"The Good, The Bad, and The Uncanny!"
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: John Buscema
Inker: Sal Buscema
Karen: This book is truly special to both Doug and me. Starting off with what may be one of the finest comic book covers ever, it features some of the greatest comic book art ever seen, and certainly some of John Buscema's best work. Today's post really is mostly about the art; honestly, the story is simple -"Loki tricks the Silver Surfer into attacking Thor in Asgard" -and doesn't deserve a whole lot of thought. But the artwork elevates it beyond its humble nature.
Doug: I think I've always looked at Thor as recoiling at the speeding Surfer almost upon him. But now I'm seeing him crank that hammer back for the swing of a lifetime. How's it go? "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." Yeah -- I think we'd be able to hear this one even in the vacuum of space! This story may be my favorite done-in-one of all time, and I rank it up there with Amazing Spider-Man #'s 121-122 and Avengers #'s 57-58 as definitely dwelling in my personal Top 5.
Karen: John Buscema was aiming for something different when he drew this issue. For much of his early career at Marvel he (like most other artists) had been told to essentially ape Jack Kirby as much as possible in layout and style. With this issue, he tried something different, something unique. In an interview with Jon Cooke in The Jack Kirby Collector # 18 (Jan 1998), Buscema relates what happened:
Maybe seven or eight years had gone by; I get a call from Stan one morning. We usually exchanged pleasantries - Stan said something; I think he called me an SOB or something (laughter) - and I said, 'What's up, Stan? What'd I do wrong?' He said, 'John, do you remember that book we worked on, the Silver Surfer and Thor book?' I remembered it very well. 'John, that was the greatest thing you've ever done, the greatest comic ever done, the greatest thing you and I ever turned out!' Well, I thought he was pulling my leg, and I didn't say a word.
Stan says, 'Johnny, you still there?' I said, 'Stan, are you kidding? Are you serious?' He said, 'No John, really, seriously.' Well, I tried to refresh his memory. He said, 'I don't remember ever saying anything like that. I don't remember ever telling you that; the book is beautiful, how could I possibly...?'
Well, I tell this to many, many people. How many guys have been destroyed by an editor - some editor who just happened to get up on the wrong side of the bed, and does this to some guy who's put everything into his job? I know it happened to Don Heck. I remember Don coming to me and saying, 'John, help me. I don't know what the hell to do anymore.' "
Doug: That's interesting that you bring this up, as most of the biographies I've read of JB touch on this story and Stan's reaction to the art. However, Stan -- ever the spin-meister -- had a totally different take when he sat down to write the introduction to this story's appearance in the 1978 trade paperback Marvel's Greatest Superhero Battles. He wrote:
"And when it comes to comic book illustrators, I'd have to say that John Buscema is in a class by himself. John and I have collaborated for years, but each new drawing, each new panel, page, or book of artwork amazes and impresses me as if I'd never seen his illustrations before. Though John has done magnificent renderings of the Mighty Thor, Conan the Barbarian, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and many other Marvel features, I have always felt his interpretation of the Silver Surfer far and away represents the finest work of his career.
Let me also say that, although I'm fond of all the Silver Surfer sagas, I think the one you're about to read is possibly one of the best action adventure tales of all. In seeking a new foe for the Surfer to battle, we really had a difficult job cut out for us. Where do you find an opponent who can stand up to the power cosmic? I thought it was pure inspiration when we pitted the soaring crusader from the planet Zenn-La against the godlike power of the son of Odin, mighty Thor, God of Thunder."
Karen: Oh that Stan...well he might not have remembered chastising Buscema, but Big John certainly did! Yet almost unanimously, fans and pros alike will tell you that this issue contains some of the most breath-taking Buscema art put to paper. It's absolutely astounding that Stan Lee could have looked at it with anything other than admiration...but there you go! In any case, thank goodness it was published, because now it is there for us to enjoy forever.
Doug: I think this issue, at least as it's reprinted in the tpb I mentioned above, is beautiful. The colors are vibrant and really add to the mood. However, I also have the Essential Silver Surfer, and I declare that the more elegant black and white line art found there is a powerful presentation in its own right! I think many fans of comics from the past 20 years or so would say that George Perez is one of the finest artists in the industry at individualizing facial features and in depicting different emotions facially. However, this is really a tour de force by JB, and shows that he was the true master at Marvel in the latter Silver Age. Don't believe me? Check out his run in the Avengers, particularly in the #50s.
