Retro Review: Silver Surfer Vol. 3 #34-50 By Starlin, Lim, Christopher & Others For Marvel Comics

Silver Surfer Vol. 3 #34-50, Annual #3-4 (February 1990 – June 1991)

Written by Jim Starlin (#34-38, 40-48, 50, Annual #3), Ron Marz (#42-43, 49, Annual #3, 4), Alan Grant (#39)

Penciled by Ron Lim (#34-38, 40-50, Annual #3, 4), James Fern (#39), Steve Carr (Annual #4), Dale Eaglesham (Annual #4)

Inked by Tom Christopher (#34-38, 40-42, 44-50, Annual #3), James Fern (#39), Christopher Ivy (#42),  Keith Williams (#43, Annual #3), Al Gordon (Annual #3), Jim Sanders (Annual #4), Ralph Cabrera (Annual #4), John Beatty (Annual #4), Pat Redding (Annual #4)

Coloured by Tom Vincent (#34-38, 40-50, Annual #3, 4), James Fern (#39), Nel Yomtov (#43), Renee Witterstaetter (Annual #4)

Spoilers (from thirty-one to thirty-two years ago)

I started rereading the Silver Surfer for this column because I wanted to look at Marshall Rogers’s issues, but when I pulled the run out of my longboxes, I did find myself remembering the excitement that happened when Jim Starlin came to write this title.  At the time, Starlin was best known for his work with Captain Marvel, culminating in the death of that character in a standalone graphic novel.  He was best associated with characters like Mar-Vell, Warlock, and of course Thanos.

Now, in 1990, my fifteen-year-old self wasn’t all that familiar with Thanos.  The character hadn’t been used since 1982 (probably because he was dead), and while I’d amassed a good collection of back issues, I had mostly missed out on Thanos-related comics.  When I saw the cover of issue thirty-three, though, that has Thanos featured so prominently, I knew it was a big deal.  Starlin brought some new energy to this title, and used it to take the old concept of the soul gems, last seen being used by the Elders in this book, and turn it into the infinity gems, introducing the idea of the Infinity Gauntlet, and launching that major event out of the Surfer’s title.

I remember being pretty swept up in this run, and I’m curious to see how it holds up today, now that Thanos is ubiquitous, and the Infinity Gauntlet is a household name in places where no one has ever heard of the Silver Surfer.  Let’s find out…

Let’s track who turned up in the title:

Villains

  • Death (#34, 38)
  • Thanos (#34-35, 38, 40, 44-45, 47-50)
  • Nebula (#38, 45)
  • Geatar (#38)
  • Algol Demonstar (#39)
  • Mephisto (#44-45, 47-49)
  • Captain Styx (#45)
  • Lifeform (Annual #3)
  • Garnok Rebbahn (Annual #3)

Guest Stars

  • Kronos (#35)
  • She-Hulk (Jennifer Walters, Avengers; #36)
  • Captain America (Steve Rogers, Avengers; #36, Annual #3)
  • The Impossible Man (#36)
  • Mentor (#37, 40, 44, 49)
  • Starfox (Eros; #37, 40, 44, 49, Annual #4)
  • Human Torch (Johnny Storm, Fantastic Four; #37)
  • Gamora (#46-48)
  • Pip the Troll (#46-48)
  • Adam Warlock (#46-48)
  • Mister Fantastic (Reed Richards, Fantastic Four; Annual #3)
  • Nick Fury (Director of SHIELD; Annual #3)
  • Starhawk (Guardians of the Galaxy; Annual #4)
  • Martinex (Guardians of the Galaxy; Annual #4)
  • Nikki (Guardians of the Galaxy; Annual #4)
  • Charlie-27 (Guardians of the Galaxy; Annual #4)
  • Vance Astro (Guardians of the Galaxy; Annual #4)
  • Yondu (Guardians of the Galaxy; Annual #4)
  • Midnight Sun (Annual #4)

Supporting Characters

  • Drax, the Destroyer (#35, 37, 40, 42, 44-49)
  • Zeaklar (#41-43)
  • Judge Kray-Tor (#46, 48)
  • Autolycus (#46-47)
  • Nova (Frankie Raye; #48)
  • Galactus (#48, 50)
  • Jartran Radd (Norrin’s father; #50)
  • Shalla Bal (Empress of Zenn-La; #50)
  • Marshach (Annual #4)

Let’s take a look at what happened in these books, with some commentary as we go:

