Writer: Simon Spurrier
Artists: Tan Eng Huat, Jose Villarubia (colors)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Editorís Note: The first issue of the Silver Surfer: In Thy Name limited series will arrive in stores this Wednesday, November 7.
Matthew J. Brady
The Silver Surfer is often a difficult character to write. Since heís so powerful, itís hard to come up with a reasonable conflict for him. Thus, his most interesting stories often involve him having adventures somewhere in the far reaches of space, where he can encounter different cultures and major cosmic forces. British writer Simon Spurrier (2000 AD, Gutsville) takes this tack in In Thy Name, with Norrin Radd cruising around deep space and contemplating life, trying to fulfill his quota for philosophical pondering. He encounters the Ama Collective, a society that seems to be a utopia, having eliminated any conflict or crime. While hanging out there, he agrees to go on a mission to a ďripeningĒ world that is having a problem with a rampaging monster. This gives us a chance for some action, but itís unclear where it will lead, since it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger.
Itís hard to guess where things will go in future issues, but Spurrier seems to be setting things up for a look at the dark underbelly of this ďutopianĒ society, possibly including religious conflicts, and maybe foreign relations and the corruption of those in power. Thatís just a guess though. Here, he focuses on introducing us to the setting and the Surferís reaction to it. Thereís not much to it yet, but it could definitely go in some interesting directions.
Tan Eng Huatís artwork certainly adds a lot to the proceedings, with lots of lush definition of the crazy aliens and their worlds, ships, and architecture. At the best moments, he seems to be influenced by Paul Pope, combining Popeís flair for alien energy with an eye for sharp details. Heís aided immensely by Jose Villarubiaís color art, which really gives an alien sheen to the art. I did have trouble discerning what exactly was supposed to be happening in a few scenes, but overall, itís a really nice-looking comic.
I donít know how much interest most comics readers will have in this sort of book, but fans of the Silver Surfer will probably enjoy an adventure of his that doesnít involve the Fantastic Four or Galactus. Of course, the book could go south in the future, but itís an interesting beginning, and it might turn out to be quite good.
Plot: The Surfer contemplates the mysteries of the universe. The Surfer encounters organ pirates. The Surfer finds a paradise which most certainly will have its serpents.
Commentary: Simon Spurrier starts off this mini-series by presenting one of those introspective inner monologues that are supposed to make us think this will be something deep and mysterious. Then the Surfer appears ďon-screen,Ē and he gives him a more conversational and shall we say, ďDown-to-EarthĒ tone. I like and donít like this. The Surferís speech has always been along the lines of brooding and poetic ever since his inception by Stan Lee. Itís been either that or detached silence. Thatís what weíve come to expect from him. After so many years itís actually kind of refreshing to hear him talk like a ďnormalĒ human being. However, Spurrier is trying to give us both. I think the introspective Surferís speech is too heavy handed, and his more conversational speech is too pedestrian. The Surfer is a hard character to write. Like Superman, he has limitless power and so making him more human with all of our frailties and struggles is difficult. Also like Superman, the Surfer has always been a more of a cool visual to me than an interesting character.
After setting up the personality of the Surfer this go round we get an all out assault on the Surfer by space-faring, organ harvesting pirates! Itís an acceptable action scene and somewhat amusing as the Surfer does his best to exercise some restraint. These proceedings are interrupted by the arrival of a beautifully regal and definitively alien spacecraft. Tan Eng Huat can do alien. There is no doubt about that. As such he is a good choice to illustrate the Surferís universe spanning adventures. Iíve seen his art elsewhere and in more conventional super hero comics and found it ugly. Heís found his sweet spot here with the diverse collection of aliens and technology the Surfer is destined to cross paths with.
The second half of the book introduces Norrin Rad to this newly encountered race and their world. On the service itís idyllic and utopian. From the start you just know there has to be a serpent or serpents in this paradise, and inevitably, all is not as it seems. For all the efforts at deep thinking and the majesty and mystique of the alien landscape and its dwellers, I have a feeling this is going to turn out to be a quite pedestrian and standard story after all. If it doesnít Iíll be pleasantly surprised.
Final Word: A good choice of artist may not save this story from an unmemorable fill in status.