Karen: The issue begins with Loki, the Asgardian god of evil, brooding once again over how to rid himself of his brother, Thor. Loki jumps on a horse and rides off to the Cavern of Shadows, where he stares into a boiling cauldron and manages to release his astral self to travel across time and space. I love the way Buscema depicts this, as Loki appears as primarily a head with a misty trail following faintly behind him. He looks for the most powerful beings in the universe to combat his brother. First he spies the Hulk, who is busily punching apart some boulders. Loki decides he is too beastial, lacking in skill. Next he spots the Thing, but decides that although he is powerful, as a mortal, he surely cannot beat Thor. Hercules is next, but the lord of mischief decides that he would rather not face the wrath of Olympus. He casts his gaze elsewhere and suddenly sees something racing over the Earth. Buscema provides a great shot of an anguished looking Surfer hurtling at the reader. Loki watches as the Surfer smashes into the unseen barrier created by Galactus. Deciding he must know more about this being, Loki conjures a spell -again, Buscema chooses an unconventional way to do this, showing a black, inky substance coming from Loki's eyes and images forming from it. The story of the Surfer's past, his life as Norrin Radd and service to Galactus, as well as his desire to return to his love, Shalla Bal, are laid out before Loki. He realizes that he has found his perfect pawn.
Doug: I really felt that the first several pages of this story could have served as a jumping on point for any reader wanting to break into the Marvel Universe. The image of Loki on the splash is iconic, isn't it? But hey -- about the title of the story. In the aforementioned Stan Lee introduction to this story, he about falls all over himself at what a great title this is. The Clint Eastwood film "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" came out two years ahead of this comic book; Stan -- "I don't know if I've ever told you, but I used to spend as much time dreaming up the story titles as I'd spend on the whole nutty plot itself." Hope he didn't hurt himself on this one! And by the way, have you ever seen Shalla Bal not looking pathetic?
Karen: Or the Surfer not moping? Back in Asgard, the Warriors Three (Fandral, Hogun, and Vostagg) are ending yet another barroom brawl when Loki comes racing past them on his steed. He orders them out of the way, saying he's finally figured out a way to defeat Thor forever. Now this may seem incredibly stupid of him, but hold on, he has a a plan. Of course, Thor's buddies go running to tell the thunder god this, and Thor declares that he shall be ready and stomps off to prepare -which is exactly what Loki was hoping for. I just wanted to mention that I thought it was very interesting the way Buscema drew Thor's face here -it was not a standard hero face, and had more character in it. The same could be said for the way he has drawn Loki's face, too.
Doug: If there's one character who cracks me up every single time, it's Volstagg. And Stan just does a fantastic job on the dialogue with the Warriors Three. It's a treat every time they appear in a Thor story. Hey, in regard to the comment about Thor's face: I really felt that, in the panel you reference, JB was channeling Hal Foster's Prince Valiant. I've read many times what an influence Foster's work was on Big John, so it's a safe bet that we're seeing some of that here. A comment about the Lady Sif. In the Thor film, she was depicted as sexy, but a warrior through and through. Both Jack Kirby, and here Buscema, drew her as fair but strong -- and rarely "sexed up".
Karen: Our first glimpse of the Surfer on Earth is an arresting one: he sits in a jungle, surrounded by wild animals, yet at peace. The Surfer pets a lion and gives a little speech about how the beasts, being well-fed, are at peace, and only mankind feels violence and fear, blah blah blah. Honestly, I have to say that the Surfer's grandiose speeches are what always turned me away from this title. I could take a little of it but felt like Stan was always hitting me over the head with it in this book. I like the idea that the Surfer is a peaceful guy, but not that he is a Christlike stand-in. It's just too much. But regardless, Loki finds the Surfer in the jungle and attacks him, in order to test his mettle before sending him against Thor. The Surfer is so down he essentially says , 'Go ahead and kill me!' but does wind up fighting back when Loki says that if he can't find someone to serve him, mankind will pay for it. Loki has surmised that the Surfer needs a cause in order to do battle. Loki heads to a city and begins blasting buildings, sparking the Surfer to save people.There's a great panel showing Loki with possibly the ugliest looking face I've ever seen! But on the next page it gets even better, as Loki and the Surfer grapple and energy ripples all around them. As the two struggle, they are driven to their knees,and finally Loki ends it, saying he has found the one he needs. He then tells the Surfer he has passed his test, and must go defend Asgard. But the Surfer is having none of it - until the god of evil tells him that he can get him past Galactus' barrier. Then the Surfer is ready to listen. For all his holier than thou nature, it seems like the Surfer is always easily swayed when it involves his freedom!
Doug: I totally agree with you about Stan's heavy-handed monologues coming out of the mouth of Norrin Radd. As I said above, I have the Essential Silver Surfer, but found myself not able to read more than two issues in a row for this very reason. I understand where Stan was coming from -- the Surfer was perhaps a cipher for Stan's own political views/thoughts on the human condition/etc. Check out his "Soapboxes" from the Vietnam era and you can see some of his missives as potentially bleeding over into the Surfer's mag. Your supposition that the Surfer is a stand-in for Christ is certainly relevant given the "lion shall lie down with the lamb" motif of that half-splash (which is one of my all-time favorite single panels, on many levels -- the incredible accuracy of the rendering of the animals surely enhancing that opinion). The Silver Surfer's power cosmic seems to be an electrified ooze of energy; no Kirby Krackle here. Can I toss a kudo to inker Sal Buscema? He's just great -- he adds some nice blacks, and his feathered lines on muscles evoke Vinnie Colletta, but there's enough power in the overall lines to really make the Surfer pop. Sal gives a rounded sort of depth to his big brother's pencils.
