Thursday, October 15, 2009

Spider-Man: Blue Review

I recently dug into the depths of my hardcover and trade paperback collections to take a second look at Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Spider-Man: Blue collection. When I first read this story, I was blown away by how enjoyable its story is and how well it developed the relationship between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. In terms of sheer enjoyment, it was a great story, but how does it hold up under a much more critical inspection? You’ll have to check out my review after the jump to find out!

Written by Jeph Loeb
Art by Tim Sale and Steve Buccellato
Letters by Richard Starkings and JG Roshell

Spider-Man: Blue is a nostalgic reexamination of the relationship between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy after the arrival of Mary Jane Watson that also follows Peter’s exploits as Spider-Man against nearly all of his major foes. Although the story starts very focused on an intense battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin, the action quickly takes a back seat to the much larger story of the evolution of Peter’s relationship with Gwen Stacy from a innocent longing into something much more serious. Unlike most modern stories that focus on this relationship, this story does not retell the story of Gwen Stacy’s death.

Although this story does not retell Gwen’s death, it does focus on several other major moments in Spider-Man’s history. These include Flash Thompson being inspired by Spider-Man’s heroics to join the army, Mary Jane Watson’s debut as Peter’s blind date, and the debut of Kraven the Hunter. While retelling class moments is nothing new, Jeph Loeb takes an interesting approach to these by placing them in the background of Peter’s relationship with Gwen. In a sense then, if his story is meant to be taken in continuity, it isn’t really retconning the events themselves, but rather Loeb is attempting to enhance them by adding another layer of depth to the original stories.

The main problem with this is that the story feels incredibly unfocused at times, especially as Spider-Man’s battles with his main villains seem to happen out of no where and appear to be only meant to break up the more-character focused storytelling. When it is implied that Kraven is behind all of the villains attacks, it does add a little sense the situation. Unfortunately, it feels like too little too late and, much like the attacks themselves, this plot point feels incredibly shoe-horned into the story.

Despite some hang-ups with the overall plotting of the story, I was very pleased with Jeph Loeb’s character work. His characters are lively and over-the-top with a timeless swagger that really channels Stan Lee’s approaches to the characters, which makes sense considering how heavily reliant on nostalgia the story is. Loeb does a great job of developing the relationships between the characters and the complexities of said relationships despite the fact that the story itself is rather simple. The characters work so well together that if you’d be just as comfortable with them whether this is your first exposure to Spider-Man and his supporting cast or if you are a longtime fan.

What is most interesting to me in this regard is how Loeb built the contrasts between Gwen and MJ. Mary Jane is a bold, often flirty but surprisingly insightful girl who appears to only be chasing Peter for the sport of it. Gwen on the other hand is written as a less confident, but more charming and subdued girl whose feelings for Peter appear to be more natural and genuine. This really helps put weight behind the dilemma Peter faces when choosing which girl to pursue. This also makes the twist all the more shocking and heartfelt, as we find out exactly how Peter and Mary Jane deal with Gwen’s death, which easily the most powerful moment of the entire series.

Much like Jeph Loeb’s approach to writing, Tim Sale takes a lot of care to give the art for this series a timeless feel. Everything on the pages, from the clothing to the hairstyles to the buildings and to the cars, no definite time period is ever established by the art. The reader can actively make the choice to set the series in the past and view the character designs as fashion-forward New Yorkers or they can take the story as more contemporary and view of some of the designs through the lens of retro-focused hipsters. In this regard, the designs are very reminiscent of Bruce Timm’s Batman: the Animated Series in its era-bending and classiness.

Tim Sale’s approach to Spider-Man and his villains is very basic, as he does very little to alter the original designs. Everyone from Spider-Man himself to Kraven to the Lizard and beyond are iconic in their presentation and simple in their execution. While the action sequences do look very good thanks to Sale’s good choreographing and excellent overall skills, his approach to them would seem to imply that they are of less importance than the character work—which is perfectly in line with what is going on in the script.

Sale does have a tendency to build towards the most iconic shots, forcing moments like MJ’s debut, Kraven’s arrival, and Spider-Man saving Flash Thompson to look more like pin-ups than pages in the story. This does alienate some of the less iconic moments by having them be less detailed. Plus, although these moments are clearly meant to be major focuses, they do look incredibly stiff and out of place.

There are also some major problems with consistency throughout the story. As mentioned above, the level of detail fluctuates throughout the book, with more iconic moments getting the best treatment. Background characters also have a tendency to look unfinished at best or, at worst, are too heavily inked to the point that they look malformed. Mary Jane in general has the roughest time with consistency as she run a wide gamut of appearances ranging from a gorgeous young socialite to an fading and aged starlet, despite the fact that the bulk of the story takes place over the course of just a few months.