Paul Brian McCoy: (if the coloring problems are in the printed issue);
(if theyíre not)
So this is only the second thing Iíve read by Simon Spurrier, the other being the series Gutsville, which I highly recommend. I didnít really know what to expect, but when I found out heís worked for years in 2000 AD and Judge Dredd Magazine, I suddenly had an inkling. Tan Eng Huat is an artist Iíve enjoyed since first seeing his work in the Distinguished Competitionís now defunct (and wrongly so, if you ask me) Doom Patrol from a few years back (before that Byrne thing I donít even want to think about). Heís using an ink wash technique instead of hard outlines for defining depth and shade, doing the work in full black and white with gray shades. The samples Iíve seen look amazing. Finally, Jose Villarubia has done work on series that Iíve enjoyed like Fantastic Four 1234, Desolation Jones, and Promethea. Heís been nominated twice for Eisners and has won the Comicdom Award for best colorist for his work on X-Factor. All in all, this is a great team, all of whom have talents that lend themselves wonderfully to telling a classic Silver Surfer story.
And the story has promise, as Spurrier gives us a Silver Surfer who isnít working for Galactus, and is in one of his ďexploring the spacewaysĒ moments. We have exotic aliens, a Utopian civilization and the more industrial world they are bringing into their galactic alliance, some religious mysticism, and some very 2000 AD-style Organpirates. The bulk of the issue is spent establishing the culture of the Ama Collective, with which the Surfer is very impressed. It reminds him of home. Then the story shifts as the Surfer is asked to help out with a ďsituationĒ on a world called Brekknis. In aiding with this threat, the Surfer notices some tensions between the Brekk and the Ama regarding the possible suppression of their native religion.
Itís a solid groundwork to build on, and there are enough hints and clues to other things that might be going on in the background that, when combined with the plot twist that occurs at the end of this first issue, should provide excellent fodder for philosophical, political, and metaphysical exploration over the four issues of the series. I just hope thereís enough room to adequately deal with it all.
Artistically, there may be a problem, though. Huat does an amazing job with the design of the ships and the alien races. The layouts are also superb, moving the story along smoothly with very little confusion. Well, to a point. There is confusion, but itís not the layouts. As I said earlier, Huat is using an ink wash technique that is beautiful. The lack of traditional linework to delineate everything makes the art breathe and flow almost like photography. At the same time, Villarubiaís colors are vibrant and nuanced, bringing a watercolor look to Huatís art.
And therein lies the possible problem. I donít know if itís just the resolution of the PDF files we were given for this preview, or if it is going to be a problem on the printed page, but Villarubiaís watercolor effect, when combined with Huatís ink wash effect, makes it hard to really see a lot of the details. For example, where traditionally the inking would delineate facial features and expressions, we instead have shades of color doing the job, and I have to say, I couldnít tell what was going on or what the aliens actually looked like for the majority of the book. While I like the ink wash technique, it may only work in black and white. Or perhaps if it were done in color to begin with? I donít know.
I have seen some preview pages online where the distinctiveness of the color shading was stronger and easier to make out, so I hope it is just a problem with the files we have. If thatís the case, then this is definitely worth taking a look at, especially if you already enjoy the Silver Surfer character, or have been curious about him. Itís nice to see Marvel taking chances with their science fiction properties again after a long drought. With this, Nova, and Annihilation: Conquest all going on at the same time, thereís a lot of cosmic-level science fiction to enjoy at Marvel these days.
The Silver Surfer is riding a wave of popularity at the moment, with an appearance in the summerís Fantastic Four movie sequel, a recent introduction to the Ultimate Fantastic Four title, and the four-issue Requiem miniseries doing a lot to raise the character's profile. The latest miniseries, In Thy Name, again places the Surfer centre stage, involving him in a complicated conflict between two very different alien cultures: one an apparent Utopia, and one a downtrodden, poor and apparently second-class race. Itís a solid concept for a SS story, but unfortunately, a slightly unfocused approach and some occasionally clunky writing means that it doesnít look like being one of the more satisfying Surfer stories of the year.
From the wordy and overwritten opening monologue, I feared that the entire book would feature the kind of rambling philosophising that has sometimes put me off Silver Surfer stories in the past. Whilst I was thankful to see Spurrier get to the point fairly briskly, I still feel as though the story could have started better, as thereís too little immediacy here for the story of this first issue to feel really attention-grabbing. Once we get to the main plot, however, things do start to look up. Spurrier effectively conveys the sinister edge of the apparently benign Ama culture through his restrained approach to writing them, never making them anything less than charming and accommodating to the Surfer, but never really giving them any warmth or humanity either. The world of Ama-Prime is a superficially Utopian society, but thereís a smug, self-satisfied and condescending undercurrent which soon starts to manifest itself, most notably when the Ama interact with their neighbouring species, the less ďcivilizedĒ Brekk.
