Glad You Asked Dept. 1/16/14
About a year ago I started what I intended to be a weekly column answering your questions about TV writing and the TV biz in general. I would’ve gladly answered questions about a ton of other things, but TV writing and TV biz aren’t just areas I know a lot about, they’re probably the only areas I know anything about.
The weekliness of said column didn’t last long because I didn’t get enough questions. Which, btw, was very disappointing. Recently, however, I’ve received a couple of inquiries that I think might be of interest to others, so here we go with the latest Glad You Asked.
Today’s question is about one of my favorite topics, the animated SILVER SURFER series that I ran back in the waning days of the 20th Century. It’s from JB (writing from France, which of course proves the wonderfulness of the interwebs when it comes to expanding our communication horizons). Where was I? Oh, right. JB’s question:
I am currently watching the Silver Surfer TV series and rarely have I been so delighted and surprised by a show, I am in complete admiration…. The show remains completely pertinent and it will probably be so for years and years.
I am studying Theology and am constantly finding themes linking the show to mythology, theology, ethics etc. I was wondering if you had any background in any of those domains, maybe did it come from your University formation?
The questions raised are so precise (scenes where a choice has to be made, the romantic quest, sacrifice, guilt, the appearance of different types of societies with different values, different resignations…), I came to wonder if it’s because writers are naturally inclined to include those existential questions in their work or because creative writing is the conscious choice to make an homage to classic and well-liked myths or formulas or because writers use those well-known/liked myths and formulas as a tool to critique the world they live in.
Did you want to include those questions/problematics/themes (they make the serie so fun to analyse!) or did it just surface naturally and became obvious after the writing?
Also, how much did you study the comic books? How much did you read and how much time did you give to the reading in order to be confident taking back the character?
I mostly speak French so I can’t quite find the words to formulate all the questions and exclamations that came to mind while watching, so I’ll just say; thank you for your amazing, insightful, poetic work!
To which I can only answer:
Well, that’s it, kids. All I have time for. Tune in next time and I’ll get to Question Two. No, wait. I do have a bit more to say on this subject, so:
I love your questions, but it would take far more space than I have in this blog to answer them fully. The bottom line is that you can rest assured that every single thing on the show was deliberate. (Except for mistakes made on the visual side by the various animators.)
The original network, Fox Family, and I worked very closely to be as adult and, yes, mythical/theological/ethical as possible for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, because we wanted to make the show as much like the original Stan Lee-Jack Kirby version of the comic book as we could.
Secondly, because we wanted to show that even though we were making what was “only” a Saturday morning cartoon show we could use the TV animation medium to go even further in the direction of philosophy and self-realization than the comics ever did.
I have a fairly extensive background (“fairly extensive?” what does that mean?) in philosophy, and an obsession with existentialism, and for many years one of my hobbies was theology. I’m pretty sure that I have every book on the history (and therefore the meaning) of Christianity written between the mid-1950s and the year 2000. And, to top it all off, it was mythology – Greek, Roman, Hindu, you-name-it – that first fired up my imagination and made me want to be a writer back when I was still in elementary school. (We called it grammar school then; I’m that fucking old.)
When the Silver Surfer first got his own comic book back in 1968 he was as Christlike as a comic book character can get. Nonviolent. Questioning the inhumanity of human beings, that kind of thing. The Fox Family executive in charge of bringing our show to the screen, Sidney Iwanter, wanted to emphasize that, which is why he came to me. I hadn’t done much animation previously but my “live-action” shows all had a fundamental concern for ethics and ambiguities, and I’d been a Marvel Maniac since Fantastic Four #1, so I was a good fit.
Sitting down with Stan Lee and Avi Arad, who were both executive producing, we worked out a format in which the Surfer was a modern Odysseus with the personality of an alien Jesus, trying to find his lost home world and his great love, Shalla Bal. The idea was to be as humanistic as possible even though it meant stretching all previous superhero cartoon boundaries.
Sidney and I were absolutely trying to create a new paradigm, one in which characters thought about their actions and worried about the consequences, and in which they actually had conversations. Up to that time, the standard scene in Saturday morning animation consisted of three one-sentence bits of dialog and then a fight. The Silver Surfer, however, does a lot of talking, mostly to himself in the form of musing about the state of the universe and how intellectual and emotional strengths and weaknesses and implacable forces of nature affect the viability of his hopes and dreams.
Because those were pretty much the concerns that influenced every moment of my life, and Sidney’s too. I know that what I just wrote sounds esoteric, but it was designed to make the show more relate-able than any other comic book-based property had ever been.
Our main difficulty was keeping things visual. We solved the problem by letting the Surfer yak to himself (in his patented archaic speech pattern) in voiceover over shots of impending danger, using this technique to generate suspense. We would build these scenes so that the musing and the danger would come together in explosive action that combined both CGI and hand-drawn animation, satisfying – we hoped – viewers of all ages.
Creatively, I think we succeeded pretty well. Common wisdom, however, says that the show was a failure with audiences. The truth is that its ratings were more than good enough to earn renewal, but Marvel was going through a corporate meltdown that resulted in it being unable to continue meeting its financial requirements, per the Fox Family-Marvel deal on the show. In fact, Marvel filed for bankruptcy during that time.
So, sadly, that was the end. I’d outlined the entire second season and written 1/3 of the scripts when cancellation became official. I’d still like to do the second season for the world to see, but the state of the universe and human intellectual and emotional strengths and weaknesses long ago successfully combined to destroy the viability of that hope and dream.
Bottom line: I’m really glad you’ve been enjoying the show because I sure as hell enjoyed making it.
That’s it, gang. I love addressing these issues, but I can’t answer if you don’t ask. So send your questions and make everyone’s day!