The Silver Surfer Spectrum

Matthew Derman

We didn’t see Marvel’s iconic Surfer of the Cosmic skyways in the recent Guardians of the Galaxy, but iwe should have.

People love to argue about what the “essence” or “core” is of their favorite superheroes. When Man of Steel had Superman kill his enemy, many cried out that this went against the fundamental nature of the character, that a Superman who uses deadly force is the wrong Superman. Others disagreed, saying that the important thing about Superman is that he represents an outsider’s point of view, or that he will do anything to defend his adoptive family and planet, or that he wears a bright red cape and has perfect hair, or that he loves Lois Lane, or that…or that…or that… Everyone has his or her own idea about which details are sacred and which can be changed to suit a given story.

Right now, I find myself wondering what the essence of the Silver Surfer might be. I thought I knew (though I’m not sure I could’ve put it into words) but reading the current Silver Surfer series by Dan Slott and the Allreds Michael and Laura, I’m no longer sure I have the Surfer properly pegged. Because I’m rather enjoying this new run so far, but my favorite Surfer story for years has been Stan Lee and Moebius’ Silver Surfer: Parable, and those two stories provide almost opposing interpretations of the character. Slott’s Surfer is a man of action whose feelings toward Earth are decidedly mixed, and who has a wide range of emotions he expresses openly, including an actual sense of humor. Lee writes him as a hermitic philosopher, broodingly serious at all times, aloof and a bit sad, but still totally in love with and devoted to Earth and its inhabitants despite recognizing their many flaws. Here and there, similarities pop up between these varied takes on the Surfer, but on the whole the two books read like they could be about two completely different silver aliens who fly around on cosmic surfboards. So shouldn’t I hate one of them? Shouldn’t one of them be the wrong Silver Surfer in my eyes? And since that’s not the case, why not?

It might be too soon to be assessing the Slott/Allred series, since it’s only four issues deep, so who knows where they’ll take their protagonist in the long run? But as those four issues add up to 80 pages, and the whole of Parable is only 50 pages, I think it’s more than fair to compare the two at this point. Also, the Slott/Allred book has already completed its first arc and begun the second, so it’s safe to say the title character has been fully established by now. In that opening arc, the Surfer is asked to come to the Impericon, a massive city hidden somewhere in the depths of space that’s basically a giant resort/tourist attraction. Think a sci-fi Las Vegas on steroids. The Impericon is on the verge of being attacked by the Never Queen, a powerful entity who represents all the possible futures that will not be, the hypothetical versions of reality that never come to pass. At first the Surfer agrees to fight the Never Queen, but he soon discovers the Impericon is powered by her heart, which was cut out of her ages ago by Zed, the man who runs the Impericon and profits massively from it. So the Surfer changes sides and helps the Never Queen become whole again, destroying the Impericon and semi-accidentally killing Zed in the process.

While it makes for a pretty great space action epic, none of the Never Queen stuff is really the point of Silver Surfer’s opening storyline. The true heart of the narrative is Dawn Greenwood, a young woman from Earth who is kidnapped by the Impericon as a means of motivating the Surfer to battle the Never Queen. Though Dawn and the Surfer have never met, he values all life enough to fight for her, and feels responsible for her getting involved at all since she was kidnapped in his name. He makes an extra effort to locate and rescue her from the Impericon, though by the time he does so she’s already in the middle of rescuing herself and a gang of other prisoners. She then helps him return the Never Queen’s heart before the Surfer takes her back home to Earth, an interesting friendship beginning to form between them on the way. Dawn is the other star of the series, a counterbalance for the Surfer, someone to even him (and the book) out. He wanders the stars; she’d never left her hometown until the Impericon nabbed her. He is committed to a life of solitude; she still lives with her father and helps him run a bed and breakfast, welcoming new people into her home and heart all the time. They get along, but also find one another quite peculiar, and the potential for them to learn from each other and maybe even grow a little together is immense.

In Parable, there is also a woman with whom the Surfer forms a strong and significant bond, though she’s not at all like Dawn Greenwood. Just as the Surfer of that book is more depressed and depressing, Elyna is a far darker character than Dawn, living in a sadder world and doomed to an awful fate from the beginning. Parable is set in an imagined future where Galactus returns to an Earth that has forgotten him, but doesn’t attack it directly since he pledged never try that anymore way back when. Instead, he declares himself a god, and tells the people of Earth that they can do whatever they want, that there is no sin and pleasure matters above all. This, of course, leads to widespread chaos and violence, exactly what Galactus wants so the Earth will destroy itself and then he can feast on it freely. And in the midst of all the madness, there is one man smart enough to take advantage of Galactus’ arrival and use it to gain power for himself. His name is Colton Candell, and he claims to be a prophet of Galactus, pretending he can communicate directly with the gigantic entity and deliver his word to the masses. Elyna is Colton’s sister, and one of the only people observant enough and close enough to the situation to question not only what Colton says but what Galactus says as well. She sees the damage he is causing, the faults in his logic and, most importantly, she sees the earnest goodness in the Silver Surfer as he tries in vain to get rid of Galactus. Eventually, she even joins in his efforts, stealing a helicopter and flying up to Galactus to do whatever she can to help the Surfer in his struggle. In full view of an enthralled public, Elyna’s helicopter falls out of the sky, and then Galactus prevents the Surfer from saving her life before she hits the ground.

