Of the many co-creations of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Silver Surfer is one that was exceptionally close to Lee’s heart—he referred to the character as his personal philosophical outlet and a mouthpiece for many of his own observations on the human race. Indeed, Surfer’s removed, sensitive condemnation of the foolishness of humankind remains relatable to this day, and it brought out a seldom seen quietly emotional side to Lee’s writing that has continued to inform the character. All these many decades later, the Surfer remains almost completely unchanged from his foundational appearances.
Silver Surfer is one of Marvel’s most versatile characters, and he does great as a foil (Fantastic Four), a surprise reveal (Planet Hulk), and a team player (The Defenders). Still, let’s not forget that a major part of the Surfer’s appeal is his aptitude for brooding as he travels alone through the vast emptiness of space, not to mention his knack for a somber inner monologue about feeling remorse for the many sins of his past. In his many incarnations, Norrin Radd—former astronomer, herald of Galactus, and frenemy of the FF—remains a poet at heart.
The Coming of Galactus (Fantastic Four #48-50 & 55)
The story that kicks off the Silver Surfer’s induction into the Marvel Universe is still one of the best superhero comics to ever see print. The basic premise of four against a god is already intriguing, but the rapid build in pacing that the Surfer’s presence brings to the book is nothing short of brilliant even all these years later. First, the Surfer is sent to Earth to gauge its suitability as a food source for the cosmic devourer known as Galactus. Considering humanity and the Earth too volatile for any hope of sustainability, the Surfer dooms Earth before he ever arrives. Only when he meets the people does he begin to realize that the planet has more in common with his native Zenn-La than he’d ever dreamed.
In an act that would permanently change the course of his existence, he betrays Galactus and helps the Fantastic Four defeat him. A few months later, he wanders the city of New York aimlessly as an observer, meeting briefly with Alicia Masters. Masters’ sometimes-boyfriend Ben Grimm arrives and misreads the situation, leading to an issue-long brawl. These stories link directly to the Surfer’s first ongoing series. The original Fantastic Four comics are far from perfect, but there are plenty of gems, and this story is absolutely one of the best.
Silver Surfer Vol. 1 (#1-18)
After his chaotic introduction to the Marvel Universe, the Silver Surfer was meant to be integrated into the greater world of superheroes. The result is one of the great underrated jaunts of Marvel Comics’ Silver Age. Though this series was short-lived, it remained a favorite of Lee’s, and it’s easy to see why. The bombastic, out-of-control world of superheroes gains extra perspective through the removed gaze of the Surfer, but we also learn a great deal about him as we witness his development alongside them.
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Guest appearances abound in this series, and all-out brawls with Thor and the Human Torch remain highlights. Surfer’s long-running animosity towards Mephisto comes into the spotlight, as does his begrudging fondness for people. This series has so many highlights that it’s just easier to recommend it as a whole work. For Stan Lee fans, this is a must-read, and for comics fans of any era looking to understand the Silver Surfer, it remains one of the best opportunities to do so.
Return to Zenn-La (Silver Surfer Vol. 3 #2)
Steve Englehart’s run on Silver Surfer Vol. 3 marked the first real outing for the character in a series not penned by creator Stan Lee. Though his tenure was reportedly plagued with differences of opinion with editorial, he did still introduce many aspects to the series that would stick to the character for years to come. Here, after seeing Norrin Radd endlessly bemoan the loss of Zenn-La, the Surfer has the chance to briefly return to his home world.
When he arrives, he finds that his beloved Shalla Bal has become the ruler of Zenn-La, and though they do find happiness together at first, they quickly discover that their lives no longer match up the way they once did. When Shalla makes a choice that Norrin frowns upon, he nearly crosses a line to remove her from power, but quickly sees the error of his ways. Though there is resentment there, it’s actually very healthy of these two to accept that they can’t fit together the way they once did before years of trauma and growth took place.
The Return of Thanos (Silver Surfer Vol. 3 #34-38)
Jim Starlin’s work on Cosmic Marvel is legendary, but perhaps somewhat less-known specifically is his run on Silver Surfer. That’s a shame, because upon taking over writing chores, Starlin almost immediately brought Thanos back in a very big way. All of Starlin’s work on the Silver Surfer is must-read stuff, but if you’re trying to condense, there’s no better place to start than this five-parter that leads directly into the Thanos mini-series, which led to… well, we’ll let you discover all that for yourself.
This story is great because it gives us a glance at the interpersonal dynamics between the sensitive but logical Surfer and the Mad Titan himself. Watching these two banter is worth the cover price every time, and Starlin makes the dialogue between them pop in a very unique way.
Resurrection (Silver Surfer Vol. 3 #76-85)
Ron Marz is another writer who did a lot of his best work on the Silver Surfer in a run that has only partially been collected in trade. Nonetheless, what hasn’t been collected is worth tracking down. Right after the very good The Herald Ordeal (#70-75), Marz and underrated Surfer artist Ron Lim jumped into the next story with Jack of Hearts, who would go on to guest-star for several issues as he and Surfer return to Earth to engage in prison break hijinks with none other than Nebula.
