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Spider-Man: Blue (Review)

Writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale just work well together. They’re the pair behind The Long Halloween, the Batman story which strongly informed Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Somehow they bring out the best in each other, even though Loeb’s recent output has generally been less than stellar. At Marvel, they’re put together a rough thematic “trilogy” offering a nostalgic look at the early careers of various superheroes. Spider-Man: Blue is the middle part of that trilogy (coming after Daredevil: Yellow and before Hulk: Grey). I’m about to commit a cardinal sin, so brace yourself: I think Spider-Man: Blue is the weakest of the three books.

Welcome to the spider's web...

Don’t get me wrong: all three books are a must read for anyone who feels a pang of nostalgia for the forties and fifties (the irony being that Marvel only really became a force to be reckoned with in the sixties). There’s a somewhat timeless vibe to these tales, but certain aspects (such as J. Jonah Jameson declaring, “You kids today. You play that rock and roll music so loud you can’t hear a thing when a person is talking to you” or the decoration of Harry Osborne’s “Bachelor Pad”) can’t help but evoke the feeling of fifties repression and the generational gap emerging. There’s a wonderful sense of listlessness, a longing for a nostalgic simplistic era of the medium. Of course, the comic suggest a period as early as the forties or fifties – before any of these characters even existed – but nostalgia isn’t about the past we have, it’s about the past we wished we had.

Loeb avoids the ‘birth’ of Spider-Man, which is probably a wise move. Everyone knows the story of Peter Parker, bitten by a radioactive/genetically-engineered spider and given all manner of superpowers. It’s origin which has been retold countless times, even in recent years – Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man film and Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Manproviding just two of the examples – and even that ignores the reboot that’s coming in 2012. Everyone knows the story of how Spider-Man became Spider-Man, certainly better than they know the story of Daredevil or even the Hulk, the two other subjects of Loeb and Sale’s trilogy.

The Vulture is circling...

Instead, Loeb pitches his tale as something of a love story. Much the same way as Daredevil: Yellow is a love story, and Hulk: Grey also explores the romance at the core of the character. Here, it’s a triangle – the story of Peter Parker, Mary Jane Watson and Gwen Stacy. In much the same way as Loeb used the death of Karen Page as a means to explore Matt Murdoch’s early career, here he uses the anniversary of the death of Gwen Stacy as an opportunity to explore the relatively early days of Peter Parker’s career (explicitly somehwere around issue #40 of Stan Lee’s original run).

Like with the works the two have done together since moving to Marvel, there’s a strong pang of nostalgia at play here. Peter socialises in a suit, rather than the slightly more casual wear one would expect from a teenager in the sixties (when the original series was published). In fairness, due to the complexities and nuances of comic book time, everything is relative. Peter Parker hasn’t, after all, been Spider-Man since the sixties to now – he’s not seventy-odd, just twenty-something – he only started fighting crime in the last decade. He will always have only started fighting crime in the last decade. So it makes as much sense for Loeb to use the familiar trappings of the forties and fifties as it does to use the sixties or even the nineties or naughties.

Bolt from the blue...

Stan Lee’s original run on Spider-Man was iconic. Even today it is considered – along with his original run on The Fantastic Four – to be one of the cornerstones of the second great age of comics. As opposed to the somewhat less sacred opening runs on Daredevil or The Incredible Hulk which form the background of Loeb and Sale’s other similar works, this is a sacred cow. Reading it, there seems to be a lot less freedom in the storytelling than in the other two parts of the trilogy.

There’s an introduction from John Romita, who illustrated the original issues which form the backbone of the narrative presented here, and he describes the story as providing something of an “untold history” behind the familiar tale (revealing “all that went on behind the scenes,”to quote the introduction). In a way, the story seems unfairly constricted to these scenes. For example, we get an introductory fight between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin for no other reason than that they encountered each other during the original run. It eats up several pages in the story, while providing relatively little.

Bridge of troubloed water...

In fairness, the whole story suffers somewhat from Loeb’s attempt to add a hidden superhero narrative connecting all these random encounters together. It becomes clear early on that someone is manipulating Spider-Man’s foes against him. This is a storytelling device that Loeb has used before (in Batman: Hush, for example) and one that is a staple of modern comics. In fairness, it’s an old tradition as well, but using it as a meta-text here distracts a bit from the narrative.

