The Silver Surfer Cartoon Brought Cosmic Weirdness to ’90s Saturday Mornings
I still remember my first encounter with the Silver Surfer. I was in high school and perusing my friend Kevin’s comic collection. While reading his X-Factor and Spider-Man issues, I came across a comic featuring a silvery being who flew through space on a… surfboard? I’m still not sure what it was about that particular comic — issue #21, if I remember correctly — but maybe the concept was just so different compared to other comics I’d seen up to that point. In any case, that was the moment the Silver Surfer became my favorite superhero.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Surfer went through a particularly angst-y phase in the early-to-mid ’90s courtesy of writers like Steve Englehart, Ron Marz, and Jim Starlin — a phase that saw him guilt-ridden and continually berating himself for being party to unimaginable devastation as Galactus’ mindless herald.
That tortured nobility, combined with Ron Lim’s sleek-yet-muscular character design, sealed the deal for me as an angst-ridden teenager. My comics-loving friends may have been fixated on Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man and the recently renovated “X” books (e.g., Chris Claremont and Jim Lee’s X-Men, Rob Liefeld’s X-Force), but as enjoyable as those titles were, they never could compare to the Sentinel of the Spaceways for me.
Given my Silver Surfer fandom, though, I have a confession to make. It wasn’t until last year’s arrival of Disney+ that I finally watched the Silver Surfer cartoon that originally aired on the Fox Kids Network in 1998. Having now corrected that oversight, I’m glad to say that it’s an enjoyable entry into the Marvel universe (some rather dated and dodgy aesthetics notwithstanding). And one that — dare I say — foretold the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s cosmic scope.
Silver Surfer begins with the idyllic planet of Zenn-La — a beacon of peace and enlightenment to the universe — facing annihilation with the arrival of Galactus, a god-like being who must consume planets to survive. To save his home, Norrin Radd agrees to become Galactus’ herald in the hopes of leading him to unpopulated worlds on which to feed. But when Galactus imbues Radd with the Power Cosmic, which grants him vast powers and turns him into the Silver Surfer, Radd’s memories of Zenn-La are repressed along with his sense of morality.
After a chance encounter with Thanos (yes, that Thanos; more on him in a moment) reawakens the Surfer’s memories, he rebels against Galactus when his master attempts to consume Earth. Galactus spares Earth and allows the Surfer to leave his service, but as punishment, the Devourer of Worlds hides Zenn-La so far away that not even Galactus can find it anymore. And so, the Surfer is left to wander the universe alone in search of his home while also dealing with the guilt of having helped Galactus destroy countless worlds and civilizations — the survivors of which have now sworn vengeance on the former herald.
The cartoon does contain some key differences from the Silver Surfer comics. Most notably, the Fantastic Four, who are instrumental in helping the Surfer rebel against Galactus, are nowhere to be found (due to licensing issues). The Surfer is also never imprisoned on Earth by Galactus, an experience that helps further awaken his conscience while also allowing him (and by extension, Stan Lee) to make pointed observations about human nature.
However, the cartoon is faithful to the most important aspects of the Surfer’s story (e.g., Zenn-La, Galactus, Radd’s beloved Shalla-Bal) as well the relationship between Galactus and the Surfer. While ostensibly a master/servant relationship, it’s more nuanced than that, with the Surfer challenging Galactus and even saving his life while Galactus begrudgingly respects Radd’s nobility and sacrifice.
Most of the series’ characters are also taken from Marvel’s most cosmically oriented pages and storylines: Uatu the Watcher, Gamora, Nebula, Drax the Destroyer, Pip the Troll, Adam Warlock, Beta Ray Bill, Ego the Living Planet, Nova, the Kree and Skrull empires, and even abstract entities like Eternity and Infinity — though with slight tweaks. For example, Drax the Destroyer is a noble android rather than a savage warrior, Gamora isn’t Thanos’ adopted daughter, and Ego the Living Planet is less of an antagonist than he is in the comics as an Elder of the Universe.
