Riding The Waves Of The Cosmos: A Tribute To The Silver Surfer
On December 9, 1965, a shining man flew down from the sky, looked around for a bit, and then doomed the Earth. Or at least he meant to at the time. This was Fantastic Four #48, by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, and of course the shining man from the sky was the Silver Surfer.
At the time, he was the Herald of Galactus, a giant godlike being who devoured planets, absorbing all their energy and leaving them as lifeless husks. The Silver Surfer's job was to scout out new planets for Galactus to eat, and on that day in late 1965, he chose our planet. Fortunately the Fantastic Four had already been warned by the Watcher (even though he's not supposed to do that), and they started working on a plan.
Actually, the FF went through several plans, and none of them would have worked --- meaning the Earth would have been destroyed --- if the powerful Silver Surfer hadn't turned on his master and helped the humans. And it wasn't the Fantastic Four who convinced him to save humanity; it was actually that most human of humans, the Thing's girlfriend, Alicia Masters. She took him in after he was knocked from the sky, and showed him kindness, convincing him that the Earth and its people were worth saving. For the Surfer's role in saving the Earth, the departing Galactus imprisoned him on it, denying him the pleasure of surfing the galaxy.
The Surfer is that rare creation from the days of the Lee/Kirby collaboration that even Stan Lee gives Kirby all the credit for. He is very much a Kirby character. He's simultaneously majestic and ridiculous. On the one hand, a silver guy who literally rides around space on a flying surfboard and goes by the name Silver Surfer is as silly as ideas get.
But once you move past that, a simple monochrome figure on a silver board racing through the galaxy is actually a fantastic visual. And there's real drama in not just his betrayal of Galactus and resulting exile, but in his struggle between the joy he finds soaring through endless space and seeing countless worlds, and his culpability in the destruction of so many of the planets he visits.
A couple of years later, when the Surfer was given his own spin-off book by Lee and John Buscema, readers learned that he had once been a normal man named Norrin Radd, on the planet of Zenn-La. He longed to see the cosmos, and made a deal with Galactus to fly among the stars as his herald in return for Zenn-La's safety.
Still later than that, other stories would establish that "Herald of Galactus" is a regular job that lots of characters have held. But this initial origin provided a nice symmetry to Silver Surfer's time as herald. He felt trapped on his own planet, so he made a deal with Galactus to explore space in return for helping him. Then years later on Earth, he finally refused to help Galactus, and found himself trapped on this planet for his trouble.
Of course eventually, he made his way back to space, and has been all over the Marvel Universe in the years since. He was also an early member of the Defenders, in addition to remaining an ally to the Fantastic Four. Dan Slott and Mike Allred are among the many creators who have told great Silver Surfer stories that capture the colorful fun that Cosmic Marvel can provide alongside its weighty themes.
The Surfer has a reputation for being long-winded and overly philosophical, which we might surmise as Stan Lee's contribution to the character. But at the heart of his appeal is the visual; beautiful in its simplicity, like a greek statue soaring past nebulas and ringed gas giants.
Whether it's Kirby, Buscema, Allred, or even legendary French artist Moebius, who collaborated on a story with Lee in 1989, the Silver Surfer is always a standout. The Marvel Universe is better for his existence in it, and not just because he saved the Earth in his very first story.