Today the BAB is proud to welcome one of our long-time and faithful readers/commenters to the writer's chair. You know him as Dr. Oyola; he regularly writes about comics and music on his own blog, The Middle Spaces (www.themiddlespaces.com).
Dr. Oyola: Sometimes in taking a close look at something we like, we come to learn that maybe we don’t like it as much as we thought we did. Or perhaps, more accurately, we are able to better see the complexity and nuance of our relationship to it. Take for instance Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Spider-Man: Blue from 2002-03, which is the focus of this review/overview. I first picked it up because it seemed right up my alley—a re-telling/re-imagining of the beginning of the John Romita, Sr. era of Amazing Spider-Man. I love adaptations and re-tellings and I love Silver Age Spider-Man, so it seemed like a no-brainer to get it. Plus, the art looked pretty amazing. However, after the first two issues or so I decided it wasn’t so good after all. I can’t recall exactly what it was that led me to that opinion, but I think I got the rest of the series without even bothering to read it all. Instead, not too soon after I put the whole series up on eBay. No one wanted to buy it! Stuck with it, I stored them with the rest of my comics and on a whim reread the whole thing in one sitting a few years later and decided my original estimation was wrong. I was glad I had failed to sell them. I recently returned to them while doing research on a post on my own blog on romance comics (and to some degree their influence on superhero comics) and decided that they’d be a good subject of a Bronze Age Babies guest post—taking a look at a relatively recent re-framing of a Silver Age romance whose dissolution through death marks the beginning of the Bronze Age for many. The thing is, as I said above, now having spent a lot more time examining the series, I find myself returning to ambivalence. I am split. I love the art and the visual storytelling, but when it comes to the writing, while I appreciate the updated dialog and how some of the elements of the plot are handled, overall its failures are less acceptable than in the original material seeing as Loeb had 30+ intervening years to get it right.
Spider-Man: Blue is a six-issue mini-series that came out as part of the Marvel Knights imprint in 2002-03. Each issue is referred to as “Book One,” “Book Two,” and so on, and each one uses the name of a classic popular love song for a title: “My Funny Valentine,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” “Anything Goes,” “Autumn in New York,” “If I Had You” and “All of Me.” It was the second in a series of re-telling/re-imaginings of early days of Marvel heroes, which started with Daredevil: Yellow, and included Hulk: Grey and Captain America: White. I haven’t read the others, but the Daredevil one looks interesting. All of the series were written by Jeph Loeb (who has done a lot of uneven, and even highly criticized work for both Marvel and DC) and Tim Sale who does a great job emulating John Romita, Sr, with an occasional flourish that reminds me of Steve Ditko.
While Spider-Man: Blue is ostensibly a re-imagining/re-telling of Amazing Spider-Man #40 to #48 and #63 with a focus on the love triangle between Peter Parker, Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson which haunts Peter and MJ way past Gwen’s death and into the days of their marriage, the series is really a love letter to those early Lee/Romita, Sr. days, as there is plenty of superhero action and focus on interaction of some of the supporting cast. Each issue features a small scroll/banner that reads, “Dedicated to Stan Lee & Steve Ditko & John Romita, Sr. Web-heads all!” As such, I went back and read the original issues this series is based on, however, and just like every time I read Silver and Bronze Age comics I was amazed at how much they used to squeeze into a single issue back then (I miss those days), so there is a lot left out as well, including references to the main plot of some of those intervening issues from which some of the relationship stuff emerges, leading to Loeb and Sale compressing the stories and having to find new ways for events from disparate issues in their original telling to flow together.
The series is framed through the conceit of modern day more adult Peter, now married to MJ, recording audio tapes every Valentine’s Day as if he were talking to Gwen, re-telling her the story of their meeting and early relationship now that he can admit his alter ego. Throughout the six issues, Peter Parker narrates his own story through the blue text boxes that float in the panels. The first issue opens with Spider-Man swinging his way to the top of one of the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge to lay a flower from where Gwen Stacy fell to her death—but wait, didn’t she fall of off the George Washington Bridge? This is one of those things that continuity has gone back and forth about since in Amazing Spider-Man #122, the text calls it the GWB, but Gil Kane drew it as the Brooklyn Bridge. I go back and forth on which I prefer. Regardless, the narration and story then jumps to the events of ASM #40, unlike the obsession with her death that has become common—from the confrontation with the Jackal in the original clone saga to the attempt by the Green Goblin much later after his return to throw Mary Jane off the Brooklyn Bridge (Marvel Knights: Spider-Man #12)—Spider-Man: Blue is about the beginning of their relationship not the end. So while, “My Funny Valentine” may start with an infamous confrontation with the Green Goblin, this is meant to set up and contextualize the relationship with Harry Osborn, through which Peter meets Gwen.
