Feeling 'Blue:' Talking with Tim Sale

Nostalgia comes in many shapes and forms. Sometimes it softly drifts into our minds like a mist, warming our memories to life. At other times, it's a burst of light that flashes stronger than a firecracker.

The youthful things about which we get nostalgic have many permutations as well. We fondly remember attending baseball games with our fathers, fun with schoolyard friends, the rock-hard gum that came with baseball cards and much, much more - the possibilities are endless, and different for everyone.

When Tim Sale gets nostalgic, he remembers comic books. Not just any comics, either. Marvel comics. The Marvel comics of the 1960s. The Marvel comics of his childhood.

He read all the biggies, now-classic issues of "The Fantastic Four" and "The Avengers," "The Silver Surfer" and "Thor." But chief among these heroes was the red-and-blue-garbed star of "The Amazing Spider-Man." Spidey may not have been Marvel's most powerful superhero, but to an adolescent Tim Sale, no champion was cooler.

Today the 46-year-old Sale draws comic books for a living, and he's made a name for himself by revisiting the early careers of some of comicdom's best-loved figures with writer and regular creative partner Jeph Loeb in projects such as "Superman For All Seasons," "Batman: The Long Halloween" and "Daredevil: Yellow." And four decades after he became entranced by the Friendly Neighborhood Wall-Crawler, Sale again has turned his creative energies into a literary time machine for a new tale about a teenager named Peter Parker and his arachnid alter-ego. Unlike some of his earlier work with Loeb, the six-issue "Spider-Man: Blue" isn't a Year One piece; it occurs a little while after Parker has donned the Spider-Man duds but right at the start of his relationships with friend Harry Osborn and - sigh! - the breathtaking yet ultimately doomed Gwen Stacy.

Nostalgia? Tim Sale understands that word, that sensation, that mood, very well. Read on to understand just how well. Then, if you haven't already, pick up a copy of the recently released first installment of "Spider-Man: Blue." You'll understand, too.

Back to the 1960s: Marvel magic

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Russell Lissau:You've said you'll only do a book about a given character if that character or its cast interests you - and if there's a particular story you want to tell. What is it about Spider-Man (or Peter Parker) that does it for you? How did this story become something you were interesting in telling?

Tim Sale: Two-part answer. Spidey was my favorite hero growing up, the first one I loved after falling for comics when I was 13. The (John) Romita run, issues 39 to 50 in particular. The soap opera of Peter Parker's life, the pretty girls and all the beginning-to-notice-each-other, does-she-like-me stuff especially. And the run of villains in those issues is rivaled only by Batman's: Kraven, the Vulture, Rhino, the Lizard … and, yes, I love the Shocker - but mostly for his costume. Romita was inking his own stuff for the most part, and using a thin line, which I love. And everybody is so pretty, even the guys. It's like he was drawing a romance comic. And Stan (Lee) was at his verbose, cornball, 35-year-old-guy-trying-to-write-teenager-speak best.

I adore those comics, and when we were given the opportunity to do a Spidey run, and given Jeph and my concept of early episodes of the heroes and how they were affected by the loves of their lives, I really wanted to visit that time of Spidey's career. It bothers me that people don't remember Gwen Stacy, who I always preferred to Mary Jane. I don't imagine the movie will help that any.

The part two to the answer is that I found it extremely hard to find a way to honor Romita and make the art my own. I didn't have an artistic reason to do Spider-Man, only a love for the Romita/Gwen Stacy era. I imagine people expect me to emulate (original Spider-Man artist Steve) Ditko, who I also love, and I think to find an equivalent quirkiness in my own work would certainly have been much easier than the assured handsomeness of Romita's. But that was the challenge I set for myself, fool that I am.

RL:You were a Marvel Zombie as a kid. What was your favorite period for the publisher? How about favorite character or storyline?

TS: This period, the mid-to-late '60s, is my favorite period, the period where the innovations created at the beginning of the '60s were maturing, and Stan was unbelievably writing 12 titles a month and relying on the best, most innovative artists in the business who were doing the work of their lives. My favorite character, as I've said, was Spider-Man, though I collected "The Fantastic Four," "Daredevil," "Silver Surfer," "The Avengers" when John Buscema or Neal Adams were doing it, "Thor" and anything Steranko did. I was an art-driven fan, though I loved the stories too.

RL:What is it about the "stories within stories you already know" projects you and Jeph do that attract you? Why are they fun? Don't you yearn to tell new stories with Jeph, perhaps even with new characters?

It often seems to me that with the strain of coming up with stories month after month, sight of what makes a character interesting - what the core of why one should bother depicting the adventures of a particular character or group is - is lost. What interests me is first of all the dig at what the answer might be, but then to find stories that illustrate it. Sometimes they are entirely new stories, like the saga of the Roman and gangsters in Batman's world. Sometimes it's much more landing in between published stories and finding our own things to emphasize, like "Daredevil: Yellow" and "Spidey: Blue."

