Silver Surfer: Parable – the Stan Lee manifesto

When two titans of any artistic medium collaborate on a project it is bound to attract attention; when a graphic novel produced by Stan Lee and the late Jean Giraud (aka Moebius), two colossi standing astride American comics and French bande dessinee respectively, is reprinted for the first time in fourteen years it practically reached out, slapped my sun-starved face around and ordered me to read.

Originally published in 1988 as a two part mini-series, Silver Surfer: Parable has recently been reprinted in a new ‘deluxe’ hardcover edition featuring an introduction by Stan Lee, a fascinating afterword by Moebius explaining the artistic process behind the graphic novel, and a somewhat unnecessary additional Silver Surfer story from 1990 (Silver Surfer: The Enslavers). The story of Parable is relatively simple*: Galactus, an alien being of unfathomable power who feeds upon entire planets, returns to Earth (having previously sworn an oath not to attack it) and demands that all humanity to worship him as a god (as a way of circumventing his oath) so that he can eventually consume our world; the Silver Surfer (who is himself a powerful alien being living amongst us in exile) sees through Galactus’s plot and fights a hopeless battle to save us. Yet this simplicity belies the moral and philosophical worth of Parable, which stands in stark contrast to the occasionally thoughtless (and sometimes despicable) fare served up by many contemporary superhero comics**. Stan Lee’s writing often feels unnecessarily elaborate (much more suited to an earlier era of thought-balloons and paternalistic narration than post-1980s comics), but in this book he shows enough restraint to allow Moebius’s art to speak for itself and his un-naturalistic dialogue is strangely suited to the grandiose visuals and biblical tone of Parable.

Perhaps the main weakness of Parable is that it lacks the wider appeal of other literary superhero stories (such as Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns). It doesn’t feature a character who is popular amongst mainstream audiences, it doesn’t take place in a self-contained world, nor does it break new ground for the genre in a way that attracts the praise of literature critics. The individual styles of Lee or Moebius won’t be to everyone’s liking; Parable seems far more likely to alienate people who don’t often read comics than those aforementioned works and, though it is impossible to account for personal taste, I suspect the doubly idiosyncratic nature of this comic might have prevented it from reaching the level of popular acclaim it deserves. Being out of print since 1998 probably didn’t help either.

The fusion of French and American artistic styles in Parable helps it to stand apart from any other Marvel comic, especially other works of the same period. Moebius made a conscious effort to adapt his working methods to the American tradition – drawing action sequences from Kirby-esque perspectives with rougher, more dynamic pencil sketches than usual – which he then inked over with the grandiose landscape panels, flowing anatomy and laser-like precision that was his hallmark. Moebius and Lee used the ‘Marvel method’ of collaboration to develop the story, where the writer gives the artist the plot, the artist draws the page layouts and the writer returns to flesh out those pages with dialogue and captions, possibly also suggesting some alterations – which shows how far out of his comfort zone Moebius was prepared to work. He also chose to use the more limited palette of colours that was traditionally utilised by American comics (compared to their European counterparts). Despite the radically different approach, the artwork within Parable is immediately recognisable as having Moebius’s idiosyncratic style, even down to the lettering – which, unusually for an American comic, he did himself. Moebius’s illustrations conjure up an incredible sense of scale on the page, with careful arrangements of  empty space juxtaposed against areas of intensely detailed ink lines, and the qualities he brought to the comic made Parable aesthetically unique within the superhero genre.

The purpose of a parable is to use a narrative to suggest how we should behave or what we should believe, it should therefore be obvious from the title that this story that Lee has a moral lesson to teach us. Though Parable appears on the surface to be a story about religion, featuring masses of people proselytising before a would-be god, an evangelical charlatan and the messianic Silver Surfer, it is actually closer to being an allegory about two different ways we relate with and respond to power. On the one side is the all-powerful Galactus and his self-appointed high priest Colton, both of whom prey upon the weak to sustain or increase their power; on the other side stands the Silver Surfer and Colton’s sister Elyna, who put their principles first, despite the impossible odds they’re faced with, and seek to inspire ordinary people to draw strength from each other as well as themselves. To illustrate this, I’ve included a few quotations below:

“I am come to set you free, free from guilt! Free from worthles man-made laws! If you would be saved, do what you will! Take what you will! There is no wrong! There is no sin! Pleasure is all!”

