Friday, January 30, 2015


By Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale
With Richard Starkings & Comicraft's Wes Abbott / Steve Buccellato
Comicraft's JG Roshell / Bronwyn Taggart / Nanci Dakesian / Joe Quesada / Bill Jemas
Dedicated to Stan Lee & Steve Ditko & John Romita, web-heads all!

It's hard for me to choose a favorite between DAREDEVIL: YELLOW and SPIDER-MAN: BLUE. Both are tremendous pieces of work, perhaps the finest retellings of these characters' earlier periods than anything else I've ever read. But in the end, BLUE edges out YELLOW by a slight margin, simply because it stars Spider-Man, my all-time favorite superhero character.

And it's not just any Spider-Man we're following here, either. This is the web-slinger as I love him best, as I was introduced to him via reprints of the Stan Lee/John Romita comics. This is Peter Parker, in college, rooming with Harry Osborn. He's moved past the formative high school years and become, in my opinion, the most iconic version of the character. There are those who prefer Spider-Man in high school. There are those who prefer him married, or as a single adult. But for me, there is absolutely no better status quo for the wall-crawler than as an undergraduate at Empire State University, and there is no better run of Spider-Man issues than roughly AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #40 - 100.

So it's no surprise that I love BLUE so much. It begins during AMAZING issue 40, immediately after the wall-crawler's most influential artist, John Romita, came onto the title (apologies to you Ditko-fans out there -- I like the guy, and I fully acknowledge that without him we would not have Spider-Man or most of his best enemies -- but taking that for granted, I much prefer the style Romita brought to the characters and the stories).

Like HULK: GRAY and DAREDEVIL: YELLOW, SPIDER-MAN: BLUE is told via a framing sequence and focuses on the title hero's lost love (seeing a pattern yet?). Where Bruce Banner lamented the freshly-stinging loss of Betty Ross with Doc Samson and Matt Murdock wrote letters to the recently deceased Karen Page, Peter Parker, happily married at this point, finds himself feeling... blue... over a love lost years before: Gwen Stacy. So he digs up an old tape recorder and simply talks to her, recapping the earliest days of their relationship.

HULK: GRAY's failure to utilize the classic continuity was a black mark in my estimation. DAREDEVIL: YELLOW (published prior to GRAY, as was BLUE), was much better about weaving its story through some original DD issues. But SPIDER-MAN: BLUE easily does the best job of this, re-telling existing stories, omitting certain others, and crafting a seamless narrative with the help of an ongoing sub-plot about a mysterious figure stalking Spider-Man and Norman Osborn, the former Green Goblin.

As noted, we begin the series with Spider-Man's fight against the Green Goblin, as originally seen in AMAZING #40. The first issue then jumps to Peter Parker buying a motorcycle, an event originally depicted in AMAZING #41, and impressing Gwen Stacy with it (a 180 from the original issues, where Gwen thought less of Peter after seeing him on the bike -- but the change works here). The rest of 41, chronicling Spider-Man's first fight with the Rhino, is skipped.

As we move into BLUE #2, we see that the first Rhino fight already occurred between issues and the villain is in custody, but he escapes and Spider-Man goes after him, as seen in AMAZING #43. Loeb and Sale then use issue 41's original Rhino fight as their basis for this second encounter, but throw in elements of the battle from issue 43 as well, including Spider-Man seeking help from Dr. Curt Connors to defeat his enemy.

What of issue 42? For the most part, Loeb and Sale skip this story, which featured J. Jonah Jameson's son, John, gaining superpowers -- however they keep the most important moment from the issue: the famous debut of Mary Jane Watson ("Face it, Tiger -- you just hit the jackpot!"). But, where Mary Jane's original appearance came prior to Spider-Man's second fight with the Rhino, here her arrival is moved to the aftermath of that fight, as Peter prepares for a study date with Gwen (also a change -- originally he was specifically dressed up to meet Mary Jane at Aunt May's insistence). Where the source material then had Mary Jane tag along with Peter as he sought photos of the Rhino, here -- since that villain is already defeated -- she instead joins him in search of the rampaging Lizard -- an encounter depicted in AMAZING #44 and 45.

Loeb and Sale next skip AMAZING #46 -- the first appearance of the Shocker -- with the exception of some sub-plot material, and move on to do some extreme re-jiggering of the subsequent issues. Originally the sequence went: Spider-Man fights Kraven the Hunter in issue 47, then the new Vulture, Blackie Drago, in issue 48, followed by Kraven and Blackie together in issue 49. Instead, BLUE finds Blackie attacking Spider-Man in issue 4, followed by the original Vulture's return and a three-way fight between Spider-Man and both Vultures in #5 -- the biggest departure from the actual AMAZING SPIDER-MAN chronology, where the original Vulture didn't actually return for his fight against Blackie until issue 63! But Loeb and Sale pull this off very nicely and the altered story sets things up perfectly for Kraven's arrival in BLUE #6, based upon his AMAZING 47 appearance.

It should be noted that Kraven's motive is also altered in BLUE, as originally he was after Harry Osborn to use as a hostage against Norman Osborn, who -- as an "agent" of the Green Goblin -- had hired him months before to kill Spider-Man. But instead, here Kraven is simply hunting Spider-Man to fulfill a contract for the Green Goblin himself, and tracks the wall-crawler to Harry's and Peter's shared apartment, where he mistakes Harry for his prey. Kraven, in fact, turns out to be the main villain of BLUE, skulking around the background of nearly every issue -- breaking the Rhino out of jail, helping the Lizard escape from Spider-Man at one point, aiding Blackie in stealing the Vulture's wings, and then helping the Vulture to go after Blackie when Blackie fails in killing Spider-Man. It's almost like Kraven is putting Spider-Man through a sort of "Gauntlet" in preparation for his own final "Grim Hunt" of the web-slinger.

