Silver Surfer: The Enslavers

 Lookback: Al Observes
 Posted: Jan 2021
 Staff: Al Sjoerdsma (E-Mail)


In the pages of The Origins of Marvel Comics, September 1974 and elsewhere, Stan Lee acknowledged that the Silver Surfer was entirely created by Jack Kirby. But Stan had his own vision for the character, consequently ditching Jack for John Buscema when he gave the Surfer his own solo book in 1968. That series lasted 18 issues but Stan wasn’t through with the character. There was a rumor that floated around that Stan wanted to be the only writer of any solo Silver Surfer comics. In David Anthony Kraft’s Comics Interview #58, 1988, Stan reacted to the 1987 Silver Surfer title that was scripted by Steve Englehart, saying, “After I gave up Spider-Man then someone else did Spider-Man, and someone else did the Fantastic Four and Doctor Strange and the X-Men and all of them. I felt that it was kind of nice for me to have been the only writer of the Silver Surfer, so I felt a little bit disappointed when somebody else did it. I would have liked to have been the only person. Had I known they were absolutely going to have the book done, I would have found the time to do it myself. I didn't really have time but I would have made the time, rather than have anybody else do it. ... this is not at all a criticism of Steve [Englehart] or of Marshall [Rogers, artist on the series], it's just that it's one book that I would have liked to have always done myself.” So, I guess the rumor is true.

Stan had no chance, of course, because, while the Surfer is not being published continuously like Spider-Man or Superman, there will be a never-ending stream of Silver Surfer comics, as long as Marvel Comics exists. Still, Stan did what he could, collaborating with Kirby for The Silver Surfer #1, 1978 with John Byrne for Silver Surfer #1, 1982, and with Moebius for The Silver Surfer #1-2, December 1988-January 1989. He even wrote Stan Lee Meets the Silver Surfer #1 in 2007. And then there’s this one; a little-remembered graphic novel with artist Keith Pollard from 1990: Silver Surfer: The Enslavers. And it has some slight Spidey appearances, giving the excuse to review it here.

Story Details

Galactus, hungering for planetary energy, nevertheless decides to “scavenge other galaxies” rather than risk a confrontation with the Enslavers. So, you know, the Enslavers must be a big deal if Galactus is avoiding them. The Silver Surfer, on the other hand, is heading toward Earth so that he can ask Reed Richards if he is going mad. In his haste, he rides through a meteor storm which knocks him unconscious. His board still delivers him to Reed and Sue Richards’ home.

Out in space, Voyager III comes to a giant spaceship. As Stan puts it, “to merely call it a starship is like calling a supernova a spark! To merely say that it’s huge is like saying the bubonic plague was a nuisance!” Now, Galactus encountered Voyager and held it in his hand on the first page before letting it go and Voyager can’t travel all that fast so this giant ship must be pretty close to where Galactus was. It’s probably pretty far from Earth, except that the ship analyzes Voyager and deciphers its “Earthly message of peace.” “Then, the great ship’s long-range scanners are automatically activated and trained upon the planet Earth!”

Back on Earth, at N.A.S.A. headquarters, Earl Weygand, “Astrophysicist and designer of Voyager III” learns that Voyager has found extra-terrestrial life and that that life is “beaming a message to us,” telling us that they are coming to Earth as friends. The N.A.S.A. folks all celebrate. Earl Weygand is drawn to look like Carl Sagan who, as Wikipedia puts it, “helped to develop and assemble…the Voyager Golden Record, which was sent out with the Voyager space probes in 1977.” Wikipedia also says, “The Voyager Golden Records are two phonograph records that were included aboard both Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. The records contain sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and are intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form who may find them.” The problem with this scene is that N.A.S.A. should not be getting a beamed message so soon unless the ship is right on top of us. Not to mention that no scientists on Marvel Earth should be excited to meet extra-terrestrials when they’ve already dealt with Skrulls, Kree, Galactus and others. And, sadly for Earl Weygand, Stan tells us right off the bat that “This is to be the final year of his life.” (It turns out to be the final days of his life.)