That’s not to say that Sale’s art is all bad. It’s quite the contrary, actually. Despite problems with consistency, Spider-Man: Blue features some of the best work of Sale’s career. His expressions alone are simply phenomenal. When the stories call for it, his characters are incredibly animated with big bold movements and expressions, while at other times his faces and body language carry the tone of the story through subtle movement and nuanced facial details. Additionally, Sale uses very large panels throughout the book, which allows him to do interesting things with placement, focus, and use of negative space. As a whole, it may be one of Sale’s rockier performances, but when he is on his game, this story showcases some of the best work I’ve ever seen from him.

One of the most overlooked aspects of collected editions is the design of the book, which in the case of Spider-Man: Blue should be considered a crime. Richard Starkings and JG Roshell at Comicraft handled the design of this hardcover collection and, I must say, did an absolutely brilliant job. The fonts, layouts, and overall execution really makes this book appear to be something special. It’s clear that a lot of thought went into every aspect of this collection and it pays off.

Verdict: Buy It. Spider-Man: Blue is, by no means, a perfect story. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale attempt to put together an extremely ambitious story in the simplest way possible, which causes a lot of the elements they pack into the story to be incredibly forced and distracting from the main narrative. That story, however, is one of the best looks at the relationship between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy and is an incredibly strong argument for the camp that believes that Gwen will always be Peter’s true love. This is a story that will pull at your heart strings and have you waxing nostalgic. It works incredibly well at what it attempts to do, despite the glaring nature of its faults.
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Flip The Page said...

probably one of the better Loeb comics out there (if only because Gwen Stacy is freakin' awesome) I still can't say I like it because... Well, because I just despise the writing quirks of Loeb.

Good review though.

Ryan Schrodt said...

@Flip - I can see that. If you aren't a fan of Loeb to begin with, this won't be the best book for you, even if it is one of Loeb's best books (personally, I prefer Hush over this, but just barely). I do totally agree on Gwen Stacy though, definitely one of the best modern interpretations of the character.

Klep said...

This is pretty much the only thing I've seen from Loeb that I enjoyed. I first read it before I was familiar with any writers, and I was actually shocked to come back and realize that he wrote it.

The Dangster said...

Glad you liked Hush. Honestly, I liked Loeb's stuff before his switch to Mavel in 2005, this is probably his strongest Marvel Work (I liked Hulk Grey but the the character work is better).

On another note, Long Halloween, Superman for All Seasons are great and Catwoman When in Rome is criminally underrated.

Kirk Warren said...

I'm not a fan of any of the Colour books. I have the same problem with them as I do with things like Superman and Green Lantern's Secret Origins from Johns in that the art is the only thing propping them up if you have any experience with the character (this isn't a knock on anyone that hasn't read as many or me saying my opinion is superior for having read more; its just how I view them after having read hundreds of Spider-Man comics or several iterations of Superman's origin already and so on).

Another problem I have with the Colour books, in particular, is the sappy love letter to a friend. It's the equivilent of a dead baby syndrome to pull on heart strings. It's not unique or strong storytelling and feels over written in its attempts to prey on the inherent emotions of a dead loved one.

Add these intentional narratives to the fact most of the books rely on being straight up retellings of old comics (encounters with Green Goblin, Daredevil's first costume in Yellow, etc) and it's not hard to just let Tim Sale do all the work, much like how Loeb has always done with his high profile artists.

While many people like the Colour series, I can only look at them with contempt. I've read these stories before (particularly with Spider-Man: Blue) and dislike seeing someone receive praise for simply retelling other people's work with the only real contribution being the love letter aspect, which I already touched on.

Blue is worth it if you don't have access to Essentials or don't feel like tracking down old issues or just want a nice, self-contained trip down memory lane for Spider-Man, but I can't agree with the amount of praise Loeb gets for the book. It would be like saying Geoff Johns deserved an award for Green Lantern Secret Origin when it was about 8 pages of new content and the rest from Emerald Dawn and other GL origins.

Ryan Schrodt said...

@Dangster - Hush is actually the book that got me back into comics. I saw the action figures on a collector's website during my senior year of college and was intrigued. The moment I saw "Jim Lee" and "Batman" together, I ordered the books on Amazon and never looked back.

I'm glad you brought up Catwoman: When in Rome. That is such an underrated book. Maybe I'll bust out that hardcover soon and write up a review of it!

Klep said...

@Kirk - Maybe that's why I'm able to enjoy it, because Loeb isn't doing any original storytelling.

The Dangster said...

AW NICE! Dave Stewart and Tim Sale should've collaborated a LONG time ago.

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