The re-telling of the warehouse scene with the Green Goblin from ASM #40 sets the tone for the liberties Loeb and Sale take with the source material. For example, the Goblin himself never takes off his mask (or else has already put it back on), and the way Peter frees himself and attacks the Goblin is totally different, though the results are the same, including the arrival of the firemen and the passing off of a now amnesiac Norman Osborn. There are other less apparent changes in how the story unfolds in Book One, like Peter pays for his motorcycle in cash from a biker looking dude in Spider-Man: Blue, while in ASM #41 he has to call J. Jonah Jameson to vouch for his bank loan. In addition, Loeb and Sale take further liberty in making it seem like Peter and Gwen don’t have their moment of romantic chemistry until both happen to be in the hospital visiting Norman Osborn, and having Peter give her a ride on his new motorcycle, when in ASM, they already know each other, there is no hospital scene. They talk when he runs into her with Harry and Flash, but then he goes home to show the bike off to Aunt May and Anna Watson instead.
In scenes involving these young women, since the story as a whole is meant to focus more on their relationships than on Spidey action (though there is plenty of that, too), they are given a little more intelligence and agency. For example, unlike in ASM #43, where Peter just makes an excuse about taking pictures of the Rhino and leaves Mary Jane in the crowd, in Spider-Man: Blue Book Three—“Anything Goes”—she is the one who comes up with a plan, flirting with a cop, to allow Peter to get past the barricades in order to ostensibly take pictures (but really to tackle the Lizard, not the Rhino—another of those changes). The great thing about this version is that it works both if you are an old schooler who prefers a version where Mary Jane did not know his identity, or someone like me who loves that it was eventually revealed that she knew he was Spider-Man all along. In my mind, I like that she is really helping him to do his Spider-Man thing, but not letting on. Another example—this one from Book Two—which retroactively echoes the Gwen Stacy of the recent Spider-Man films, she is seen working in the lab at Empire University (and where Miles Warren, later to become the Jackal, makes a cameo). Or did she always major in biochemistry? I just don’t recall any scenes of her working in a lab in the original Amazing Spider-Man run, save for her first appearance where Harry and Flash use her as a distraction in chem lab to play a trick on Peter—but that can hardly be considered her “working” in the lab. When Spider-Man seeks out Curt Connors’ help in making special webbing to melt the Rhino’s suit, it is based on an idea he originally gotten from something Peter and Gwen were developing together in class. I like that Loeb and Sale make an effort to give the love interests some depth and character, rather than just existing as eye candy and props in Peter’s story.
Again, I am not arguing that his is better than what are to me some classic issues of Amazing Spider-Man. Instead, I see this series as supplemental. In fact, I’d say that the original issues are better, but it is nice to see a relatively contemporary comic paying respectful homage to the Silver Age. Furthermore, despite there being places where the re-arranging of the plot reveals weakness in the writing, Tim Sale’s art seems to get stronger as the series develops. His art is especially showcased by two-page splashes on the second and third page of each issue, but there are others scattered throughout that are beautiful, full of movement and/or depth of emotion. The first one is not so great, though the blue tone of the coloring (by Steve Buccellato) is apt to the melancholy theme of the series’ framing, but they get better and better. My favorite is the kitchen scene at Aunt May’s house in Book Four, but Spidey taking on both Vultures (Adrian Toomes and Blackie Drago) in Book Five is pretty friggin’ awesome, too. In addition, the art in the series evokes the 1960s story beats, and those origins remain to me the quintessential Spider-Man era.
Book Five—“If I Had You”—is essentially ASM #63, put before the events of ASM #47. In it Adrian Toomes escapes the prison hospital with the help of Kraven the Hunter, who it turns out has been stalking Spider-Man in order to complete the hit on our hero taken out by the (now thought dead) Green Goblin (Kraven, drawn in shadow, also freed the Rhino back in Book Two). When Kraven the Hunter explains that Toomes is not dying and that Blackie poisoned him, he gives the old man the antidote and sends him after Blackie as revenge for failing to kill Spider-Man in the previous issue (the events of ASM #48). It is during Spidey’s fight with both Vultures that Flash Thompson is depicted walking around wondering why Peter Parker’s star seems on the rise while his is fading is put into danger and Spider-Man has to save him. It is a great scene, and it leads to Flash reconsidering what he is doing with his life when he realizes that Spider-Man is probably no older than he is and is doing so much with his life. He breaks the news to his friends afterwards: he is joining the army.
