Monday, March 16, 2009

Comic Book Review:
Silver Surfer: Requiem by Straczynski & Ribic

Since the Silver Surfer's inception in 1966, the character has been an outlet for countless authors' overwrought, over-written, middle-aged angst. But is it any wonder why? Unlike most of Marvel's menagerie, the Silver Surfer isn't a fast-talking teenager or a testosterone fueled he-man. He's an intellectual alien prone to alliterate elegies and impassioned pleas for peace. If you're a corporate comics writer with a flash drive full of unpublished poetry, you couldn't ask for a better mouthpiece!

Silver Surfer: Requiem
by J.M. Straczynski & Esad Ribic continues this tradition. It's a four-issue funeral parlor farewell, complete with purple prose. The plot is simple: The Silver Surfer is dying, and has only one month to live. Ever the emotional E.T., he decides to spend his last 30 days re-visiting the people and places he loved most. If that sounds to you like a set-up for a series of somber guest-star appearances, you're right!

The first issue features the Fantastic Four, which is fitting, as theirs was the first comic book that the Silver Surfer appeared in. Straczynski does a nice job writing the FF here. Their dialogue and interactions are completely character based, reminding me of the original Kirby & Lee comics. The Thing and Johnny Storm's bickering is spot on (i.e. it's actually funny, and feels natural instead of forced), and Sue Storm is given a small moment of silent tenderness that'll break your heart. It's been a long time since a guest-spot has made me want to read more of the guest-stars' comics, but this book had me placing an order for the Fantastic Four Omnibus Vol. 2 as soon as I was finished. And in this world of synergistic sales, isn't that what guest spots are really all about?

Issue two is told from Spider-Man's perspective. Beginning with a goofy battle with a giant robot and ending with a solemn rooftop eulogy, this issue sees the Surfer finally connecting with Earth's inhabitants after 40-some-odd years (real time, not Marvel Comics time) of disconnect. Now, I know that this is sacrilege, but I've never been much of a Spider-Man fan. That said, I found his inclusion here to be inspired. Straczynski keeps all of the smart-alecy one-liners that the character is known for, but tweaks them, using them less as punchlines than as the sort of uncomfortable joking one resorts to when confronted with tragedy. It's a nice touch.
Oh, and as an added plus, this is the issue where we finally find out why the Silver Surfer rides a surfboard -- and the reason is pure, pothead poetry.

The third issue begins with a brief visit from the master of the mystical arts, Dr. Strange. ("Dr. Richards called me because...well, because doctors always consult other doctors when they find themselves at the end of a diagnosis they can't beat.") The doctor is there to say goodbye to the Surfer and to give him a magic flame. ("It is divided into two parts. That which existed before you came, and that which was created after [...] you saved our world from extinction. The fire of that knowledge will merge with you, will always be a part of you. [...] This way, you will always know what you preserved...and what was created through your kindness.") After thanking the Doc, the Silver Surfer takes off into outer space, headed home to the planet and the woman he was forced to leave years ago. But as this is only issue three of four, the Surfer is inevitably delayed en route -- this time by a religious war raging between two neighboring planets. Thus begins a brief, sci-fi side-story with obvious allegory a-plenty. In Straczynski's defense, I think that this mini-story's main goal isn't to preach, but to further illustrate Dr. Strange's "That which existed before you came, and that which was created after" line quoted above. Is it a touch heavy handed? You bet it is. But a touch heavy handed is what Silver Surfer fans have come to expect. It's as much a part of the character as the shiny, silver skin and the pupil-less, Orphan Annie eyes. Hell, even Stan Lee refers to his cosmic creation as "the most soliloquizing superhero of them all," and Stan is no stranger to heavy handed soliloquizing!

The fourth and final issue is narrated by The Watcher. It begins with an unconscious Silver Surfer lying sprawled out on his board, soaring through space. When he finally awakens, he finds that he is on his home planet, Zenn-La. Confined to a Kubrickian hospital bed with his beloved Shalla-Bal standing beside him, the Surfer becomes the star attraction of his own living wake. Citizens from all over Zenn-La stream past to thank the man that "saved them, their children, and their children's children." Even Galactus -- the giant, God-like, planet eater responsible for the Silver Surfer's life of solitude -- makes an appearance. I won't spoil the purpose of Galactus' visit, or what it means for the fate of the Silver Surfer and the people of Zenn-La. Suffice it to say, it provides the sort of ending that fits perfectly with what came before, yet was impossible to anticipate.

For better and for worse, SS:R's artist, Esad Ribic, is clearly of the 'Alex Ross school' of painted comic book art. In the book's few action scenes, this is a bit of a hindrance, as the characters tend to look static and slightly dull. Fortunately, there are only two such scenes. The rest of the time, Ribic's painted approach serves to enhance the intended solemnity of the piece. His autumnal palette keeps things sufficiently somber, and he makes outer space look infinite and isolating all at once. Ribic's best 'trick' is his portrayal of the Surfer. He gives the character very little visible emotion, yet by using repeated close-ups, we as the readers are forced to transfer whatever emotion we are feeling onto the character's mirror-like face.

Reading Silver Surfer: Requiem, I was repeatedly reminded of two other comics:
1. Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore's Watchmen #4 (a.k.a. The Dr. Manhattan issue)
In both SS:R and W#4, the lead characters have reached the end of their respective stays on Earth and are ready to move on. But where Dr. Manhattan's seeming omnipotence leaves him feeling largely removed from Earth's inhabitants, the Surfer's seeming omnipotence only expands his empathy. Another thing that struck me as similar was the way that both writers chose to accentuate the 'otherness' of their lead characters by using what could be called 'cold' or 'sterile' dialogue. While I know that this is a genre trope, both Moore and Straczynski managed to elevate it beyond mere cliché, transforming clunky and clinical terminology into something strangely beautiful.
2. Frank Quitely and Grant Morrison's All Star Superman
This one even more so. You have two alien superheroes dealing with their impending deaths. Superman has twelve days(?), the Silver Surfer has a month. Both are physically deteriorating, yet spiritually strong. Their last acts are to say goodbye to a who's who of funnybook friends, while working to ensure these friends' future safety. Both series' basic structures are also the same; each issue is a self-contained story, with all of these stories combining to tell one over-arching tale. And the endings! (WARNING: EXTREME SPOILERS AHEAD!) At the end of both series, both heroes become celestial light sources -- Superman becomes a part of/the heart of Earth's sun, and the Silver Surfer is transformed into a star.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that Silver Surfer: Requiem is equal to either All Star Superman or Watchmen. Those two comics are gold medal classics, the work of insanely talented writers and artists at the top of their game. But I will say this: SS:R is one of the few corporate comics in recent memory which attempted to achieve something similarly artistic. All things considered, a silver medal seems totally apt.