Shelf Life: Surfing a Wave of Triumph and Anguish

Thu, May 30th, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Ron Marz, Columnist

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Surfing a Wave of Triumph and Anguish

Cover to the American edition of "Dangerous Artifacts."

You never forget your first time. That's what they say, anyway.

My first time was "Silver Surfer." We're still talking about comics here; you knew that, right? The first comic script I ever wrote, the first monthly series I wrote. It was on-the-job training for me, or more properly, training via Jim Starlin while I was learning the job.

When Jim stepped aside from the writing duties of the series after the landmark "Silver Surfer #50," to concentrate on launching a new Warlock title, he somehow convinced Marvel to hand me the writing duties. I assume there were assurances that if I crashed and burned spectacularly, and screwed up the title, Jim would step back in and repair the damage.

I saw in the most recent solicits that Marvel will be reprinting a chunk of my early "Surfer" run in an "Infinity Gauntlet Aftermath" collection this August. The collection is supposed to feature "Silver Surfer" #60 to #66, plus something from "Silver Surfer Annual" #5.

When I took over the monthly writing duties with issue #51, my first nine issues (thanks to summer double-shipping) were all "Infinity Gauntlet" tie-in issues. Those initial issues taught me a lot about writing within a shared universe, and I actually like some of those earlier issues quite a bit. As goofy as it was, having the Surfer tangle with the Rhino in issue #54 was good fun. And Tom Raney and I had a great time with a Surfer vs. Thanos duel in #59.

Mostly those issues were exercises in telling a story without actually moving the story forward much at all. Since the issues had to tie in to "Infinity Gauntlet," the plot couldn't move beyond the unfolding machinations of Thanos. The trick was to stand still, but make it look like we were going somewhere. It was some of the best writing experience I could've had at that point, having to work within somewhat confining parameters. At the time, of course, I was so excited to have a monthly assignment that I didn't feel confined in any way.

The Silver Surfer soared under the pen of Claudio Castellini.

I also learned lessons about dealing with editorial input, on both the crossover issues and those that followed. The issues that will be reprinted in the "Infinity Gauntlet Aftermath" collection include the characters Midnight Sun and Cap'n Reptyl (yes, that's really his name). The editor felt like readers wanted to see those characters again. I had minimal interest... okay, zero interest... in either character, but you go along to get along.

My experience then was the mirror opposite of how new writers break in today. Now, most writers start by doing their own thing, creator-owned work that most often has no editorial structure and no established parameters. That work, marked by creative freedom, is ultimately the calling card that gets creators noticed at Marvel and DC, where they suddenly have to learn to navigate editorial input, playing with a set of shared toys under someone else's supervision. It's not the easiest transition to make, especially now, when editorial interactions can be even more demanding.

I feel fortunate I cut my teeth on work-for-hire, and then was able to move on to gigs with more creative freedom. I feel fortunate my "first time" was with a classic character like the Surfer. I was blessed to be working with a pro's pro like Ron Lim, a terrific storyteller and a deadline machine, and also got to do issues with artists like Cully Hamner, Bart Sears and Scot Eaton.

But one Surfer job looms largest in my memory, with almost equal parts triumph and anguish, a project I suspect many people have never seen. During my tenure on the monthly title, my editor, Craig Anderson, called and asked if I'd be interested in writing a Surfer story for an Italian artist that editor-in-chief Tom DeFalco met while on a trip in Italy. The artist's name was Claudio Castellini, and Craig told me Claudio worshipped at the shrine of John Buscema, patron saint of Silver Surfer artists. Claudio's fondest wish was to draw a Surfer story, but Marvel wanted something special, not just another issue of the series.

This was pre-internet. International artists, except for those in the UK, were a relative rarity in the U.S. market. Craig FedExed me a box with copies of Claudio's European work, including the "Nathan Never" series from Bonelli. The art was stunning; obviously heavily influenced by Buscema's graceful, fluid lines, but more delicate, more detailed.

Some of the linework and graytones in the worldship of Galactus were lost in the printing process.

Of course I immediately said yes. Any writer with a functioning brain stem would've said yes. Editorial didn't hand down any parameters for the story; the job was simply to write a Silver Surfer tale. So I did my best to make it an artistic playground for Claudio, giving him ample opportunity to draw the tech at which he so excelled, as well usual suspects like the Kree, Skrulls and Galactus. Especially Galactus.