Karen: Loki fills the Surfer's head with lies about Thor, showing him images of Thor girding an army for war. Of course, it's Thor preparing for Loki to attack him, but the Surfer doesn't know this. Loki assures the Surfer that if he succeeds in beating Thor, he will be free to travel the spaceways, back to his beloved Shalla Bal. And so the Surfer agrees. Loki transports them to the outskirts of Asgard, where he takes his leave. The Surfer comes upon the guardian of the Rainbow Bridge, Heimdall, and proclaims that he wishes to see Thor. Seeing that the Surfer is alone and unarmed, Heimdall allows him to proceed.He finds Thor in a huge banquet hall holding a feast. He immediately challenges Thor and this stirs up the Warriors Three, but Thor tells everyone to cool it, that he's never refused a challenge -but since they're in the middle of a feast, he invites the Surfer to sit with them first and enjoy the meal. This throws the space-rider a bit but he sits back and takes in the entertainment, which is a bunch of brawny Asgardians wrestling. Thor also suspects something is going on, but decides to give it some time and see what happens. But Loki isn't nearly so patient. He sends his astral form to the feast and causes one of the wrestlers to attack the Surfer -"In the name of Thor!" And with that, it's on.
Doug: Wouldn't you think that after the Surfer had just met Mephisto for the first time in the previous issue that he'd be a bit more in tune with deceivers? I guess not. If I can put my finger on the one thing that perhaps got Stan all riled up about Buscema's work on this book, it's probably in this scene. I've read that Stan couldn't believe the version of Asgard that JB turned in. Whereas Jack Kirby's Asgard had been a gleaming city of colorful spires, shining streets, and bizarrely-clad warriors, Big John gives us something out of -- well, Prince Valiant! Even the wrestlers -- I don't think Kirby would have drawn this scene in the same manner. We also need to keep in mind that while Buscema had drawn Thor before in the pages of the Avengers, this book predates his run on the Thunder God's own title by two years! This truly was his inaugural journey into the world of the Norse gods. Hey -- I'm certainly going to forgive any transgressions here, because the outcome is stunningly beautiful!
Doug: One element of Buscema's work that I've always marveled at are his panel lay-outs. He almost-always squares it all up (nothing crazy like what Gene Colan would do, with figures outside the lines, etc.), but the sizes of the panels vary enough to really move the story along. Additionally, if you think of him as the director of a film, on some pages three cameras would be required! In scenes that are conversational in nature, there may be a complete 180 degree swing in our perspective in the course of just three panels!
Karen: I did notice that his panel layouts here seemed far less conventional than in most of his other work, with some panels not having full borders, for example. Also, I've always considered him a master of facial expressions, but as previously noted, he really stretched himself here to go beyond his usual repertoire and try new things.And you're right, Buscema's Asgard in this issue looks far more medieval than the pseudo-sci-fi of Kirby.
Doug: Balder at first tries to reason with the Surfer, stating that nothing of this sort had ever happened before. But cunning Loki blocks the Surfer's hearing, so that a plea from Thor also falls on -- well, deaf ears. Feeling that Loki has been truthful, the gleaming silver surfboard cuts through the assemblage of warriors. Lighting atop it, the Silver Surfer blasts everyone with the power cosmic before they can regain their senses. Soaring to the top of the chamber, the Surfer can still not hear the last hope of reason shouted by Thor. Refusing to land, it's Mjolnir that greets the space-farer, knocking him right through the ceiling! As the mystic hammer returns to its master, the Surfer recovers and attacks Thor with a bolt of energy. Yet the thunder god is no amateur -- he harnesses the bolt and hurls it back at his assailant! Loki continues to monitor the battle in his astral form, as the Silver Surfer has flown out into the open expanse of Asgard. He is confronted by a warrior seated at some sort of huge cannon, but quickly despatches both man and machine. I thought there was a real paradox between Stan's words and Big John's pictures here -- we see this huge honkin' piece of tech., yet when Thor arrives to check on his man, he tells the poor guy to "Take unto thyself a healing herb!" Huh? You got a cannon that will knock anything out of the sky, but you're using "healing herbs"?