At their country house, Reed and Sue put the unconscious Surfer to bed. Sue heads to the hospital for her “volunteer night” while Reed prepares to watch The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson because Earl Weygand is a guest and he and Reed “studied astrophysics in college together.” Of course, they did.

Back in the bedroom, the Surfer is having a “cosmic nightmare” all about his planet of Zenn-La being enslaved by the Enslavers. His anguish causes his cosmic power to go ker-blooie, grabbing Reed’s house and lifting it up into space. Reed manages to awaken the Surfer before he collapses from lack of oxygen. The Surfer returns the house to its foundation and nothing in it has been touched…there’s even still a fire in the fireplace…although Reed’s TV seems to have converted from a giant wall-mounted set to an old-time console. The Surfer reveals that he has been having these nightmares for weeks, which is why he was coming to Reed for help. But, apparently, they are more than nightmares because “Zenn-La is barren, deserted, devoid of life” and the Surfer doesn’t know why. Reed tells him that “an entire race can’t vanish without leaving a clue” and the Surfer decides that the nightmares are messages from Shalla-Bal, his beloved, who is among the missing. He heads for Zenn-La, declaring, “I shall not fail her!”

Reed’s giant TV is back and he watches Earl on Johnny Carson. (Everyone remember Johnny Carson?) Earl tells Johnny that he thinks the aliens will be friendly. “Why should we fear a race civilized enough to have mastered space travel,” he says, as if he’s unaware of the Kree and the Skrulls and so on. Reed is not so sure. With good reason for, even as Earl says “I’ll bet our alien friends don’t even know the meaning of war or violence,” a Kirbyesque figure, looking like a Celestial or New God, appears behind Reed and blasts him, then teleports away with him.

Keith gives us a nice full-page illustration while Stan tells us, “As the celebrated astrophysicist continues to enthuse, alien beings in mighty battle armor attack and subdue every known super hero throughout planet Earth!” Spider-Man is one of those getting blasted. All the heroes are taken to the giant space ship where they are paraded in chains among the residents who “pays them no heed for events like this are merely commonplace.” They are led before Mrrungo-Mu, a huge man sitting on a throne, being served by five very-human-looking women. (Okay, one of them has tiger stripes…big deal.) He declares himself superior to all the heroes and then proves it by withstanding Wolverine’s claws. Simultaneous blows from Doc Samson, Colossus, the Thing, She-Hulk and Rogue have no effect. By the time he shrugs off punches from the Hulk and Sub-Mariner, he declares himself bored. “You have spirit, Earthlings,” he says, “but so does the sparrow and still the hawk feeds! Now be the time to break that spirit! So, you be slaves forever!” And I can only ask, “how does he know about hawks and sparrows?”

Anyway, Mrrungo-Mu absorbs the Hulk and Subby’s power which is the secret of his power. “The more victims I enslave, the mightier I be!” Even as the heroes are led away, the Surfer arrives at Zenn-La and finds it so obliterated that it looks like the moon. He looks up and sees a double star that apparently is not a regular feature of Zenn-La’s night sky. “Exactly as I saw them in my psychic dream,” he says, something that Stan didn’t bother to tell us and Keith didn’t bother to show. He heads toward them; certain they will lead him to Shalla-Bal.

Back on the Enslaver ship, some slaves are fed to Mrrungo’s creatures while others are used as power cells to run the ship. The chief engineer fears that the power grows low in spite of all these slaves but is assured that soon all of Earth’s residents will join the group.

Mrrungo, meanwhile, has other things in mind. He goes to his chambers where Tnneya, “the woman of Mrruno-Mu” waits. But she tells him she “will not be chattel” and that “not even you can command a heart to love.” A classic example of Stan’s heightened dialogue follows.

