Stan Lee and Moebius:
"Silver Surfer: Parable"
A Pipeline Special
A Pipeline Special
In 1989, Marvel Comics published a special two-part mini-series.
Written by Stan Lee and drawn by legendary French comic creator, Jean “Moebius” Giraud, “Silver Surfer: Parable” is a science fiction story (that happens to star a couple of Marvel characters) that goes beyond the usual tense violent battles between opposing forces and, instead, delves into humanity’s relationship with faith and fanaticism.
That sounds like a tall order, but they pulled it off beautifully.
In typical Marvel Method style, Moebius produced the book (including colors and, eventually, lettering) from a short six page story outline by Lee, who filled the pages of the comic with his dialogue and captions after Moebius finished his art.
Lee’s work is unmistakably his, but it also feels more cerebral. This is Lee purposefully operating on a different level than his usual frenetic style.
This is Stan Lee going for something downright literary, by his standards.
The collaboration was successful. “Silver Surfer: Parable” won the Eisner for Best Finite/Limited Series in 1989.
Here’s how the story went:
A ship lands on earth.
Out steps Galactus, a scary and powerful god-like creature.
Everything on earth stops.
The humans panic.
Galactus promises the end of war, poverty, and crime in exchange for being recognized as a god.
Seems like a good enough deal, doesn’t it?
(Have these people never watched “The Twilight Zone”?)
Some take this to heart as a serious religious event. One of those people is Colton Candell (alliterative because Stan Lee), a declining televangelist who sees Galactus as his opportunity to be relevant again.
Colton gets on television and claims credit for bringing Galactus to earth to be their salvation.
Galactus, for his part, doesn’t want to eat the planet. In fact, he wants to win their trust and belief.
He promises an end of sin and tells humanity to do what they want.
The worst in humanity shows itself until marshall law brings them back in.
Silver Surfer has been on earth all the while, doing nothing. He’s living on the streets, board wrapped up and disused.
Humanity, Surfer fears, is getting what it deserves. He cannot help them.
When he finds one human with compassion — a quality he thought long lost in humanity — he reveals himself and pledges to remove Galactus.
That human, by the way, is televangelist Candell’s sister, Elyna.
Silver Surfer calls on Galactus, who had pledged never to attack earth again.
Galactus points out that he hasn’t attacked earth at all. He’s landed on the planet and made helpful promises. If man chooses to destroy his world, that’s not an attack from Galactus.
Galactus, it seems, graduated law school and found a loophole.
But he also recognizes enough in humanity to know that his presence as a non-violent, non-physical force will be enough to corrupt humanity and lead him to an easy conquest of earth a little later…
Humanity turns on Silver Surfer, who they see as doubting their new deity and being unfaithful.
They even try attacking him by throwing things at him and firing guns at him, which Surfer easily blocks with his power cosmic.
Galactus doesn’t need these puny humans to defend him. He can take out Surfer, himself, and so a battle begins. It wreaks havoc on the city, causing mass destruction as buildings crumble.
It’s Galactus the Kaiju rampaging through the city.
Surfer retreats to take time to devise a better plan and save the city from further ruination.
But then Galactus over-plays his hand and kills an innocent civilian in front of the world.
This becomes a new rallying cry. What kind of God would act so vengefully? Is Galactus not truly the god humanity thought he was?
Galactus has lost the positive attention of humanity, and so leaves the planet.
This is hardly the end of the story, though.
Some see Surfer as their new god now. He can save them!
Surfer pities them their desperation for leadership, and devises a plan to save humanity from themselves. He’ll make himself out to be the villain to prove once more that they don’t need a god to tell them what is right or wrong.
Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, only the televangelist sees what Surfer is doing, but his voice is drowned out by the massive swell of anger.
And so the Surfer leaves, still yearning to find company with a people who aren’t so needy.
There aren’t too many creators who could wake up one day and decide they want to write a superhero script about what makes for a true god, what power humanity gives its gods, and the human desire to be led.
Who else besides Stan Lee could write a “superhero comic” in the most melodramatic Shakespearian prose about humankind’s thirst for religion and its ability to tear itself apart for the slimmest of reasons?
Oh, and there’s a big fight and city buildings crumble; a helicopter falls from the sky. So it’s not like Lee forget to put some Michael Bay moments into the book or anything…
But the whole thing is surprisingly heady, written in a way that feels more mature than his prose-filled 1960s work. He’s layering “deep thoughts” on top of a cosmic battle taking place on earth. This book is filled with the best kinds of contradictions like that.
