The Silver Surfer: Hope on a Surfboard

The Silver Surfer AKA Christ on a Surfboard
Illustration by Kris Madden

Really? People Call Him “Christ on a Surfboard”?

As I’ve always said, “Good artists borrow; great artists steal,” and Marvel’s been doing this for years—sometimes not even bothering to change the name—yes, Thor, I’m looking at you. But sometimes they’re creations end up resembling mythologies, religious symbols, or old campfire stories by happenstance simply because that’s where the story needs to go. While some readers and critics have argued that Marvel’s Silver Surfer is an adaptation of the story of Jesus, the character’s creators have stated just the opposite. To me, the Silver Surfer became the so-called “Christ on a Surfboard” (Dalton 2011, p. 179) because that’s just where the story needed to go. It needed to be a story about hope.

Big Villains Need Big Heroes

For the moment, let’s forget all we currently know about Marvel’s history and pretend that we’ve been tasked with writing a new character and potential series for Marvel back in the mid-1960’s. We’ve become bored with the formulaic genre superheroes and the stories they inhabit and instead we want to create something big.

And writers know the old creed that heroes are only as big as the villains, or obstacles they must face in the course of their journey; so as writers for Marvel, we decide that we need to make a gigantic villain—something of the likes no one has ever seen before. This villain shouldn’t just be big, he should be so large that his existence depends on eating, or devouring, entire cities… no, countries… no, planets… No, entire galaxies—Yes! Entire galaxies.

This is great! No one’s ever had a villain that threatens to eat the whole galaxy and so we’ll have this guy and we’ll call him… umm… GALACTUS! Yes, that’s it. And we’ll pit him against the superheroes from Earth and there’ll be this huge battle, and we’ll get Jack Kirby to draw these sprawling fights across the sky—Oh, this is such a good idea—I mean, we are going to be seen as geniuses when this comes out. This is going to be so big.

But, the writers’ initial enthusiasm for their big idea is suddenly met with that age-old question: What happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force?

What Happens to Immovable Objects (A One-Act Play Regarding the Invention of the Silver Surfer in an Alternate Universe)

INT. MARVEL COMICS OFFICE

WRITER 1
Don’t we have a superhero that can beat Galactus?

WRITER 2
No, if we had superheroes that could defeat Galactus then why would they fight crime— when they could just end crime altogether. What if all the superheroes teamed up? If they all worked together could they defeat Galactus?

WRITER 1
No. It’d just be a stalemate at best. Let’s look at this logically—the only thing that can beat Galactus is Galactus, right?

WRITER 2
Right.

WRITER 1
Okay, so what if Galactus gave all of his power over to someone—like what if he was the king and there was a prince Galactus?

WRITER 2
That sounds like a terrible idea. What if it was like the King’s messenger? But the messenger had similar powers or something—what were they called? Harbingers?

WRITER 1
“Heralds.”

WRITER 2
Yes. So… Galactus’s Herald has the same power as he does, but he doesn’t need to eat worlds in order to have his power.

WRITER 1
Okay, so we’ll need to invent a new character then. And how is he going to defeat Galactus?

WRITER 2
Well, technically Galactus can’t be defeated. The King’s messenger, or Herald, will need to somehow convince Galactus that earth isn’t worth devouring.

WRITER 1
How’s the Herald going to do that?

WRITER 2
I have no idea. I mean, I’m sure somebody’s figured this out before—couldn’t we just reference something somebody’s already done. You know, like they did with Thor—isn’t there a story from an ancient culture we can use to solve this.

WRITER 1
I don’t know. I’ve been a Sunday school kid all my life, so that’s the extent of my knowledge of “ancient stories.”

WRITER 2
Hey, what about the story of Jesus? What if we used that as a template?

WRITER 1
You want Galactus to be Jesus? I don’t see how those two connect?

WRITER 2
Not Jesus, Galactus would be God. And he’s essentially going to destroy the earth, you know, send the flood and start all over—like Galactus would be the fire and brimstone Old Testament God and then this herald, or “God’s Messenger”, right? He would then come down to earth to find out whether it’s worth destroying and he decides to save it by sacrificing himself.

WRITER 1
So how do we create a series from a character if we have to kill him, or her, at the end of the story?

WRITER 2
Well, we won’t kill him, or her, we’ll ummm, we’ll make it so that the Herald makes this huge sacrifice for humanity, so it’s like he dies.

WRITER 1
I think that could actually work.

