Romance, regret and the function of fantasy in ‘Spider-man: Blue’

First, a confession of bias:

Some readers might wonder why my reviews tend to accentuate the positive, rather than drawing attention to what I didn’t like, or what I’d rather see; and after all isn’t an affectation of wearied cynicism the mark of a truly discerning consumer/reviewer? The reason for this is simple: I can’t be bothered. In the limited time that I have I would rather review and recommend the things I like than to spend another moment thinking and writing about the things I don’t. If someone was prepared to pay me a fee or salary for my opinion then I’d happily review crap material and call it like I see it, but nobody does, so I won’t. One day I might write a bullet point list of books, TV and videogames that you shouldn’t waste your money on. Maybe.

Also: I love Spider-man.

With that out of the way, let’s proceed…

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Spider-man: Blue is a special creation, a superhero graphic novel that can be enjoyed equally by new readers and hardcore fans alike. It revisits the early years of Peter Parker’s web-slinging career, when he was still a college freshman struggling to make ends meet, and tells the tale of how he fell in love with the gorgeous Gwen Stacy prior to her tragic death (a watershed moment in the history of American comics) at the hands of his arch-enemy Green Goblin/Norman Osborne. For a superhero story, it is sweet, sensitive and surprisingly profound.

It is impossible to discuss this piece without talking about the superb illustration, so let’s begin there. Tim Sale’s artwork is in Blue is a homage to the style of John Romita (who was at the forefront of Marvel’s ground-breaking artistic team during the ‘silver age‘ of comics, replacing Steve Ditko on The Amazing Spider-Man in 1966, illustrated ‘Spidey’ through some of his most iconic years) and has a distinctly retro feel that I find particularly appealing. Sale’s lines are clean and uncomplicated; while the use of colour is simplified, especially in comparison to the level of realism often found in modern Marvel comics such as Civil War. Throughout Spider-man: Blue Sale uses large swathes of colour as indicators of mood, which is appropriate for a comic that strives to be as accessible and relatable as this does. When a comic’s illustration is further away from being a symbolic representation and closer to being a photo-realistic reproduction of its subject it becomes more difficult for readers to personally relate to its characters, and it is this kind of engagement that is absolutely essential in order to allow Loeb’s narrative to function. Scott McCloud (author of the brilliant Understanding Comics and inventor of the ‘big triangle‘) calls this the “amplification through simplification” effect. This isn’t to suggest that the incredibly detailed images with perfect flesh tones and multiple differentiated light sources which typify Marvel’s contemporary creations aren’t beautiful, they are most impressive indeed, merely that that they can be far less effective for the kind of emotionally driven storytelling seen in Spider-man: Blue.

Tim Sale's reworking of Mary Jane Watson's famous first appearance.

Spider-man’s popularity is due, in part, to how his fans were able to easily identify with the character, in stark contrast to competing superheroes such as Batman (an obscenely wealthy genius) or Superman (a god-like alien). Whilst these characters have all evolved over time, it was their earlier incarnations that established the core character concepts and set the tone for what was to come. But in order to fully understand the unique appeal of Spider-man, and why Blue works so well, we must look a little deeper. When Peter Parker first became Spider-man he was a bullied high school student, shy, socially awkward (especially around girls) and possessing a deep sense of self-loathing, in short: a ‘nerd like us’ with added spider powers. The strength of the traditional superhero genre is in its capacity to offer us an escape from reality to a place where the good guy (usually) wins, justice (generally) prevails, bullies get taught a lesson in humility (even if it is by a guy in spandex) and the world can be put to rights with a well aimed punch; essentially a form of wish-fulfilment fiction and, in this regard, Spider-man is no exception. Where Spidey differs from the superheroes that preceded him is that his unmasked self is equally as important in his ongoing story as his costumed persona, to the extent that The Amazing Spider-man has been described as a ‘soap opera for boys’ and it is this trait in combination with the wish-fulfilment function which generates the character’s unique appeal. Parker’s powers enable him to be a surrogate for his fans, acting out the ‘amazing fantasy‘ that his super-heroism represents for us before returning to a more mundane and relatable existence. Furthermore, it is this relatable, childish fantasy aspect of Spider-man that makes the style used by Sale so suited to the story told in Blue; because by asking us to engage our own imagination to interpret its images Spider-man: Blue effectively invites us to place ourselves in the story, to picture Parker’s triumphs and defeats as our own.

You go Gwen.

The period of character development that is revisited in Blue is particularly significant to Spidey fans because we see Parker develop from the social outsider he was at school, a disliked “bookworm” bullied by the likes of Flash Thompson, to someone whose intelligence and kindness starts to shine in a college environment, “an okay guy” suddenly attracting attention from the fairer sex. This isn’t to say that his problems go away, far from it, but it is heartening for any nerd to witness one of their fellows growing into their own skin. Loeb demonstrates Parker’s elevated status by contrasting his fortunes to those of his rival Flash, a former high-school football star, who is unable to comprehend why the likes of Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane Watson are drawn to Parker and begins to feel that his life lacks purpose.

