Silver Surfer: Requiem by J. Michael Straczynski (writer) and Esad Ribic (artist)
I truly enjoy Marvel’s cosmic characters, and Silver Surfer is one of my favorites. The Requiem storyline is not only the first Silver Surfer title I recommend; it’s also the first cosmic title I point new readers of comics toward. First published as four separate issues in 2007, it was put together as a trade in 2008. If you are new to Silver Surfer and Marvel’s cosmic universe, this book is a great place to start because you don’t need any previous information to appreciate it, you meet both the Silver Surfer and the Fantastic Four, there is serious thematic content that is of human relevance, and that content is conveyed with stunning art and made palatable by some excellent, but appropriate, humor.
Straczynski very clearly and concisely gives the background of the Silver Surfer in this trade; in fact, in the middle of the first issue of this short series, he manages to condense the essential elements of Silver Surfer’s story to just six pages. As a fairly new reader of comics, I appreciate summary — Reading them for the first time in my late 30s, I’m often unaware of the long and detailed history of comic book characters, both major and minor. I also view these summaries as a way to judge the quality of a writer and artist team: Some seem as if they are going through the motions, merely presenting summary because it’s required of them. Others, as is the case here, present the material in a compelling manner. Given the Silver Surfer’s situation, his reflection on the past makes sense within the plot of the story — it’s not awkwardly incorporated.
The Silver Surfer’s situation is what makes this story such a great one to me: Once a man named Norrin Radd who lived on a distant planet, the Silver Surfer was granted great powers and seeming immortality when he was transformed into the servant of the powerful cosmic entity Galactus. The premise of this story — Requiem — is that the Silver Surfer must confront mortality once again. Personally, I find the story a moving reflection on mortality in general. As a father who spends time each year in a hospital with a child with a genetic illness, I have read the book again and again and been moved every time. As an English professor looking for great art to study in class, I have been led to place this book on my syllabus because of its thematic consistency and richness both verbally and visually.
I find the poetry of the writing fits well the seriousness of the story without the medium of the superhero comic undercutting that seriousness and making it all seem silly rather than profound. The comic opens with the Silver Surfer standing regally and alone watching the stars in the sky. I rarely quote long passages in my criticism or reviews, but the entire opening passage is essential to catch the full weight of the writing and Straczynski’s echo of Dylan Thomas’s poetry:
The cosmic hurricane rips through unchartered space at one million miles per hour, gas plumes extending for a thousand light-years in any direction. Deep within the thirty light-year-wide superwind, clusters containing as much mass as a million stars erupt into explosions too vast for the mind to comprehend. Their cries signal the death of massive stars, and the birth of new ones.
I am Norrin Radd. The Silver Surfer. Wielder of the Power Cosmic, former Herald to Galactus, Devourer of Worlds. I have travelled the galaxy, seen more than other eyes could hope to behold in a hundred lifetimes. But I stare at the sight before me with the awe of a newborn child.
Here is the cycle of life writ large. To be born in fire and live in the bright flame of our passions, illuminating the world around us. We live and die in fire, knowing that when we die, we are reborn in the minds and spirits of those who will follow the paths we have lit for them across the ages. The path that one day calls all of us home —
— at the dying of the light.
The entire comic isn’t this verbally dense and serious in tone, but this opening sets the tone clearly for the reader. And I’ve quoted only the first two pages. Set against the cosmic images, the poetry is extremely effective.
This cosmic seriousness is further conveyed, not by trying to make the comic become even more serious on page three, but by contrasting it with the earth-bound humor of a family going through its daily routines. Of course, because this family is the Fantastic Four, their everyday activities are a little different from ours, but basically Richards is working while the other two members of this “family” joke and discuss the newspaper and conflicts between the husband and wife of this team. Only the intrusion of the Silver Surfer disrupts this light domestic scene. However, I would argue, placing the Silver Surfer in this family context with a very human problem — physical illness — makes the subject of mortality seem relatable and not just the story of some silver guy who might be dying. Therefore, we are led to care about Norrin Radd, a stoic silver being, in less than one issue. In many ways, Stracyzynski returns to this personal tale only in the fourth issue. Issues two and three serve another function.
Other than reflecting solely on the mortality of a single individual, Straczynski and Ribic also want to explore the reasons for human war or, in other words, mortality on a grand scale. They use the Silver Surfer’s plight to do so, and I absolutely love the way they do it. Issue two is about Spider Man. Never a favorite of mine (please forgive me!), Peter Parker is in the middle of a battle he seems to be losing when the Silver Surfer shows up to help out. Parker narrates the issue and lets us know that he’s never met the Silver Surfer, doesn’t even know his name. But Parker talks the Silver Surfer into having a conversation with him on a roof. Without giving anything away beyond the subject of the conversation, I want to say that their attempts to consider the ways to improve our world and end war are, for the most part, devastatingly insightful without being completely devoid of hope — thanks, in no small part, to Mary Jane.
Issues three and four take place after the Silver Surfer leaves Earth. Issue three deals with different species of aliens who have waged an unending holy war for over fifty generations. Straczynski uses this excellent issue to reflect on the connections between war and religion and to show an angry and dying Silver Surfer’s response to it. But Issue four really brings us full circle as Norrin Radd returns to his home planet to see his people and consult with his own doctors. I hesitate to reveal anything that happens here other than to say: There’s a surprise visit, and the book makes a complete, satisfying circle.
To me, the book deals with death seriously and appropriately. It considers the various ways we can die, from illness to war. And it presents an artistically, neatly structured story that is as compelling as it is concise. I’ve read this book at least ten times since I got it a few years ago, and I’m not tired of it yet. I knew from the first that this book would be one on which I’d write within my first year of writing comic book reviews. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
(Availability: From what I can tell, the trade is currently out of print and used prices are steadily climbing. However, it is available digitally through Comixology and, I would assume, through Marvel’s website as well.)