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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Romance, regret and the function of fantasy in ‘Spider-man: Blue’

First, a confession of bias:

Some readers might wonder why my reviews tend to accentuate the positive, rather than drawing attention to what I didn’t like, or what I’d rather see; and after all isn’t an affectation of wearied cynicism the mark of a truly discerning consumer/reviewer? The reason for this is simple: I can’t be bothered. In the limited time that I have I would rather review and recommend the things I like than to spend another moment thinking and writing about the things I don’t. If someone was prepared to pay me a fee or salary for my opinion then I’d happily review crap material and call it like I see it, but nobody does, so I won’t. One day I might write a bullet point list of books, TV and videogames that you shouldn’t waste your money on. Maybe.

Also: I love Spider-man.

With that out of the way, let’s proceed…

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Spider-man: Blue is a special creation, a superhero graphic novel that can be enjoyed equally by new readers and hardcore fans alike. It revisits the early years of Peter Parker’s web-slinging career, when he was still a college freshman struggling to make ends meet, and tells the tale of how he fell in love with the gorgeous Gwen Stacy prior to her tragic death (a watershed moment in the history of American comics) at the hands of his arch-enemy Green Goblin/Norman Osborne. For a superhero story, it is sweet, sensitive and surprisingly profound.

It is impossible to discuss this piece without talking about the superb illustration, so let’s begin there. Tim Sale’s artwork is in Blue is a homage to the style of John Romita (who was at the forefront of Marvel’s ground-breaking artistic team during the ‘silver age‘ of comics, replacing Steve Ditko on The Amazing Spider-Man in 1966, illustrated ‘Spidey’ through some of his most iconic years) and has a distinctly retro feel that I find particularly appealing. Sale’s lines are clean and uncomplicated; while the use of colour is simplified, especially in comparison to the level of realism often found in modern Marvel comics such as Civil War. Throughout Spider-man: Blue Sale uses large swathes of colour as indicators of mood, which is appropriate for a comic that strives to be as accessible and relatable as this does. When a comic’s illustration is further away from being a symbolic representation and closer to being a photo-realistic reproduction of its subject it becomes more difficult for readers to personally relate to its characters, and it is this kind of engagement that is absolutely essential in order to allow Loeb’s narrative to function. Scott McCloud (author of the brilliant Understanding Comics and inventor of the ‘big triangle‘) calls this the “amplification through simplification” effect. This isn’t to suggest that the incredibly detailed images with perfect flesh tones and multiple differentiated light sources which typify Marvel’s contemporary creations aren’t beautiful, they are most impressive indeed, merely that that they can be far less effective for the kind of emotionally driven storytelling seen in Spider-man: Blue.

Tim Sale's reworking of Mary Jane Watson's famous first appearance.

Spider-man’s popularity is due, in part, to how his fans were able to easily identify with the character, in stark contrast to competing superheroes such as Batman (an obscenely wealthy genius) or Superman (a god-like alien). Whilst these characters have all evolved over time, it was their earlier incarnations that established the core character concepts and set the tone for what was to come. But in order to fully understand the unique appeal of Spider-man, and why Blue works so well, we must look a little deeper. When Peter Parker first became Spider-man he was a bullied high school student, shy, socially awkward (especially around girls) and possessing a deep sense of self-loathing, in short: a ‘nerd like us’ with added spider powers. The strength of the traditional superhero genre is in its capacity to offer us an escape from reality to a place where the good guy (usually) wins, justice (generally) prevails, bullies get taught a lesson in humility (even if it is by a guy in spandex) and the world can be put to rights with a well aimed punch; essentially a form of wish-fulfilment fiction and, in this regard, Spider-man is no exception. Where Spidey differs from the superheroes that preceded him is that his unmasked self is equally as important in his ongoing story as his costumed persona, to the extent that The Amazing Spider-man has been described as a ‘soap opera for boys’ and it is this trait in combination with the wish-fulfilment function which generates the character’s unique appeal. Parker’s powers enable him to be a surrogate for his fans, acting out the ‘amazing fantasy‘ that his super-heroism represents for us before returning to a more mundane and relatable existence. Furthermore, it is this relatable, childish fantasy aspect of Spider-man that makes the style used by Sale so suited to the story told in Blue; because by asking us to engage our own imagination to interpret its images Spider-man: Blue effectively invites us to place ourselves in the story, to picture Parker’s triumphs and defeats as our own.

You go Gwen.

The period of character development that is revisited in Blue is particularly significant to Spidey fans because we see Parker develop from the social outsider he was at school, a disliked “bookworm” bullied by the likes of Flash Thompson, to someone whose intelligence and kindness starts to shine in a college environment, “an okay guy” suddenly attracting attention from the fairer sex. This isn’t to say that his problems go away, far from it, but it is heartening for any nerd to witness one of their fellows growing into their own skin. Loeb demonstrates Parker’s elevated status by contrasting his fortunes to those of his rival Flash, a former high-school football star, who is unable to comprehend why the likes of Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane Watson are drawn to Parker and begins to feel that his life lacks purpose.