Elyna’s death is a turning point in the story, the moment when the world snaps out of their awe-inspired terror and worship of Galactus and see him for the destructive, uncaring force he truly is. Even Colton, who has the most to lose of anybody by turning his back on Galactus, is forced to recognize that he put his eggs in the wrong basket when that basket kills his sister. With the population no longer viewing Galactus as a god, he finally agrees to depart, his plan thwarted at least for the time being. So Elyna is as important to the victory over Galactus as the Surfer is, much like how Dawn is a key part of the effort to destroy the Impericon and save the Never Queen. But where Dawn is able to both learn from and teach the Surfer during their time together, Elyna only learns from him, and then turns around teaches his lesson to the rest of the citizens of Earth. In Parable, the Surfer already knows everything he needs to know, already sees through Galactus’ lies and mankind’s shortcomings and rises above them all immediately. In the Slott/Allred Silver Surfer, he is in the opposite position, coming in blind and learning as he goes.

That is probably the biggest distinction between these two Surfers: one is a curious explorer slowly uncovering truths while the other is enlightened and informed throughout, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. Their other differences mostly seem to stem from this fundamental one: Slott’s Surfer is more emotive and speaks more colloquially because he’s not as above-it-all as Lee’s, who is verbose and self-confident almost (but not quite) to a fault. Lee’s Surfer is a diplomat first and warrior second, trying to rely on his intelligence and reason before resorting to the Power Cosmic to solve his problems. Because he’s less sure of himself, Slott’s version uses more of a mixed bag of tactics, sometimes shooting first and other times asking questions, depending on the situation. These different approaches by the title character also contribute to the wildly different tones of the two series; Slott’s script is a fun and often funny romp through space while Lee’s is dreary, heavy stuff reflecting on and analyzing the human condition.

The art in each series also reflects this division, as well it should. Michael Allred’s lines are a bit lighter and smoother than Moebius’, and Laura Allred’s colors a bit brighter, matching their story’s relative playfulness. Moebius’ work has all the same clarity as that of the Allreds, but because the narrative of Parable is darker and muddier, the visuals are, too. There is more heft to the lines, and more ugliness in the imagery. The Allreds populate their book with visually enchanting and often hilarious beings from all across the universe, while Moebius’ supporting cast is a selection of slightly distorted, uncomfortable-looking humans. The panel borders are straight and solid in Parable, but wavier and less reliable in Silver Surfer. Even the way the Surfer carries himself in the two books highlights their respective attitudes. Allred’s Surfer actively steers his board, sticking his arms out to the side or in front of himself, giving the audience at least a vague sense of what riding it might feel like. Moebius has the Surfer standing still atop the board more often than not, sometimes leaning his body one way or the other, but usually controlling his movements through what appears to be sheer willpower. This highlights the personalities of both takes on the character, with the Lee/Moebius model using his mind first to stay on top of everything, while the Slott/Allred guy is out there getting his hands dirty, diving into the thick of things even before he knows what’s going on.

There are, of course, some similarities between the two Surfers, even beyond the most superficial elements like his bald head and surfboard. Trouble is, none of them really work as the “core” of the character, as they aren’t the kind of details that would set him apart from the scores of other superhero characters out there: he defends the innocent, he cherishes life, he’s kind of self-important, he’s super powerful. With differing physicalities, vocabularies, strategies, and opinions of Earth, the mere fact that the two Surfers both fight on the side of good isn’t nearly enough for them to feel like the same person.

Which brings me back to my original point, the nagging question that prompted this whole piece: what does make the Silver Surfer the Silver Surfer? Is it just the board and the Power Cosmic that distinguish him, and aside from that he can act and feel however the writer of the hour wants him to? Or is there some other integral aspect that, if tampered with or removed, makes him into something new and inaccurate? I’m a fan of these two quite dissimilar interpretations, so maybe I’m not the best person to answer these questions, and I definitely don’t have a firm answer right now. How could I, when both of these Surfers still feel right to me? But there are no doubt others out there who would call Parable a misreading of the character, and just as many or more who would say the same thing about the current Silver Surfer, and either side has ample evidence to support their case. Because whatever each of us personally thinks it means to be the Silver Surfer, it’s hard to deny that the Slott/Allred offer a very different reading of him than do Lee and Moebius.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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