Mrrungo: Women there be who would eagerly die if I but nod my head! Yet you, whom I desire most, ever reject me! Know you not that I be mightiest of all?
Tnneya: Might? What care I for might? I am woman! I seek love, tenderness, not brutality and lust!
Mrrungo: “None speaks so to Mrrungo-Mu! What care I for tenderness? I be Lord Enslaver! I do not ask, I take! I do not love, I conquer! I shall return! And when I do, you will bid me welcome!”

When Mrrungo leaves, Tnneya takes an unauthorized trip in her “private yacht,” while Mrrungo broods, even though he is surrounded by a group of beautiful dancing women. (Apparently all beautiful women in the galaxy look like Earth women.) But one woman, Shalla-Bal, doesn’t dance and she fascinates Mrrungo. Or, to put it in Mrrungo-speak, “Her visage pleases me.” Mrrungo takes Shalla-Bal’s face in his huge hand and commands her to smile or die. She doesn’t. Before he can press things further, he gets the report that Tnneya has left the ship. He orders his men to follow in a battle cruiser. They quickly snag her yacht in a tractor beam but not before she gets to give us a cheesecake pose on her divan. (I’m starting to wonder if all these beautiful women in skimpy outfits is the point of this entire graphic novel.) Mrrungo’s men start to haul in Tnneya’s yacht but that is when the Surfer arrives on the scene. He frees her of the tractor beam and warns the Enslavers to back off. They attack him with a barrage of blasts which he evades but Tnneya does not. In retaliation, “the Surfer unleashes a titanically harnessed, fearsomely focused cosmic blast! And then…the great ship’s controls and weapons systems are totally ionized!” The Enslavers choose to destroy their ship and themselves rather than face Mrrungo with their failure.

The Surfer enters Tnneya’s ship (how does he do this without decompressing it?). He finds her unconscious, so he lifts her up and carries her to her divan. When she awakens, she uses her power (of which we’ve only now heard) “to make men see in me the one they love the most.” So, the Surfer sees her as Shalla-Bal. Tnneya (very tastefully) disrobes and the two of them have sex…I presume. And you thought the Surfer couldn’t take off those silver bathing trunks.

Back on Earth, they still haven’t figured out that the Enslavers are bad guys. Earl Weygand addresses a crowd in Central Park. Still oblivious to the Kree and such, he says, “Within minutes, humanity will have its first encounter with a race from beyond the stars.” The Enslaver ship approaches, looking small in the distance. But it soon becomes clear that it is “big enough to hold the whole human race!” A nice panel by Keith shows the ship hovering above, dwarfing Manhattan. President Reagan is in the crowd (an indication, perhaps, of how long it took to produce this graphic novel since Reagan was more than a year out of office when it came out) as is New York Mayor Ed Koch. But they and everyone else are sucked up into the Enslavers’ ship by something like a “gigantic vacuum.” Let’s let Stan tell it: “Only humans are affected! No animals, no objects, nothing but people! They’re sucked out of windows, subways, autos! There is refuge for none! Once within the great ship, they’re herded like cattle and placed inside individual life-supporting capsules which are stored in gigantic holding chambers, to be preserved until needed!” So much for the people of Earth.

And so much for the Surfer’s moment of happiness. In spite of Tnneya’s powers, he senses that she is not really Shalla-Bal. “But can she equal my beauty, my warmth, my passion?” asks Tnneya. “Love is neither contest nor competition,” says the Surfer (a nice line). Furthermore, “never would Shalla-Bal let me dally while great evil is abroad.” Inspired by the Surfer’s spirit, Tnneya tells him that Mrrungo is responsible for the destruction of Zenn-La. She also confesses that she actually does love Mrrungo. When she points out the position of the Enslaver ship, the Surfer realizes that it is near Earth. (Again, how far did Tnneya’s ship travel? Wasn’t she near Earth?) In haste, the Surfer takes her up in his arms and rides away with her on his surfboard to challenge Mrrungo.