  • The Surfer is really tired, so he lands on a desolate planet to have a nap, something he hasn’t done in a long time.  He awakens to discover a giant tower built like a skull has appeared on the horizon.  Investigating the place, which is decorated in a very primitive death-obsessed manner, he comes across two beings carrying a box.  He can hear them talking about their master, who uses female pronouns, but who clearly can’t see him.   He realizes he’s dreaming, and continues to explore the place.  He discovers Death sitting on a throne of skulls, and sees the servants open their box, releasing a ghostly apparition of Thanos (who the Surfer doesn’t recognize, but can sense the evil in).  Death’s servant tells Thanos that she is concerned that the universe is out of balance, and wants Thanos to fix things for her.  He brags about how well he serves her, but the other servant cuts him off, saying that based on his past record, he can’t be trusted.  The first servant explains that the only real obstacle in his way is the Surfer, whom they all point at. Thanos’s ghost blasts him, and the Surfer flees the tower.  He’s shocked to find the landscape covered by millions of aliens, and calls for his surfboard.  Flying above them all, he spies a thin volcano, at the top of which is a woman preparing to sacrifice a baby.  He swoops in and saves the child from the lava, but as he holds it, it changes form and attacks him.  It grows and starts suffocating him, until he has no choice but to kill it.  He collapses on the planet, and finds all the aliens gone.  He believes this was all a dream, and talks to himself about what dreams mean.  He is surprised to see that Thanos, sitting on a Metron-style flying chair, has joined him, suggesting that his dream was a premonition.  Thanos introduces himself.
  • Thanos and the Surfer enter into a conversation.  Thanos wants to explain the ‘great imbalance’ to the Surfer, but suggests that the best way to do so would be for the Surfer to stand on the platform around his chair.  They teleport away, leaving the Surfer’s board behind.  Angry at being tricked, the Surfer blasts Thanos with his full power, which has no effect on him at all.  Thanos starts to talk, and the Surfer wonders if he’s different from how he was described by the Avengers.  Thanos explains that life and death are out of balance.  He talks about the ways in which medical improvements on Earth have led to a situation where the Earth is badly overpopulated.  He takes him to a subway station in Tokyo to illustrate this point, and then shows him a massive dump.  He shows him a vision of the future where Earth is desolate due to its environmental problems.  The Surfer shows faith in humanity, but Thanos disputes that, and then takes him to another world, Salaria.  This world is like a paradise for the small cute creatures that live there, but Thanos explains that within twenty years, they’ll have overpopulated to the point that the planet won’t be able to sustain them.  Next they teleport to a steppe somewhere he explains that in service to Death, he intends to kill off fifty percent of the universe’s population.  The Surfer, who has been mentally calling his surfboard, reminds Thanos that Death’s minions thought that he could stop him.  Thanos counters, explaining that the Surfer already helped him in his mission by transporting some bacteria from Earth to Salaria.  He also explains that they moved through time when they teleported, so he figures that about half of Salaria would be dead by now.  The board arrives just as Thanos gives the Surfer a choice – fight him, or rush to Salaria to try to help.  The Surfer leaves, and Thanos sits and laughs, a sound that grabs the attention of Chronos, the “god-like being”, alerting him to Thanos’s return.  The Surfer arrives on Salaria, where he finds huge piles of bodies.  He approaches a child and using his power cosmic, creates a microorganism that will cure everyone.  He recognizes his role in this slaughter, and vows to hunt Thanos down.  In an epilogue, Chronos, who is an ancestor of Thanos’s, uses his power to resurrect Drax the Destroyer.  Drax digs out of his grave, and his first thought is to look for Thanos.
  • The Surfer approaches Earth, not realizing that someone is watching him and narrating the issue.  The Surfer heads straight for Avengers Mansion, where he is attacked by She-Hulk, who apparently has never met him (even though she was in issue #1 when the Fantastic Four helped him get free of Earth).  Captain America interrupts her and explains who he is.  He and the Surfer start talking.  The Surfer is there for information about Thanos, and Cap is surprised to hear that he’s alive again.  He pulls up Thanos’s file on their big monitor and tells the story of the time Thanos became a god by using the Cosmic Cube, and how Captain Marvel was able to stop him by destroying it.  The next time the Avengers fought him, he’d gathered the soul gems and was using them to become all-powerful.  He killed Warlock, but he was able to return through the soul gem, and turned Thanos to stone.  The Surfer asks about Drax, and Cap suggests that he head to Titan and talk to Mentor.  The Surfer mentions that he knows Eros, and then drops some shade about him.  The Surfer departs, and our unseen narrator follows, revealing himself to the Surfer. It’s the Impossible Man!  The Surfer makes it clear he doesn’t have time for him, but as usual, the Impossible Man plays around.  Basically, he’s there because he thinks the Surfer is too serious to defeat Thanos, and needs to lighten up.  They argue, and things are tedious, until the Surfer loses his temper, and then feels the need to apologize.  He promises he’ll try to lighten up, and even sort of cracks a bit of a joke.  This makes the Impossible Man happy, so he leaves.  The Surfer kind of cracks another joke.  This was not a great issue, and it’s nonsense that Warlock and Mar-Vell were on the cover as if they were going to appear in the issue.
  • The Surfer tries really hard to use his ability to see on various wavelengths to track Thanos from the planet where they first met, and succeeds in discovering the trail left by his teleportation device, but that trial splits in six directions, leaving him stymied.  Next, he goes to Titan, where he meets with Mentor, and learns about Thanos’s childhood, and how he killed his mother when he was ten years old.  Then at eighteen, he kidnapped a girl and killed her, before spending eighty years on the outer rim of the galaxy, where he grew in power and became the villain we know today.  Starfox is in a separate room, and becomes aware of a second visitor flying towards Titan; he rushes to inform Mentor.  Mentor keeps talking to the Surfer about Thanos, suggesting the Surfer might have to kill him to stop him.  That’s when Starfox comes flying through the door, having been tossed by Drax, the Destroyer (I’m noticing that there used to be a comma in his name).  Drax is not all there – all he does is yell, “Where is Thanos?” while Mentor and the Surfer talk about him like he’s not there.  Mentor explains that Chronos created Drax as a counter to Thanos, from the body of a dead Earthman.  The animosity between the Surfer and Eros results in the former Avenger not warning him before Drax blasts him from behind.  The Surfer blasts Drax, and then he finally starts talking a little.  He knows that the Surfer will meet up with Thanos soon, and wants to follow him.  He holds onto the Surfer’s board, keeping him from leaving.  The Surfer lies off anyway, with Drax hanging on to his board.  Even flying him into an asteroid isn’t enough to shake him, nor is flying into a sun.  Finally, the Surfer, remembering the lessons of the Impossible Man, thinks of a plan.  He flies to Earth with Drax so they can access an “information machine.”  He heads to the headquarters of the Fantastic Four, and Johnny Storm lets him into a living room where the Surfer and Drax settle in front of an “information machine”, which is really a television.  After a couple of hours of old sitcoms from the 50s and 60s, the Surfer sneaks off, and flies through space alone, having left Drax for some of his only friends to deal with, which seems like a cruel move.
  • The Statement of Ownership for 1989 lists this book as having an average press run of 282 000, with average newsstand returns of 116 000.
