felt like I'd told all the stories I had to tell. I was juggling a number of regular assignments, including "Green Lantern," and probably "X-O Manowar" and "StormWatch" at the time, and something had to go. "Surfer" was the one that felt like I'd said what I had to say. Even so, it was still a little bittersweet, walking away from something that had been a part of my life for five years. It was pretty sweet for a first gig.

ADB: What are you up to today? It looks to me like you've done as many consecutive issues of "Wichblade" now as "Silver Surfer" issues. I see Top Cow has you reviving "Magdalena," right? What else do you have going on? Is it all for The Cow?

RM: Yeah, when I find a book that turns out to be a good fit, I tend to stay with it. I've actually done more consecutive issues of "Witchblade" now than I did Surfer issues. Right now my plate is full of Top Cow, with "Witchblade," the "Magdalena" monthly starting up in April, the current "Angelus" mini, another mini that will be announced next month, and then the big Artifacts crossover in the summer. I also have a couple more creator-owned things percolating in what I laughingly call my spare time.

UPDATES

I misinterpreted something I read on Jim Lee's blog last week. Lee pointed out after the column was published that his artwork still goes through the traditional process, where his inker works directly on his art boards. The pictures he sends are an "early look" or a reference for his editor and penciller to see. I apologize for the mistake.

Please consider that portion of last week's column to be a thought experiment for how new technologies might lead to new work methodologies. Could the artist use the camera's barrel distortion to fake a fisheye lens look? Could a pic taken at an angle make a drawing look more dimensional? Might I just be grasping for straws to look like a visionary, rather than the fool who misread something? You make the call.

How long will it be until comic creators are inking pages on an Apple Tablet? (Are you sick of Tablet talk yet? It's only going to get worse this week.)

Meanwhile, we had a Top Ten podcast last week:

  • 10. "Air” #17

  • 9. "Art Of Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney" SC

  • 8. "Excalibur Visionaries Alan Davis" Volume 2 TP

  • 7. "Barry Windsor-Smith Conan Archives" Volume 1 HC

  • 6. "X-Men Asgardian Wars" HC

  • 5. "Starman" #81

  • 4. "Rasl" #6

  • 3. "Zombies That Ate The World" #8 (of 8)

  • 2. "Captain America" #602

  • 1. "Joe The Barbarian" #1 (of 8)

I pushed beyond that to discuss other comics that were published last week, too.

In case that's not enough, the Pipeline Slideshow this week covered additional "Silver Surfer"-related images. That's only available (at the moment) through the podcast's RSS feed. Subscribe today!

Next week, we return to the regular madness, buying me a week to read more comics for another Pipeline Retro in February. I've already selected a title from around the same time period as "Silver Surfer." As a bonus, I'll have more to say about "Surfer" next week.

And in my spare time: I'm podcasting. Right now, check out some podcasting gear for sale and initial Blu Ray thoughts. I'm selling comics. (I might even sell off some original art soon, though shipping logistics confound me.) I'm Twittering,

photoblogging, and blogging..

E-mail me!

Talk at the Pipeline Message Board, and catch up on nearly 13 years of columns in the Pipeline Archives.

TAGS:  pipeline, silver surfer, ron marz, ron lim, jim starlin

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