Whilst reading this issue, I couldnít help but wonder whether Spurrier was using his story to make allusions to current world events. The vague and unexplained history of genocide on the Brekk homeworld and the concept of a more ďcivilizedĒ nation imposing an uncomfortable, forced peace on a smaller nation which has been plagued by internal conflict could both be interpreted as references to recent events in the Middle East and Eastern Europe; also, the comments from the Ama Explorocrats about being unable to rely on the bureaucrats to sort out the situation immediately put me in mind of the difficulties that the United Nations have encountered in dealing with global conflicts swiftly and effectively. Itís too early to say whether this specific allegory will play a part in future issues or whether Spurrier is aiming for a more general metaphor for societal conflicts of all kinds (whether religious, racial or class-based), and the bare concept of one culture imposing its values upon another allows for all of these readings. However, the specific story points seem to hint most strongly at a conflict of religious ideologies (with references to covered religious icons and sealed, abandoned temples on the Brekk planet), and Iíll be interested to see whether Spurrier pushes this angle any further or leaves the reasons for their conflict more vague.
One element that I did enjoy in this issue was the manner in which the Silver Surfer was seduced by the culture of the Ama: he even appears so beguiled that he displays prejudice towards the Brekk for their ugliness before heís even had a chance to interact with them. Itís nice to see a writer inject a bit of emotion into Norrin Radd (who can sometimes come off as too cold and detached to be a really compelling protagonist), and although some people might see this development as out-of-character, it actually humanises the Surfer in a welcome manner. Thereís also a potentially interesting subplot about a black market trade in bodily organs which isnít really developed, but will likely become more significant as the series progresses.
One part of the story that I wasnít too keen on, however, was the final few pages, in which the story turns from being a more considered story about the social conflict between two alien races to a far more traditional superhero story, with a hugely powerful monster emerging for Norrin to deal with. Itís a clunky transition of styles, and it feels forced and mindless compared to whatís come before. Perhaps Spurrier felt that the first issue of a miniseries demanded a big cliffhanger ending, but it would probably have done better without it.
Tan Eng Huat is an artist who is completely new to me, but on the strength of this issue, Iíd seek out his work again. Huatís illustrations are excellent, and in all honesty theyíre the main reason to buy the book. A good example of the artistís talent is the fantastic first image of Norrin Radd sitting on the tip of his board as he stares out into space. Thereís an initial sense that heís precariously balanced on the edge of the board which automatically makes one ponder what he would fall into if he fell off, opening up the eternal vastness of space in an unusual but highly evocative manner. Itís a powerful image, and one which stands at odds with the writing in its simple elegance.
In fact, these smaller moments are often more successful than the bigger images, some of which seem to have lost some of their drama and impact somewhere in the colouring process. I remember seeing the early black-and-white previews of Huatís art and being blown away, but occasionally Jose Villarrubiaís sometimes indistinct colours drain some of the life out of the visuals. One example is the title page, a grand, full-page splash of the Surfer hovering in front of a giant spaceship which is made less impressive by the slightly muddy and unclear approach to colouring. Another example is a later scene in which the Surfer watches a sparring match, which centres around the actions of figures which are so tiny in the background that they should really have been emphasised more strongly by the colourist (or the artist should have depicted them more prominently).
However, some of the big moments still succeed - such as the appearance of the second giant spaceship, which is coloured with far more subtlety and which is far more original in design. This originality of design also extends to the characters, too, with some genuinely otherworldly concepts for the two alien races which go beyond the standard humanoid models that weíre used to seeing in science fiction. The freedom of comicbook art allows these kinds of concepts to be conceived with far less restrictions than would be present in live-action science-fiction, and itís nice to see Huat embrace that freedom here. The artistís unusual panel designs reinforce the strangeness of the Silver Surferís environment, but they also occasionally distract from the contents. Thatís unfortunate, as Huatís artwork is strong enough to stand alone without the need of gimmicky page compositions to enhance it.
I think that this book will probably suffer unfavourable comparisons to the recent Silver Surfer: Requiem miniseries, and that would be a shame, as it deserves to be judged on its own merits. However, Iím not sure that it would get a great reaction from its audience either way. Thereís some potentially interesting (if dry) philosophical material, thereís some large-scale superhero action, and thereís a solid enough central premise, but it somehow doesnít come together in the way a good comic should. Still, itís not completely without merit: the core storyline still seems quite promising, and regardless of the weaknesses in the writing, it might be worth a look for many readers due to its pretty art alone.
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