In comic books, some artists and writers simply go together like peanut butter and jam: Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams. The first pair created most of the core line of the Marvel Comics Group some 45 years ago. The second pair took a worn out DC character, Batman, nearly destroyed by a campy television show, and gave him new life in the late 1960s.
Comics stopped being about the villain of the month some time ago, and have moved into long running story arcs which take months to work out and often cross over into other related titles. Lee and Kirby seem to have borrowed the basic idea from daytime soap operas and applied it to their work on the Fantastic Four, Thor and Iron Man, while Lee, working with Steve Ditko and later with John Romita, senior, took the same line with Spider-Man.
These days, story arcs often run for anywhere from 4 to 12 issues, and often survive their comic shop and newsstand appearances as collected editions. If they are complete enough in one arc, they get called graphic novels, but that’s often a misuse of that term.
This week’s column is about graphic novels, though, real ones, stories created by the team of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. They cut their teeth writing stories for DC Comics which took place before, or could be woven into, the established careers of key characters like Batman (The Long Halloween and its sequel Dark Victory) and Superman (A Superman for All Seasons). If you knew nothing about the established careers of these characters, these books still worked as stand-alone stories.
As a team they appear uninterested in tackling a regular series, though Loeb has written one of the Superman books and is currently the writer on a Superman/Batman team-up book, as well as being a consultant on the related television series, Smallville. What they like to do is create defining moments for the characters on which they work together.
They’ve done three six issue series for Marvel, focussing on the early years of Daredevil, Spider-man and the Hulk. Each has been collected as a graphic novel and seems to deserve that designation. Each examines a theme of loss in the life of the central character. Each begins and ends with a monochromatic framing sequence in the present tense before bursting into colour for the story at hand. Each is about memories.
Daredevil: Yellow (Marvel Comics, 144 pages, $24.00) deals with Matt Murdock’s memories of his one time lover, Karen Page, who began in the series as the secretary for the law firm of Nelson and Murdock. She bloomed from an extra to a very special person over the years, but died tragically after a stint as a heroin addict. The frame for the story is that Matt is writing a letter to the the dead Karen, trying to explain how she helped shape his life and what she meant to him. The “yellow” in the title comes from the colour of Matt’s first costume, the one modeled on his father’s boxing tights.
In Spider-man: Blue (Marvel Comics, 144 pages, $24.00) Loeb and Sale deal with Peter Parker’s first high school romance, the one with Gwen Stacy that ended tragically when she was killed by the Green Goblin in a scene the first movie turned into a Mary Jane Watson peril. MJ is in this story, along with Gwen. In a way it’s about when Peter Parker, the high school science nerd began to get a life and be noticed by girls. There are several villains romping through the tale, but their presence is secondary to the romantic triangle which would have led Peter and Gwen to a long term relationship had she not been murdered. The frame here is that Peter is up in the attic at his aunt’s house, looking over old yearbooks and cards, and dictating a farewell to Gwen into an old cassette recorder he’s found up there. It’s years later, and he is once again pondering how being with her shaped both him and MJ and eventually led to their marriage (if you’ve only seen the movies you don’t know about that, but it happened back in 1987).
Hulk: Gray (Marvel Comics, 144 pages, $27.95) is the most recent of their collaborations that I’ve acquired. It’s frame is that Bruce Banner is spending an evening talking to his psychiatrist, Leonard Samson. Len’s another gamma ray victim: long, green hair, superhuman strength which varies with its length. Speaking of green, most people don’t recall that the Hulk was originally gray in hue and only became green later on. This is a story of the gray months, when the key relationships in the Hulk’s life took shape: Rick Jones, the kid Bruce saved from the gamma bomb explosion; General Ross, the fanatical army tyrant who pursued him for years; Betty Ross, the love of his life, eventually his wife, and the victim of the residual radiation that was always within him after the explosion.
Bruce has come to talk about those early days, and because the Hulk was an on-again-off-again book when it began, it’s easy for Loeb and Sale to come up with some untold tales from that period. “Hulk Smash” and “Leave Hulk Alone” were pretty standard dialogue in those days, but the pair manage to do a lot with it and with the expressions on peoples’ faces.
Sale has a characteristic art style, and does not copy the work of the original artists who created these characters, yet comparisons over the three books show that he has evoked their styles in his own work, a subtle homage that gives each of the three stories a distinct flavor of its own.
Unlike some of the graphic books I’ve reviewed here in the past, these are suitable for any age that might be able to read them.