Silver Surfer Epic Collection: When Calls Galactus
This volume collects all the appearances of the Silver Surfer in various Marvel titles - mostly the Fantastic Four - prior to the solo title launch in 1968 which lasted just 18 issues. There are three key points about this collection which might help people considering it -
* It is specifically limited to the comics and stores where the Silver Surfer appears - there are no associated storylines and even other parts of the original comics are not necessarily included. This makes it one of the slimmer TPBs.
* The main bonus materials are a few black and white artwork proofs with Kirby's notes, more of which later. There are no reviews or commentaries.
* It is a good quality reproduction with very bright and vivid colours - more of that later also.
So with the above in mind, this is really one for Surfer purists and completionists rather than general Marvelites, Fantastic Four fans or even Kirby/Lee aficionados. For a Surfer devotee like me this sits alongside the Essential TPB and of course my original copies and even the brief appearance in FOOM as the "classic" Surfer reference library.
The stories contain that heady blend of innocence, wisecracking wordplay, space opera, ambition, bombast and the early stirrings of pathos - though in a muted form by comparison to the messianic and at times Shakespearian solo title. Whilst the Surfer is often a co-star and sometimes more a bystander (Galactus steals the show as an inexorable force of destruction, yet amoral rather than evil), the dominant character throughout this volume is really Ben Grimm AKA The Thing, who is generally on the receiving end of most of the batterings and frustrations endured either at the hands of or in connection with the Surfer. Ben Grimm was really the primary vehicle for a grizzled, curmudgeonly and "man of the people" commentary, a lumbering lummox with the heart of a lion, while the Surfer in this period is a colder and distant incarnation of his later self, a naïve, ultra-rational being with no real backstory, and with a gradually forming albeit detached pure and moral sensibility - clearly a "man" apart.
None of this will be surprising or unfamiliar to Marvel readers of the 60's - the influence of thought-provoking science fiction, the sense of wonder and possibility as mankind reached out into space for the time, the gradual loosening of characterisation clichés, and a burning inventive energy that drove the creation of the Marvel universe. And the two defining elements, particularly epitomised in this collection: Stan Lee's grandiose dialogue and Kirby's stylised, fearless, page-filling artwork. Which brings me to just one key, personal point about this volume.
Whilst all of the above make it a must-have for me and something I would recommend to anyone with a similar interest, the bonus black and white artwork at the end of the book really made me stop and think. Seeing Kirby's inked work like this, even with pencil marks, what looks like correction fluid and extensive margin scribbles, really brings home the brilliance of his vision. Not just the composition, but his approach to shading different textures, the mix of delicate details and insistent, heavy outlines, and his unique, reductive approach to faces. As an artist I can't believe the Surfer wasn't one of his favourite creations as it allows him to let loose with shining metallic textures, minimalist, pure-figure anatomy and, obviously, cosmic explosions, star clusters and energy bursts of all kinds. The black and white brings this out so well that I immediately wanted to scan the whole book and print it monochrome, because so much of that is lost in the bright, eye-watering colour reproduction.
Don't get me wrong, there's nothing particularly bad about the reproduction. It's very much the highly-saturated, ultra-vivid AMOLED-style of today that glares out at you from the pages, on good thick paper stock. Maybe that's even what the production proofs looked like in the print rooms at the time, although of course it ended up as muted tones on thin off-white paper like everything else on the newsstands. But it doesn't do the art justice in the way in either black or white, or a much a softer approach would have done. If you want to test this, get the Surfer Essential TPB (reprinting SS # 1-18) - cheaper, thinner matt paper, but look at how in black and white the Buscema artwork and the final Kirby issue become poetic fables, the lines of the Surfer's form more delicate and the sheen more subtle, and clearly reflecting how the artists originally envisioned and constructed the pages using white space, cinematic perspectives, starscapes and dynamic ensemble sequences. I accept that perhaps I am out of step with the majority in this, but it's my review, so hey ho :).
To sum up – part of the classic era and a definitive collection for Surfer specialists wanting all the background leading up to the brief but glorious solo launch in 1968. A period piece of course, deeply dated and innocently of its time, but with a recognisable and appealing originality of vision and vaulting ambition. Enjoy the black and whites at the end and see if you agree with my mutterings …