In the ship that “dwarves the planet Earth itself,” Earl Weygard, looking much the worse for wear, is brought before Mrrungo who thanks him for leading him to a new world to conquer. He rewards Earl by giving him “one Earth week of freedom before joining the other slaves.” Earl is in shock over all of this. “I never dreamed what I was doing,” he says.

But then, the Surfer approaches. Tipped to this, Mrrungo sends him a laser beacon to follow. He wants to test his strength against a herald of Galactus. As he follows the beacon, the Surfer asks Tnneya where Mrrungo got his power. “From the races he enslaves!” she says, “Their life forces are the fuel he feeds upon! Like some great galactic vampire!” (Should Tnneya know what a vampire is, much less that Mrrungo is like a “galactic” rather than an Earthly one?)

The beacon does not lead them to the ship but to the United Nations building in Manhattan. There he finds Mrrungo on a throne with Shalla-Bal sitting docilely between his spread legs. One of Mrrungo’s thralls laughs that the Surfer would challenge him while “Unarmed! Unclothed! Defenseless!” and now that he mentions it, the Surfer is unclothed. There’s no sign of his swim trunks. So, is he even equipped to have sex? The Surfer confirms one part of the thrall’s comment. “Unclothed I may be! But unarmed and defenseless, never!” He attacks Mrrungo, who stops him with a force field that he conjures with “the merest gesture.”

Mrrungo challenges him to a fight to the death. The Surfer agrees, then spies Earl Weygard in the crowd. Knowing from Tnneya that Mrrugo’s power comes “from the billions of captives in his holding pens,” the Surfer appears to meditate before the battle but is actually sending half of his power to Earl to establish a psychic link. Earl, now dressed in some snazzy Enslaver duds, suddenly knows how to defeat the Enslavers and knows he has the power to do it.

The Surfer and Mrrungo exchange some Stan-speak (“strength without conscience is like day without light,” “strength be power and power be all”), then the battle begins. At half power, the Surfer is no match for Mrrungo but, meanwhile, Earl takes on the form of the Surfer, gets his own surfboard, and flies up to the mothership to locate its power plant.

Unable to siphon off the Surfer’s power, Mrrungo destroys his surfboard and cracks the Surfer’s silver coating. On the ship, Earl has to destroy the power plant from within. Protective devices attack him and he knows that he must use his power to destroy the plant rather than protect himself. Dropping his defenses, Earl dies (as Stan warned us about back on page 8). But he has exposed the power plant and sent the Surfer’s power back to him. Reinvigorated, the Surfer sends a cosmic bolt up to the mothership which frees the slaves and the beasts, causing a riot. Mrrungo is still strong without his ship’s power but not strong enough to battle the Surfer who finally fells him with a cosmic bolt. But as the Surfer prepares a killing blow, Tnneya steps in. “He is cruel, I grant you…and a tyrant, yes! But by enslaving others, he kept his race alive when his planet was dying! In the beginning, he did what he did to save his people! It was only later that the savagery and the lust for power turned him mad! But beneath the violence, beneath the drive for conquest, is a man…a man of unbounded courage, of fiery passion! May the Gods forgive me…a man I love!” So, the Surfer leaves Mrrungo with Tnneya and leaves with Shalla-Bal. The mothership “departs, leaving behind its captives and power cells, never to menace the galaxies again!” But why not? Can’t Mrruno rebuild his power plant? Can’t he start enslaving again? And what about all those captives left behind? They can’t all fit on Earth, can they? Well, at least those last two questions will be answered in the Epilogue.

