J. Michael Straczynski and Esad Ribic’s Silver Surfer: Requiem is one of the best comics I have read in recent memory. As a warning, the following article contains a great deal of spoilers for the book, so if you haven’t picked up your own copy, get to it! I promise that you won’t be disappointed.
Norrin Radd, or the Silver Surfer, has just unleashed a massive amount of the Power Cosmic and used it to touch the lives of every man, woman, and child on Earth. He did not use it as a weapon, as he might normally, but as a gift. He invested in every person on Earth a small amount of the Power Cosmic, that they might experience the universe as he experiences it – whole, complete, and at peace.
This was also his last deed on the planet Earth before he left, for the Silver Surfer is dying, and has been for some time. The massive effort of this last deed took a great toll on him, and his newly acquired friend, Spider-Man, helps him back to his feet.
While this was an amazing feat for Norrin Radd, it was much more amazing in what it did for Peter Parker.
Let’s rewind a bit.
Part 1 – The Powerplay
It all begins with Spider-Man on the streets of Manhattan trying to stave off the attack of a rampaging battlemech that threatens to take the lives of many citizens. Business as usual. But to his frustration, none of his powers seem to have any effect – he can’t stick his webbing to it, he can’t stop it with brute strength, and he can’t seem to find any weak point. The mech approaches a large bus full of citizens, and it seems that Spider-Man may not be able to save the day this time!
Enter the Silver Surfer.
With a fraction of the time and effort, Norrin Radd obliterates the competition – and not just the mech. Spider-Man is instantly upstaged. After all, what mere mortal could contend with the Power Cosmic? The web-slinger covers his bruised ego with a bit of humor.
It was hardly Norrin Radd’s intention to put Spider-Man down – in fact just the opposite. He only sought to help him neutralize a potential threat to the citizens of Manhattan. And that, after all, is the most important factor – the people you save come first. Spider-Man knows that, but he still can’t help trying to save a bit of face for himself.
But the Silver Surfer doesn’t acknowledge Spider-Man’s touch of resentment – in fact he doesn’t seem to care much for Spider-Man at all. With what amounts to a terse “I must leave now,” he begins to soar up into the sky. Pete’s no fool – he can tell something is wrong, so after a few more wisecracks with a helping of sincere insistence, Norrin Radd agrees to discuss his problem.
And here Norrin Radd reveals what he’s truly afraid of. He’s not afraid of dying – for all things must eventually expire. He is afraid he hasn’t finished living.
Part 2 – Counseling
“You are human, perhaps you would have an idea.” Spider-Man responds to Norrin’s query in a telling manner. He is humble, yet enthusiastic. The Surfer’s question just opened up a whole new world of possibilities to him – for a moment, it is as if that power is at his command, or at least at his discretion. With all that cosmic force at his disposal – there has got to be something he could do to save the world!
Spidey runs off a few options. Destroying the world’s corrupt governments, giving jewels and riches from outer space to the poor, dumping the world’s leaders in a desert to make them work out their differences… None of it seems to have any foreseeable lasting solution. New governments would spring up, possibly even worse than the last. Flooding the market with precious stones and gems would decrease its value and bankrupt businesses leading to an economic downturn and no net change. The world leaders might resolve their difference, or they might kill each other.
There’s no guarantee. Even the Silver Surfer’s great power cannot change the world on such a level. He can’t force people to be different.
Spider-Man changes the subject before Norrin responds – he asks him about his surfboard. It seems like a strange question to pose after debating how to change the world, but though the question is well-disguised as simple curiosity, it is actually integrally connected. Spider-Man is asking about the Silver Surfer’s surfboard – his namesake. It is his symbol, and though it may not be his power, it is representative of it. Note also that before posing the query, Spider-Man says, “Well, since nothing else is working…”
Spidey posed each of the possible solutions he suggested to the Silver Surfer prefaced with the phrase, “You could.” After each “you could” has failed, Spider-Man is really simply asking, “Well, if you can’t do any of that, what CAN you do? What is your power, anyway?”
The Silver Surfer’s response? “Let me show you.”
