Emma Peel Sessions 46 – Up the Hill Backwards

Fuck objectivity.

- – -

No more movies. No more lists. Back to comics. Moebius’ Silver Surfer. Lets do this.

(please go read Matt Seneca’s piece on these two issues first and then come back to see me try and match/one-up him)

So Moebius saw this as an exercise at working in American mainstream comics, working with a scripter, printing in 4-color process on newsprint, chopping the story in half to fit issues. While Moebius cannot be anything but Moebius and create comics in only the way he understands how – - even though this is a Silver Surfer comic with Stan Lee dialog, it’s clearly the same artist who did Incal and Arzach and Airtight Garage. These two issues are vastly under-read by most people, you could say. But it would make as much sense to say that these two issues are massively impactful – there’s the Kirby Silver Surfer and the Moebius Silver Surfer, that’s the argument forever. But Kirby is the genius who created the character, and Moebius did two issues almost 30 years after the fact as a personal challenge. You don’t hear that many people going off about the Buscema Surfer even though he’s probably the guy who drew the character the most. It doesn’t matter – there’s only been one since Kirby that anyone has gone “oh shit that’s it, that’s better than Kirby”. I don’t think we get Ladronn and Quitely working on superhero books without these… what, 49 pages?

I think at least some of that is because for so many people this was the only Moebius comic they could own for a long time. While Incal has slipped in and out of print in English, and you could find Blueberry if you looked for it this was published by Marvel and sent to newsstands. Imagine being a seven year old and buying this along with the Justice League Detroit. It would be like walking into a porno theater and discovering that they’re running Passolini.

So yes -  Moebius, right? If you’re listing the big names its Moebius, Kirby, Tezuka – best in the 3 strains of comics, no discussion. The problem is there’s not too many places you can go from that, so lets step back – you can see Incal in these Silver Surfer pages, it’s there. Moebius doesn’t draw this comic like a Kirby comic, though it is clearly more of an homage to Kirby than anything else (do you see Moebius really into working with Stan Lee because of Stan himself? I don’t). While Moebius couldn’t bring himself to change his style for the work (which would have been a shame), or even the basic mechanics of panel-to-panel/page-to-page storytelling, this is a love-letter to Jack Kirby’s time at Marvel by an artist who had pioneered a completely alien style to the American superhero.

So let’s get to the content of the work – sometime in the future, mankind has forgotten Galactus and the Silver Surfer. Galactus returns, and the Surfer has been waiting, still trapped on this world like he was the last time Kirby drew him. That’s probably important – these two characters are not figures of the Marvel Universe who have been appearing in and out of issues of Defenders and Thor for decades, they are as Kirby left them. This is “out of continuity” for Lee, but it’s directly in continuity for Moebius, placing himself on a continuum with another master’s creation (and Lee may have claimed the Surfer as his favorite but Surfer is the most Kirby character of all the Marvel work). Something as simple as a figure on a surfboard carved out of silver, it’s too concise a visual for everyone but the best. And these characters are not just temporally the same, they are thematically the same. The sci-fi-superhero variation on not only the great pantheons of myth but God himself. Galactus and the Silver Surfer exist in order to retell the Christ, Buddha, and Moses stories for a modern age – - the impetus for the original Galactus Trilogy in Fantastic Four was what would happen if the FF fought God. In the New Gods, Kirby sought to not replicate ancient mythology but to create a modern one, but he had done something a lot larger than that with Galactus and the Watcher and Silver Surfer. This isn’t a direct christ allegory, that would be too easy, the parts don’t quite fit. Instead its god and his emissary and their conflict and what that means for humanity now, today. Kirby just got science fiction in his bones, much the way that Moebius did. I think that, aside from the art form, that’s the uniting factor for these two: The Future.

So it is titled “Parable”. Because it is one – - and Lee and Kirby could always lay claim to be “humanists”, but I think that meant different things to each of them. Which is why it is hard to tell how much of Parable is Lee, in the way that the old silver age Marvels were, which I am sure is entirely intended. Interestingly enough that’s how I feel about Incal too – I don’t know exactly whose ideas made it to page or if Jordorowsky is constantly responding to Moebius’ art after they’ve hashed out an outline or even just an idea. In these days of “full scripts” and “marvel style” and “cartooning” – - it’s not something that we really talk about but the best comics ever made are usually the ones where you can’t explain what the writer and artist (or inker, letter, colorist) actually did to create this. From the Galactus Trilogy to Hard Boiled, there is an alchemy happening that is impossible to quantify. So the Moebius fan in me wants this whole book to be him with Lee freestyling the dialog, but it can’t be that simple. It really can’t. So what Lee has contributed – who knows? It is the character he’s identified with the most. The story, while a little more downbeat, is a Lee story even if it’s equally a Kirby story and a Moebius story. The similarities are bigger than the differences.

