The Romantic Melancholy of “Spider-Man: Blue”

loeb-sale-comic-booksComic books have a penchant for killing off love interests for the sake of torturing their heroes and causing ever-escalating levels of dramatic tension within their stories. And of these countless deaths, the murder of Gwen Stacy and the subsequent grief and rage experienced by her boyfriend Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, is one of the defining deaths in comic books.

But for many, the death of Gwen Stacy is a more momentous and famous event in Marvel Comics history than it is a tragic loss of a beloved character. However, all that was redefined in writer Jeph Loeb’s Spider-Man: Blue, a six-issue limited series that ran from July 2002 through April 2003. The series sees Peter recording his spoken memories of the early days of his romance with Gwen, simultaneously processing the grief and happiness of falling in love through the prism of losing her years later.

Spider-Man: Blue was one of four collaborations between writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale for Marvel Comics that focused on a past loss for one of the comic publisher’s iconic heroes. Included in the series are Daredevil: Yellow, which saw hero Matt Murdock reflecting on when he began to fall for Karen Page during his very first days as a hero, Hulk: Gray, which involved Bruce Banner processing his beginnings as The Hulk and tumultuous relationship with Betty Ross, and the long-delayed Captain America: White, which saw Steve Rogers reflect on his time in World War II with friend Bucky Barnes.

In each of these tales, the central protagonists process their long-simmering grief in different ways as they seek to understand their losses and how they can still cherish their time with someone who died in part because of them. Some grow stronger, some wallow in their misery, but each are defined in some way by the departed loved one and the hole left in their lives in the aftermath.

In Spider-Man: Blue, Loeb and Sale strike a balance between very real grief and the joy of falling in love.

Life, Love, and Web-Slinging

sm-blue-gwen-stacySpider-Man: Blue begins on a late Valentine’s Day night, with Peter speaking into a tape recorder and addressing his message directly to the late Gwen Stacy. While it has been many years since Gwen died and Peter is now happily married to Mary Jane Watson, he remarks that this time of year will always remind him of Gwen and the love they once shared. Caught up in his grief, Peter processes what it was about Gwen that made him fall in love with her and how he was slowly growing up as both a regular guy and a superhero.

As Peter says, his recorded musings on falling in love with Gwen aren’t a reflection on his current relationship with Mary Jane, but a chance to remember the beauty of something that once was. “It’s about remembering someone who was so important to me I was going to spend the rest of my life with her.”

Documenting his many fights against villains such as The Green Goblin, Rhino, The Lizard, The Vulture, and more, while also getting closer to Gwen and meeting potential love interest Mary Jane for the first time, Blue actually retells stories originally brought to life decades before in The Amazing Spider-Man Vol.1 #40-48 and #63. However, Loeb and Sale give them new spins by not just recontextualizing some of the events, but putting a greater emphasis on the romance and regret that define much of Peter Parker’s life.

peter-parker-mary-jane-jackpotIn doing so, Spider-Man’s story has a far heavier focus on very relatable human emotions, with the superheroics often a reflection of what is being experienced in the personal lives of the characters instead of the main purpose of the story. That’s largely accomplished by Loeb’s decision to have Peter’s present day narration used in the vast majority of the series’ scenes, giving greater context to his interactions with Gwen, MJ, and more, as well as providing more personal emotional context to his confrontations with a host of villains.

Often, Peter’s musings about his memories are both far more vulnerable than his quip-ready superhero attitude and his often-bumbling real life persona at the time. His quietly hopeful yet sadness-tinged thoughts give far greater meaning to each interaction, with thoughts like, “And I remember being foolish enough to think … Let’s fall in love,” being simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking.

The Melancholy of Superheroics

spider-man-death-gwenWhat makes Spider-Man: Blue so impactful is its melancholic tone, which never becomes bogged down in heavy depression, but manages to provide layers of sadness to even the most sweet or romantic moments. That’s not just due to Loeb’s careful use of timing and consistency of themes, but also due to Sale’s stylish art.

Having collaborated on numerous projects in the time both before and since, Sale and Loeb work together like a finely oiled machine. Sale’s art is instantly recognizable thanks to his lithe figures, fine lines, kinetic yet iconic action arrangements, and heavy use of character expressions viewed close up. Together, they result in a style that feels like it’s from a bygone era while still having modern sensibilities in the way it is presented. It’s perfect for a story set in the past (and not afraid to throw all manner of ‘60s style at the reader) that is being narrated in the modern day.

Every glimpse of the modern day is suffused with blue tones, heavily underlining Peter’s memory-induced melancholy. And while the tie between color, title, and mood in the word “blue” may be far from subtle, the experience of grief within the context of past love is far more nuanced and intriguing in its execution. Since Loeb is telling a small story, which is punctuated by great action sequences, he has the time and ability to focus on intimate moments between characters and to let emotional developments settle in an envelope the reader. A glance can mean a million words in Spider-Man: Blue and a kiss can change a life.

peter-parker-gwen-stacy-kissIt’s rare that a superhero comic can feel so instantly relatable and natural like Spider-Man: Blue, which makes the grief at the story’s center all the more impactful. There’s no need for gruesome depictions of death, no cause for raw, nerve-jangling depictions of sorrow. It’s a story executed with a deft hand, one that feels informed by real loss and the grieving process, as well as the true experience of falling in love and finding out that life can be so much more than what you thought it could be.

By its end, Loeb and Sale have created a story that shows that while life may move on after losing someone and that new love can be found that fulfills in new and equal ways, the love and loss once experienced can never truly go away. It’s a beautiful, quietly heartbreaking lesson that captures the idea of melancholy romance in an unforgettable manner. For both Spider-Man fans and non-fans alike, it’s a gentle tragedy that you’ll want to return to again and again.

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