  • Nebula is on the bridge of Sanctuary II, Thanos’s former ship, when her supposed grandfather teleports in to join her.  Nebula doesn’t believe it’s really Thanos, and orders her man Geatar to kill him.  Thanos blasts Geatar and then accuses Nebula of lying about their kinship.  He blasts her with his eye beams, and she runs off, on fire.  He sends one of his former crew to go dispose of her body.  We see a device extinguish Nebula’s flames, and the crewmate picks her up, telling her he will take her someplace safe to heal.  Thanos has given his crew orders off-panel, and when Death appears before him, he explains that he will be back, and expects his orders to have been carried out.  He returns to Death’s realm with her, where her rat-like minion questions Thanos as to how slow he’s been in completing his mission.  Thanos explains that he needs to work slowly so he won’t attract the attention of the cosmos.  He mentions the Surfer in particular, and explains he has a strategy for dealing with him.  The Surfer is on a random planet asking people about Thanos, telling them to contact Mentor if they see him.  As he leaves that planet, a projection of Thanos’s face appears before him.  He tells the Surfer he’s on the planet Pyraxlon, waiting for him.  The Surfer rushes to the planet, which has a complicated geothermal power system.  He tracks Thanos’s teleportation energy, and finds him in a tunnel beneath the planet’s surface.  He attacks Thanos, who is able to counter his blasts, and teleport behind him.  Thanos’s chair shoots the Surfer, and Thanos disappears.  The Surfer tracks him, having decided to destroy the chair next.  He finds Thanos, but we can see that there’s something different about him.  The Surfer blasts him from behind, and the chair explodes, taking a chunk of the city above with it.  The Surfer is momentarily buried, but blasts his way out, ready for the fight to continue.  He’s shocked to find Thanos’s corpse, and quickly reconciles the necessity of his actions.  He constructs a coffin for Thanos and prepares to take him back to Titan and Mentor.  He flies off, and we see that Thanos is still there, sitting on his chair.  He’d had his crew surgically alter Geatar to look like him, to throw the Surfer off his trail.  He knows the won’t be able to fool the Surfer forever, but figures this will have bought him some time to put his plans in motion.  We see that there is a two-part Thanos miniseries that continues this story, which I’ll add to my reading pile.  I’d forgotten about it.
  • Annual #3 fits nicely here, and is completely drawn by Ron Lim, who must have not slept in the 90s.  The main story is the last chapter of the Lifeform crossover.  The Surfer comes to Earth to update the Avengers on the Thanos situation.  He meets with Captain America to tell him that Thanos is dead.  At Bellevue Hospital a misshapen creature (who we’ll call Lifeform based on the story title) kills a patient and gets bigger and more monstrous.  He starts absorbing more people in the hospital, getting bigger with each victim.  Nick Fury calls Reed Richards to tell him there is a problem at Bellevue, and to ask him to go check it out.  The Surfer says goodbye to Cap and flies off.  Lifeform breaks through a wall of the hospital and starts rampaging.  As Reed flies towards the scene, he is met by the Surfer who agrees to come with him.  They learn that Lifeform has gone into the river, where it grows even more.  Now huge, it wrecks the Fantasticar, and heads back to shore.  The Surfer blasts it, but it regenerates the tentacle he severed.  The Surfer gets angry and blasts it again, but has no real effect.  Lifeform appears to absorb the Surfer, but then starts to glow and fly.  It leaves Earth and ends up on the moon, where the Surfer bursts out of it.  He prepares to blast it again when a face forms in the creature, asking the Surfer to kill it.  The original human host speaks to the Surfer (there are a lot of people who can talk in space in this series, I’m realizing), explaining how he was exposed to an experimental virus, and is now this creature.  He can’t control it and can feel the virus taking over again, so he asks the Surfer to kill him, but the Surfer won’t because “life means too much” to him, so instead he leaves it in a crater.  No explanation is given to explain how it can breathe.
  • There is a short piece about the powers of the Surfer’s board.
  • In the main backup story, some alien sits on a massive throne on top of a monument, the steps of which are covered in bodies.  The Surfer is flying around in space thinking about how he needs a rest, so he decides to go to see the Elowan, a race he likes a lot because of how peaceful their society is.  As he arrives on the planet, he discovers the warrior guy and all the corpses.  The man admits to having killed all the Elowan by making them ingest a poisonous plant.  He introduces himself as Garnok Rebbahn, and explains that when he crashed on the planet, the people thought he was a god and worshipped him.  The Surfer thinks he should be locked up, and they start to fight.  Rebbahn is pretty powerful, and absorbs whatever the Surfer sends at him, making them evenly matched.  The Surfer purposely overloads him, and Rebbahn explodes.  The Surfer feels that justice has been done (this is the same guy who wouldn’t kill a monster that had eaten dozens of people because life means too much to him, just pages before) and leaves.  Once in space, he hears a voice calling him, and sees a figure standing on an asteroid.  It’s Rebbahn, who opens his cloak and draws the Surfer inside.  They find themselves on a large plane where each square tile represents someone the Surfer has killed.  Rebbahn calls him out for all the deaths he was responsible for while working for Galactus, and the Surfer has trouble managing the amount of blood on his hands (literally, as his hands start to bleed).  Rebbahn becomes surrounded by zombies that attack the Surfer, completely overwhelming him.  He finds himself alone and back on the same asteroid, and realizes he needs to confront his ghosts.
  • Issue thirty-nine was made by Alan Grant and James Sherman, and while it referenced the events of the Annual, it reads like a bit of a filler.  There’s some asteroid where aliens fight in gladiatorial combat.  Everyone is defeated by Algol Demonstar, and he’s about to kill his attackers, but the Surfer is flying by and sees the conflict.  He intervenes, gaining Algol’s animosity.  The woman who runs these fights tries to convince the Surfer to get involved, as no one can beat Demonstar, but the Surfer gets on his high horse and flies off.  Algol’s staff, which is also called Demonstar, was able to absorb the Surfer’s memories, so they get a shapechanger to take on the form of Shalla Bal, and then telepathically reach out to the Surfer to come and rescue his love.  He returns and starts to fight.  He discovers that he was duped, but by that point, he’s mad enough to keep the fight going.  Taking the staff away, he reveals that Algol was mutated by it.  He learns that the audience has been watching fights like this for ages, and is disgusted by them all.  There’s a lot of talking that I skimmed, and then some more fighting as the aliens all teleport away, leaving behind a small bag of gems as payment.  The Surfer is angry that he got used, and flies away.
  • Timelines are a little squishy here, as we join the Silver Surfer, Mentor, Eros, and Drax as they look down on the fake corpse of Thanos.  Drax knows that it’s not really Thanos, but since he’s not as intelligent as he was before, the others dismiss him.  He flies off to search for Thanos, and the Surfer acknowledges that he should be vigilant himself before also departing.  As he soars through space, he’s approached by a flying robot identifying itself as C2DT42, a process server from Dynamo City.  It explains that Thanos was a citizen of that city, and that the Surfer has been summoned to testify on the matter of his death.  At first, the Surfer refuses, claiming no responsibility to Dynamo City’s jurisdiction, but the droid tempts him with being able to listen to Thanos’s last will and testament.  They depart through a dimensional gate, and the Surfer is surprised to learn that Dynamo City is a massive space station in a region of space he rarely explored.  Upon entering a landing bay, the Surfer is surprised to see his board disappear, and to discover that he is powerless, as the city absorbs all forms of energy.  He doesn’t respond well to this news, as he’s actually kind of claustrophobic, and he attempts to fight his way past some big robots who are able to overpower him.  He gets knocked out, and is taken to a courtroom.  The judge uses a mental probe to learn the nature of the Surfer’s interactions with Thanos.  While the jury deliberates on whether or not the Surfer should be charged with Thanos’s death, the Surfer is shown a video of the villain’s will.  Thanos talks about how it was difficult to become a citizen of Dynamo City, and how he hopes that the City’s bureaucracy would help avenge him.  The jury returns and declares that the Surfer killed Thanos by accident, and they don’t recommend he be charged.  The Surfer is a little surprised, and assumes that Thanos’s contingency plan failed, but on his way out of the station, he learns that he has to pay an exit tax, yet he has no currency (which is a bit ironic given that the last issue ended with him receiving payment he didn’t want).  He tries to fight his way out, but without his power cosmic, he is helpless against the large robots.  The process server droid suggests he get a job to earn his credits, and the Surfer recognizes that he’s out of his comfort zone.
  • The Surfer has no choice but to join a very long employment line to try to raise the credits he needs to leave Dynamo City, but once he reaches the interviewer, it quickly becomes clear that he doesn’t have any marketable skills.  He secures a construction job, but without his power cosmic, the hot sun and heavy lifting do him in, and he’s fired.  He ends up in a tent city where he meets others who haven’t been able to get work, and starts to despair until an older being tells him that he can sell his memories to the Sensory Stimulation Network, who broadcast them.  The man warns him that the network execs are shrewd negotiators.  The Surfer heads to the network, and insists on being paid 200 credits for his memories, thinking that when he leaves he can take a number of the tent city residents with him.  He prepares for the broadcast before he looks over the contract, and is led into the studio, where they clamp him to a chair.  Having his memories pulled from his head is painful for him, and his entire life as the Silver Surfer, from offering to join Galactus’s service, through his time as a herald, his imprisonment on Earth, and his recent adventures, are broadcast across Dynamo City.  He is especially bothered by the fact that they show the intimate details of his life, from his relationship with Shalla-Bal, his flirtation with Nova, and Mantis’s death.  The show ends with him arriving at Dynamo City.  The Surfer is angry, and gets even more angry when he receives his payment – two credits!  The robots that run the network explain the fee structure and taxes involved, and the Surfer grabs one.  Guards come and toss him out, and give him a bit of a beating.  When he comes to, his two credits are gone, and he’s back where he started, heading to the tent city.
