[18 June 2007]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
He’s a Christ figure on a flying surfboard. A chrome-plated philosopher. A herald of doom. The Oscar statuette come to life.
Marvel Comics’ Silver Surfer has been many things to many people since his birth 41 years ago. And at last, he’s caught the big Hollywood wave.
With “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” in theaters, the shimmering skyrider from space finally gets the big-screen treatment: He’s visualized by expensive CGI effects. He’s voiced by Laurence Fishburne, whose rich baritone graced three “Matrix” movies. And he’s at the center of a would-be summer blockbuster, the sequel to 2005’s “Fantastic Four.”
In other words, the Surfer, Marvel’s most famous supporting player, is ready for his close-up.
“People will love seeing the Surfer in a movie,” says Lisa Kirby, youngest daughter of the late Jack Kirby, the artist who created the Surfer in 1966. “I think the movie will bring the Surfer to a whole new generation of fans.
“I (always) thought the Surfer was pretty cool,” says Kirby, 46, of Ventura, Calif. “It was interesting that a guy who grew up in New York City could come up with a character like this. (My father) told me that he saw guys surfing at Malibu on TV and thought it was the greatest thing.”
Jack Kirby, a cigar-smoking World War II veteran who grew up tough in New York’s Lower East Side, created the Surfer as part of a “Fantastic Four” storyline that found Earth menaced by the godlike Galactus, who eats planets as if they were Big Macs.
Kirby figured a god needed a herald, so ... the Surfer was born. Kirby had the skyrider rebel against Galactus to save Earth. Galactus, peeved, sentences the Surfer to stay on Earth forever.
The Surfer summed it up like this: “I, who have crested the currents of space ... outdistanced the fastest comets ... I must resign myself to this prison which men call Earth ... But I must have no regrets! Whatever destiny awaits me ... I shall be true to my trust, though I am a stranger in a world I never made!”
Writer/editor Stan Lee, Kirby’s “Fantastic Four” collaborator, loved the character. “I felt that he had to represent more than the typical comic-book hero,” he wrote later.
Lee gave the Surfer his own book (but without Kirby’s guiding hand) and made the character a noble philosopher and Christ figure, trapped on Earth, suffering for mankind’s sins, even doing battle with a Satan stand-in called Mephisto. Late-1960s college students dug the Surfer’s poetic alienation.
But as the skyrider’s self-pity grew, his sales dropped. “I believe in heroic suffering and all, but this is ridiculous,” a Surfer fan from California wrote Lee in 1969. The Surfer’s stand-alone comic died within two years.
The Surfer comic bounced back in the 1980s and 1990s with far more success under new creative teams, and the skyrider has starred in several miniseries and pricey graphic novels as well as a TV animated series. But while Marvel characters such as Spider-Man and the X-Men have headlined three smash movies each, the Surfer hasn’t broken through the Hollywood barrier until now. He’s just a tougher sell.
“I don’t think the Surfer has the same widespread audience” as, say, your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, says Larry Brody, who wrote or co-wrote every episode of Fox’s short-lived 1998 “Silver Surfer” animated TV series.
Still, that won’t matter if the film is done well, says Brody, a longtime Los Angeles writer/producer who now lives in rural Arkansas. If not ... “If the (movie) Surfer is lame ... well, he could cause some unintentional laughs.”
Such are the risks of being a silver man on a flying board.
Execution will be everything, says Steve Englehart, who scripted Marvel’s revived Surfer comics in the late 1980s.
“If it’s done just right, (the Surfer) can be the star of the summer,” Englehart says. “If they don’t, he’s just another comic-book second banana in the midst of a stream of comic-book films, and how long till `Iron Man’?” (Robert Downey Jr. plays that steel-plated superhero in a big summer movie next year.)
Lisa Kirby says she’s upbeat about the Silver Surfer on the silver screen. The computer-generated Surfer “looks great” in previews, and Fishburne “is a great actor (who will) do the Surfer proud.”
Jack Kirby died in 1994, before the Marvel movie boom. For him, Lisa Kirby says, this would be a “bittersweet” time, since he “never felt he was fully credited or adequately compensated” for his creations and co-creations, which included Captain America, Thor, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and the X-Men.
“My dad would feel proud that his characters have made it to the big screen,” says his daughter, who is a trustee for the Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center, a Web site that seeks to preserve the legacy of the artist’s half-century in comics.
And check this out: The Surfer gets his own postage stamps this summer. One is drawn by Kirby. Now you know creator and creation have really arrived.
THE SURFER’S WISE WORDS
Artist Jack Kirby created the Silver Surfer, but writer/editor Stan Lee made him a cosmic philosopher. Some examples of the Surfer’s swinging 1960s wisdom:
“Freedom must ever be the eternal heritage of all who live!”
“To one who has traversed the galaxies—bridged the cosmos itself—there is no ugliness—save in the eye of him who beholds!”
“If a body lack a soul—only a statue can it be!”
“Here, on the fairest of all worlds ... the very air I breathe seems tainted with the arid stench of bigotry, hatred, greed and oppression!”
” ... Without love, without brotherhood, there can only be turmoil ... and final destruction!”
“Truly, there is a spark of divinity in all who live, and think—and strive!”