Wednesday, September 28, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'Spider-Man: Blue'

Yet another delayed review--this semester doesn't like me! In the interest of time (and because it's been more than a month since I've seen it, by now), I'm delaying my review of One Day until the DVD comes out, so that I can watch it again and have it fresh in my mind, rather than go by the muddled memories I have of what I liked and disliked. Sorry, all!

The Book: Spider-Man: Blue

The Author and The Artist: Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

How I Found It: My interest in the relationship between Peter and Gwen Stacy, soon to be portrayed in 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man, led me to this.

The Review: "So, it's Valentine's Day and there's a place I stop by once a year... It's about remembering someone who was so important to me I was going to spend the rest of my life with her. I didn't know that meant she would only get to spend the rest of her life with me."

Even years later, Peter Parker still mourns the loss of his first love, Gwen Stacy (I reviewed the original issues of that storyline here). The first few pages depict Spider-Man going to the bridge where Gwen was killed and leaving a single rose in the water, and the "voiceover" in the panels lets us know that Peter is recording a sort of love letter to Gwen, wanting to tell their story for posterity's sake.

Peter has realized, with hindsight being what it is, that in his life, things have to get very bad before they can get very good. His courtship with Gwen Stacy was one of those times. When our flashbacks begin, Peter is being held captive by the Green Goblin--who just so happens to be his best friend's father, although the man himself is unaware of that. There's a dilemma: how do you protect yourself from an archvillain who knows who you are but who's near and dear to your best friend? You can't kill him. So Peter does the best he can: knocks the Goblin out, triggering the amnesia that acts as Norman's safeguard, and saves Norman from a fire. Maybe, Peter reflects, if he'd left him for dead, Gwen would still be alive.

With the Goblin neutralized, other foes want a piece of Peter--the Rhino, the Lizard, two Vultures, and Kraven the Hunter. Our hero has enough on his mind already... and that's not even counting the two women vying for his attention. One is Gwen Stacy. The other is Mary Jane Watson. Peter is going to have to pull off one complicated balancing act.

Given how invested I'd become in the love story of Peter and Gwen, as well as in Peter as a character, I expected to like this graphic novel, to appreciate the story it told, to get a small glimpse of the romance between the two of them. I reminded myself, however, that this was a romance written by men for a predominantly male audience. In The Death of Gwen Stacy, I took note of and often enjoyed the cheeky little remarks about Peter and Gwen's romantic monologues being tiring for a young male audience. I expected more of the same here.

I was so glad to be proven wrong. What I got was a very moving, very human meditation on lost love, on memory, and on what impact a death can have on those left behind. When I saw those first few pages, where Spider-Man drops a rose off the bridge to commemorate his fallen love, I already had tears in my eyes. Jeph Loeb's writing is beautifully done, but Tim Sale's artwork works with it perfectly. There's so much vivid color (showing the liveliness of the girls as well as the garishness of the villains) but also such subdued tones, reflecting Peter's mental state. I thought I understood Peter as a character well before I read this, but there was a layer revealed to me here that I'd never anticipated. Peter is many things--a geek, a hero, a son without parents, a loving nephew--but here I came to appreciate him as a man in love.

It's Peter's relationships that are important here. We get to see him with Aunt May, the cornerstone of his life and someone who always looks out for him. (There's a touching scene where both she and Peter contemplate moving in with friends of theirs, and neither one wants to go first, not wanting to hurt the other's feelings--only to realize what they've been withholding, and to be fully supportive of the other's decision.) We get to see him with Harry Osborn, who's more appreciative of Peter after he rescues his father, and who starts becoming a good friend to him. We get to see him with Flash Thompson, his biggest bully, who, ironically, worships Spider-Man. We get to see him with Curt Connors, otherwise known as The Lizard, a tragic villain in every sense of the word (his efforts to regrow his amputated arm are what causes him to turn into the Lizard, isolating him from his wife and young son).

Most importantly, we see why Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane become the two great loves of Peter's life. I was so pleased with the handling of the love triangle; I wish more material involving the trope worked like this. Neither side is villified, as is so common in romances involving a love triangle. Heck, Gwen and Mary Jane are actually pretty good friends. When both of them come to nurse Peter as he lies ill, there's a bit of tension there, but it doesn't turn into a cliched catfight--it's more of a friendly rivalry. Peter is attracted to Gwen because she matches his personality; she is into science just as he is, and he likes making her happy (indeed, he buys the aforementioned motorcycle to impress her). He's attracted to Mary Jane because she's the life of the party, a counterpoint to his own personality (I love the scene where she helps Peter get past the police blockade so he can take his pictures).

His relationship with Gwen is portrayed through a lot of longing and a lot of inner monologue. Like any young man, Peter worries about how he'll measure up to Gwen's expectations. He worries about money that he doesn't have, that he'd need to go on dates. He worries about what she'll think of him becoming friends with Mary Jane. Through all this worry, though, Peter truly appreciates Gwen as a person, so much so that he can remember so much so vividly even years later. He loves her smile and her kindness, and Gwen loves how daring he is, which intrigues her enough to finally take the jump and ask him to be her Valentine. And just as Peter says, that's when she had him--all of him.