  • It’s worth noting that Ron Marz, who would go on to have a long run on this title, co-wrote this issue, presumably giving Starlin time to work on the Thanos miniseries and The Infinity Gauntlet.  The Surfer sits with his vagrant friend, Zeaklar, trying to figure out how to leave Dynamo City.  They see a fight happening in the sky, and are surprised to see that Drax, the Destroyer, has tracked the Surfer down.  Drax has proof that Thanos is still alive, and wants the Surfer to travel with him to Titan.  Drax takes off, pursued by robots, but the Surfer is left behind, not having any powers still.  The Surfer decides the best course of action is to appeal to The Great I, the being that runs Dynamo City, but is denied entrance.  Back at Zeaklar’s fire, the Surfer learns how once a sentient reaches four strikes in Dynamo City, they are terminated.  Both he and Zeaklar are sitting with three strikes so far.  Another being tells him how the Stim Network hires energy casters to create light shows.  The Surfer figures he can use the power that will grant him to escape or overthrow the city.  Zeaklar agrees to come with him and work as his agent, and they soon learn that once again, the terms of employment are stacked against them.  The Surfer takes the job anyway, and gets wired into a platform.  He flies into the sky and performs a spectacular light show, before escaping with all the power he can absorb, and flying directly towards the Great I’s building.  He busts into the tower, and evading guards, makes his way to the chambers of the Great I.  It is basically a giant eyeball on a stalk of optic nerves.  The Surfer makes an appeal, explaining how the bureaucracy of Dynamo City works against its residents, and suggesting that The Great I become more involved in what is going on.  The Surfer realizes that the I is deaf, blind, and mute when a robot bureaucrat comes to tell him that the being is basically a data processor.  The Surfer attacks the smiley-faced robot, and is subdued by the guards.  He’s taken out of the building where Zeaklar sees what’s happening.  He has a revelation of his own, and decides to attack one of the guards.  The two men are dragged towards the courts for their termination hearing.
  • The Surfer is in a cell with the unconscious Zeaklar, considering that his arrogance has landed him in real trouble.  When the guards come to escort him to court, he attacks and kicks the head off one.  He is subdued by the other, and he and Zeaklar are both dragged to court unconscious.  The Surfer comes to while the proceedings are underway, and interrupts to try to explain why he went to see the Great I.  He realizes that his defender droid has been shut off, and is surprised as witnesses are brought out to lie about him, accusing him of not paying child support, stealing from a church, and killing a dog.  The court quickly finds him guilty and sentences him to termination.  He breaks free of his bonds, but is again dragged away.  He and Zeaklar are tossed onto a platform that is shielded by a force shield.  Zeaklar wakes up just as the platform fires up.  Zeaklar is pleased with what’s happening, and in a flash of light, the two of them are teleported into space.  The Surfer’s powers begin to return to him, and he protects Zeaklar in a cube of oxygen.  The old man explains that he remembered how termination is done, and that’s why he gambled that he could join the Surfer.  Four Dynamo City robots approach, demanding the two come back to the city so their execution can be carried out again, and the Surfer destroys them.  He re-forms his board beneath him, and prepares to attack Dynamo City.  Zeaklar convinces him that he can’t possibly do that without endangering all the innocent people trapped there, so the Surfer has to give up on his desire for revenge.  Instead, he flies off, taking Zeaklar to the planet he asks to visit.
  • The Surfer is back on Titan with Mentor, Drax, and Starfox, looking at the fake remains of Thanos.  Because of Drax’s insistence that this is not Thanos, Mentor and Eros examined the remains, confirming that Thanos is still alive somewhere, but they have no way of figuring out where.  Thanos is in a distant star system, playing around with his full collection of Infinity Gems (acquired in the Thanos Quest miniseries).  He’s arranged the six Gems on his left glove, but at no point in this issue does he call it the Infinity Gauntlet.  He rants to himself for a while, explaining the origin of the Gems, and how they’ve made him the most powerful being in the universe.  He still worries that the Surfer might pose a threat to him, so he opens a portal to look at him.  He sees him with his other enemies, and decides to deal with the Surfer and Drax now, while waiting to deal with his father and brother later.  He sucks the Surfer and Drax through the portal to the remote dead world he’s standing on.  Drax tries to attack him immediately, and Thanos freezes him so he can demonstrate his power to the Surfer, dragging them to different times on this planet before taking them to New York and back.  Thanos appears as multiple beings, and lectures on the abilities of some of the Gems – Space, Soul, Mind, Reality, and Power, while low key torturing the Surfer and Drax.  The Surfer recognizes the Soul Gems, which Thanos now calls Infinity Gems, and they end up in a physical fight.  When Drax and the Surfer attack at the same time, Thanos blasts them, and continues to talk to himself about how powerful he is.  He says that no one can challenge him, but in Hades, we see that Mephisto is watching, and scheming to get the Gems for himself.
  • Thanos stands over the insensate bodies of the Surfer and Drax, and we learn that he’s trapped their essences in his Soul Gem, from which no one has ever returned (and that’s basically the last we see of the Surfer in this issue).  Thanos teleports to his flagship, not knowing that Mephisto is watching him.  On Sanctuary III, Thanos speaks to his Captain, Styx, and learns that his crew has put together an armada of mercs, pirates, and other undesirables.  Upon learning that his army wants to pillage, he creates a pile of riches to be divided amongst them.  He senses a stowaway, and teleports himself and Styx to the space where the ship’s bo’s’n has hidden Nebula.  The bo’s’n, Mantrax, explains that Nebula survived Thanos’s attack, but that he’s sure she’s going to die.  Thanos admires her precarious position, and uses his powers to restore her, without healing any of her burns (she looks pretty grim).  He kills Mantrax, and is then distracted by the arrival of Mephisto on his ship.  The two villains talk, and Mephisto talks about how he and other demons were among the first life created by the omnipotent being that became the Infinity Gems (one could interpret this as saying that God exists only in the Gems now).  That being didn’t know better, and because the demons weren’t told to be good, they became evil, and it destroyed them.  Mephisto was reborn after that being died.  Thanos is amused to learn that in all the time since then, Mephisto did not know about the Gems until recently.  Mephisto offers to serve Thanos as his first believer.  Thanos isn’t interested until Mephisto suggests he can teach Thanos new uses for the Gems.  He explains that Thanos is limited by his body, and suggests that he use the Gems to touch the entire universe.  They move their discussion to a distant planet, and Thanos starts to tap into the entire cosmos, feeling every mind and soul.  He struggles to process all of this information, and that’s when Thanos appears to freeze.  Mephisto, talking to himself, pulls off his glove (he is the first to use the phrase ‘Infinity Gauntlet’) and puts it on his own hand.  He’s surprised when the glove starts to choke him, and Thanos reveals that he could tell Mephisto was trying to play him.  Mephisto tries again to pledge loyalty, and while acknowledging that he can’t trust him, Thanos agrees to take him on as a servant.  Of course, Mephisto is still scheming, figuring that Thanos’s attachment to his physicality will prove to be his undoing.  As if to remind us whose book we’re reading, we see the unconscious Surfer and Drax one more time.