WRITER 2
Don’t you think this is kind of sacrilegious?

WRITER 1
We’ll just throw in a bunch of non-Jesus type stuff so that people don’t think it’s about Jesus.

WRITER 2
Like what?

WRITER 1
Like he’ll ride around on a surfboard. And he’ll be hairless, yeah, and… he won’t have ears, but he can still hear people.

WRITER 2
So you essentially want to put the story of Christ on a surfboard is that what you’re saying?

WRITER 1
Yes! Exactly!

WRITER 2
And tell me, do you have a name for Marvel’s messiah?

WRITER 1
[Glancing at a poster of The Wolf Man hanging on the wall.]
We’ll call him the Silver Surfer—because that’s how you kill a werewolf, with a silver bullet, and Galactus is our werewolf and the Silver Surfer is our silver bullet.

WRITER 2
That’s ridiculous… but The Silver Surfer does have a nice ring to it.

WRITER 1
Alright, let’s put start putting this down. Page one, panel one, we open on an infinite sea of stars…

The Silver Surfer As The God-Man of Marvel

The above narrative is obviously a farce and bears little resemblance to how the Silver Surfer character came to fruition in our universe. My point is that the Silver Surfer’s narrative similarities to that of Jesus Christ, whether intentional or serendipitous, is potentially a result of plot solutions arrived at from a belief that sacrificial love conquers all—or as Professor Marco Arnaudo more eloquently put it:

“The similarities between the Silver Surfer and Jesus Christ are most evident in their roles as a sacrificial savior of the world, as a demonstration of ultimate love, as a higher being embodied in a humble state upon the earth, and as a resister of the embodiments of evil. The parallels between them break down when addressing the notions of plight, perfection, and absolute divinity. If the Silver Surfer represents Jesus, he points both in the direction of the suffering messiah from Nazareth at his first coming, and the apocalyptic liberator of the world, battling macro-evils at his second coming. His great power, heavenly ethos, selflessness, and purity directs us to a Christology from above: Jesus as the god-man. On the other hand, the Surfer’s imperfections, compassion for Shalla Bal, and suffering over his predicament in a paradise lost direct us to what is more human in the hero. Thus the Silver Surfer is both god-like and human-like, point us again to the incarnation of Christ. The Surfer remains one of the clearest examples of the god-man in comics” (Arnaudo 2013, p. 166).

I don’t know whether it’s right to characterize the Silver Surfer as Jesus Christ. Or if it’s accurate to say that Galactus is a representation of the Old Testament God. I can’t verify through my research that Marvel had an agenda to preach the Gospel through it’s line of Silver Surfer comics. There are a lot of conspiracy theories, criticism, histories, interviews, and such that go every which way when it comes to what the Silver Surfer stands for.

For me, the Silver Surfer’s potential religious narrative ties are irrelevant to the appeal of his story. At its core, when you take away all the science-fiction elements, the silly names, fake planets, and oversized villains—the Silver Surfer is the embodiment of hope. He is a stranger to our world and has no inherent bias, no personal motivations to protect it from destruction; instead, his reason for protecting earth stem from his belief that all life is sacred and worth guarding. He sacrifices everything he knows simply out of principle, because if he’s not willing to sacrifice what’s dear to him to protect life on another planet, how can he hope that somewhere out there in the universe someone else is making that same sacrifice for other lives?

His sacrifice not only gives hope to others but gives himself something to hope for. And that’s why to me the Silver Surfer is simply: hope on a surfboard.

References

Arnaudo, Marco. The Myth of the Superhero. Translated by Jamie Richards. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Dalton, Russell W. Marvelous Myths: Marvel Superheroes and Everyday Faith. Saint Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2011.

Gabilliet, Jean-Paul. 1994. “Cultural and Mythical Aspects of a Superhero: The Silver Surfer 1968-1970”. Journal of Popular Culture 28, (2) (Fall): 203.

Oropeza, B. J. The Gospel According to Superheroes: Religion and Popular Culture. New York: Peter Lang, 2008.

Author: Kris Madden

Kris Madden is an American professor, writer, and artist whose work has garnered press and media attention from the likes of The Independent, Lifehacker, and Boing! Boing! among others. In the past, he has written for network blogs GearLive, FlushLife and PeevishPenman. His short fiction has appeared in Astonishing Adventures and in 2010, his short memoir was a winner in the William Saroyan Writing Contest. He currently lives in Fresno, California with his wife and three kids.

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