Claudio's Galactus is my favorite Galactus ever. Beyond Buscema, beyond Moebius... yes, even beyond Kirby. Claudio's Galactus is equal parts power and majesty. He looks like a guy who really does eat planets for breakfast.

I also included Thanos in the story, in a bit of a cameo role, because... well, it's Thanos. And I wanted to see Claudio draw him. I've honestly enjoyed Thanos more than any other villain I've ever written.

"Dangerous Artifacts" was originally planned as a squarebound, prestige-format color volume, as well as a limited, oversize, black-and-white edition, to properly present Claudio's exquisite linework.

The story involves the return of an ancient comet carrying the secrets of a long-dead civilization. Galactus sends the Surfer to seek it out, while Thanos dispatches his own agent, a bounty hunter called White Raven. It was all designed to be a showcase for Claudio, and he made the most of it. "Dangerous Artifacts" contains some of the most beautiful artwork I've ever been involved with. All 48 pages are stunning. All 48 pages also took two years to complete. Maybe even a little more than two years?

When Claudio finally finished the pages, he refused to entrust the originals into FedEx's care. So he personally flew the pages over to New York from Rome, carrying them with him in a portfolio. The pages were delivered to the Marvel offices by hand. And even then, Claudio didn't stop fussing over them: adding details here, redrawing something there, endlessly noodling on the pages. The job was only "finished" when editorial literally took the pages from him, locked them in a flat file, and told Claudio, "You have to stop now."

The Surfer confronts his former master in "Dangerous Artifacts."

However long it took Claudio to complete the pages... it took too long. By the time the book was ready for publication, a new editorial regime had taken over. Claudio's initial benefactor, Tom DeFalco, was out, and the new regime wasn't very interested in a "leftover" project from the previous management. The overall comics market had also taken a downturn. Plans for a black-and-white edition, oversize or otherwise, were scrapped. Then the color version was scaled back from prestige format to a standard, stapled version. Ultimately, it was going to be just another comic.

Worse, the level of detail on the pages was almost beyond the ability of the printing press to handle. Color technology at the time was dependent upon hand-colored guides, with computer separations most often done by a third party.

Getting the color to reproduce correctly meant the delicate linework closed up and disappeared. Conversely, trying to print the linework properly meant the color turned into a splotchy disaster. The first print run of the book looked like hell -- color off register and inconsistent, linework closed up into a black mess. The late, great Mark Gruenwald, who had taken over as editor on the book when Craig Anderson left staff, had the entire print run destroyed as unacceptable.

Claudio Castellini's grand Galactus.

The next run printed better, though the overall reproduction was still muddy. More frustrating, the vast majority of pages were cropped incorrectly by the printer, meaning heads and hands and a plethora of details were amputated by the page edge. It was heartbreaking to see two years of Claudio's life spent creating "Dangerous Artifacts," and have the book's production be anything less than perfect.

Even before the American edition was released, an oversize Italian edition was published, a black-and-white softcover. The translation, as far as I can tell, isn't all that faithful (I swear I didn't write "pesce faccia" anywhere), but that's a minor concern. It's gratifying to see the artwork in beautiful black and white, despite a few of the same cropping issues being present, and a little of the detail being lost.

The best presentation of "Dangerous Artifacts," at least that I've seen, is a German hardcover, an oversize limited-edition in pristine black and white. Just beautiful, and the kind of presentation that Claudio's work deserved.

If I could send one project from my career back to press, it would be "Dangerous Artifacts," re-colored from scratch and properly cropped. When the "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" film was impending (I'm on the DVD extras, check it out) I had a discussion with a Marvel editor and suggested a Surfer hardcover containing Stan and Jack's Surfer original graphic novel, the Stan and Moebius "Parable," and the Castellini job. Nothing came of it, unfortunately.

I said I think of "Dangerous Artifacts" as almost equal parts triumph and anguish. That seems like a pretty good description of the Silver Surfer himself. Maybe this is the way it was supposed to be.

Skrulls make an appearance in "Dangerous Artifacts."

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts" and "Ravine" for Top Cow, "The Protectors" for Athleta Comics and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.

TAGS:  shelf life, ron marz, silver surfer, infinity gauntlet, jim starlin, tom raney, galactus, thanos, dangerous artifacts, claudio castellini

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