  • The focus shifts back to the Surfer and Drax, who wake up in a pleasant land.  A being that looks like a walnut with a giant face and little arms and legs, later identified as Judge Kray-Tor, welcomes them, but Drax is convinced he knows where Thanos is, and starts beating on him.  The Surfer, who knows Kray-Tor’s name, gets him to stop, and tries to explain to Drax that they are trapped in the Soul Gem, and that’s why he senses Thanos all around him; they are basically on his hand.  Drax lashes out at the Surfer, who discovers that his power cosmic is gone again.  Drax decides that the only way to get to Thanos is to destroy the world inside the Gem, and flies off to accomplish that.  The Surfer is surprised to be joined by Gamora, Pip the Troll, and Autolycus, a Kree.  As the men help Kray-Tor to his feet, Gamora explains that in the Soulworld, everyone is somewhat connected, which is how he knows all their names.  Drax is the only one to retain his powers because of the strength of his focus on his goal.  Gamora and Pip explain how harmonious life on Soulworld is, and the Surfer behaves a little arrogantly.  Gamora explains that Drax is thinking about how to achieve his goal, and that gives them time.  She explains that they need the help of their leader to stop Drax, but unfortunately, he’s on a retreat on top of a mountain.  Pip and Autolycus accompany the Surfer and as they climb to find their leader, Adam Warlock. Autolycus tells the story of how Warlock, originally known as Him, came to be created, grow to be a hero, and get trapped in the Soul Gem he used to wear by Thanos.  As the men continue to talk, Gamora goes to Drax, who no longer remembers her from their previous meetings in the real world.  She attacks Drax, to further delay him, and they start to fight.  The Surfer and his new friends approach Warlock, who recognizes the Surfer and immediately knows about his fight with Thanos.  He also knows about Drax, and wants to deal with him.  He also says that the Surfer’s soul has been ‘tampered’ with.  Gamora and Drax keep fighting.  Warlock explains that the Surfer was changed when he first got his powers, but then decides he should go deal with Drax.  He steps off the cliff he’s been standing on, and it looks like he’s falling.  He surprises everyone by flying up in his old costume, and he yells about coming after Drax.
  • Drax finally takes down Gamora while the Surfer, Pip, and Autolycus climb back down the mountain.  Drax decides the best way to destroy Soulworld is to fly at it from a great height while also blasting at it, but just before he begins his descent, Adam Warlock comes to tell him not to.  Drax responds with violence, and soon they are fighting.  Adam falls from that height, but when Drax flies down to finish him, he can only find his skull-headed staff.  Warlock appears behind him and swings on him.  Their fight continues.  Adam keeps disappearing and reappearing, making Drax more angry.  Eventually, Adam grabs him from behind, attempting to put him in a sleeper hold that takes a couple of pages to work.  Finally Drax is down just as the others gather.  The Surfer asks if there is any way that Adam can send him back to the real world to continue the fight with Drax, and while Adam would prefer to see the Surfer live out his days on Soulworld in peace, he agrees.  The Surfer asks if aiding him will let Thanos know he’s still alive, inside the gem, and Adam gives a speech that ends with him agreeing that the Surfer’s fight is his fight.  Gamora worries that means the Surfer is preparing to leave, but instead, he simply returns the Surfer and Drax’s souls back to their bodies.  Our hero and his companion wake up, and immediately Drax wants to know where Thanos is.  A burst of flame appears, and from it, Mephisto speaks to the Surfer.  He tells him that Thanos is in a distant part of the universe, thinking about his powers.  He says that when he returns, he will carry out his plans.  Thanos asks Mephisto about speaking to the Surfer, and Mephisto claims he did it to upset him.  Thanos realizes he needs to deal with the Surfer, but wants to use “special agents” to do it.
  • The Statement of Ownership for 1990 reports an average press run of 263 000 copies, with average newsstand returns of 107 000.
  • The Surfer and Drax fly through space, heading to warn Earth and Titan of Thanos’s plans, but the Surfer senses something and decides he needs to deal with another issue, sending a confused Drax ahead of himself.  He flies off, and soon comes across Nova, whom he is kind of cold to, telling her he wants to talk to Galactus alone.  He approaches his former master who is about to consume a barren planet.  The Surfer tells him about his run-in with Garnok Rebbahn, and how Rebbahn’s assertion that the Surfer is a bigger killer than him didn’t really bother him, except momentarily.  Then he told him how Adam Warlock looked into his soul and told him it had been altered.  Galactus admits that when he turned Norrin Radd into the Silver Surfer, based on his childhood dream of surfing, he recognized that he would need to make certain changes so that this noble man could be involved decades of genocide.  The Surfer insists that Galactus reverse this work, and soon the Surfer perceives blood on his hand.  This blood keeps flowing, as the pain of what he has done washes over him.  Soon, he sees himself drowning in blood.  Galactus pulls him out of this hallucination, and the Surfer insists that he can live with his guilt.  Before leaving, he warns Galactus that Thanos is back and up to no good (it’s odd that he doesn’t mention the Infinity Gauntlet).  Galactus says he doesn’t need to worry about him, and the Surfer departs.  Galactus senses Thanos’s presence, and the mad Titan makes it clear to Galactus that he doesn’t want to get involved in his plans.  To punctuate his point, he makes the planet they are standing on disappear before he teleports away.  Galactus, now left without his meal, says that their encounter isn’t over. Mephisto comments on Galactus’s defiance to Thanos.  Inside the Soul Gem, Warlock speaks to the Gem’s inhabitants.  He tells them that his further existence, outside of Thanos’s awareness, means that he could be a wild card in the coming conflict, and therefore, he feels the need to join the fight against him.
  • Ron Marz takes over for this issue, which opens with Mentor and Starfox being irritated with Drax because he doesn’t remember what he was supposed to tell them about Thanos. The Surfer rushes through space, feeling guilty that he’s taken so long in getting to Earth to warn the heroes there about Thanos.  Thanos watches him and decides that he should mess with him (he’s omnipotent and could just destroy him, so this feels dumb).  He and Mephisto go to a primitive world where he mutates a small creature into something monstrous and sends it off to do his bidding.  The Surfer notices a beacon on a small world, and finds a Kree base that has been destroyed.  He’s attacked by the monster Thanos made, and the fight for pages.  The Surfer even tries burying it, but his strength is such it lifts everything off it.  The creature buries the Surfer, and is about to bite his head when it starts to shrink back to its original form.  The Surfer frees himself and figures he doesn’t have time for this, so he departs.  Thanos and Mephisto arrive to talk about him, and how Thanos was pleased to delay him (although it’s not like he used that time productively).  He looks down at the poor, injured creature, and he and Mephisto walk away.  We see that Thanos has stomped on the little thing, killing it.  On Titan, the stone original body of Thanos has been left in a deep dungeon-like room.  Its eyes begin to glow red.
  • Issue fifty has a nice shiny cover, from the shiny embossed cover era.  It opens with the Surfer falling to Earth’s moon after being blasted on his approach to Earth.  He remembers being a child, and being woken by his father, Jartran Radd, who didn’t want him to waste time sleeping when there was so much to learn.  When the Surfer wakes up, he sees the animated stone Thanos body before him.  The real Thanos is using his original body, which was turned to stone, to communicate with the Surfer remotely.  Thanos tries to point out how the two men are similar to one another, but the Surfer points out that Thanos murdered his mother.  When Thanos comments on the Surfer’s lack of forgiveness, he gets angry and blasts at him.  They fight, and Thanos taunts the Surfer, and digs into his memories.  We see young Norrin blowing off the young Shalla Bal in order to study with his father after telling her his father’s views of how life on Zenn-La has gotten too soft.  His father echoes these sentiments to her as well.  Thanos beats on the Surfer, and then digs into his memories again.  We see Jartran telling Norrin about how too many Zenn-Lavians have turned to drugs because their lives are too boring and stagnant.  Later, we see Norrin come of age (which means some laser hair removal on his head), and learn that his mother died by suicide.  We also see that Jartran was honored for his scientific achievements.  Thanos and the Surfer argue some more, and then we see that Jartran was denounced for plagiarizing some of his work, and that Norrin turned his back on him.  As Thanos lectures, the Surfer summons his board, flying it through Thanos’s back and crumbling his statue body.  The pieces are still under his control, however, and he forms his body again.  He bashes the Surfer around some more, and then digs into his most painful memory.  We see that Shalla Bal came to Norrin to tell him that she heard on the news that his father had died, having taken his own life in shame, and that she was surprised to see Norrin coldly return to his work.  Later, Galactus came, and we know the rest of the story.  Thanos laughs at how the Surfer really isn’t as noble as he says he is.  The Surfer suggests that this was part of Galactus’s meddling with his nobility, but Thanos makes it clear that this memory was never touched by Galactus.  It looks like the Surfer is about to collapse into Thanos’s arms, but it’s a ruse, and he blows him apart.  Thanos’s head tells him that he can continue on to Earth and warn the heroes about him now, and laughs at him.  The Surfer gets back on his board and flies towards Earth, but collapses along the way, crashing into Doctor Strange’s skylight.

