|Edited by John Morrow
|Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.
A Failure To Communicate: Part Three
by and © Mike GartlandFrom Jack Kirby Collector #23
In the last article in this series, we read how Galactus first appeared on the scene in Fantastic Four #48, and that after he left he wasn't supposed to return for a very long time. Perhaps this was why, at the end of that story, a reminder of the mysteries of the Universe was left behind: The Silver Surfer. To Jack this was just another plot thread, to be picked up and used for future stories and adventures; he had no idea at the time of the importance of what he had created. Stan Lee, however, found out soon enough through fan response; the Surfer was sensational.
The Surfer must rank among Kirby's greatest creations; but believe it or not, Jack's Surfer was short-lived, lasting about two-and-a-half years. One must come to understand that there were actually two Surfers: The version Jack created and the one Lee "re-created." Many are familiar with the often-repeated story of how Lee was presented with the penciled pages to FF #48, only to be surprised by the new character in the story. (Apparently when Jack discussed the plot with Stan he either neglected, or hadn't yet thought of, the inclusion of the Surfer.) Roy Thomas was present when this occurred and it is he we have to thank for honestly relating a true story that Marvel historians can be sure of. Had Roy not been there and told the tale to readers, in my opinion the Surfer would have become yet another Kirby creation forever mired in the "co-created" ambiguousness associated with the "Lee/Kirby" creations.
Jack's Surfer can only be seen in issues of Fantastic Four. We first become aware of the nature of the character in FF #49, of which we are again fortunate to have copies of the undiluted pencils. The Surfer is "alien" in every respect, except for the obvious (and understandable) fact that he speaks English. He knows and understands nothing of the Earth or humanity other than they are to be absorbed for Galactus. His credo is "energy is all"; man-kind is merely Organic Energy to be converted-to be used constructively or destructively. This was the basis for Jack's Surfer: A creature of pure energy, formed for exploration and war. According to the Conservation of Energy Law: "Energy can be converted (changed in form), but it cannot be created nor destroyed"; hence the Surfer was "formed," not created by Galactus, as an extension of the giant, most likely.
In FF #49, we see Jack's Surfer in his original function, converting everything around him into energy; and as we can see from Jack's liner notes, had Alicia not reached something inside him in time, she too would have been converted-a little something left out of the published story. It was Jack's original intention for the Surfer to enter mankind as a blank slate, absorbing a new lesson about the human condition with every subsequent adventure. This becomes obvious from the early FF/Surfer stories: In FF #49-50 he learns that life (any life) is precious. In FF #55, he learns about human emotions (through the Thing's jealousy). In #57-61 he experiences human treachery. Each of these stories is a learning experience for the Surfer, and a reflection on us.
Of course, Stan was on these stories with Jack, with much enthusiasm I might add. We see, according to the Nat Freedland article reprinted in our Eighteenth Issue, that Stan was already working out future Surfer-related plots with Jack while the artwork to FF #50 was still on the board, unpublished. Those plotting sessions became the basis for the story in #55, and somewhat touching on #57. Stan was enchanted with the character; he saw that fan response was so great that the Surfer had the potential to be a moneymaker for Marvel. Stan very much wanted to put out a book on the Surfer, especially while the character was hot. Unfortunately, due to publishing limitations put upon Marvel at the time, there was no room on the schedule; a book would have to wait, for now.
The stories between FF #48 and 61 are peppered with either Surfer stories or cameos. It is with the Surfer's return in issue #55 that Lee begins to have the Surfer espouse his philosophy to the masses. Using timeworn literary and Biblical cliches, the character becomes the comic book version of Billy Graham. Lee realized early on that fans reacted positively to the purity of the character; this made him a conduit to the young adult, college-age audience that was a vital part of Marvel's readership at that time. It was also Kirby's rendering of the Surfer as a noble majestic being that helps bring this dialogue off.
After experiencing a plethora of human emotions and states, by issue #61-approximately a year after his first appearance-the Surfer turns his back on mankind; and Kirby, ever progressive, turns his back on the Surfer temporarily, while pursuing yet newer creations and adventures. Stan, through the fans, never gets too far away from the character and sees to it that the fans are kept satisfied with Surfer appearances, while at the same time being careful not to overexpose the character. Of course during this time fans just couldn't get enough anyway. Approximately three months after FF #61, the Surfer makes his first appearance in a non-FF book. Stan writes him into a Hulk story in Tales to Astonish #92-93, drawn by Marie Severin. A few months after that, the Surfer gets his first solo story in the pages of FF Annual #5 in, perhaps, a testing of the waters towards a possible series. Stan was growing impatient about getting the Surfer his own book.
By the time the Surfer reappears in FF #72, new avenues have opened up at Marvel. The company was changing hands and distribution was finally expanding. The characters who shared the Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish, and Strange Tales comics were being given their own books and new titles were finally being discussed for launching-the Surfer book probably among them. Jack wanted to be a part of the Surfer series; it must have stunned him to discover that the Surfer book was already being produced, with Stan writing the origin story and John Buscema as the series' artist. Needless to say Jack was hurt; it wasn't the first time and unfortunately, it wouldn't be the last. Jack was preparing to put the Surfer's origin down himself, and the stories beginning with FF #72 probably would have led into it; now it would be lost to us forever.
