Storytelling Engines: Silver Surfer
(or "Before and After")
The nice thing about writing this week's column, on the Silver Surfer, is that Steve Englehart basically wrote it already and was even nice enough to ensure that it got collected in 'The Essential Silver Surfer', Volume Two, for me to read. Since I'm a shameless plagarist, I'm going to cannibalize it, summarize it, add a few token thoughts of my own, and then pass the whole thing off as original work! (Note to self: Delete opening paragraph before passing whole thing off as original work.)
In all seriousness, Volume Two does include a nice set of essays by Steve Englehart, writer of the second Silver Surfer series, on why the original Lee/Buscema series only made it to issue #18, and what changes he'd be making to the storytelling engine (even if he didn't term it as such) to make the Surfer a more viable title. Some of the reasons were marketplace-related, such as the price and the use of fewer panels per page (which let Buscema's artwork show, but which made it harder to tell a complete story in one issue.) But the third reason Englehart cites is the big difference between the two series, and time proved him right when he suggested that it was an important factor in the failure of the old comic and the success of the new.
In the original Silver Surfer series (and, indeed, all appearances of the Silver Surfer prior to the beginning of the new series), the Surfer was trapped on Earth, behind a barrier placed there by Galactus as punishment for defying him. Shalla Bal, his one true love, was out there in space, and he was stuck on Earth with the crazy ape-people.
Why didn't this last? Because it's our old friend, the "false status quo". Every issue has to revolve around the Silver Surfer trying to leave Earth, because it's his all-consuming obsession. But he can't leave Earth, because that's where his comic is set, so we're stuck with an endless repetition of his being doomed to failure, which is no fun for anyone concerned. (There's also the small problem that the Surfer is so powerful, it's hard to find good opponents for him on Earth, something Englehart didn't touch on but I think is worth mentioning--Mephisto was created solely to give the Surfer someone to face off against, and is really the only opponent for most of the series.)
Englehart, who you can tell put a lot of thought into the storytelling engine of his series, cut through the Gordian Knot and resolved the false status quo in the very first issue of the new series. By giving the Surfer a way off of Earth and dealing with Galactus, then (in the second issue) finishing his relationship with Shalla Bal, he sets up the Surfer to no longer be a character constantly trying to achieve an unachievable goal. Which does leave the question, "What do you do with him?", but by bringing him out into space, Englehart found that question quickly resolved itself. The Surfer is an immensely powerful being whose favor or disfavor can be the equivalent of a fleet of alien spaceships; a guy like that keeps busy, one way or another.
So suddenly, a Silver Surfer story goes from being, "The Surfer tries to escape Earth to be with Shalla Bal...and fails", month in and month out, to "The Surfer investigates the heart of a black hole with Reed and Sue Richards," or "The Silver Surfer gets caught up in the Second Kree/Skrull War", or "The Silver Surfer battles the machinations of the Elders of the Universe." Much more potential for stories, a much better storytelling engine, and sure enough, a much longer-lasting series (146 issues, a respectable run by any standards.) Interestingly enough, Volume Two also includes Englehart's first attempt, which has the Surfer remaining trapped on Earth but giving him a new purpose as protector of a human/plant hybrid (one of Englehart's recurring characters). It's an intriguing curiousity, but you can see why he stuck to his guns and convinced Jim Shooter to go with a more open-ended engine.
That Steve Englehart was a pretty smart guy. I hope he doesn't find out I stole his column...