Personally, unlike Jeph, I have almost no interest in straining to fit into current continuity, mostly because of all the baggage that has been heaped onto the characters since they were conceived. Time has not treated most heroes well. Creating new characters is a different subject. Jeph and I, and me and a couple of other writers, have talked about creator-owned projects through the years. It'll happen someday, but I have no idea when.

True romance: Peter and Gwen

RL:Love triangles pop up in your stories from time to time. "Daredevil: Yellow" certainly had a biggie; "Spider-Man: Blue" will as well. Are you a romantic at heart? Why turn superhero stories into romance comics?

TS: I am indeed a romantic at heart, as is Jeph, and sentiment is the yang to our melodrama's yin of violence. No one does a more sentimental Batman than Loeb and Sale, thank you very much. I think when you deal in melodrama, you need to have that.

RL:In your opinion, which was the better triangle: Matt, Foggy and Karen or Peter, Mary Jane and Gwen? Do you throw Harry Osborn into that equation, too?

TS: Better in what sense? Matt, Foggy and Karen went on longer and through more permutations, but nothing touches Peter, Gwen, MJ and Harry - you can't leave out Harry - largely because of Romita, in my opinion. Stan and Romita were both at the top of their games, (and these were) pretty people wondering if their crushes like them back. The power of that, coming as it does with the blossoming of Peter from the nerd to a guy with at least a little more self-confidence and independence, really puts it over the top. I've always thought Peter is crushed by his sense of responsibility, not because everything goes wrong in his life. He's not a loser, he's got no more things against him than any of his friends - he just feels trapped by his sense of morals.

RL:What's your opinion about Peter's relationship with MJ and Gwen? Who was the right girl for him?

TS: My love and preference for Gwen knows no bounds. Gwen is just a much more serious person. It always seemed to me MJ was a charming plot device, and rarely rose above that - certainly not in the period we're focusing on.

RL:"Spider-Man: Blue" has been timed to be a part of Marvel's whole movie-inspired "Spidey Extravaganza." Is that a lot of pressure, or is it cool to be a part of such a publicity machine and marketing push?

TS: It's all cool and no pressure. I don't especially feel part of the marketing push, but with Spidey on everyone's mind, it changes conversations with people who are not especially comic fans, and that's cool. When Kirsten Dunst comes over for dinner, that's when I'll feel part of it all.

A new vision: How the art has changed

RL:Each of your projects with Jeph is very different visually; each has its own vision. What is your artistic vision for "Spider-Man: Blue?" What new techniques did you try, such as the wash from "Daredevil: Yellow?" How did you use the colors, panels and package to tell your tale?

TS: It's been a struggle, as I mentioned, to integrate Romita with my own weirdness. In addition, I felt strongly that I wanted to indicate some flavor of the '60s in the look - the clothes and hair, yes, but also somewhat in the pop art of it. That's most evident in the cover look, and the fantastic logo and type design from John Roshell at Comicraft. None of this is as dramatic as the wash in "Daredevil: Yellow" or the blue-lined, big farmboy (Norman) Rockwell-influenced "Superman For All Seasons."

RL:Your Batman books with Jeph have been dark, visually and thematically. "Superman For All Seasons" was exceptionally bright, almost heavenly in a way. "Daredevil: Yellow" was gray - almost dingy." How have you been able to dramatically alter your style for each book? You've certainly never stuck to one style.

TS: I get bored doing only one style, and like to challenge myself to find a look that fits the character and story. I don't ever just say, "I feel like drawing in wash, so that's what I'll do now." It always follows thematically that the technique fits the story. I'm lucky enough that people seem to think I pull of a few different ways of drawing well enough to be interesting. I tend to think more artists could do it if they wanted to. Certainly the really good ones could. I know it's a large part of what keeps me going.

RL:Of the books you've done with Jeph, which is your favorite hero or heroine to draw? What about your favorite villain, supporting character or locale?

[Batman]TS: My favorite to draw is Batman, though falling in love with Rockwell on the big farmboy was pretty great. The favorite villain is Two-Face, and supporting is Jim Gordon - though Janice Porter is a close second, with Gwen third. Locale is also split between Kansas and Gotham City. I wish we could have fit a bit more of New York into "Daredevil: Yellow." And I haven't drawn Kraven or the Vulture yet.

The future: What's next?

RL:Your last two projects with Jeph have been at Marvel. Will you be returning to DC anytime soon?

TS: We hope so.

RL:What's the status of the long-rumored "Batman and Superman" project? Will it happen, or is it just a rumor?

TS: It will happen, but I don't know when. I have a very specific idea in my head, as does Jeph, and we want to make sure to do everything we can to get it right.

RL:Are you looking forward to Jeph's run on "Batman?" And are you at all jealous of Jim Lee?

TS: I've seen some of it and Jim is killing on it - it's real vintage Jim Lee stuff. One of Jeph's strengths is writing to an artist's strong suits, and he's done a great job of it here. And I'm not the least bit jealous.

RL:I missed you at Wizard World: Chicago last year, and you're not on the guest list this year. Where can fans find you this summer?

TS: I think I'm just doing San Diego this year, though maybe I'll go to Toronto. I'll be in France later in May. My schedule just keeps me really busy.

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