“Hear me my once and former herald. Yield and you live. Oppose me and die!”
For a time, the Silver Surfer was Marvel’s golden boy. Making his debut in the famed three-issue “Galactus Trilogy” arc ( Fantastic Four #48-50), he was granted his own title in 1968. That book was exceptional in that each issue was twice as thick – and twice as expensive – as the average comic, with the Surfer’s strip occupying 40 pages rather than the usual 20-odd. Artist John Buscema filled large panels with shots of the Sentinel of the Spaceways emoting dramatically while Stan Lee provided impassioned declamatory dialogue.
Man’s inhumanity to man was a recurring theme of the Surfer’s tortured soliloquies, as well as the unfairness of his own lot (he had been exiled on Earth as punishment for defying his master Galactus’s will). The character was both Jesus and Lucifer, messiah and fallen angel, suffering for his individualism and his defiance of authority, a brave loser in tune with the era’s prevailing counterculture movement, which favoured suffering heroes.
When the book was cancelled after 17 issues, sporadic guest appearances followed, along with a couple of super-sized one-shots, both written by Lee, one drawn by Jack Kirby, the other John Byrne. It felt like any Surfer solo adventure was a rarity, a special event.
A second series arrived in 1987, but this was mainly space-operatic superhero shenanigans. Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers acquitted themselves creditably on script and art, but it didn’t feel like a proper Surfer book.
Lee expressed disappointment about the new series, lamenting the fact that he didn’t have the time to write the comic himself. He felt a proprietorial love for the Surfer stronger than he felt for any of the other characters he had co-created. A chance meeting with the French comics artist Jean Giraud (aka Moebius) led to the two of them agreeing to collaborate on a Silver Surfer tale, and thus Parable was born.
Moebius was keen to try working to the Marvel method – laying out the pages according to a detailed plot synopsis, with the writer adding captions and dialogue afterwards – and admitted being terrified by the project. “Until the very last moment,” he said, “I had no idea how I was going to draw this book.” He also insisted that the book come out in the usual comic format and on standard newsprint paper so that he could experiment with a thicker line and a plainer palette of colours than he was accustomed to.
The result was a two-issue microseries that was almost immediately reprinted on glossy paper stock in a prestigious hardback edition. So seamless is the join between the two halves that it is, for all intents and purposes, a single comic, and the tale it tells is as heartfelt and tragic as any Lee has written. Set in the near future, the story opens with a hungry Galactus revisiting Earth in a none-more-phallic spaceship. Instead of the taciturn, enigmatic entity we’re used to, this is a talkative and demonstrative figure who quickly leaves the world’s population in no doubt that they are in the presence of a supreme being – a god, even – whose creed is chaos. “I am come to set you free, free from guilt!” he declares. “Free from worthless manmade 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! … So speaks GALACTUS!”
The Silver Surfer, his former herald, is now a derelict, living on the streets with his surfboard wrapped in rags. Only he sees the truth: Galactus is pulling off a con. In order to get around his vow to leave Earth alone, the World Devourer is encouraging humankind to destroy itself in an orgy of selfishness and anarchy. He can then consume what is left.
An evangelical preacher, Colton Candell, proclaims himself Galactus’s prophet and exhorts everyone to obey this self-styled deity’s word. His sister Elyna has her doubts, and she finds herself questioning a dogma which drives children to burn their schools, turns brother against brother and sees the strong imprisoning the poor and helpless. Her purity of soul impels the Surfer to turn on Galactus again and lead the way in rejecting insane fanaticism and violence committed in the name of faith.
Thus the Surfer becomes intercessor, placing himself between god and man, arguing for love and free will over cold divine authority. The Christ parallels are made explicit in a panel where he hangs in mid-air on his board, arms outstretched, forgiving the angry mob who are pelting him with missiles: “Truly, they do not know what they do.”
Parable is the work of two comics greats from the opposite ends of the artistic spectrum – bumptious American enthusiasm meets cerebral European elegance – and the results are uniquely profound and majestic.