At this point, the Surfer’s story moves into the Infinity Gauntlet, with Starlin, and his own book continues under Ron Marz’s pen.  Before that though, there was an Annual that doesn’t really fit into continuity anywhere.  Rather than start the next column with it, I’ll tack it on here:

  • Why does every SS Annual have to include an origin or power explainer?  By 1991, was anyone reading this book who didn’t know the Surfer’s origin?
  • The main story is part 3 of The Korvac Quest, a Guardians of the Galaxy (OG 30th century version) driven event.  It’s set in the 26th century, and the Surfer (who now wears Quasar’s quantum bands, and is the Protector of the Universe) is on some hidden, magical planet where he goes to imagine that Shalla Bal still lives, and that they are together.  The leader of this planet, Marshach, tells him that someone has discovered it, and sends the Surfer to lead them away.  As it turns out, the Guardians are in this time, hunting for some magical energy that once belonged to Korvac.  After a protracted fight with the Surfer, Marshach, a descendent of Korvac, agrees to give up the power, even though it means the death of his wife and himself, and that the paradise that is his planet will lose that quality.  The power disappears when he gives it up, and the Guardians leave to chase it in the 30th century.  This was not a great story.
  • Starfox stars in a backup that has him fall for a woman in a bar that all men fall for, but it turns out she’s really a pile of crystals?  Honestly, this one was terrible.
  • Midnight Sun, last seen fighting the Surfer during the Second Kree-Skrull War, is being restored by some Kree technicians.  He accesses some of his memories, and manages to break free of the Kree.  He travels to the Moon, and thinks about figuring out who he really is.
  • There are some terrific pin-ups in this comic, by artists like Kevin Maguire, John Romita Jr., and Mike Zeck, among others.  (I would love to see a Zeck Surfer story).