This is the change in the re-telling that I have mixed feelings about. I really don’t like it, but at the same time, the scenes depicting it are well-staged. What bugs me is making Flash Thompson volunteer for the U.S. Army rather than be drafted, as happened in the original run. While I can understand wanting to update the timeline in such a way that his enlistment is not tied to conscription, and thus the Vietnam War, there is nothing else in Spider-Man: Blue that changes the feel of the time period. Even Peter’s casual sexism isn’t necessarily connected to the Sixties, since I am sure there were plenty of young men who didn’t talk to women that way, just as there are plenty who still do (with whatever update to that language). Loeb does a great job developing the sense of Peter and Flash’s crossing social and economic trajectories, but I think Flash being drafted really captures the change of fortune due to forces way beyond our control (kind of like being bitten by a radioactive spider, but worse). Suddenly, part of what makes Peter Parker an outsider is saving him from a fate that many young men faced in the mid-to-late 60s. As Gwen says in ASM #43, “I don’t think they’d take Peter! He’s a scholarship student -- at the very top of his class!” By making Flash being saved by Spider-Man the impetus for enlistment it removes the parallel imposed responsibility between the characters. Plus, in the context of the controversy of the Vietnam Era (or really any war…uh, I mean “police action” since) the idea of Flash “helping people” by joining the army is cast into doubt. Better he should be something more arguably selfless, like a firefighter—but of course that would have been too much a change and not line up with continuity (still, if it led to him not ending up as “Agent Venom” wearing the black suit symbiote for the government, as he is these days, it’d be worth it).
I have to say that even as the art and visual storytelling in this series gets better and better the story work in terms of the writing seems to lose steam as the threads start to fray. The weakness of the whole cologne thing, for example, is highlighted by Peter’s narration explaining that Kraven must have been so embarrassed by his mistake that he “never tried that stunt again.” You’d think as sharp a hunter as Kraven would be able to figure out that it must have been someone else at Flash’s party, especially since Spider-Man showed up to save Harry and beat his butt so quickly. Furthermore, if Kraven knows there is a connection between Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin, what sense would it make that Spider-Man would be his son?
The series seems to have two distinct endings. First there is Peter finally getting back home after fighting Kraven the Hunter and Gwen Stacy finds him there. She is in a slinky black dress and what looks like a white fur coat and kind of presents herself to him in a very sexy way. The suggestion is that they consummate their relationship that night and then start to date. This feels kind of abrupt and a little too contemporary a notion of the development of a romantic relationship, which is weird since the whole premise of the series is supposed to be an examination of the romance in that era of Amazing Spider-Man, but despite Peter calling this a “love story” in his narration and a couple of scenes involving the love triangle of Peter/Gwen/MJ, this element feels lost in the events of the battling Vultures and Kraven’s attack. The actual ending of Spider-Man: Blue is back in the “present” of Peter Parker telling this story into the recorder as a way of talking to the now dead Gwen, closing the frame that opens the series. It turns out Mary Jane (still Peter’s wife at this time) was listening in, but rather than express jealousy at Peter’s continuing obsession with his dead former girlfriend, she tells him “To tell Gwen hello” for her—demonstrating her deep understanding of his feelings and her own feelings for her dead friend and one time competitor for Peter’s affections. There is a definite sense that Peter is finally moving on, but that this final reflection on his love of Gwen was a necessary step to do that.
In the end I have to rate Tim Sale’s art (complemented by Steve Buccellato’s coloring) as the selling point for this series. There are elements of the re-telling that are very strong, but overall I’d say it is uneven—perhaps others would come to different conclusions. I am particularly impressed by the composition of some singular panels that have a certain quietude to them that evoke the depth of tension in Peter’s life. The splash page kitchen scene is a great example, but so is a panel simply showing Aunt May’s hand going into “the kitty” (literally a cat-shaped cookie jar) for the money for Peter’s motorcycle.
One last note about Spider-Man: Blue: I know there is a trade that collects all six issues, but I have the original issues with high-quality heavy bond covers and interior pages. For some reason Marvel chose to include ads in those original issues (which for a high concept higher price point limited series seems weird) and in two cases included back-up stories that are essentially BS. One of them features Jay Leno (!) as a guest-star helping Spider-Man fight ninjas, but is part two of a two-part story whose first part appears in some other title at some other time. It makes no sense. It really takes away from the special feel of the issues.