Yes, I can already hear you, murmuring and sighing at the first glance of the title. ‘Why the hell would anyone deny that Stan Lee and ‘the King’ were anything but geniuses? Isn’t it bloody obvious?’
And of course, you’re right – at first glance it is bleeding obvious. With careers spanning decades, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created and developed some of the comic world’s most iconic characters and story lines, from Spiderman and Captain America to The Fantastic Four. So it’s easy to see why both are regarded as legends of epic proportions.
Put quite simply, the proof is Norrin Radd.
Often forgotten, rarely discussed and lacking a massive movie franchise (with sequels, prequels and all the stuff in the middle), Norrin Radd, aka the Silver Surfer, is the single piece of evidence anyone needs to show just how brilliant these two guys really were. And here’s why:
Famous philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote a book called Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Complex, disturbing and above all else completely brilliant, it was published in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, and paints the future failings of the modern world in verse, rhyme and religious ceremony. A book of pure genius, its beauty lies in it's almost inexhaustible interpretation, depth of concepts and horrifying accuracy.
A work that few philosophical and aesthetic texts are capable of emulating, in it Nietzsche argues that suffering is a fundamental and necessary facet of the human condition. We all suffer, and sometimes life can just suck. Nietzsche believed we have to accept suffering as a necessity in life. How we deal with it, whether it’s overcoming it or simply putting up with it, shapes and defines us, and ultimately gives our lives some sense of meaning. If we try to avoid suffering, well…things usually get a lot worse. Even more importantly, if we try to eradicate it completely, our lives become totally meaningless.
Ok, it’s kind of obvious that a lot of suffering is a very bad thing. But a world without suffering, where we just sit around comfortably with very little to do, sipping on Yorkshire Tea while machines massage our feet and prepare our dinners (imagine Wall-E with the humans on the Axium), might be just as bad, in its own unique way.
We all know the rest of the tale: Galactus shows up to nibble on Zenn-La like a tiny hors d’oeuvre and Norrin valiantly sacrifices himself to save his home and his beloved by becoming Galactus’ Herald, forever cursed to wander the cosmos alone. As the Surfer, Norrin begins to suffer, but it’s also through this that his life is given a sense of purpose. Rather than sitting around wondering ‘what else is there’, his suffering ultimately helps him settle on one simple goal and reason for existing - returning to Zenn-La and his Shalla-Bal.
I haven’t really done justice to either book here, and there’s a hell of a lot more that could be said. But when you compare Zarathustra with the Surfer, for me it raises two possibilities. Either Kirby and/or Lee read Zarathustra and understood it so well they invented an epic sci-fi comic that encapsulates many of the book’s central themes (and Nietzsche’s prolonged philosophical thought overall). Or, neither read it, and they simply created a masterpiece of such intelligence that its narrative and ideas equal those suggested by one of the greatest philosophical texts ever produced…ever.
Whatever you believe, both come off looking pretty smart to me…REALLY smart, in fact. Sod it, they were geniuses…end of story.