After my recent column about Galactus, I’ve had an urge to rediscover a character that I’ve never really given enough attention to: Norrin Radd, the Silver Surfer. I always liked the way that Galactus and the Surfer played off of one another. One is large, colorful, elaborate, and apathetic, and the other is the size of a man, all one color, wears no clothes, and is extremely empathetic. However, I wasn’t always certain that the two characters would work as well separately without those opposing forces interacting, so I never really gave Silver Surfer’s solo stuff a shot.
My attitude changed recently when I started to see him as a sort of cosmic bodhisattva, the Buddhist idea of a person who has become awakened to his Buddha nature but has chosen not to escape the wheel of karma and instead decides to remain inside of it and help others escape it first. According to Zen Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hanh, the Mahayana sutras of Buddhism explain that bodhisattvas “ride on the waves of birth and death,” as they are able to move through the sorrow of the world without letting it drown them, so I think Silver Surfer is an appropriate metaphor for embodying this concept. This inspired me to start looking more deeply into the character, and for my starting point, I chose the 1988 two-issue mini series, Silver Surfer: Parable.
Written by Silver Surfer co-creator Stan Lee and illustrated by the late, great Moebius, “Parable” can almost be considered the Silver Surfer / Galactus equivalent to DC’s The Dark Knight Returns. It takes place in a sort of ‘80s pseudo-future similar to the Gotham City of DKR, although less depressed and rundown, at a point when enough time has passed since Galactus’s initial visit to Earth for the people of the planet to have pretty much forgotten his whole shtick of needing to eat the planet and kill everyone on it. In fact, it doesn’t seem like humanity has had much interaction with any aliens yet in the continuity of this story, if at all, and the world seems pretty devoid of superheroes as well, so that when a large space ship is seen entering Earth’s atmosphere and landing in a heavily-populated area, people are initially pretty terrified.
When Galactus emerges, he tells the world that he has come to Earth because he is tired of seeing humanity suffer and that he wishes to set people free from all the man-made laws and morals that have caused the world’s war and poverty. He then rises to power as a new God and begins teaching humanity that there is no longer such a thing as “sin” and that pleasure is now the law of the land. This sets humanity on a self-destructive path of religious fanaticism, as televangelist Colton Candell takes to the air as Galactus’s self-appointed prophet, feeding into the fear and panic of the masses. Soon the plot of the world devourer is made clear. Although Galactus once promised to never return to Earth and destroy the human race, he never made a promise not to allow the human race to destroy itself.
Eventually, one man among the crowd, a derelict who has tried to remain separate from the rest of society, decides he can no longer stand by and watch humanity eat itself alive. The man confronts Candell, calling him a false prophet, before removing his rags and revealing himself to be Galactus’s formal herald, the Silver Surfer. He has come out of seclusion to battle Galactus once again for the fate of humanity, by countering Galactus’s message with his own: Think for yourself. Be your own light, to paraphrase the Buddha. He implores the people of the city to stop looking to prophets and gods and interstellar beings to run their life for them.
Although the series only consists of two issues, and can be thought of as more of a double-sized comic than a graphic novel, it is still nevertheless quite effective at conveying its relatively mature philosophical ideas. The writing here bears Stan Lee’s signature melodramatic style, with lines like “your words give offense to my ears and my heart” and, “let it ever be the goal that stirs us, not the odds.” In Stan Lee’s Marvel Universe of the future, every sentence sounds like it should be spoken from a balcony. That’s always been Lee’s forte, and here he is firing on all cylinders. The world itself could have used a bit more fleshing out, and perhaps the characters of the Colton Candell B-plot could have been as well, but for just being two regular-sized issues, these issues were handled as well as they could have been. And actually, the sort of nameless, faceless ‘80s sci-fi “Robocop”-esque future city might have worked better without being too fleshed out or having its own identity.
For his part, Moebius is able to perfectly capture the ‘80s design sense of the time, sticking to lots of harsh angles, simple geometric structures and dressing his characters in baggy, big-shouldered uniforms. This combined with a hot, dry-color palette, really seemed to drive home the Paul Verhoeven-like aesthetic for the setting. Moebius’s Galactus is rendered with a level of detail that puts him in a more godly realm than ever before. He no longer looks like a tall guy in a funny hat, but like a mountain of jagged metal with a single window of granite skin around his mouth. This Galactus appears as a living skyscraper, the jealous, angry God of a modern, vertical society. He is God as a walking, talking city, one that needs to feed off its host planet to survive. On the other side of the spectrum, his Silver Surfer floats across the page with perfect grace, an angel of cosmic compassion and wisdom.
Although Stan Lee probably didn’t intend for it, Silver Surfer: Parable only seems to strengthen the idea of Silver Surfer as a cosmic bodhisattva. His mission throughout the comic is to steer mankind away from worshipping Galactus, who represents desire and power, and to encourage people to treat each other with compassion and understanding. The Surfer knows that this kind of liberation is possible, as he had already set himself free years earlier.
When the Surfer made his first appearance during the Galactus trilogy of Fantastic Four issues 48-50, he started out being a colorless, featureless apathetic drone, not concerned with anything but fulfilling his social duty and serving the almighty Galactus. He was then shown the beauty and the suffering of the world simultaneously by Alicia Masters, and his heart filled with compassion for the human race. This caused Silver Surfer to revolt against his former master and attack Galactus, giving the Fantastic Four enough time to attain the Ultimate Nullifier, a MacGuffin scary enough to convince Galactus to pack up and leave. As he did so, he stripped Surfer of the power to leave Earth, causing him to live among the sorrows of the human race in his newly awakened state.
In “Parable,” that story is flashed forward to the Cold War climate of the late ‘80s, when the fear and excess of modern society seemed to have reached a boiling point that also inspired the paranoid tales of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. In the end, the Surfer makes the decision to sacrifice himself in order to shatter humanity’s need for a God. With Galactus out of the way, the leaders of the world begin to turn to the Surfer for guidance, begging him to be his disciples.
His heart sinks from seeing how desperate humans are for an authority figure to lord over him, and he realizes that there is only one way for him to fix this problem. He begins to make lofty demands and play into the role of a power-mad ruler, causing the people to immediately lose trust in him and turn against him. Although he is cast out of Earth’s atmosphere, his sacrifice has allowed humans to reject their need for an authority figure, as he did all those years ago with Galactus, with the hope that maybe someday they will turn inward and find the guidance they seek in their own hearts through compassion and harmony.
While other superheroes have taken up the good fight because their parents or surrogate parents were killed, or because they were given superpowers by the military, or because they were made into supermen in a lab accident, the Silver Surfer is a superhero that became a superhero by rejecting a God, and his quest since then has been to help relieve humanity’s suffering and guide it away from the hungry deity that he once served. This sort of spiritually enlightened twist on the concept of the superhero is, in my opinion, one of the most sophisticated and intellectually stimulating takes on the archetype that I’ve ever read. Hopefully, as humanity moves further into the future and closer to the point when we will have to choose between using our technological advancements to kill ourselves or using it to explore the stars as a united, enlightened species, we choose the latter. Hopefully we choose to be the Surfer.