Jun 27, 2013

Retrospective: Ron Marz and Ron Lim's Silver Surfer

I couldn't let Ben's retrospective series on the mid-2000s Marvel Cosmic comics end (which it's coming to soon) without talking about the first comic series I ever collected with my own money, Ron Marz and Ron Lim's Silver Surfer.

I genuinely don't remember my first comic. I have a big brother, and he read comics. He read them before I was even born, so I always had comics lying around the house. By the time I was 8, I definitely knew two things: I really, really liked the Flash, and at school, DC wasn't cool. In an effort to reconcile these two, I asked my brother who the Marvel equivalent of the Flash was. Thinking that I was asking who the fastest superhero in the Marvel Universe was, he answered "The Silver Surfer." And that was when I saw the cover to Infinity Gauntlet #3 at the grocery store, and had my mom buy it, because The Silver Surfer was prominently featured (although at the time I wondered if he could also possibly be Iceman), and because I just love crowd shots, especially when they're drawn by George Perez (I loved him even then).

A couple of weeks later, I was in the comics store, explicitly looking for more Surfer comics, when I saw Silver Surfer #51. Note not only that it says "An Infinity Gauntlet Crossover" on the upper righthand corner there, but also, look how shiny Surfer is on it.

And, at 50 pesos (around 2 dollars back then, 1 dollar now) that was the first comic I ever bought with my own money. I read the issue to pieces, and for many reasons. The story was mostly a flashback related by Nova, herald of the world-devouring Galactus. She remembers the last conversation she has with the Silver Surfer, and it involved traveling somewhere really, really fast.

Already, my obsession with superspeed was sated. Look, I was nine. I just wanted a character like the Flash for Marvel, so whenever my classmates and I would play "Marvel" during recess, I had someone to be. (I would like to thank my brother for not answering "Quicksilver," because I'd never have been able to live that down.) But even more, Surfer had taken Nova back in time to prehistoric France, to show her some cave paintings that she would later see as a teenage girl. You see, Nova up to this point had just been doing her job as herald in a nonchalant manner, leading Galactus to worlds without a second thought as to who or what were on those worlds. The Surfer gave her something to think about.

Galactus was always portrayed more as a force of nature than as a straight-up villain, treating worlds and humans in much the same way we treat, say, animals or insects. Surfer extrapolated that entire analogy and gave young Cube something to think about. It's not particularly deep now that I'm 30, obviously. But when I was 9? Mind-blowing. To a young, practicing Catholic kid, this may have been my introduction to moral ambiguity. I read this comic to pieces.

Rereading Marz and Lim's entire run now, it definitely feels divided into two different parts. See, Marz inherited the title from Jim Starlin (who used it mainly to set up The Infinity Gauntlet), and with it came a lot of new Surfer-related developments. Some were just trying too hard to give the Surfer some depth (I really don't think a character entering the early 90s needed to have parents who both killed themselves, least of all the Silver Surfer. The dude needs more angst?), but some made sense. The big one was the revelation that the Surfer, while still a herald of Galactus, had his conscience and soul tampered with so that he wouldn't feel remorse for bringing Galactus to so many inhabited worlds.

(Side note: This is one of those things where you can tell that they had a problem making it up as they went along. Jack Kirby originally created the Silver Surfer as someone who would eventually learn to be human. Stan Lee then changed him to someone who had been human — albeit not an Earthling — before, from the planet Zenn-La, who pledged himself to Galactus to save his planet. But that posed the problem of why the Surfer was okay with leading the Big G to inhabited worlds. And only Starlin bothered providing a fix for it, 25 years later.)

From issue #51 to issue #64, Marz had the Surfer go through a lot of metaphysical trials, with a lot of his adventures taking place on anywhere but the physical plane. At the time, the title was coming out twice a month and the Silver Surfer was a prominent player in the Infinity Gauntlet, so continuing to place him in these mental/spiritual/metaphysical battles was probably a way to avoid stepping on Starlin's toes. (Starlin was writing Gauntlet.) Even during one of the main Gauntlet crossovers, Marz and artist Tom Raney have Surfer and Thanos fight (extending a scene from Infinity Gauntlet #5), but to make it seamless, they put it on a higher plane where they're knights on horseback.