Karen: Both Thor and the Surfer possess weapons that are nearly a part of them, although I'd have to say Mjolnir is a lot more powerful than the Surfer's board. Throughout this entire confrontation, Thor remains calm, convinced that the whole thing is a misunderstanding (which it is of course). This reminds me, as we discussed briefly the difference between Iron Man's comic book and movie personas in last week's review. So too is there a big difference between the comic book Thor's personality and the movie version's. Thor in the comics has always been very sober, almost dour at times, while the movie Thor really resembles (at least in the beginning) the Marvel version of Hercules more. But I digress. And yes Doug, I'll agree, it seems a bit incongruous that the Asgardians have energy cannons for weapons and yet their medical arts still rely on herbs - but perhaps their herbs are not what they seem?
Doug: Oh ho! You think the gods were masters of all the plants? Anyway, Norrin Radd dwells on all he has seen so far, and on the might that Asgard (and Thor) possess. Convinced that what he believes is true, he tells himself that he must fight on. We find Loki back in the caverns that serve as his base of operations, informing his lackey that the Surfer's might has been augmented with Loki's own -- the Surfer cannot lose! At that moment, a messenger rushes into the throne room of the All-Father Odin to tell him of the raging tempest of battle. Odin's response is strange to say the least (by the way, JB draws Odin as if he could go outside and kick everyone's tail) -- he tells the messenger to do nothing, that peace will eventually win the day. It seems as if he knows Loki is behind all of this, and doesn't seem to have much confidence that the Prince of Lies will carry the day. So he does what an omnipotent force would do in a situation such as this -- he goes to bed.
Karen: You know, I really wish Stan hadn't put in that line about the Surfer's power being augmented by Loki's. It kind of takes the thrill out of the battle for me, as we now know the two warriors aren't on a level playing field. Odin is his usual overbearing self. He does look like he's the toughest guy on the block though. I always thought there was something about the way Buscema drew him that made him slightly resemble Big John himself -maybe around the eyes.
Doug: As the story climaxes, Thor once again attempts to reason with the Surfer. Yet there is no end in sight, as the Surfer continues to accuse Thor of attempting to conquer Asgard, and defeat his own father. This really ticks ol' goldilocks off, and he hurls Mjolnir directly at his foe. Yet the Surfer evades it as easily as he'd navigate a meteor shower. Having had minor success with blasts of the power cosmic previously, the Surfer really unloads on the thunder god -- attempting to separate Thor from his hammer. Thor realizes that this is truly a force to be reckoned with; the Surfer thinks, too, that he feels more powerful than he has ever felt before. And Loki, lapping all of this up, finds enough confidence to appear in his physical form (remaining in the shadows of course). The Surfer finally succeeds in encasing Mjolnir in a force field of the power cosmic. Thor tries and tries to reach his weapon, but to no avail. The Surfer mentions the name of Loki aloud, quickly raising the attention of Thor. But before the two can talk out the whole situation, suddenly Balder and Sif burst in -- the loyalty of Balder and his willful sacrifice of his own well-being give the Silver Surfer pause. This is enough to force Loki to give Balder the urge to attack. Suddenly the Surfer takes to the air again, and turns to level a blast at the Asgardians. Thor shields Sif, and the three determine that the blast was meant not to kill but to gain separation. The Surfer has bought enough time to clear his mind -- he knows now that he has truly been duped.
Karen: I love the opening scene in this sequence, where Thor is in the shadows. It's very dramatic. Buscema's depiction of Thor's struggle to retain his hammer was also very powerful; you could really feel the thunder god straining. The use of color here was effective at portraying the bright light from the Surfer's blasts too. One thing though: the Surfer maybe be powerful, but it sure takes him some time to put it all together! You'd think just one look at Loki and you'd know he wasn't to be trusted!
Doug: With the ruse now known and Loki revealed, the God of Mischief conjures a spell that immediately sends the Silver Surfer back to Earth -- and behind the barrier that had been set by Galactus. Back on Asgard, Thor says that Asgard has rarely seen valor such as the Silver Surfer displayed.
Karen: This was just a feast for the eyes. I actually have a mini-poster of that cover in my sanctum sanctorum and I never tire of looking at it. The entire book is flat-out gorgeous. The story, as I said at the top, is not the strongest; but the art more than makes up for it.
Doug: Is it obvious that we had a blast not only re-reading this, but writing our praises too? As Karen said at the top, this may very well be John Buscema's magnum opus. It's really just about perfect in every way -- there is raw emotion and energy in the pictures, the pace of the story is appropriately quickening when it needs to be, mellow if necessary in other parts. Stan's dialogue is for the most part spot-on with how we recognize these characters and is full of brashness and bravado where needed. As I remarked, Sal Buscema turns in a yeoman job as inker, rounding out JB's pencils and really adding depth. I've checked a couple of the databases that we regularly use, and unfortunately this issue's colorist remains anonymous -- but a huge kudo tossed his/her way as well. If this were to ever be reprinted in a nice hardcover, it would immediately be on my "gotta have it!" list.