It’s wild to me that Jim Starlin was basically given seventeen months to set up the Infinity Gauntlet event.  His entire run on Silver Surfer (he didn’t return after issue fifty, instead working on the Adam Warlock title and the two sequels to Infinity Gauntlet, but he did do a Warlock/Surfer miniseries) could just have easily been ported over to another cosmic character, like Quasar, as the Surfer became an incidental character throughout this run.

This really was all about Thanos, Starlin’s signature character in the Marvel universe.  His resurrection, his mission for Death, and the way in which he was used to bring back Starlin’s other favourite characters, Adam Warlock, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, and even Pip the Troll were the reasons for Starlin’s run.  It’s telling that during the two months that The Thanos Quest ran, Ron Marz came and helped out with the writing, and that story, set on Dynamo City, was the only time that Thanos wasn’t the focus of the book (and the Surfer was only trapped there because of Thanos).

At the same time, Starlin did add a couple of important wrinkles to the Surfer’s character, having him learn about how Galactus manipulated his soul so he’d not feel guilt while helping the world eater destroy inhabited worlds.  He also was the first writer to address the Surfer’s general detachment and aloofness, retconning the strange way in which he reacted to his father’s suicide, and portraying Zenn-La as a world of great apathy and lack of curiosity.  Still, that was only a couple of these issues.  I liked the way the Surfer, who has spent decades traversing the galaxy, kept getting shown as being naive and a little lost in the ways of the universe.  He’s never had to work, and owns nothing, so the idea that he doesn’t know how to interact with regular people makes a lot of sense.