First, the Surfer uses his very-convenient cosmic powers to reverse all the damage done by the Enslavers. Everybody in the streets looks really happy, although there has to be some trauma from being captured and enslaved. Then, the Surfer finds “a gathering of super-heroes atop the famed Baxter Building.” This group includes Spidey although he doesn’t get to say anything. They all cheer the Surfer who is overcome with emotion. “You’ve lent new lustre and glory to the word hero!” Reed Richards tells him. But the Surfer cannot stay to bask in that glory. He must lead all the formerly-enslaved people home. He takes off on his surfboard along with Shalla-Bal. As they begin the long planet-to-planet journey, Shalla says, “It’s like a glorious dream, beloved! The two of us together at last – with the whole dazzling universe unfolding before us!” “And whatever may befall, we’ll face it bold and unafraid!” replies the Surfer, “For nothing can tarnish the rapture of this moment, just as nothing can destroy the eternal wonder of our love!”

General Comments

There’s a short Afterword by Stan in which he tells us that Jim Shooter offered him a chance to do a Silver Surfer story with Keith Pollard back in the early-80s. Stan says he sent off a story outline and then didn’t hear anything for “about seven or eight years.” By then, Tom DeFalco was Editor-in-Chief and he called Stan to tell him that Keith Pollard had finally finished the story. But then Stan says, “When I finally saw the artwork, I realized Keith had probably lost my plot during those years, because he had drawn virtually a different story of his own!” If this is so, can we attribute any of this story to Stan? Is he just the scripter?

Short of contacting Keith Pollard and asking him, the best we can do is speculate. The whole notion of Voyager attracting unwanted alien attention is not new. It can be seen from Star Trek: The Motion Picture to “The Plaque!” a two-and-a-half page episode of “Tharg’s Future-Shocks” in 2000 AD #347, 17 December 1983. With all of Stan’s renowned optimism about the future, my guess is that this was Keith’s idea, as was the idea to make Earl look like Carl Sagan. It almost seems as if Stan’s forewarning of Earl’s death is meant to soften the blow to those of us who want to view Sagan as a visionary. (Poor Carl actually did die in 1996 at the age of 62, not too many years after the publication of this graphic novel.)

On the other hand, the beginning and the ending here feel like Stan’s work. Again, this is all guesswork but it is possible that Stan figured this to be his last Silver Surfer story. What better way to start than to give the Surfer a foe who is so powerful that he sends Galactus scurrying? What better way to end than to give the Surfer that “happily ever after” he’s always wanted as he soars through space on a long mission of mercy with his beloved Shalla-Bal at his side?

I’m a sucker for a happy ending so I’m fine with seeing this as the last of the Surfer particularly since none of the subsequent Surfer issues I’ve read feel in any way essential. I also like the idea of the Surfer being the one hero capable of defeating the most powerful foe in the universe and being recognized by all the other heroes for it. (Which feels like another Stan decision.) The problem is that the whole process is so predictable. Of course, the Surfer is the last line of attack. Of course, Mrrungo is attracted to Shalla-Bal and makes her his latest consort. Of course, once we learn that Mrrungo gains his power from a plant that draws energy from his slaves, Mrrungo’s defeat will come about from the destruction of his power plant. What isn’t predictable is that Earl Weygard will be given half of the Surfer’s cosmic power and manifest it by becoming a duplicate of the Surfer, complete with a duplicate surfboard…but that is, unfortunately, pretty silly.

So much for the story. What about the artwork? Keith Pollard has a smooth, straightforward style just right for a super-hero story. He may be best known for his Fantastic Four issues but we Spidey fans remember his fine work in that stretch from ASM #186, November 1978 to ASM #205, June 1980. Wikipedia says “Pollard left comics in 1996” without providing an explanation and that’s a shame.

Here, his work, ably enhanced by the inks by Josef Rubinstein, Jose Marzan, and Chris Ivy and especially by the colors by Paul Mounts, is vibrant and kinetic. His caricatures of Sagan, Carson, Reagan, and Koch are spot on but his alien women are so sexy that the cheesecake feels like the reason for the story.

It’s a beautiful book to look at but its story is too simple to make it worthy of all those graphic novel pages.

Overall Rating

There are things to like here but not enough to raise it above the average. Two and a half webs.

 Lookback: Al Observes
 Posted: Jan 2021
 Staff: Al Sjoerdsma (E-Mail)