In issues #57–58, with art by Todd Smith, Surfer meets a being named Virtual Reality (before the term came to be associated with computers), in a place called the Hall of Absolutes. It's there that the Surfer goes on a tour of his life before encountering some demons: Denial, Doubt, and Guilt.

Surfer gets captured by them and beings from his past, from his mom to his lady love Shalla-Bal to Nova, come to free him by forgiving him. At the end, he learns who really has to forgive him: himself.

He declares this a new beginning and returns to the Hall of Absolutes, which, previously all in black and white, is now all gray. He asks Virtual Reality if this all really happened, and Virtual Reality says that it doesn't matter; it wouldn't change what he's learned. (I always liked that part, and that definitely played into some of my life philosophies.)

You'd think that would be the end of his soul-searching, but no, because in issues #63-64, he goes on yet another metaphysical journey where he meets and confronts his good side and his bad side. Funnily enough, his "good side" is the fallen hero Captain Mar-Vell, who was probably making his once-every-five-years appearance.

But his "bad side" is a dark version of himself. I've always liked evil doppelgangers and would have definitely liked this a lot better if the Dark Surfer were "real," but this was Surfer's last test during Marz's run when it came to dealing with the Surfer's giant neuroses.

Again, this is some pretty heavyhanded storytelling, and I probably wouldn't have been able to handle the lack of subtlety when I was 16. But I was 9. It's almost inevitable that that whole window into thinking about these kinds of things, real soul-searching, was going to hit me at some point (as it happens to every teenager), and that something, anything was going to break that door down. But it's the Silver Surfer that broke it down, and I'll always remember it for that, even if I didn't like the rest of it. Which I did.

From #65-#82, the second "half" of the run, it seemed that Marz and Ron Lim were trying really hard to kind of expand Marvel's cosmic universe and really create a cast for the Surfer to run into. They introduced Avatar, a princess who is the cosmic, uh, avatar for Mistress Love and Master Hate (those two don't show up nearly enough). She was in love with the Surfer and is, oddly, who Marz chose to close Lim's run off with in the 92nd issue. I don't think she's been seen since, but the attempt was there.

They introduced Genis-Vell, son of Captain Mar-Vell, who would eventually get his own series as Captain Marvel, but here he was the personification of a 90s hero: someone who really didn't want to be one, and had a ponytail and a leather jacket.

There was a short arc in which they tried to breathe some new life into Marvel hero Jack of Hearts and the cosmic pirate Nebula, establishing, in the process, the prison planet known as the Anvil and the people who work there.

Admittedly, these things were met
with mixed results.

But the crown jewel of the run to me is issues #70–75, with art by MC Wyman and Ron Lim, entitled "The Herald Ordeal." The Surfer's words have finally gotten to Nova, who then decides to withhold information from her master in order to save inhabited worlds. Galactus finds this problematic.

As a kid, I figured out the broad strokes of Nova's history up
to that point just from this panel. Don't ever let anyone tell you
you need to prepon reading superhero comics.
You can almost always  fill in the blanks as you go along.

Galactus takes on a new herald: Morg the Executioner, who has absolutely no conscience and a complete loyalty to power, and Galactus is the most powerful being he's ever met. When confronted with this new herald, the Surfer gets pretty handily beaten up.

This leads Surfer into seeking help, and of course, to match a herald of Galactus, Surfer has no choice but to go to the other heralds of Galactus. The first one he looks for is Firelord, the biggest loser in the history of comic book creation, who certainly lives up to that title when Surfer comes to rescue him from a bunch of tiny aliens. (Firelord is terrible.)

They then go after Nova, who, after being fired by Galactus, lost her memory and went to work on some... seedy planet... as an... exotic dancer. Look, I read these when I was a kid, don't ask me to explain the logic to you.

They round their "team" off with the robotic Air-Walker and the Fantastic Four villain Terrax the Tamer. It's, on paper, the most powerful team you'll ever see with a membership of less than 12. Except Firelord's in there and probably drags it down.

The fight against Morg is adrenaline-rushing, heartbreaking (Nova dies), and powerful all at once. But it's the road there that was really fun for me. The assembling of that little team. To a young me, it was like a blockbuster.