It feels consciously like a “modern” Loeb storytelling device intruding on what should be a nostalgia trip. In the course of the story, Loeb makes a somewhat strained attempt to reconcile the fact that he is veering from the established narrative (“Harry was so shaken by it all,” Peter suggests, “that he never brought it up”), but that only serves to draw more attention to it, and make it feel even more uncomfortable.

We must not look at goblin men...

In fact, the entire story might have been better served to completely remove the superhero plot angle, and just leave random encounters with Spider-Man’s rogues gallery as random encounters. The romantic subplot and the exploration of Peter’s acceptance of his responsibility are engaging and heartwarming on their own. There’s something genuinely touching about Peter’s acts of bravery inspiring Flash to join the army and ponder what he’s done with his life. Loeb also allows the readers to catch a glimpse at what makes Peter Parker so special that two beautiful women would end up fighting for his nerdy heart.

That said, I just don’t entirely buy Loeb’s voice for Parker. The story is, as with the other volumes, a narrated nostalgic memory. Unlike the letter that Loeb used to connect Matt Murdoch with Karen Page, here he uses a tape recorder. It’s a riskier tool to use – that sort of vocal narration needs to sound more organic and less rehearsed. It doesn’t help that Spider-Man also has a somewhat distinctive narrative voice that’s familiar to all his incarnations – whether you watched the animated series, went to see Sam Raimi’s films or even just read some comics, you have a distinct idea of how Peter Parker should sound, balancing teenage wisecracks with a more adult emotional burden. Loeb’s writing seems almost at times forced – his one-liners, for example, seem only to exist because Spider-Man should probably say something witty at this point in the story.

I probably sound harsh and – reading over what I’ve written – I come across somewhat harsher than I intended. The story has a lot of heart, and serves as a strong nostalgic pining for the ‘good old days’ of comic book innocence. Though it’s the death of Gwen Stacy that that compels Peter to recount the story contained in this book, it’s an incident conspicuous by its absence. The Night that Gwen Stacy Died is generally regarded as the start in a darker way of exploring these comic book heroes. It’s an iconic moment familiar even to those who have never picked up a comic book. The story, which saw the Green Goblin throw Gwen off a bridge, only for Peter to catch her and realise her neck was broken, was listed by the publisher, Marvel, as the most important comic book they have ever published.

However, that moment isn’t included here. It sits, like an elephant in the room. Much as Loeb omitted the birth of Spider-Man because we all know it, he omitted the death fo Gwen because it is so familiar. Perhaps he has also doesn’t wish to dwell on the darkness that followed, reflecting more on the brightness which came before.

Sale’s artwork is, as ever, beautiful. His watercolours beautifully evoke the past, and he’s clearly having a ball illustrating the fine selection of Spider-Man foes on display here. Spider-Man’s villains are a wonderfully colourful bunch and Sale has great fun with then. And that’s saying nothing of his stunning portraits of Mary Jane and Gwen. The book is worth a look for Sale’s work alone.

Girl trouble...

Perhaps the biggest problem with Sale and Loeb’s work here is that, unlike the subjects of their other two collaborations on Marvel projects, this aspect of Peter Parker has already been analysed and explored in depth. The two aren’t casting a new light on an overshadowed period of the hero’s life, instead simply offering a nostalgic filter to view it through. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that (in fact, it’s quite wonderful), but it means that the story lacks some of the power of the other two chapters in their exploration of the formative periods of given Marvel superheroes.

This is part of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s unofficial “colours” trilogy involving nostalgia for the early days in the careers of Marvel superheroes. If you’d like to check out the other books in the collect, they’re listed here:

7 Responses

  1. I wonder if this is how the new Spiderman films will be covered. I didn’t mind the omission of the origin, but Stacy’s death is too big to not cover.

    • Yep. I think the weirdest thing about Spider-Man III was that they went to great pains to streamline the Peter/MJ romance, and then, after all that, tried to reintroduce Gwen at a point where the character was redundant on top of the 100 other crazy character things going on in that mess of film. I’d like to see this play out on film – provided they have the guts to kill a lead character, and not wuss out.

  2. Would you ever do a review of the Death of Gwen Stacy? I’d love to hear your thoughts on “the best Spider-Man story ever”.

  3. What’s weird about this story is that is apparently is an anniversary of Gwen Stacys death but takes place early on in his career. I think this is an out of continuity story so I’ll let it oass.

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