The way in which we come to see Silver Surfer in Parable is first with his voice – on page one, a caption reads “I am asleep when it first appears. I sleep too much these days.” (in Moebius’ hand lettering — which as Matt pointed out is amazing — you can see that he sees it as an aspect of the art and while you wouldn’t think it matters it is integral — maybe English not being his language is what makes the letters themselves look so expressive). The Surfer has been here waiting, dissociating himself from the world around him in the long years since Galactus has trapped him here. The Surfer has been marginalized by society and he no longer has any interest in the people he once sought to protect, and sacrificed his life in service of. The Surfer’s narration becomes dialog, saying to no one “I have no compassion for them. Their wounds are self-inflicted.” We don’t see the Surfer’s face here, and for several pages further along. He reminisces about Zenn-La but no names are mentioned, it’s simply a man and a woman together. He is accosted by police who try to take his board, but we still see nothing of him, and he darts away when their attention is averted. Moebius draws him hunched over and wide, wrapped in heavy clothing and huddled over the board like he’s clinging to life. The Surfer has disassociated himself but he’s also completely hidden by this hurt and cynicism. When he runs, Moebius places him deep in the frame, a black splotch illustrating him and his board. This is the Surfer reduced to running on foot – this is a fundamental break with the character. The Surfer wandering around the city in a trenchcoat recalls Kirby’s other classic FF visual, The Thing in “This Man, This Monster”. Even in the narration, he says as the figure lumbers down a streetcorner “I walk among them but always apart”.

We see a brief glimpse of his face, as the Surfer sees the false prophet on the television, he’s awake now, he cares. When the Surfer confronts him on a rooftop, the figure has thinned slightly but is still heavy, as he speaks to the prophet’s sister Elyna — Moebius draws the Surfer thinner and thinner, showing more of his face. Until he throws his hat off and Moebius pulls back, showing the Surfer stripping off his clothes as he strips off his ambivalence for the human race that has forced him out and forgotten him. This is him, speaking about what it is to be divine and what it is to be human. The only failure for the Surfer is cowardice, inaction. He understands that even with the power cosmic (which is portrayed as far outpacing humanity but still nothing in the eyes of Galactus), he will likely be defeated by his creator yet again. But his motivation, and his drive for success comes from his newly returned love of love of Earth “His is the greatest power by far, but he fights for himself alone. I seek to save a world. A world that has turned against me.” (the Surfer does not travel on his board – -flying the way that he’s supposed to — until he says this). Even as his need to save humanity returns and, at least metaphorically his ability to do so, he has no illusions about the people he is saving. This is the Surfer returned, not only his image but the moral in-turned-ness of the character. The Surfer is perpetually a martyr, and he understands this.

For the rest of the story, the Silver Surfer does what Jack Kirby told us the Silver Surfer does. He fights both the mighty hand of Galactus (and the lasting image of this book is likely Moebius’ image of a gigantic science-god laying waste to a metropolitan city, its my favorite Moebius page of all time) and the mercurial, fear-driven mass of humanity. In the classic Marvel manner, he is forced to fight both the bad guy and the people he’s trying to save. He is humanity’s leper messiah. The difference here is the rules have changed, the Silver Surfer’s great triumph is not over Galactus, humanity does that for him. The Surfer instead has to defeat humanity. That’s the change for Moebius’ take on this character, at least one of them. In order to save humanity, to save earth, he has to welcome their rejection. He has to deny his role as savior, as child of Galactus/God, and embrace his own role outside of it.  The Silver Surfer is really an icon of a specific kind of superhero comic – one that sought to speak about something more than simple morality or conflict. The problem — especially with the Surfer and Kirby’s other great works — is that the serialized treadmill/meatgrinder of these comics fundamentally separated them from legitimate endings that they required to really do the job they were reaching for. The Silver Surfer’s story needs an ending to work, and even in cancellation he is perpetually trapped between the stars he was born to travel and the savage pettiness of humanity, held in limbo by the force that created him and he betrayed to save us all. In Moebius’ version of the story — one that actually jibes seamlessly with the Kirby version of the character — he chooses his own destiny outside of both Galactus and the people he has saved.

He denies it, he finds his way out. But he doesn’t leave.

If you were to track that to Moebius and comics, you wouldn’t have to try very hard.

- Sean Witzke, September 2010

Extra huge thanks for Seth Hurley for the greatest-comic-ever hookup.

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4 Responses to Emma Peel Sessions 46 – Up the Hill Backwards

  1. Matt Seneca says:

    Aw man, I got one-upped! NICE article, I love the analysis of what this book means re Moebius’ wider career and impact. Proportionate to its influence, could this be the #1 under-read comic of all time? It’s definitely top 10, though I guess it would have to battle it out with Incal for that honor.

    Love the scans you used, I can’t believe I neglected to talk about the one where he’s pulling the guy away from the chunk of falling building. That THICK, intoxicating linework on the sidewalk, god damn.

  2. sean witzke says:

    Hey I spent like a week going “how do I not look like I’m ripping off Seneca?”, so thanks man. I think Incal probably has had more real-life influence than this? I mean with the 5th Element and all, but also its usually been available if you knew where to look for the Heavy Metal backissues – but no one has read this in forever, so I’d go w/ this. Weirdly enough I think more people have read Airtight Garage than both put together.

    And that whole page with the girders is sick, especially the gestures he gives the Surfer all over it.

  3. seth hurley says:

    expect weekly deliveries if this is the result.

  4. Pingback: Jean Giraud/Moebius 1938-2012 | supervillain.

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