Welcome back, dear readers, to the Road to Knowhere; this is a series where I examine and discuss a different comics storyline relating to Marvel’s cosmic universe. One of the key pillars of Marvel cosmology is the Silver Surfer. There were aliens and sci-fi concepts before his introduction, but the debut of the Surfer represented the start of Marvel’s cosmic landscape. So the ol’ Surfer has had a bunch of breathtaking stories and runs with some of the best talents in the industry. There’s a real core of exploration and wonder that permeates the Surfers comics, and it’s what makes him such an enjoyable character. But today, we’re going to look at a Surfer story that casts him out from the stars and grounds him in an interesting way. Today we’re discussing Silver Surfer issues 40 through 43 by Jim Starlin and Ron Lim.
Jim Starlin is perhaps only rivalled by Kirby in his importance to Marvel’s cosmic corner. But up until this run in the 90s, he hadn’t written much with the Surfer, meaning that this was his big shot at making his mark on the character. His run, of course, brought back his creation, Thanos and gave him his now-famous goal of eradicating half the universe. This story comes off the back of Surfer believing he had killed the Mad Titan. However, Thanos merely faked his death. So this story’s first issue opens with a robot approaching the Surfer to tell him that he must testify to a court on something called Dynamo City. It turns out that Thanos was a citizen of this city, and they want to understand what happened to him. Norrin refuses but is enticed when the robot mentions they will be reading his last will and testament.
So the two head to Dynamo, a massive artificial city floating through space. Surfer loses all his powers when entering its atmosphere and is immediately detained for this court. It turns out that Dynamo City was something of a trap from Thanos. He lured Surfer here so he would be caught in the greatest prison of all “bureaucracy.” And trapped he is as Surfer doesn’t have any funds to pay his exit tax. So the story then follows Surfer as he struggles to escape this hellish society.
Yeah, it’s not entirely subtle. This is a story about capitalism and the struggles of class. The Surfer has faced a lot of enemies, world eaters, cosmic despots and intergalactic warlords, but this is one of his stories that feels truly desperate. Starlin and Lim do such an exceptional job of balancing tone here. The entire city is delightfully absurd. All of the creatures and robots featured are so exaggerated and cartoonish. One sequence, in particular, is incredibly silly. It features the Surfer literally selling his dreams to get some cash. But Lim and Starlin present it like a gameshow, some great spectacle for audiences to laugh at. But it’s balanced by a real sense of weight and hopelessness as he gets a measly two credits. The Surfer also spends a lot of this story in slums and lower socioeconomic sectors. Here Starlin and Lim are pushing the imagery of our time to another far more exaggerated level. When the Surfer arrives at Shanty Town, a massive city made entirely of tents filled with homeless citizens struggling to get by. It’shugee in its size and scope, actualizing the struggles of modern society. Every character in this book tries to escape, drawn into work and into entertainment with the promise of a better life. But it never seems to come. It’s a perfect trap and one that forces the Surfer to confront the broader issues facing the galaxy. Not everyone can just hop on their magic surfboard and explore the stars, and that’s a lesson that he has to learn here.
Surfer tries to escape Dynamo City through their systems and through their means but realizes that it’s not going to be possible. So he decides to escape and cheat the system. He confronts the leader of this society, The Great I. The I is talked about a lot in this but when finally revealed is just a massive eyeball, lifeless and cold. He’s said to be “the perfect bureaucrat: cold and efficient, untouched by human cares.” The head of the entire society is automated, a literal system with no cares for those it looks over.
To make a long story short, Silver Surfer finally makes it out alongside his new friend Zeaklar. Surfer heads back to free the people, but Zeaklar tells him he can’t. Any battle would cause the death of innocents; in his words, “you can’t win them all.” The Surfer sadly agrees and flies off, vowing to return one day.
So yeah, a pretty dour and cynical end. But it’s fitting. The Surfer may escape, but not everyone does. Everyone is trapped in that system, in that city of artificiality and cold apathy, just like how people all over the world suffer while the wealthy get richer. You can’t escape it and any attempts will just make you sink deeper. Starlin makes it clear here that the only way to achieve a better future is through outside the system, but he acknowledges that it’s something, not even the Silver Surfer can do. So ultimately, this story is just brilliant satire. It’s an amazing little story that exaggerates our reality into something totally absurd and darkly comedic. There’s a great sequence where the Surfer is in court and discovers his lawyer droid hasn’t even been activated. It’s a funny moment, but it’s also mocking the gross inadequacy of the American criminal justice system, and oh boy, does that hold up well today.
Ultimately this story is emblematic of what makes Marvel cosmic work so well for me — having a story set in this massive spacebound backdrop frees Starlin to portray his big and crazy ideas. Ron Lim is also able to do what he does best, amazing grandeur and scale. It’s a great Silver Surfer story that challenges the character and forces us to realize our lives’ inherent absurdity. That’s not just great cosmic stuff; that’s great storytelling.