Some conjecture that Stan may have been keeping Jack off the book so he would have free rein to plot and write the character as he saw fit. A more practical reason may have been that, at the time, Jack was plotting and drawing three full books already: FF, Thor, and the newly-expanded Captain America. There was also an Inhumans book that Stan wanted produced, and since Stan obviously enjoyed writing the Surfer more, would've deferred the plotting of that book to Kirby. (Jack apparently had been penciled-in for a planned Inhumans book, which was teased to readers in a Bullpen page. One interesting question is whether, when Jack did the Inhumans stories that appear in the back of the Thor books, or for Amazing Adventures, were those pages planned for the new book?) In any event, Jack was annoyed; but with new bosses in the company-and Jack, ever mindful of supporting his family-he didn't rock the boat. In what was probably doubly disheartening, Stan apparently asked Jack to do the Surfer story that runs through FF #74-77, helping to kick off the new series. With two exceptions, after FF #77, Jack-for whatever reason-doesn't draw the Surfer anywhere, anymore.
Stan's take on the Surfer's origins are almost directly opposite of what Jack had intended. Jack had the Surfer as an alien who progressively learns to become human; Stan turns the story on its ear and has the Surfer as a human who becomes an alien. True, Stan's origin depicts the Surfer as a being from another planet, but the character is human in every other respect. In writing his origin, Stan throws away all the alien aspects of the character that initially made him so appealing to readers; in fact, as early as FF #55, Stan, through dialogue, represents the Surfer as a being with a silvery coating protecting his body, thereby implying that he initially may not have always been as he appears. Upon learning about Lee's origin for the Surfer, Jack disavowed any relation to the character. That wasn't his Surfer, as far as he was concerned.
The Silver Surfer book was successful, but not for very long; after the first issue or two sales began to drop. It appears that the stories were originally intended to be standard 20-page editions, but with Martin Goodman wanting to fill the racks with books of varying price points, the comic became a 25¢ forty-pager (the company was also experimenting with a black-&-white Spider-Man magazine-size comic at the time as well). This meant not only that a book was twice the price of a regular comic, but that standard stories had to be stretched out to twice as many pages, and still hold the readers' interest. Lee's writing was well over-the-top dramatically on this book-so much so that many readers were turned off. In making the character human, he became just another angst-ridden Lee super-hero. Although his message was sincere, readers didn't care to see this once-noble character on his knees with his hands raised in supplication, crying and bemoaning his fate and man's inhumanity to man in every issue. Lee took his inspired messages from the Surfer/FF stories and beat them to death in the Surfer book.
After several issues things were looking bleak for the Surfer mag. According to John Buscema in an interview in our Eighteenth Issue, Stan told him he didn't know what to do with the book anymore; he had lost the direction of the character. The direction of the Surfer always had been with his creator, Jack Kirby, and Stan would now call upon him to help fix this situation. It is evident from this example that, although the Kirby/Lee books were a collaborative effort, it was Kirby who was the driving force behind the team. Without Kirby, the books he and Lee pioneered were mediocre at best. It is also interesting to note that, after Kirby left Marvel, Lee lasted for about two years on the Lee/Kirby books-about the same time it took him to run out of ideas on the Surfer mag.
It was decided Herb Trimpe would draw the book, after inking a lead-in story penciled by Jack. This is why the last issue (#18) sports a cover by Trimpe and not Kirby; one would think a Kirby cover would've attracted more readers. (The book was to be retitled The Savage Silver Surfer with #19; for the record, the decision to terminate before the Trimpe stories appeared was based on earlier sales, not on Jack's one issue.) The fact was that Jack didn't want to have anything to do with the book. It was ironically insulting and irritating to him to be called upon to help save the Surfer at this time. Jack knew he would be leaving Marvel soon and that this story would probably be one of his last. The last two pages of the story may, therefore, be very prophetic. The Surfer was fed up with man and Jack was fed up with Marvel; before he left his creation, they both shared a catharsis. With this issue, the Surfer was left alone; Stan refused to let anyone else use the character for a long time. Others would eventually write the Surfer into guest appearances in various books, but there would be no more Surfer stories, no more inspiration. The Surfer would remain in creative limbo while his "soul" was working at another company.
By 1978, Jack was back at Marvel, finishing up an unpleasant stay. Unlike the Sixties, this time it only took Jack two years to get fed up. To complete his contract with Marvel, he was required to submit a certain amount of pages in a given time frame, and he wanted to complete that as quickly as possible. Once again the Surfer helps his father out. Marvel was touting the character as a saleable commodity to the media. Holly-wood responded and a movie project was announced. An offer was made to Jack and Stan to re-unite on a Surfer story. Jack decided to do the book because it was assured to him that the story he and Lee came up with would be copyrighted as theirs alone. Also Jack wanted to make sure his name stayed with his character and did not become "lost" (like it did when a movie poster featuring Captain America listed Lee as creator of the character). It also helped him meet his contractual obligations with Marvel, page-wise. If the book was successful, a possible adaptation of the story to the big screen might be considered; all of this really boiled down to Jack, once again, trying to earn the most he could for his family.
Since the book was considered as a possible vehicle for the movie, the story was kept apart from the general continuity of the comics, with no references to other Surfer-related stories or characters. Jack submitted a fully-typewritten plot along with his pencils for Stan to dialogue. Stan wanted changes made and Jack balked, but as usual, grudgingly gave in. This is why the story reads unevenly and loses impact. This was the last time Kirby would work with Lee in comics; one need not wonder why.
Jack once said in a published interview about why he stopped creating for Marvel: "When I would create something (ie. a character), they would take it away from me and I would lose all association with it." It is ironic that of all the creations attributed to the Kirby/Lee team, the Silver Surfer-the one character universally acknowledged as Jack's creation-would be so dominated and changed by Lee into a character no longer acknowledged by his creator. Time would be kinder to Jack's Surfer in the pages of FF than to Lee's Surfer in the failed first series. Two men with distinctly different versions of the same character end up creating two characters. With no malice on either side, and good intentions gone awry, the Silver Surfer turns out to be the prime example of a failure to communicate.
(Special thanks to Mark Evanier for providing background information for this article.)
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