But it’s Adam Warlock, who appears in the series’ best episode — “The Forever War” — who gets the biggest adjustment. In the comics, he was created by a group of scientists who wanted to make the perfect human being and eventually goes on various cosmic adventures (where he meets the Surfer). In the cartoon, however, Warlock was developed as an alien weapon to fight the Kree. But his creators grew scared of his destructive capabilities and locked him in a time loop where he fights a never-ending battle against Kree starships.
After the Surfer frees him from the loop, Warlock learns of his creators’ betrayal and eventual self-destruction. Overwhelmed by the betrayal and loss of his home, Warlock chooses to re-enter the time loop so he can forget his tragic past and instead, continue fighting the Kree as a hero — much to the chagrin of the Surfer, who’d come to see Warlock as a kindred spirit.
Not surprisingly, Thanos is the cartoon’s main villain. (He became one of the Surfer’s primary antagonists during the comics’ “Infinity Gauntlet” saga.) But compared to the comics (where he’s a death-obsessed nihilist) and the movies (where he’s a ruthless, utilitarian warlord), the cartoon’s Thanos is something of a buffoon. Even at his most diabolical and nihilistic — for example, when he seeks to unravel the universe in the season finale — Thanos spends much of his time bemoaning his unrequited affections for Lady Chaos. (Fox censors wouldn’t allow any mention of death, hence the name change for Thanos’ crush.)
Stylistically, Silver Surfer is a blend of traditional cel animation and computer animation — with mixed results. The late ’90s computer animation hasn’t aged well, and its blending with the cel animation isn’t the most seamless, resulting in some pretty janky and uneven visuals. (I’m sure that budget and technical limitations as well as rushed production schedules played a factor here, too.)
As for the series’ overall art style, the producers chose to base it, along with the look of the Surfer himself, on Jack Kirby’s work. Which makes sense: not only did he create the Silver Surfer, but Kirby was a comic legend and his artwork for the Surfer was often bizarre and groundbreaking. There are scenes in Silver Surfer that are quite trippy (especially for a Saturday morning cartoon) as the Surfer travels through the vast reaches of the cosmos, encountering bizarre phenomena and strange alien races.
Visual flaws aside, I love the fact that the series is precisely as overwrought and melodramatic as you’d expect a Silver Surfer cartoon to be. After all, this is the guy who played a direct role in the annihilation of countless billions of sentient lifeforms. If he can’t be overwrought and melodramatic, who can?
I often rewound particular scenes just to hear the dialog again, and specifically, the Surfer’s own tortured inner monologues (which were delivered in all earnestness by voice actor Paul Essiembre). Here are some choice examples:
- “Nova brought me to this planet, yet now I leave without her. Am I cursed to forever betray those I love or respect? Why is there always a conflict between my hopes and desires and the greater good?”
- “Still is there but one place for me in the universe, the impossible dream of a planet known as Zenn-La.”
- “No living creature is faceless to me. To Galactus, that empathy was a weakness to be eradicated. But by failing to do so, he left me my greatest strength.”
- “Everything within me tells me to fight for my life. Yet those vanished worlds crush me with a weight that is almost unbearable. How can I ask you to forgive me when I cannot forgive myself?”
- “Can this truly be my doom? And yet, is it not a doom I sought? One I have earned?”
- “How ironic that I, who have been raised with a devotion to harmony and peace, am being called upon to save the fiercest savages who ever roamed trough space. And yet, can any man turn his back on another, and still call himself civilized?”
- “Better to perish for what I believe in than endure forever as a traitor to life!”
Yes, those are actual lines from a Fox Saturday morning cartoon. They’re over the top and portentous — in an old interview, series creator Larry Brody mentions drawing inspiration from both Shakespeare and the Bible — and I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s not a single scene in any Silver Surfer episode that isn’t improved by the Surfer’s anguished, melodramatic commentary.
It’s interesting to watch Silver Surfer in light of Marvel’s recently concluded “Infinity Saga.” I still remember the thrill of seeing Thanos’ cameo in The Avengers, and realizing that meant the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be delving into the more cosmic aspects of the Marvel mythos.