“Consequences are for lesser beings, I am Galactus. That is sanction enough.”

– Galactus

“Truth is but an abstraction. Power is all!”

– Colton

“In truth, any man can make a difference. It is not given to us to know whether we shall succeed or not. In failure there is no disgrace. There can be but one ultimate shame… the cowardice of not having tried.”

“Flawed as man may be, he has ever aspired to nobility, despite war and crime, poverty and pestilence, the human spirit still burns bright.”

“Only the coward or sycophant worships power and might.”

– Silver Surfer

“Why did the supreme being give us minds if not to use them? Are we just sheep to blindly follow the mad dictates of a stranger?”

– Elyna

When applied to society at large, Lee’s message is clear: we must put our noblest aspirations before our cynicism and pragmatism if there is to be any hope of advancing human civilisation. Yet the dialectic between the two opposing ideologies represented above also invites us to question the superhero genre itself and our enjoyment of it: just what is it that we value most about these marvellous super-people? Is it the powers they possess or the values they represent?

Given the date of Parable‘s initial publication I find it difficult not to view it in the context of what was happening to the superhero genre at that time. The popular and critical success of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns – among others – only a few years earlier had elevated superhero fiction to a new level of sophistication and helped to make their audiences receptive to a different kind of caped caper; it’s doubtful that this could have escaped Lee’s attention and, by working with as gifted an artist as Moebius on such a contemplative story as Parable, it’s possible that he wanted to show that he could do it too. If that’s true, he did so in some style:  Parable won the prestigious Eisner award for ‘Best Finite Series’ in 1989 (equivalent to winning the Oscar for ‘Best Picture’). Today (and ever since the explosion of grim n’ gritty superheroes in the early 1990s^), it seems as though too few super-comics remember the lesson Lee preached in Parable: it takes a lot more than a brightly coloured costume to separate the heroes from the monsters they fight against.

I expected to enjoy Parable for its artwork, and in that respect Moebius certainly did not disappoint, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the comic as a whole. Stan Lee’s abilities as a publicist and his remarkable capacity for dreaming up fantastical characters^* have often been praised but, if it wasn’t already apparent from the message espoused by such creations as Spider-man (“with great power comes great responsibility”), Silver Surfer: Parable shows us that beneath all the flash and bombast of his public persona is a concerned and thoughtful man.

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Details, details

Silver Surfer: Parable is published by Marvel Comics and the current hardcover edition was released on 16 May 2012. Story by Stan Lee, with artwork (including colours and lettering) by Moebius. It should be available from all worthwhile comic-book retailers and many regular bookshops, but if you’re having trouble finding a copy you can always feed the corporate uber-beast and buy it from Amazon like I did.

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Endnotes

* I said relatively simple. The story doesn’t involve any other superheroes and, unlike a lot of Marvel’s comics, you don’t need to be literate in the company’s shared universe for anything to make sense.

** I’m not suggesting that all superhero comics should be philosophical masterpieces or anything like that, but when Spider-man and Captain America torture people it sends out some (*ahem*) mixed messages about what Marvel think a hero is supposed to be. Either Dan Slott & Marvel’s editorial staff think that torture is okay or they simply didn’t care enough to think through the implications of the scene – I can’t decide which of those alternatives is the most troubling.

^ If there was ever a better example of a sub-genre’s writers completely missing the point than the post-Alan Moore/Frank Miller boom in ‘dark’ comics then I’d love to know. More blood, more boobs and bigger guns does not always make for better comics.

^* Spider-man, the X-Men, Iron Man, The Hulk… the list goes on and on (and on and on). Rather than waste my time copying and pasting it all, it’s probably better for us both if you take a look at the extensive wikipedia page.

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