I want to take time out of this article right now to really compliment the work Ron Lim did in that run. He also illustrated the second half of the Infinity Gauntlet, as well as its two sequels, Infinity War and Infinity Crusade, and has been commended on by George Perez (who drew the first half of Gauntlet) for having an excellent storytelling style. And that's true. Lim's layouts are straightforward without being monotonous, and he was pulling out double-page spreads effectively and sparingly. But what gets me more is just how well he drew. That whole sheen and shine he was doing on the Surfer and Nova? That's a lost art. Computer coloring would negate any need to go through that kind of work now. But back then, I would have given anything to draw like Ron Lim. And hats off to colorist Tom Vincent, too, for really making the reflective surfaces work. (There's one issue in the run he doesn't color, and the Surfer's basically just light blue in it.)

Aside from Lim's figure drawing, he was also great at drawing space frontiers and landscapes.

But unfortunately, he was also a hot artist at the time — he was really in demand. Having drawn two and a half of three years' worth of annual crossovers, Lim had a reputation as a fast and good artist. So he was drawing X-Men 2099 and the odd issues of Spider-Man and Venom.at the time. At the same time, the Surfer brand was actually pretty big. It must have been, because they ended up rereleasing a mini-paperback of the Surfer's first appearance, with a new Ron Lim cover.

You can buy this here.

This could only lead to burnout on Lim's part. Over on the main Surfer title, he took to drawing only breakdowns, which may not have been a good idea considering that Tom Christopher, his inker, was not a strong enough finisher to really achieve that same level of quality. Unfortunate too, because Marz was introducing Tyrant, a new villain with deep, hidden ties to Galactus.

He looks like a relic of the 90s now, but no one looked more "90s" than Ganymede of the Spinsterhood, who had hunted Tyrant since time immemorial.

Just looking at the "hollowness" of that page still makes me sad. You could tell Lim was done. He took a nine-issue break from the series and then returned at full strength... only to leave after two issues.

This is the last cover Lim did for the Surfer series.
I still love it.

In the meantime, they launched Cosmic Powers, a six-issue miniseries focusing on the Cosmic universe that didn't have the Surfer in it, starting with Thanos and going all the way to Tyrant. (Thanos wants to fight Tyrant, is the overall plot of the series.)

Lim drew two issues of the series (#1, featuring Thanos, and #4, featuring Legacy), and he brought his A-game. But you could tell he was burning out. Here are panels from those two issues, as well as a panel from Spider-Man Unlimited #2, the end of "Maximum Carnage." These three comics all came within a year of each other.

Meanwhile, on the main Surfer series, the fill-ins ranged from decent (Colleen Doran drew an issue) to horrible (this was drawn by someone I won't name, since he might have gotten better as years passed, but this was #90).

Ron Lim left the title after #92, and went on to do a bunch of other stuff before almost disappearing from comics completely. I've seen him return here and there and now and again, including on the Thanos series Ben covered a while back. But his art didn't have the same oomph, the same punch. And he'd never been as good drawing pedestrian scenes as he was on space scenes. It was like he was born to draw cosmic.

Ron Marz continued the title for a while after Lim left, but without Lim, it didn't have the same scope. This was also probably the first time I realized just what an effect an artist could have on a writer (and vice versa) — having recently completed the Starlin/Lim run that preceded it along with some of Lim's stuff before that run, I didn't really like Lim's stuff before Marz came along, and while I think Marz did a decent job afterward, it just wasn't the same. Comics are collaborative (even if it's just one person working on them, that guy has to reconcile the writer and artist parts of his brain), and you can't really divorce one from the other. Both guys have to make each other look good.  (Marz, of course, went on to create Kyle Rayner for DC, giving my generation the most artistic, imaginative Green Lantern yet.)

So that's how the Ron Marz/Ron Lim era of Silver Surfer ended; not with a bang but with a slow, fading out. (I just mixed metaphors on you.) But I'll always look back on it fondly. I came into it at the perfect time — 9 years old, and it ended just a few years later. It was my companion through some of my formative years and as deep as it tried to be, it was also quite fun.

And also, it was because of Ron Lim that I discovered yet another series that I would collect. See, back then, this series would have a guest inker for every cover, mainly because it usually had a guest star. Ron Lim inked the cover to Guardians of the Galaxy #24, and my pull list went from one to two.

Next week: Guardians of the Galaxy!  Um, in the 90s.

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