Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Marvel Unbound - Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Color Series

I am a Marvel guy at my core, but since returning to the comic book hobby as an adult, I read most anything that strikes my fancy, regardless of publisher. That includes taking in some Batman stories: Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, Frank Miller’s Absolute Dark Knight, and Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween and Haunted Knight.

I’m not reading the Red Hulk books and am not a fan of Marvel’s Ultimate Universe, so those Batman stories and the Fallen Son mini-series after the death of Captain America are really my only exposure to Loeb. I enjoyed what I’ve read well-enough, so I’m not sure where all the Loeb hate comes from. No writer can satisfy every reader, and I have never heard a co
nvincing argument for the extreme dislike. It all strikes me as knee-jerk fanboy posturing.

Regardless, I figured if I enjoyed the Loeb-Sale team-up on Batman so much, I wanted to see what they’d do in the Marvel sandbox. I picked up the first-edition hardcovers of Daredevil: Yellow, Spider-Man: Blue, and Hulk: Gray cheap on eBay late last year and have finally worked my way through all three of them.

The concept here is a creative take on key moments in each titular character’s life. Not reimaging so much as fleshing out events that formerly took place
off-page or providing a different point of view of what was originally presented.

I read them in the order in which they were released, which almost proved a misfire because I really didn’t care for Daredevil: Yellow. Sale’s art is a sight to behold, and every page in these six collected issues is a layered, shadowed experience. But the story really left me feeling kinda “meh.” I love Daredevil, but this was very much a Karen Page story. And I’m clearly not as good a student of that particular part of the Daredevil’s history as I needed to be in order to fully enjoy Daredevil: Yellow.

Thematically, I loved the way the series titles each played off Murdock’s f
ather’s boxing career: “The Championship Season”, “The Measure of a Man”, “Stepping Into the Ring”, “Never Lead With Your Left”, “Against the Ropes”, and “The Final Bell”. And the covers of the original single issues reveal the evolution of Matt Murdock, with a larger-than-life Daredevil in the background, watching over his alter-ego. Beautiful work by Sale, but this was the first time a Loeb story fell short of my expectations and had problems holding my interest.

Whereas Daredevil: Yellow’s conceit was a written letter from Matt Murdock to his lost love Karen Page, Spider-Man: Blue is framed by Peter Parker tape-recording a letter to the love of his life, the Green Goblin-murdered Gwen Stacy, on Valentine’s Day.

Like with the first book, Sale’s artwork is striking. His reimaging of Peter, Gwen, and Mary Jane Watson is retro sexy and perfectly stylized. But unlike Daredevil: Yellow, the
characterizations Loeb unfolds quietly across these six issues is nuanced and restrained. Loeb and Sale used iconic moments in Peter’s life as touchstones for filling in perspective. We see Spider-Man saving Norman Osborn’s life, we meet Anna Watson’s niece for the first time along with Peter, and we witness the organic beginning of Peter and Gwen’s romance.

I don’t know how true to the characters of Peter and MJ they are, but I really loved the last three pages of Spider-Man: Blue. They capture a soft moment between husband and wife, yet it feels so important, even cinematic. There was a satisfying sense of closure to the book that I really felt was missing with the first one.

Whereas Daredevil: Yellow and Spider-Man: Blue are essentially love stories, Hulk: Gray explores relationships more broadly: the influence of General Ross’ dead wife on his relationship with his daughter Betty, Betty’s love for Bruce Banner, Hulk’s love for Betty, and General Ross’ hatred for Hulk.

The framing device here is Bruce turning to his old friend Doc Sampson in the present day, looking back at those crucial hours immediately after the Hulk was “born” in the gamma bomb accident. I thought Loeb took a lot of liberty (maybe too much?) retconning an encounter with Tony Stark’s Iron Man into this origin expansion, but the story was compelling from start to finish. It’s amazing how much emotion a character like the Hulk can convey.

Until I watched the DVD extras for the 2008 Incredible Hulk film, I had no idea director Louis Leterrier used Hulk: Gray as his primary influence. I don’t think knowing that or having seen the movie first really colored my reading of the Loeb-Sale book in any way, but I can now fully appreciate book and movie’s connection.

There was supposed to be a fourth title in the Loeb and Sale color series, Captain America: White, but it has only gotten as far as an issue #0 book. The prologue story was released back in September 2008, but seems to have been canceled after that. I don’t have that issue, so I can’t say what it’s about or how it would fare against the other three completed series, but it would have been nice to have the creator’s complete vision to judge as a whole.

In all, I enjoyed two-thirds of the color series. As a Daredevil fan and a fan of Loeb and Sale’s Batman collaboration, I’m glad I read Daredevil: Yellow, but it didn’t live up to my expectations. After stepping away from the series for a few months and tempering those expectations, I thoroughly enjoyed Spider-Man: Blue and Hulk: Gray, both of which presented nuanced, emotionally charged stories and gorgeous art.


Tupiaz said...

How can you not as a Daredevil fan love Daredevil: Yellow? Have you read the original 9 issues the story is taking from, Born Again and Guardian Devil? If you have read those stories you will for sure love it. Born again or Guardian devil should be enough.

Will said...

I'd like to explain my knee-jerk reaction to seeing Jeff Loeb's name on something. Ultimate Spider-man got me back into marvel,and to lesser extent the other ultimate books. It was going great, no continuity problems,no stories that went no where and not to much cross over stuff. Then Jeff Loeb's Ultimatum event. Many see it as breaking the Ultimate world. It really is an awful read and it ruins many characters and story-lines.
And then there is his involvement in the marvel TV cartoons. He became head creative consultant(or something like that) and they went from smart, funny and enjoyable for kids and adults to boring, forgettable trash. Maybe a young kid could enjoy it but a parent would hate it.
Loeb may have writen some good books in the past,and I'm looking forward to reading Yellow, but his modern stuff is at best so-so IMO.