My favorite scene in the entire graphic novel comes towards the end, when we get a glimpse into Peter's married life post-Gwen. Mary Jane finds the visibly upset Peter in their attic, having heard a good part of his monologue for Gwen, and she just wants to make sure he's all right. Before she leaves, she makes a request: "Will you do me a favor, Peter? Say 'hello' for me... and tell Gwen I miss her, too." I saw at least a few reviews that couldn't understand Peter's desire to remember Gwen, viewing it as "cheating on Mary Jane with a memory." I think this scene proves that it wasn't that at all. Gwen's death is what changed Mary Jane, what got her to realize that life wasn't always a party and that everything must come to an end. Peter recognizes this, and so does she. For me, someone who's recently come to love Peter and Gwen's relationship, but who's always been a fan of Peter and Mary Jane, this scene was everything I'd wanted to see. It proves that when moving on after a loss, one doesn't necessarily have to forget the person who passed away. You can remember that person and love them all the same, and so can your loved ones, and it doesn't mean you love your current partner any less.

All in all, the graphic novel was a compelling exploration of Peter's psychology, as well as a touching account of his relationships with Gwen and Mary Jane. I'd most definitely recommend it to readers who want to know more about Spider-Man's early history, as well as someone like me who's interested in both of the major romantic relationships in Peter's life. This was a deeper and more romantic graphic novel than I expected, and I anticipate turning to it often over the next few years.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'Black and Blue'

Hello to my reading public, small as it is--have a review that's at least two or three weeks late! My semester starting was marred by the wonderful hurricane weather, and I've been swamped in efforts to catch up. I have at least two other reviews to get to you this weekend (the film adaptation of One Day, as well as one of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Spider-Man: Blue), so stay tuned!

The Book:
Black and Blue: A Novel

The Author: Anna Quindlen

How I Found It: It came up as a recommendation as I browsed Amazon. This was apparently an Oprah's Book Club selection in 1998. My thanks to my local library.

The Review: The first time Fran is abused by her boyfriend, later husband, is when she's nineteen. He grabs her a little too hard after she talks to a friend's brother, leaves her with bruises--and appears perfectly contrite and apologetic when he next sees them.

Bobby's remorse doesn't always last. When they marry, Fran is trapped in a cycle of abuse and attempted atonement that will last almost twenty years, until a night when Bobby breaks her nose and she can no longer hide her abuse from the world--and, most importantly, their son, Robert. Fearing for her life and Robert's welfare, Fran makes the decision to flee, enlisting the help of Patty Bancroft, a woman who specializes in relocating abused women, claiming to be even better than the witness protection program.

Fran and Robert settle in Florida, living new lives as Elizabeth and Robert Crenshaw. Fran cannot forget what Bobby did to her, but she can try and forge a new life. It might not be so easy, since Robert's bond with his father is strong, and she knows that Bobby will always be looking for them. Nothing, not even the protection of a local gym teacher and a new best friend, can keep Fran feeling safe.

I've never read anything by Anna Quindlen before, unless I've read an article of hers without remembering, and now I think I'm curious enough to check out one of her other novels. I really enjoyed the writing style here--it was poetic, but somehow managed to convey the horrors of abuse in a way that felt realistic. Quindlen tells the story of Fran's escape linearly, but weaves it through with flashbacks to the various abuses Fran suffered. This, to me, made it feel as though Fran had escaped, but was constantly flashing back to life with Bobby, in a PTSD sort of way. This passage was perhaps my favorite in the novel:

"Or maybe Bobby had been having an argument with me in his head all day long--on the job in the car, while he was banging around the kitchen. Maybe it was an argument made of saved string, a big, brightly colored ball of an argument, the synthesis of all the arguments we'd ever had before. Why the fuck do you baby the boy go to your sister's ignore my mother wear that skirt work so many hours look at me like that fuck my friends your friends strangers doctors everyone anyone the man in the moon?" (171)

The attention to little details made the novel for me, and certain images will stick with me. The hem of Fran's wedding dress getting snagged on a nail on her wedding day, a sign of bad things to come. The first bruises Fran gave her being dark as a tattoo on her skin.

The content of the book never felt overly graphic, although it is disturbing, if true to life. The depiction of the hold Bobby has over Robert, even when they're miles away from him, is truly terrifying, and it really made me feel for women who must have had to deal with this situation in real life. What is it like when the child you've tried so desperately to protect from a monster still loves that monster, because it's his parent? What do you do in that situation, especially when the other parent can lie to the child and be believed without question?

The novel made me consider the reality of a battered woman's situation in a way I'd only barely done before, what with a Gender Violence class I took two semesters ago. I'd already known from that class that restraining orders and divorces are often ineffective at keeping an abusive husband or partner from his wife/girlfriend and/or children, but I hadn't even thought about how many must have to relocate completely and live new lives. I don't know if a program like Patty Bancroft's exists in real life, but if it does, I could see it being a real help for real women like the fictional Fran. Fran's situation is especially difficult because, as an ER nurse, she often sees the results of domestic abuse up close, as though she were looking in a mirror, seeing how horrifying the reflection truly is. If not for Patty Bancroft's network of volunteers, Fran might well have ended up in her own ER, dead or dying.

While Quindlen's novel was often unnerving and upsetting, especially towards the end, when the full scope of Fran's situation is revealed, I appreciated it for the perspective it gave me and the compelling way the story was told. Bobby and Fran are both nuanced characters and it's almost easy for the reader to understand why Fran kept returning to Bobby, despite his abuse. Quindlen's method of interspersing the flashbacks with the narrative, pulling the reader along to see what exactly happened in the past, was enough to keep me engaged in the narrative, and I recommend this novel to someone who might want a better understanding of the reality of a battered woman's situation. (Perhaps not to anyone younger than 15 or 16 or so--the violent content is disturbing, clearly, and there is some fairly frank sexual imagery and discussion.)