Stan Lee’s natural superhero prose is pretty stylish already, but he switches it up for this book. It’s less “friendly” and “boisterous,” and more philosophical and mental.
Most importantly, it fits the story. This is “literary” superhero fiction.
There are profound things being said left and right, and all in context of the story.
In modern parlance, the book is filled with panels that are begging to be their own memes to explain the world today. Remember: This book is 30 years old.
So, yeah, just another Stan Lee production….
That’s a big question. The extremely short story with just some highlights is this:
Jean Giraud, born outside of Paris in 1938, studied art in college with Jean-Claude Mezieres, of “Valerian and Laureline” fame.
He broke into comics, apprenticing through the legendary Jije (a founder of the Marcinelle School), and became best known for his western series, “Lieutenant Blueberry.” It became very popular, jumped around in publishers a little later, and may hopefully someday be reprinted in English, but nobody is holding their breath.
In the 1970s, he sought to branch out and brought back into use a professional nickname he had used in some earlier short stories, “Moebius.”
With three others, he co-founded the science fiction magazine, “Métal Hurlant,” known as “Heavy Metal” in the States, in 1974. They called themselves “Les Humanoïdes Associés” or, as we know it today, “Humanoids.”
He published such classic works as “Airtight Garage,” “Arzach,” and “Incal”. That middle character was seen in the cult animated movie, “Heavy Metal.”
Moebius also worked for Hollywood, contributing storyboards and development art for “Alien,” “Tron,” “The Abyss,” and “The Fifth Element.”
Moebius died in 2012, sadly, with plenty of projects still in development, such as a return to “Arzach.”
Currently, Dark Horse is publishing a library of selected works. If you want to get started with them, click through the covers below.
(Click through to see the books on Amazon. These are affiliate links. Buying through them won’t cost you a penny more, but will help keep the lights on here.)
The Tony Scott-directed “Crimson Tide” (1995) referenced “Silver Surfer: Parable” in this memorable exchange.
Moebius comes up short in it, but it’s good company to lose to…
The art in this book is a very stripped down version of the Moebius France grew up with in the pages of “Blueberry”. It’s much more spartan and spare. Much of it looks almost like quick sketches inked on the page.
This is by design. It’s how Moebius felt the most comfortable drawing the book. He felt had to do it his way, without copying John Buscema or Jack Kirby. The looser art style and drawing most of it in ink on the board was the way to go.
But it’s still beautiful. Moebius’ eye for design and storytelling is where his mastery lies. His splash pages look great in large part because they’re laid out so well. Surfer casually flying away from a building that Galactus is attacking looks downright cool. The angles he chooses and the gestures/positions of the characters are key to that.
Galactus is stationary through the first half of the book. Per his plan, he stands nearly motionless in the middle of the city, becoming an overwhelming presence. He doesn’t need to do more.
So when he fights back in the second half of the book, he doesn’t need huge gestures to look active and scary. The simplest blasts shooting from his hand are powerful enough. When he does become more active, it’s more impactful.
Moebius has a very cinematic eye. The scale of his images even when they take up only a third of the page or less is huge. There’s a definite sense of the environment and place in everything Moebius does in this book.
This is not the standard Marvel style of its time. Things are a lot more open these days to different styles, but I’m not sure how much Moebius’ style would even work today. It makes the book stand out, but it also isolates it.
Small fun fact: Moebius signs almost every page he draws. Look for the little “M” in the bottom right corner of each page.
I love this stuff. Moebius isn’t even a native English speaker, but this lettering is wonderful. It must look incredibly messy and far too large to a newer comics reader who’s only ever seen computer fonts substituting for hand lettering.
But I think it’s glorious. Just look at the way it scales to meet the art. See how loose and energetic it is, just like the art it completes?
The letterforms are like nothing else you see in comics today, and mostly nothing like what you saw in the late 80s either. The closest comparison you could make is to the lettering of John Workman, which also has slightly larger, squarer letters inside of big round word balloons that butt up against the panel borders and knock out the borders between panels.
If I’m being critical, then I might say that there’s not enough spacing between the lines, and the letters tend to run together a lot.
At first glance, the reader probably has to work harder than they should to parse everything out.
I think you can get into this style quickly, though, and love that bouncy, round, large lettering style.
The imperfections are what give it so much life. The words may bounce off their base lines, things might not be perfectly centered, and letterforms aren’t completely consistent, but who cares?
