Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Underrated/Overlooked: Silver Surfer: Requiem

The Silver Surfer is not the easiest guy to make work as a protagonist. I’m a fan of a character and think he’s a great creation, not to mention one of comics’ greatest guest stars—he really adds weight and that “oh shit, things just got real” factor to any story—but when he’s the focus, it’s a tough sell.

To this day, probably the best Silver Surfer story of all—at least top three—is his introduction in Fantastic Four where he turns on Galactus and helps the FF save Earth. The tale of a stoic alien realizing we dumb humans may be worth saving and more or less turning on God to stand up for us is pretty spectacular as far as star turns go.

Unfortunately, even the best stuff with the Surfer on a long-term basis seems to stagnate. The first handful of issues in his initial solo series by Stan Lee and John Buscema are seriously killer, but you reach a point where you can only sit through so much pathos about being trapped on Earth/separated from his true love, and the “I don’t understand why humans are so needlessly violent…but I will save them anyways” routine gets played out rather rapidly. I likewise enjoyed what Jim Starlin and Ron Marz did with the Surfer back in the 90’s, but even they were hampered by his fairly unbeatable power set and basic detached nature; the first problem kept him in space fighting cosmic gods and nothing else while the second just made him tough to relate to or even like that much.

However, while he may not make an ideal candidate for ongoing series headline status, the Surfer has inspired some pretty great one-off tales, and I think Requiem, by J. Michael Straczynski and Esad Ribic, may well be among the very best.

The story is not set in continuity and depicts what happens when the Silver Surfer learns he is dying and how he spends his final days. Though there is action, it’s less an adventure—the end outcome is never really in doubt—and more a character study of Norrin Radd and his alter ego by JMS. Say what you will about Straczynski—everybody does—but you can really tell when he truly loves a character because few break them down and show what makes them work better, and he sure as heck must be fond of the Silver Surfer.

In four issues, we see the Surfer’s final journey to Earth as he seeks out the Fantastic Four to learn his fate, more or less an extended conversation with Spider-Man, a final cosmic tale centered around an age-old interstellar conflict, and finally, Norrin Radd’s return to Zenn-La, his reunion with Shalla Bal, and his ultimate encounter with Galactus.

The Surfer does not talk all that much throughout Requiem. He’s not silent and we’re given a window into his thoughts on his own mortality, what he has accomplished, his legacy, his view on humanity and other topics, but only speaks when moved to do so, and his words have great weight; it’s a far cry from the philosophizing wonderer of Lee’s early stories, who was special in his own right, but seems like a far younger version of the character.

Instead, it’s mostly through how others view him that JMS paints his picture of the Silver Surfer. The FF agonizes over being unable to help him overcome his gravest ordeal in light of all he has truly given at great cost to his own existence. Spider-Man realizes he has been guilty of always viewing him as an outsider, only to learn through a simple chat he may have greater insight into humanity than most people could dream of. Two alien generals witness his awesome power and feel his rage at not being able to solve all the universe’s problems, and worse, not understanding why he can’t. The people of Zenn La revere him for his tremendous sacrifice on their behalf. Shalla Bal sees simply the man she will always love. And finally, Galactus shows that even the most powerful being in the galaxy can learn respect.

The story reminds us of the silent nobility that the Surfer had back in those first appearances. We see a man whose near infinite capacity for putting himself in peril so that other may have a chance to simply be is rivaled only by his frustration at not understanding why everybody else can’t see things as he does.

Perhaps the finest moment in the series comes in the second issue during the encounter between the Surfer and Spider-Man. At Spidey’s behest, the Surfer shares his Power Cosmic with another, the Web-Slinger’s wife, Mary Jane Watson, as a birthday present. There’s a great aside where after the Surfer introduces himself as Norrin Radd to MJ, Spidey mentally chides himself for never thinking he had a real name, never seeing him as a person. Following the experience, answering a question the Surfer had earlier about how he could do something to help Earth before he died, Spider-Man suggests he allows the entire world to see things as he does for just five seconds—maybe it will make a difference, maybe it won’t, but people will at least glimpse and know that there’s a better way to live. It’s a beautiful beat.

Indeed the whole series is beautiful thanks to Ribic’s painted art. He’s a deliberate and particular talent who we don’t see new work from with great frequency because he is so specific about what projects he chooses and then pours himself into them for years at a time. Requiem benefits tremendously from Ribic’s commitment and patience.

Just as the Surfer is a tough guy to write, he’s a challenge for artists, as it’s really just a naked dude painted silver. The true masters from Jack Kirby to John Buscema to Moebius and so on have been able to leave their mark on the character by rising to this and going all out, not taking shortcuts that are pretty clearly there. Ribic walks a perfect balance between giving the Surfer an ethereal glow particularly in his facial expression and portraying his fading sheen as dictated by the story as very much an all-too-real metal that dents and bruises. He both makes the character almost larger than imagination and so close you can touch him. His portrayal of the Surfer’s power feels every bit as epic as it should, and his delicate work on the moving final scenes make the grief come off the page.

And his Galactus is sick.

Silver Surfer: Requiem depicts the Silver Surfer with all the promise and majesty he displayed when he first sprang forth from the minds of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. He fulfills his potential as a champion perhaps without fear facing his most trying and yet defining moments. And yet, good as the story and art are, I think they also show why the Surfer works best in small doses. This is a character you bottle up and save for special occasions, of which this is certainly one. It may be tough to make the Silver Surfer work, but when you can, it’s magic.

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