Parker’s superhero career having adverse (and often devastating) consequences for his friends and family is a consistent theme across the numerous publications he has appeared in and Blue is no exception. His attempts at romance and socialising are repeatedly frustrated by either his sense of duty driving him to rush off to fight a costumed villain (because “with great power comes great responsibility”) or by an enemy (literally) bursting into the room. Ultimately Peter’s dual-life would mean the death of Gwen Stacy, though Loeb has, perhaps wisely, chosen to reflect upon but not to include the event itself in this particular story. The suggestion by some fans and commentators that Gwen, not MJ, was always Peter’s ‘true love’ is heavily drawn upon by Loeb in this narrative and the retrospective romance of Blue is persistently shaded by Peter’s sense of regret.

I can't say enough good things about Sale's artwork; it has the dynamism of Marvel's late-60's classics and a contemporary eye for detail.

Key moments of Parker’s life from the ‘Gwen Stacy’ period have been incorporated into Blue, woven into a single narrative focused on the progression of Peter and Gwen’s relationship, as well as an enigmatic enemy hunting Spidey from the shadows, and are thereby given greater significance in the context of its condensed form. Amazingly, the plot of this book is entirely self-contained and can be read independently of any other Spider-man material.

Perhaps the greatest success of Blue is that it can be enjoyed by new readers as much as by the most dedicated of fans; and whilst the book requires no prior knowledge of its characters for the plot to make sense it also manages to avoid any unnecessary exposition. Rather than re-writing or replacing established continuity (like DC have, time and time again) Loeb’s story intertwines with and expands upon existing history, offering a fresh look at Spider-man for long term followers and an ideal introduction for potential new fans.

This book is not without flaws. It is arguable that a book about the relationship between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy should feature more of Gwen Stacy, who remains an enigmatic figure, and less of Mary Jane. Loeb’s decision to use Peter Parker speaking into a tape recorder, complete with a “klik…whrrrr” sound effect, to frame the chapters is probably an unnecessary flourish and occasionally feels awkward. There are also several instances where Loeb has crammed too much dialogue into a fight scene, an unfortunate trait that has generally been eliminated from contemporary comics, and though this may have been a deliberate decision to replicate Romita and Lee’s Spider-man era, it occasionally felt forced. Some critics have chosen to criticise Sale’s artwork for lacking detail in some panels (especially in the background) but for me this is an endearing example of Blue’s retro charm and, as I stated earlier, an accurate reproduction of reality would totally alter the tone of the comic. For the most part these imperfections are born of deliberate artistic decisions by Loeb and Sale and, on the whole, they are minor complaints that hardly hinder the story itself.

If you buy just one Spider-man book in your life then I suggest you buy Spider-man: Blue. It is a remarkable achievement on the part of its authors for them to have crammed so much of what has made Spider-man/Peter Parker such an appealing character to generations of readers into one book. Most importantly: it’s a great piece of escapist fiction, in the best tradition of Marvel and the superhero genre as a whole. Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale – take a bow.

Gwen Stacy, by Tim Sale... 'nuff said.

If you’re interested in reading more self-contained graphic novels by Marvel then you might be pleased to know that there are several new works coming soon. It’s clear that Marvel are showing a desire to expand upon their previously limited, though generally well-received, efforts in the graphic novel format (such as The Sentry, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills or Daredevil: Yellow), with the announcement of the ‘Season One‘ range. These are similar to Spider-man: Blue (or DC’s highly successful Batman: Year One and Superman: Earth One books) in so far as they are a contemporary return to the origins of Marvel’s most popular characters. I believe this represents a step in the right direction for an industry that is notorious for struggling to attract new readers, and as the demand for original graphic novels continues to grow (to the point where they can be considered relatively mainstream) it would seem sensible for the ‘big two’ to make use of their most recognisable properties to attract consumers from a demographic who won’t want to grapple with five decades worth of established continuity.

Additionally: I apologise profusely for the amount of alliteration I have tried to crowbar into this piece, it is an attempt at tendering a tenuous tribute to the technique’s proudest proponent, Spider-man’s own inimitable inventor: the sensational Stan Lee! (I really hope that last bit wasn’t as painful and cringe-inducing for you to read as it was for me to write. I promise not to do it again.)

I would have liked to have examine the “function of fantasy” in the success of Spider-man further in this piece than I have but I had to draw the line somewhere and actually finish this thing; perhaps I will be able return to the subject in the future.