It’s not a consensus, but it’s agreed that we live in the Dark Age of Comics, an era that began in 1986 with the release of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. Now, dour and grim are the preferred modes of comic-book adaptation, and everyone it seems must tithe in blood to Frank Miller and Alan Moore and have no fun. It’s even been rumored that the overlords of DC’s incipient cinematic universe told its talent to go easy on the jokes.
For all things comics, minus Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s saturnine or nein. And if there ever existed a superhero made for a dark reimagining, it is the Silver Surfer. The metal-sheathed man on a space surfboard was accessory to interplanetary holocaust. Now reformed, he’s all elegies and lamentations, melodrama and guilt.
So when Marvel gave the Surfer his first ongoing series since 2003, the creative team of writer Dan Slott and artists Michael and Laura Allred did the logical thing and made the Silver Surfer, intergalactic pariah and ex-sidekick to a genocidal god, fun.
Slott and the Allreds’ run on Silver Surfer is eight issues deep and it’s among the best things happening in comic books. They’ve morphed Silver Surfer into a Dr. Who episode, using Monty Python absurdity and the Allreds’ electric Kool-Aid acid art to maintain certain levels of ridiculous and non-sequitur.
Issue 1 came out last March and established a pulpy, sci-fi B-movie tone that’s made the run unique. If this Silver Surfer’s spirit animal was a movie, it’d be the Flash Gordon serials from the 1930s. And maybe Red Dwarf, too.
The books feel severed from the Marvel universe proper, and aside from a few cameos in issues 4 and 5 that tied it to a certain space movie Marvel released in August, they are.
The Surfer’s world is different but relates closely to Skottie Young’s current run on Rocket Raccoon. Both series have stylized, cartooned art — Rocket Raccoon’s is more psychedelic Chuck Jones, and the Surfer’s is more ’50s pop-art pinup girl — and plots/dialogue that embrace the fact that these stories concern a space-alien surfer and an anthropomorphic rodent with a gun fetish.
The current darling of interplanetary comic books (and comics in general) is Saga, which creator/writer Brian K. Vaughan has described “as Star Wars for perverts.” And he’s not wrong, thanks to lines like “suck my hemorrhoids” and scenes that feature interspecies fellatio, an ogre that’s one-third testicles, and copious breast-feeding.
There’s also doggy-style sex between robots with TVs for heads, and a disemboweled ghost whose authority is once questioned because she lost her vagina to an IED. But when the characters hurt, the feels are real, even though one of them has horns and the other has wings and they live in a rocket-ship tree.
The Silver Surfer has legitimate feels, too, thanks to Dawn Greenwood. She’s the Surfer’s Tonto and eventual love interest. She’s as integral to the series as the titular character because she humanizes the Surfer, whose personality has sometimes, historically, been insufferable.
The Surfer’s last major run — it lasted 14 issues in 2003 — played up his extraterrestrial-ness, positioning him as an alien abductor.
For the uninitiated, the Silver Surfer debuted in 1966 and is an alien named Norrin Radd, native of the planet Zenn-La. When a primeval god named Galactus (his shtick is eating planets and wearing a funny hat) comes to devour Zenn-La, Radd offers himself to save his world. Galactus agrees and transforms him into the Silver Surfer. Radd then becomes the big pink guy’s space-boarding herald, shooting the cosmic curl to find planets for Galactus to buffet.
Later, Norrin, being a nice guy, feels really bad about this and quits. But Slott, channeling his Whovian love, uses the eccentric and lovable Dawn, a human, to push this guilt to the story’s periphery and make the Surfer accessible. The reader gets to like the Silver Surfer through Dawn, a divining rod of pathos.
But Slott didn’t trash the Surfer’s back story. He just postponed it. By doing so, he enhanced its dramatic heft. The Silver Surfer used to suffer alone for his sins. Now, he has someone to disappoint. Now, he has Dawn.
In issue 7, they share a moment that, despite the book’s gaudy art and absurd action, is genuine, touching and earned. It also sets up what might be this run’s best issue. (This remains unclear as they have not yet come out.) Slott, who has killed with glee (in a good way) on his Amazing Spider-Man run, has built up the Surfer just so he can napalm him.
It will be beautiful.
The need to make comic books and comic-book adaptations feel real perhaps comes from an urge to legitimize them. Stories about men in garish tights and women in armored sports bras are inherently silly, more so now thanks to increased levels of cynicism.
Dark comics seem like an over-correction, a justification of something everyone knows is a little dumb. A man dressing as a bat is indicative of mental illness — but not if Liam Neeson trained him to do it, and not if you made the costume bulletproof and a really baller matte black.
There’s nothing bad about realistic takes on superheroes because part of the fantasy is wondering what Batman would be like in real life. But there’s also nothing wrong with fun and weird, and the occasional transmogrification of something into a potato. (This happens in Silver Surfer.) Not everything must be a virgin sacrifice to Miller and Moore. Their influence remains bipedal on its own.
This Silver Surfer stands apart from most things you could buy for $3.99 every Wednesday. Slott and the Allreds’ take ridiculous premises, ridiculous worlds and ridiculous characters, and homogenize deftly. They make you forget that a planet-sized man wearing bunny ears and pink booties will be the reason you’re sad that a shiny alien on a surfboard and an Earth girl whose identity is, in part, defined by polka dots no longer like each other in outer space.
Slott and the Allreds make fun as effective as doom.
Note: All photos are from my comic-book collection.