In this column, Mark Ginocchio (from Chasing Amazing) takes a look at the gimmick covers from the 1990s and gives his take on whether the comic in question was just a gimmick or whether the comic within the gimmick cover was good. Hence "Gimmick or Good?" Here is an archive of all the comics featured so far. We continue with 1991's foil-embossed Silver Surfer #50...
Silver Surfer #50 (published June 1991) – Script by Jim Starlin, art by Ron Lim and Tom Christopher
To celebrate the 50th issue of Silver Surfer’s second series, Marvel unleashed one of its first embossed covers, adorning the titular character and the comic’s title in reflective silver foil. The embossed gimmick would go on to be used on countless other comic book covers throughout the 1990s, by both the “Big Two” and numerous independent publishers. Of course, in the case of this comic book, it actually made sense for the Silver Surfer to be … ahem … silver.
But what about inside the comic?
Beyond functioning as a special “milestone” issue for the Silver Surfer series, the comic also serves as a prelude to the critically acclaimed Infinity Gauntlet mini-series, also penned by Starlin. So the comic needs to deliver on two fronts: a satisfying Silver Surfer story that caters to the character’s fan base, and a riveting set-up to Marvel’s big crossover event in the Infinity Gauntlet. In both instances, Silver Surfer #50 is successful.
The story focuses on Surfer’s mad dash towards Earth to warn about the danger posed by everyone’s favorite cosmic sociopath, Thanos, who has just recovered all of the infinity gems giving him omnipotent power. Thanos confronts Surfer and forces him to face a buried secret about his childhood and family while living in the utopian world of Zenn-La.
Using the power of the mind gem, Thanos discovers that Surfer’s father Jartan Radd has committed intellectual fraud and eventually commits suicide when his son fails to grant him forgiveness for his transgressions. The buried secret brings out Surfer’s violent side, who on multiple occasions smashes Thanos’ body, which is currently in its stone husk form.
Thanos, naturally reanimates to keep toying with Surfer, before letting him finish his journey to Earth to sound the alarm that will kick off the Infinity Gauntlet.
Starlin is arguably Thanos’ greatest writer and it shows throughout this issue. The imminent threat of the Mad Titan is ever-present as he pokes and prods Surfer, always making sure to stop short of driving him into complete madness, or leaving him “a drooling vegetable.” Demonstrating why he’s one of Marvel’s greatest villains of all-time, Thanos is able to show the parallels between his murderous ways and Surfer’s cold disconnect from his father which led to Jartan’s suicide. “Some cosmic saint you turn out to be!” Thanos tells Surfer.
“At least I let the light of day shine upon my crimes!” I’ve always maintained that the best villains can always find a way to get the audience to empathize with their madness. By issue’s end, Thanos has certainly made me question whether someone who can’t forgive his own father is truly a hero, or just a hypocrite.
Meanwhile, the story provides some tremendous insight into Surfer’s origins. Whereas Marvel could have used the milestone issue as an excuse to repackage existing content, instead we learn more about Zenn-La and the indulgence lifestyle of its inhabitants, which ultimately made the planet so vulnerable to Galactus (and how Surfer agreed to become the planet eater’s herald in exchange for sparing the life of his home world).
The way Thanos so efficiently emotionally and mentally rapes Surfer leaves the hero questioning his morals and motivations as he soars towards Earth to announce the inevitable showdown. Starlin’s script sings here as Surfer wonders, “is the present held hostage to the past? Does one mistake dilute the good of a thousand honorable deeds.” By the issue’s end, Surfer is lying in wreckage, both literally and figuratively.
Artistically, Lim delivers a definitive version of the Surfer. His fight scenes with Thanos are dynamic. The Zenn-La scenes reflect something out of a dystopian film like Logan’s Run. Thanos flashes his trademark demonic grin as he digs deeper into the recesses of Surfer’s mind, and there’s even one scene where the hero flashes a mad smile reflecting his emotional descent as his board smashes the villain into hundreds of stone pieces.
Silver Surfer #50 works as its own contained piece of story and comic book art, and as a worthwhile lead-in to the even broader Infinity Gauntlet series. The gimmicked cover likely bumped up sales when it was on the newsstand, but the comic itself is successful on its own merits.