It’s readable. It looks good. It looks organic. It fits the art style.
What more could you ask for from lettering?
Moebius wrote his thoughts down about lettering for part of his “Making Of” essay at the end of the book. The whole page is a great read for lettering fans, particularly the unconventional wisdom about how even bad lettering from the artist is better than soulless lettering from a dedicated letterer with no connection to the work.
I’ll just quote this part from the beginning of his essay:
If you’re a process junkie, the bonus material with the collection is worth paying the extra price. Moebius’ point of view is different in many ways from your typical North American artist. It’s a gift that he wrote as much as he did to explain the work and how he adjusted to working on an American comic after a lifetime of European work.
July 2019 Update: Marvel has released a new edition of the book. It’s a 13 inch tall hardcover containing the entire “Parable” story, and only that “Parable” story.
I do not own a copy of the book, so I can’t vouch for its quality. The size is better, hardcover is always nice, and sticking with just the Lee/Moebius story is good. But I’ve been critical of some of Marvel’s recent reprint choices, like paper stock and design, so this is not a recommendation. This is just a note that this version of the book is out there and worth looking at.
You can buy it here from Amazon. [Yes, that’s an affiliate link.] The cover price is $39.99:
Here’s what I originally wrote on this subject in 2018:
Currently, the best way to buy this book is in the “Silver Surfer: Parable” collection.
I guess 48 pages just isn’t enough to justify a collected edition for Marvel, so they attached “Silver Surfer: Enslavers” to it. That was a 78 page original graphic novel from 1990 drawn by Keith Pollard and written by Lee that nobody remembered or cared about until it showed up in this collection, I would bet.
With any luck, someday we’ll see Marvel reprint “Parable” in European album formatting style. 48 pages of a reprint for $10 in oversized hardcover format seems like a good deal to me. The pages are already paid for, and sales likely won’t be high enough to justify paying out royalties, depending on what the original contracts look like…
I don’t know if they ever went through with it, but Marvel did have plans originally to make a European-style hardcover album collecting the two books together in the fall of 1989. If they did, it’s been out of print for as long as I’ve been reading comics, basically.
For those of you who aren’t waiting for the glorious future where the European comic album format takes over North America and we get this book in its best possible format, you can get “Parable” digitally.
There was more recently a Marvel Premiere Edition style hardcover and trade paperback, but those are out of print and selling at high prices.
Marvel also produced a “Silver Surfer One Shot” a couple years ago that contained only “Parable” along with some poster images Moebius did in the 80s and an article on the series from “Marvel Age.” It’s $7.99, if you can find it anywhere. It’s a stapled standard size comic.
For the cost-conscious of you, the two individual issues that make up “Parable” are only $1.99 each, though you won’t get the bonus material along with it that way. (And, weirdly enough, the first issue is 18 pages, and the second is 35.)
The collected edition that includes “Enslavers” will run you $8.99, but includes all the bonus material.
In 2006, Stan Lee wrote five one shots in the “Stan Lee Meets” series. In each book, with a different artist, he tells an autobiographical story about meeting with one of his creations.
“Stan Lee Meets the Silver Surfer” was drawn by Mike Wieringo and parodies exactly the kind of work Lee did with Surfer in “Parable.” The story centers on Lee’s meeting with the Surfer, where everything the Surfer says is some vague philosophical aphorism.
It makes the conversation very frustrating, to the point where all Lee wants to do is get back to talking with Galactus, where he feels more comfortable.
If you read it right after “Parable,” it’ll be twice as funny. It is available digitally, as well.
“Silver Surfer: Parable” turns out to be an great experiment in blending two wildly different styles together to tell a great story.
It’s only a shame we didn’t get more. Moebius did some work for Marvel in this time period, but that was mostly in some covers and trading cards. Marvel’s Epic line reprinted some of his European work, as well.
But there was no follow-up to this book. It’s not like Lee wrote a “Spider-Man” story for Andre Franquin to draw, or a “Guardians of the Galaxy” story for Jean-Claude Mezieres to handle.
This isn’t exactly a hidden gem, but thanks to the digital world we won’t ever have to worry about it going out of print. But I do think it deserves more awareness. It’s a great book combing two legendary talents that at first blush you might not expect to work well together. They’re so stylistically different. But, in the end, that benefitted the work.
In memory of Stan Lee (1922 – 2018) and Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud (1938 – 2012)