Parker’s superhero career having adverse (and often devastating) consequences for his friends and family is a consistent theme across the numerous publications he has appeared in and Blue is no exception. His attempts at romance and socialising are repeatedly frustrated by either his sense of duty driving him to rush off to fight a costumed villain (because “with great power comes great responsibility”) or by an enemy (literally) bursting into the room. Ultimately Peter’s dual-life would mean the death of Gwen Stacy, though Loeb has, perhaps wisely, chosen to reflect upon but not to include the event itself in this particular story. The suggestion by some fans and commentators that Gwen, not MJ, was always Peter’s ‘true love’ is heavily drawn upon by Loeb in this narrative and the retrospective romance of Blue is persistently shaded by Peter’s sense of regret.

I can't say enough good things about Sale's artwork; it has the dynamism of Marvel's late-60's classics and a contemporary eye for detail.

Key moments of Parker’s life from the ‘Gwen Stacy’ period have been incorporated into Blue, woven into a single narrative focused on the progression of Peter and Gwen’s relationship, as well as an enigmatic enemy hunting Spidey from the shadows, and are thereby given greater significance in the context of its condensed form. Amazingly, the plot of this book is entirely self-contained and can be read independently of any other Spider-man material.

Perhaps the greatest success of Blue is that it can be enjoyed by new readers as much as by the most dedicated of fans; and whilst the book requires no prior knowledge of its characters for the plot to make sense it also manages to avoid any unnecessary exposition. Rather than re-writing or replacing established continuity (like DC have, time and time again) Loeb’s story intertwines with and expands upon existing history, offering a fresh look at Spider-man for long term followers and an ideal introduction for potential new fans.

This book is not without flaws. It is arguable that a book about the relationship between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy should feature more of Gwen Stacy, who remains an enigmatic figure, and less of Mary Jane. Loeb’s decision to use Peter Parker speaking into a tape recorder, complete with a “klik…whrrrr” sound effect, to frame the chapters is probably an unnecessary flourish and occasionally feels awkward. There are also several instances where Loeb has crammed too much dialogue into a fight scene, an unfortunate trait that has generally been eliminated from contemporary comics, and though this may have been a deliberate decision to replicate Romita and Lee’s Spider-man era, it occasionally felt forced. Some critics have chosen to criticise Sale’s artwork for lacking detail in some panels (especially in the background) but for me this is an endearing example of Blue’s retro charm and, as I stated earlier, an accurate reproduction of reality would totally alter the tone of the comic. For the most part these imperfections are born of deliberate artistic decisions by Loeb and Sale and, on the whole, they are minor complaints that hardly hinder the story itself.

If you buy just one Spider-man book in your life then I suggest you buy Spider-man: Blue. It is a remarkable achievement on the part of its authors for them to have crammed so much of what has made Spider-man/Peter Parker such an appealing character to generations of readers into one book. Most importantly: it’s a great piece of escapist fiction, in the best tradition of Marvel and the superhero genre as a whole. Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale – take a bow.

Gwen Stacy, by Tim Sale... 'nuff said.

If you’re interested in reading more self-contained graphic novels by Marvel then you might be pleased to know that there are several new works coming soon. It’s clear that Marvel are showing a desire to expand upon their previously limited, though generally well-received, efforts in the graphic novel format (such as The Sentry, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills or Daredevil: Yellow), with the announcement of the ‘Season One‘ range. These are similar to Spider-man: Blue (or DC’s highly successful Batman: Year One and Superman: Earth One books) in so far as they are a contemporary return to the origins of Marvel’s most popular characters. I believe this represents a step in the right direction for an industry that is notorious for struggling to attract new readers, and as the demand for original graphic novels continues to grow (to the point where they can be considered relatively mainstream) it would seem sensible for the ‘big two’ to make use of their most recognisable properties to attract consumers from a demographic who won’t want to grapple with five decades worth of established continuity.

Additionally: I apologise profusely for the amount of alliteration I have tried to crowbar into this piece, it is an attempt at tendering a tenuous tribute to the technique’s proudest proponent, Spider-man’s own inimitable inventor: the sensational Stan Lee! (I really hope that last bit wasn’t as painful and cringe-inducing for you to read as it was for me to write. I promise not to do it again.)

I would have liked to have examine the “function of fantasy” in the success of Spider-man further in this piece than I have but I had to draw the line somewhere and actually finish this thing; perhaps I will be able return to the subject in the future.

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