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Iconic comic characters mostly rely on their looks. This isn’t as shallow as it seems, as comics are inherently a visual medium. It’s why Cable’s creation tends to be attributed to Rob Liefeld rather than Louise Simonson. The best characters have timeless looks, the kind of visual appeal that will work no matter when you’re introduced to him. It’s one of the reasons Spider-Man keeps coming back to the classic red-and-blue costume; he can have a bunch of different costumes, but there’s only one real one.
Two characters who are just as iconic in appearance are Silver Surfer and Ghost Rider. Here in California, there’s barely a beach bum out on the waves that doesn’t know the shiny silver visage of the Silver Surfer. Bikers and tough guys near and far love the Ghost Rider’s signature skull. And yet, for all their visual popularity, I’d be hard pressed to find someone who knows exactly who these characters are. Norrin Radd isn’t a household name, after all. Defining Ghost Rider’s powers gets a little tricky for the average Joe once you move past “His skull is on fire.” There’s just a lot of detail missing from the public perception of who these characters are, but they still remain popular.
Trust me, we all know what it looks like when the characters don’t work, so what do what is it that’s essential for them to make it?
WARNING: We talk vaguely about the new Silver Surfer #1 and All-New Ghost Rider #1, but nothing major is spoiled. Still, grab a copy and read along!
The most important things about the Silver Surfer are in the name: Is he silver? Does he surf? Considering how simple the appearance of the Silver Surfer is, it’s amazing there’s never been a ’90s redesign with pouches or guns or gritted teeth. Does the Surfer have teeth?
His job remains relatively the same as well: No matter what his relationship is with the World-Eater at the moment, the Silver Surfer is primarily known as Galactus’ herald. His powers are simply cosmic, and that’s a lot harder to define than, say, a radioactive spider bite or evolutionary genetics. While other heroes get recap pages and origin tales, the Silver Surfer’s noble story of Norrin Radd, his love for Shalla-Bal, and his compassion for humanity doesn’t get retold that often. In a way, that’s fitting: the Silver Surfer’s design is simple and tranquil, so it makes sense that the details of who he is and what he does get kind of glossed over. When you think about it, Silver Surfer is this metallic blank form, alien and reflective of whatever you want to see in him. If you want a surfer of the space ways, he can be that. If you want a grand love story, he has that too. If you’re looking for a philosophical hero to view mankind through, he can do that. That simple image of a man covered in silver with a plain long board, his arm outstretched, speaks to us because we can see what we want through his reflective skin.
Ghost Rider, on the other hand, has tons of details. He must, without fail, have a flaming skull. Any time you see his alter ego’s fleshy face, it’s a disappointment (thanks, Nicolas Cage). His bike is just as important; Ghost Rider is not a stationary guy, and he needs to move as fast and as awesomely as possible. He’s a visual and literal bad ass, so the leather jacket and chains are all part of the gig as much as being associated with Hell itself. Other than that, he’s fair game, demonstrated by how many Ghost Riders there have been. I know it’s sacrilege to say, but Johnny Blaze and Danny Ketch are interchangeable when thinking primarily about the iconic feel of Ghost Rider. There have been different identities for Ghost Rider, and each one is as legitimate as the next — each of them, from Carter Slade to the only woman to bear the burden of being the Spirit of Vengeance, Alejandra, are the spark that sets that skull afire.
We met the latest Ghost Rider this week: a young man by the name of Robbie Reyes who lives in the worst area of Los Angeles imaginable. It’s so bad they have thugs stealing a child’s wheelchair in the first pages. It’s so bad that the weird hyper-reality of the art style starts to work. But all of that takes a back seat to the real problem of the All-New Ghost Rider: no motorcycle! Will fans, both casual and hardcore, accept a muscle car-driving young man from East L.A. as the new Spirit of Vengeance? Well, is his head on fire? There’s a certain degree of pathos accompanying the image of Ghost Rider that’s been instilled into the public consciousness; it’s one of the reasons the character has endured with multiple hosts. Where the Silver Surfer is a blank slate to paint what you want to see on to, Ghost Rider is the paint that you can apply to any canvas. We can have a Western Ghost Rider, a woman Ghost Rider, a stunt man Ghost Rider and, now, we have a fast and furious style that tells a new story through the flaming skull.
The all-new NOW Silver Surfer out this week doesn’t reinvent the wheel. He surfs in space and encounters alien adventures in that quirky mod style only Mike Allred can bring to the page. It’s so unique and bizarre, writer Dan Slott rightly adds in a human companion for Silver Surfer (hey, it works for Doctor Who). Having an “ordinary girl” ride along allows the writer to direct more of the story through her eyes, and she can become a filter for the reader to understand these new adventures through. Otherwise, it looks like Dawn is the only element Slott and Allred have added. The classic look is there, the rest can remain as vague as needed. There was no recap, no catch up origin, no added elements to the Surfer himself, just the spaceways he inhabits and someone to share them with.
These are both first issues, so there’s a long way to go to see if they’ll make it to the nest trade paperback and be a hit with the readers. But if we are going by first impressions and an iconic feel, both books have that classic feel with all new paint and that Marvel NOW style.