The summer of 2011 is liable to go down as the one in which comic book moviemakers had to second guess themselves. DC Comics and parent company Warner Bros. shot relative blanks with Green Lantern, just as they had a year before with Jonah Hex. Marvel did marginally well with Captain America and Thor, neither of which are serious contenders for individual franchises but both being crucial parts of next year’s The Avengers. After all, that was the primary point of those movies existing—to lead the movie-going geek into this next big thing without having them explode into unmitigated nerd-gasm. As pieces of a puzzle, Cap and Thor worked OK. On their own, both movies were less than awesome.

Read the last Popdose at Kirkus on The Strange Worlds of Terry Nation.

It’s something I have seen more than once from both comic book companies and, as of late, their cinematic counterparts. Some of these characters just don’t work too well on screen, and others work only in comics because their premise is absurd and often borderline idiotic. Example time: I love the Silver Surfer. I think he’s a cool character in comics. Put him in the movies and you have to make logic leap after logic leap to just get to the threshold, never mind the doorway of suspension of disbelief.

To start, he’s an alien, specifically from Zenn-La. Everyone on Zenn-La surfs because they’re on the West Coast of the Universe and that’s what you do when you’re in a Zenn-La state of mind. How these spacemen adopted the sport of surfing we may never know. Carl Sagan died before he could explain that one apparently. We focus on Norrin Radd (he’s so rad, brah) and his hot chick “Whatta Gal” Shalla-Bal. Do you love him? Do you, Surfer Alien Girl?

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Before we really get into the ocean depths of their love, we are made privy to the existence of the planet-eating Galactus who, coincidentally, looks like a Roman centurion crashing an acid rave. He has come to eat Zenn-La and everyone on it, so to save his world and his girl from this gnarly supersized space cadet, Norrin Radd allows himself to be enslaved by Galactus, to serve his days as his interstellar escort, letting planets know he is coming to eat them, as if just showing up and eating them was far too gauche.

Norrin Radd, clad in a silver skin, surfs space. Absorb that one a while: he surfs space. Yeah.

Obviously, this character was built from whole cloth on the notion that Marvel Comics could trend-jack the suddenly hot sport of the ’60s and initiate enthusiasts into market share. However, after multiple attempts over many decades, the Silver Surfer never bounced from that third-string team of characters. His fate in the equally hapless Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer movie compounded the flaws inherent in the character’s construction—that he was created to latch onto a gimmick and that gimmick didn’t have the stickiness it needed to survive credibly. This is why Hula-hoop Master and Princess Jarts never became anything.  

For comic book readers, however, the Silver Surfer kind of works in his demented one-dimensional world, just as so many superheroes do. Again and again, even when the storytelling became outlandish, weird and unbelievable, even when the dialogue turned into quasi-Shakespearian glop, there was sympathy for the character. This came through much clearer in latter appearances than Marvel’s initial run with the Silver Surfer. With apologies to the godfather of modern comicdom Stan Lee, the Surfer already was far-fetched, so his dialogue needed to be reigned in, not barfed out like a wanna-be Laurence Olivier having a seizure.

The second volume of Marvel’s Essential Silver Surfer trade paperbacks highlights the remarkable run from writer Steve Engelhart and artist Marshall Rogers. The duo had plenty of history between them including a reinvention of Batman in Detective Comics, a risky independent vision in Detectives Inc., and a twisted tale involving Native American legend in Coyote. They saw the Silver Surfer for what he was meant to be and not what he was, and that was a myth. The Surfer embodied loss, being a stranger among strangers, a moral martyr and betrayer all at once and, in a real sense, a slave. Engelhart and Rogers examined in their mysterious, bizarre manner, the life of the emancipated servant as a freed Silver Surfer races back to Zenn-La to find…what you might expect when you sell your soul to a betrayer.

The volume is not perfect. It is in black and white on less than ideal paper, giving the artwork a smeary look, which is something Rogers’ inventive designs do not deserve. It is buffeted by lesser stories from other publications, and the overall impression the reader gets is a wash of disrespect from Marvel for their surfing superhero. He was always a character they never had much hope for, or confidence in, and they know damned well he’ll never carry a movie on his own, and yet he keeps showing up again and again.

In the end, maybe Norrin Radd’s not so bad after all.

Dw. Dunphy is a writer/musician/artist hailing from Red Bank, N.J. He is an editor for the pop culture website Popdose as well as regular contributor. As contributor, he has shepherded such site mini-series as 50Prog50 and 50CCM50. He has recorded several albums including Enigmatic, Modernism and the recent instrumental album People Wearing Masks.