This era saw Surfer go up against great antagonists like Doctor Minerva, Captain Atom, and Terrax, and the sense of epic cosmic adventure from Starlin’s run c0ntinues on unabated. If Marz’ Surfer is to your liking, check out the incredibly fun Green Lantern/Silver Surfer crossover special from this era, in which Marz’ run on Kyle Rayner’s Green Lantern series crosses over with Silver Surfer to accent the differences and the similarities between the two.
Silver Surfer Vol. 3 #125-138
J.M. DeMatteis is another writer whose work on Silver Surfer is lesser known, but still a great read. This is when the lengthy Vol. 3 was starting to wind down after a highly impressive run of hits, but DeMatteis and artist Ron Garney proved that there were plenty of stories to tell. The run kicks off with a classic brawl between Hulk and the Surfer based on a misunderstanding, but that’s far from the last guest appearance. Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Mephisto, and Agatha Harkness are just a few of the names that pop up before the series wrapped.
The character work here continues on themes set forward by Stan Lee and it doesn’t break a lot of new ground, but it does return him to his roots in a way by pulling him back to Earth, reconnecting him with Alicia Masters, and allowing him time to redefine himself on his own terms outside of his standard attachments to Zenn-La and Galactus. Seeing the Silver Surfer back in the standard Marvel Universe is always a delight, and this run did just that while letting him explore his relationship to humanity more than he had in some time.
Silver Surfer: Parable & Judgment Day
The Surfer is one of the few characters that Stan Lee returned to many times even after he had more or less switched out of writing to focus on the business side of comics. His Surfer stories tend to age incredibly well, and his returns always accentuated a somber realness that Lee was surprisingly adept in portraying. Judgment Day is a gorgeous book done in tandem with his old creative partner on the original Surfer series, John Buscema, who pulls off an entire story with only splash pages. The Surfer, who had been restricted to Earth, finds himself suddenly able to leave, and must grapple with the new importance humanity has to him.
Then, in Parable, Surfer comes to be viewed as a god by many, and finds himself bitterly turning to full misanthropic disdain before realizing that he shouldn’t want to be a god, anyway. These stories feature a lot of great exposition as the Surfer poses impossible-to-answer questions to the reader—and to himself.
Galactus The Devourer
Comics legend Louise Simonson wrote this six-issue mini-series, which is perhaps more a Silver Surfer story than it is a Galactus story. The story sees Silver Surfer having settled back on Earth, helping Alicia Masters prepare for an art show. The Mole Man attacks, and Alicia strangely develops her own superhero alter ego as they attempt to understand why Galactus is again returning to Earth. Dozens of heroes assemble to assess the threat, but only the Surfer understands Galactus.
The relationship between the two is fascinating here as Galactus’ hunger leaves him in a somewhat pathetic state, and Surfer is dragged back in to help him find new planets to feed on. Guest appearances abound, and Simonson’s knack for snappy dialogue and characterization is on display. This series also sees the return of Mantis, who especially benefits from Simonson’s pen. This series is a great romp through Marvel, from NYC to the cosmos, and it delves into Surfer’s complicated feelings towards his former master.
Silver Surfer: In Thy Name
This story begins, as so many Silver Surfer stories do, with Norrin Radd choosing to depart from Earth to fly the spaceways once more. This leads to him stumbling headlong into a collision with the Ama Collective, a utopian society of many different species and planets, all of whom have joined together in hopes of creating a perfect society. He finds himself pulled in, only to discover that the Ama Collective is not exactly what they have claimed to be. There is intolerance towards a group of fanatics known as the Brekk, who just happen to worship Silver Surfer as their deity. Tensions continue to rise, and the Surfer is stuck in an ethical quandary about the nature of peace, and war.
Silver Surfer: Black
In some ways, Black is a culmination of all these many Surfer stories. He selflessly sacrifices his life only to find himself alone in space. Callbacks to who he once was abound as he finds himself lost in time. His hand, and then the rest of his body, begins to transform slowly and take on a black metallic appearance. He is given the chance to change the past, but instead, must learn to reconcile with it. Surfer’s pondering all boils down to this one last quest for forgiveness, and it makes for one of the best Surfer stories in years.
Though it’s hard to foresee where Norrin Radd will go from here, it’s almost heartwarming to see him finally putting the demons of his past to rest, and learning to let go of all he has lost, and all he has cost others. He is forced to see Galactus through different eyes, and the understanding and self-awareness he gains as a result is potentially character-changing. At any rate, this is an incredibly fun, extremely beautiful romp through space with our favorite depressed, cosmically powerful surfer, and it’s a must-read.
This is a great list. I have all these books in original form and many more. Surfer is my favorite and I’ve spent decades on my collection.