Thus SPIDER-MAN: BLUE is a loving tour through the forties of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, adding new depth, continuity, and heart to some of the best Stan Lee/John Romita tales. We get more insight into Peter Parker's feelings toward both Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson, and we see some wonderful interplay between him and the girls (and between just the girls, too). We also gain a better understanding of why Harry Osborn befriended the outcast Peter, which originally came more or less out of the blue in the Lee/Romita stories. We even learn Flash Thompson's motivation for joining the army. And it's all told in a way that takes several heretofore unrelated stories and weaves them into a single, cohesive narrative -- but more importantly, into a single, defined character study.

And best of all, the artwork is absolutely gorgeous -- for my money, the best of Sale's work on the three "color" series. The characters are still drawn in his unmistakable style, but they aren't quite as cartoony as in the other installments. Everyone is instantly recognizable, with Sale turning his best "John Romita-by-way-of-Tim Sale" effort. Spider-Man, especially, is dead on-model with the iconic Romita look.

And there's one other thing I've loved in GRAY, YELLOW, and BLUE, but haven't commented on yet: the retro feel of the environment. Conventional wisdom tells us that, thanks to the sliding scale of "Marvel Time", any adventures set at the beginning of the Hulk's/Daredevil's/Spider-Man's career should take place ten years before "now", which when these series were published, would've been the early nineties. But rather than go that route, Sale has apparently placed the action in the sixties, when the original stories were first published. The characters are dressed in older-fashioned clothes (suits, ties and fedoras abound), the cars look older, and even New York itself, as seen in YELLOW and BLUE, looks more like the sixties than the modern day. It's a perfect way to keep the stories feeling relatively timeless.

In the end, it's hard for me to explain what it is about this story that I love so much. I get this sad feeling in the pit of my stomach simply when I look at the issue covers and titles, but at the same time I never tire of re-reading it every few years. It creates this sense of yearning nostalgia in me; perhaps because I have a childhood attachment to the stories it weaves through more than either of the other "color" books; or perhaps because this series itself came out at a time in my life where I was transitioning out of college, away from carefree younger days and into the real world -- or maybe it's a combination of both those factors or even something else entirely. But whatever the reason, BLUE makes me pine for something, some piece of the past I can't quite define. Not just in terms of comic books, but in terms of life and the world in general.

SPIDER-MAN: BLUE never fails to leave me feeling happy and satisfied, but at the same time it leaves me -- well... blue. Few comics have touched me, and continue to touch me, like this one.


  1. I've also always appreciated that these stories are depicted as taking place in the 60s. I have this weird compartmentalization thing going, where I have no issue with the notion of the sliding timeline as a way to keep the present present, but at the same time, I really love stories set in the past that take the approach that everything happened in real time, so the setting is specific to the era the story takes place in.

    Anyways, it's a shame we didn't get more of these collaborations from Loeb and Sale. I know a Captain America: White was solicited (or at least teased) at one point, but I don't know what era that would have been set in, and it would have been fun to see their take on 60s era original X-Men or 70s era New X-Men.

    What's Sale up to these days? I haven't seen his work much of late. I know Loeb is a big Marvel TV honcho now (and his comic writing was pretty off the rails before he moved into TV), but I can't remember the last thing I saw Sale on.

    1. I'm with you on the compartmentalization. It make little sense, but in my mind, if I read a Jim Lee X-MEN comic, it's occurring in 1991. But if I read a John Byrne issue, it's taking place in the late seventies -- even though "in universe" only a few years have supposedly elapsed. It doesn't work for everyone, but it works for me.

      There was even an issue 0 for CAPTAIN AMERICA: WHITE! I thought about trying to track one down, as a little "bonus feature" for this series, but ultimately decided against it. I think it would've been set in WWII, as I believe Bucky factored into the story. I wouldn't be surprised if, following the trend of these others, it involved a framing sequence of modern Cap reflecting on Peggy Carter.

      Last I ever heard of Sale, he was doing artwork for the HEROES TV series (which Loeb also worked on). Maybe he transitioned into Hollywood doing storyboards or concept art or something. His Wikipedia article doesn't go beyond HEROES. I wonder if he's working on the revival?


    2. @Matt: // It doesn't work for everyone, but it works for me. //

      Ditto. Where things often fall apart for me is with stories that, opposite of here, use present-day trappings when published as continuity implants to stories from decades ago. Even worse is flashbacks that date themselves using blunt references to culture from 10, 20, 30 years before “now” — whenever “now” is — heedless of the fact that the floating timeline is just going to keep floating.

    3. I think I know what you're talking about. John Byrne's X-MEN: THE HIDDEN YEARS (which I like) was clearly set in the nineties, even though it was filling in the gap between the cancellation of X-MEN and its relaunch in the late sixties/early seventies. Much as I enjoyed the series, seeing then-contemporary fashions on those characters at that point in their lives just felt wrong.

      Byrne did the same similar in SPIDER-MAN: CHAPTER ONE, having characters making references to things only a few years in the past. I've only ever read CHAPTER ONE the one time, when it originally came out, yet I still clearly remember Flash Thompson making a reference to Cindy Crawford, because it bugged me so much.

      Which means Byrne's philosophy changed at some point, because, as I'm learning from reading his FANTASTIC FOUR run, back then when he did pre-FF flashbacks, which he himself established as about seven years prior to "now", he used styles and vehicles from the fifties even though "now" was the eighties!

      I general I favor the approach taken by these Loeb/Sale series and the approach of the Byrne of the eighties -- make it look like the fifties or sixties or whatever, and just avoid any topical references in the dialogue. No need to overthink it beyond that.