Part 3 – With Great Power…
“I can temporarily invest in you a small amount of the Power Cosmic, allowing you to experience what I have said for yourself.” The Silver Surfer offers Spider-Man a chance to see the universe as he sees it – unfettered by the need for warmth, air, or fuel – naked against the cosmos.
Things to do? What things are there to do that are more important than experiencing the power that could save the world? Even though Spider-Man is unaware of the magnitude of his refusal, he does recognize the uniqueness of the opportunity, and chooses to allow another to experience it… Mary Jane Watson.
When she returns from being at one with the universe, she professes her love for Peter as he wishes her a happy birthday. The Silver Surfer turns to leave, but then suddenly an idea occurs to Spider-Man.
If he could extend the Power Cosmic to MJ, and let her feel what he feels, let her experience the kind of freedom he has experienced, let her see the world as he sees it – whole, beautiful, with the prospect of peace always at the center of it – then might it be possible, for just a moment, to let the whole world feel what that’s like?
Part 4 – …Comes Great Responsibility
And we are back where we began. Norrin Radd agreed, and after his titanic feat, Spider-Man reaches down to help his friend up onto his feet. They found the solution – there was still no guarantee, still no surefire way to root out all evil – no way to change how people are. No one can do that, not even with superpowers. But the one thing he can do is show people what they may have never considered – hope.
And as the Silver Surfer leaves Earth for the last time, Spider-Man acknowledges his bravery and mourns his loss. But what the web-slinger doesn’t say is as important as what he does. The Silver Surfer extended the Power Cosmic to every person on Earth, including Peter Parker. And yet Spider-Man makes no mention of it. He focuses instead on the feat of his friend and laments:
And as he rose into the sky, I thought… How sad that we did not know him better. How sad that his voice was heard so little, when he had so much to say. Why do we always realize these things when its too late to do anything about it?
But most importantly of all, Spider-Man takes off his mask. Not because Norrin Radd doesn’t know who he is – because he doesn’t feel worthy to call himself a super-hero in front of the Silver Surfer. Why?
He doesn’t want the responsibility. He’s not sure if he can save the world, even after experiencing the Power Cosmic for himself. He’s not sure he could grapple with trying to change people. Anyone could tell him that such an endeavor would meet with very little success.
And as the Silver Surfer leaves planet Earth, Peter Parker realizes his own fear, and takes off his mask, for how much of a super-hero is a person who will not take on the responsibility of saving the world? That’s what they’re there for, isn’t it? But Spider-Man is suddenly confronted with his own mortality and his own powerlessness. And just like when he was battling a rampaging battlemech, Spider-Man once again tells himself, “I can’t do this.”
But not all those who wander are lost.
The Silver Surfer leaves Earth and journeys back to his home planet, Zenn-La, where he dies. Upon his death, Galactus takes his corpse into the heavens and turns it into a star – a huge, bright star which can be seen light-years away – on planet Earth.
Then we see Spider-Man for the last time – with his mask back on. Peter Parker despaired when the Silver Surfer left Earth – he said he would never see him again. He was wrong. He was wrong about a great many other things too. He was wrong that the Silver Surfer’s voice was not heard. He was wrong that it was too late to do anything about it. And most importantly, he was wrong that he couldn’t do it. That he couldn’t save the world.
To show a person hope is one thing, but it is up to the person in question to decide how to act upon it – to refuse it, to despair for the hopelessness of the cause, or to fight, no matter the odds, for a better world. To save the world not through force, belligerence, generosity, or even diplomacy, but through example.
Peter Parker speculated if Norrin Radd’s actions would bear fruit in the future. If nothing else, they have affected one man – they have shown Peter Parker that he is not powerless, that it is not hopeless, and that he too holds the Power Cosmic inside him.
And with that power shining back at him from millions of light-years away, Peter Parker pulls his mask back on, because he knows that he is a super-hero, that he can save the world, and that the power is not only shining upon him, but shining within him. He has accepted both the power and the responsibility, in order to become… the truly Amazing Spider-Man.