It was seen as a risky move when the MCU went full-on cosmic with movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange, and I think we all know how they turned out. I can’t help thinking that Silver Surfer represented a similar risk for Marvel. Here you have a company that had recently survived bankruptcy, and was still on shaky financial ground, deciding to produce a Saturday morning cartoon featuring, not one of their “A-list” characters (e.g., Spider-Man) but rather, a character that, despite having a very illustrious place in the Marvel pantheon, has always had a very “niche” feel about him.
Granted, Silver Surfer was produced by the same network that created plenty of bizarre and unique childrens’ series based on Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Swamp Thing, The Tick, Godzilla, and Irish mythology (among other things). But with its portentous dialog, trippy visuals, cosmos-spanning storylines, and philosophizing on topics like war, slavery, imperialism, and mass media, Silver Surfer got especially heady for a ’90s Saturday morning cartoon. Having finally seen the series for myself, I can’t help admiring the chutzpah of everyone involved in its production.
It’s safe to say that Brody et al. were paying homage to the philosophical and socially conscious nature of those first Silver Surfer appearances penned by Stan Lee, which found the cosmic hero wandering the Earth and observing humanity’s various flaws and foibles. Brody even described the series thusly in his initial concept and pitch (emphasis mine):
The saga of the Silver Surfer is a modern myth that’s been part of pop culture for thirty years. The most philosophical, sensitive, and idealistic of all Stan Lee’s creations, the Surfer and his quest for peace, home and love in a violent and unpredictable universe have struck a chord in the hearts of generations of readers.
Since the overall arc of the series is the Surfer’s attempt to get home, he’ll spend most of his time going from solar system to solar system, trying to find news of Zenn-La. Along the way, he’ll meet fascinating beings and civilizations, and we’ll create new and exotic forms of life and society. The Surfer may, for example, end up on a planet where plants have formed an intelligent civilization; or one where creatures that look like monsters are actually peaceful and wise; or he may meet up with a civilization that’s always on the move in its spaceships, with people who’ve never set foot on — or in — anything else.
No matter how alien any of these beings is on the outside, we’ll soon find out that on the inside they’re “human,” with the same hopes, dreams, and desires all living, intelligent beings have — and the same jealousy, anger, and greed. These emotions motivate their conflicts, and even though all the Silver Surfer intends to do is pass through the area on the way to Zenn-La, invariably he’s drawn into the dilemmas he sees.
In a sense, this series is almost primal. The Silver Surfer has become a pop myth because his sense of alienation is the same as that felt at some time by every man or woman, and his quest is like every human being’s search for identity and meaning. He’s just doing what we’re all trying to do — working hard to make every place he finds himself a better one, while searching for that one spot in the universe where he truly belongs, that home where he can sit back and relax, and feel the warm, comforting embrace of love.
Watching The Silver Surfer will become an important part of the life of everyone in the audience, because through this series they’ll get a better look into themselves — and the dreams that link all human beings together.
Unfortunately, the Silver Surfer series was cancelled after just a single, 13-episode season due to legal disputes between Marvel and Saban Entertainment, who co-produced and distributed the series. (Also, Fox still, understandably, had concerns about Marvel’s financial stability.) The season ended on a cliffhanger, as the Surfer fought to prevent Thanos from destroying the universe, and found himself pulled into the maelstrom created by the Mad Titan.
Although a second season never happened, you can find scripts for eight proposed episodes on Brody’s website. Had a second season occurred, it would’ve seen the Surfer reunited with his beloved Shalla-Bal, only for tragedy to strike once again (because obviously, the Surfer can never really, truly be happy).
The Fantastic Four would have finally shown up along with Morg and Terrax (two classic Surfer foes and former heralds of Galactus). And most interestingly, Brody also had plans to introduce one of the Surfer’s most pernicious foes: Mephisto, aka, the Satan of the Marvel universe (though in a decidedly less devilish form to appease Fox censors).
Of course, it’s easy to find yourself wondering “what might’ve been” given all of the obvious effort and planning that Brody and his crew put into a second season. But I’m still thankful for what little we did get. Silver Surfer is definitely flawed, and parts of it haven’t aged very well in the last two decades. But it truly got the character of the Silver Surfer, one of Marvel’s greatest and noblest heroes, and one that deserved nothing less than the ambition on full display in these 13 short episodes.