Weirdly, I didn’t mind that the Surfer wasn’t so central to this book for a while.  It was an exciting time for this title, as the stories felt like they carried a lot of weight, and the growing threat of Thanos felt pretty important.  Even though I’d never read Starlin’s Warlock (I think I have one issue of the Special Edition reprints), nor Thanos’s big confrontations with the Avengers, I knew that he was a big, important character.  I thought it was cool to see him come back the way he did, and I loved the way Starlin built on what Steve Englehart had done with the book before that.  

Artwise, I guess this is peak Ron Lim, as his star was continuing to rise.  He was a beast in those days, pumping out two books a month, and refining his style.  A Lim character is instantly recognizable, with their slim but proportioned bodies and standard array of faces.  He is very good at showing action here, and aided by Tom Vincent, brings a clean shininess to the Surfer that looks pretty cool.

I do want to complain briefly about how much I dislike Thanos’s costume and general design.  His big shoulder pad spike things don’t make a lot of sense, but tend to make him look squat and emphasize how troll-like he is.  I hate his chair.  It’s basically an open space ship, with no visible controls.  It appears to be an attempt to pay homage to Metron of the New Gods, but it generally just looks awkward to me.  It also seems odd for a character who, even with omnipotent power, prefers to use his fists and force beams to solve his problems.

Regardless, there is no denying that Thanos is a massively important villain, and that is because of the groundwork that Starlin laid here, as well as in his earlier turns with the character.  The way Starlin re-conceived the Soul Gems, turning them into the Infinity Gems and adding the concept of the Infinity Gauntlet into the mix.  It’s also significant that Death set Thanos to the task of depopulating reality by half.  All of this became the groundwork for the Avengers movies, but at this stage of things, it was intended to be continued in the Infinity Gauntlet series.

Once Infinity Gauntlet launched (with art by George Perez!), Starlin left the Silver Surfer in Ron Marz’s hands.  I’m going to read both series at the same time, but you’ll see the IG column long before you see the Marz one – he and Lim stayed on that book forever, much past the time when I dropped it, I believe.

If you’d like to see the archives of all of my retro review columns, click here.

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