Take a deep breath. Okay, let me relay the plot: In Issue One of the Silver Surfer, originally published in 1968, we get the origin. An entity that consumes planets, Galactus, comes to a highly developed, peace-loving, lethargic planet. On this planet, there is one alpha-type man named Norrin Radd who is in love and he decides to challenge the massive deity. Of course, he has no chance of winning the battle, but the big guy takes a liking to the young alpha type and makes a deal. He will blast Norrin with the “power cosmic”, which will remove all clothes and body hair and turn him silver, and then Norrin will be the Silver Surfer. Then his job will be to go and find planets and warn them that their planet will be consumed. For doing this, for all eternity, his home will be spared. His love will be allowed to live. He just has to be a buff, silver apoco-bitch.
Homo eroticism for beginners
Yes, there’s something very similar in this story to Rocky in Rocky Horror Picture Show. And what with the preponderance of silver and purple in the comics, and the space aspect, it definitely borrowed from then gender-bender rocker David Bowie. But I reject the current tendency to discredit work just because it’s blatantly homo-erotic-after all, comic books were competing against baseball cards, pictures of buff men holding large sticks with excessively virile, meaningless numbers beneath them and packaged with salty, yes salty, chewing gum for that oral identification.
The incredible stupidity of this comic, as I attempt to write about it, shows something: the limitation of the linear narrative and language. Because Silver Surfer is a milestone of a comic. The great Icelandic artist Erró offers proof in his work of public art at Kringlan Mall. There you can see a massive mural of the Silver Surfer. Just that. With the same narrative I revealed above. It’s breathtaking.
Ignoring the art
The first issue I referred to has been redrawn and republished. About every ten years. Words are slightly altered, but it’s essentially the same. In 1988, French comic guru Möebius rewrote it all over again with Stan Lee. In 2003, it was released again. By my count, there have been five different Silver Surfer series. Every time, the comic has flopped. The first few issues always fly off the shelves, but as the story has nowhere to go, nobody sees any reason to continue reading. There was even a celebrated animated series. It lasted eight episodes, until the public and producers realized the story went nowhere.
Silver Surfer has wretched sales. It also gets bypassed in critical discussions of comic books, because the story is so miserable. Comic criticism is based on the story usually, ignoring the art. What is more, comic success is usually based on oral tradition. The joy of reading Spider Man is partly in telling friends how the Goblin killed Gwen Stacey. Or debating which panel had the best violence. (If you doubt this, check out comic book chat rooms. Or watch a Kevin Smith movie.)
“No crueler mockery of fate”
Then there are Silver Surfers, with panel after panel of a graceful figure muttering dialogue to himself like the following: “Surely, in all the universe, there can be no crueler mockery of fate! To think that I – possessed of power beyond the ken of mortal man – should be helplessly trapped – like the weakest of beasts!” Not the kind of thing you repeat to buddies.
My point is that this homo-erotic, anti-narrative, anti-oral tradition comic book is a must-read, or must-see. Comic books are getting popular for being close to other genres. And scholars are beginning to take over and explain what they’re supposed to do. But the great comics don’t make much sense in other contexts. They should be taken on their own. The great comics, like much great art, make an incredible impression that is cherished but that seems, to the admirer, impossible to explain.
(“Manifest Destiny”, Cameron’s short story about the Silver Surfer, is available at www.brooklynrail.org.)