Monday, September 14, 2009

The Night Gwen Stacy Died

In every one’s life there are certain events that you never forget. If you were alive and old enough to understand even a little, certain moments are indelible in your memory.

Pearl Harbor, The JFK, RFK and MLK assassinations, the first moon landing and of course 9/11 all qualify.

In brighter areas who can forget the ’69 Mets, The Jets Superbowl victory, The rangers Stanley Cup or Ali defeating Big George Foreman in The Rumble In the Jungle!

If you are a comic fan, and you were around in 1973 then you can never forget:

The Night Gwen Stacy Died.

The death of Gwen Stacy was a watershed event in comics. Even fans who never read those issues, or are not even regular Spiderman readers know that the passing of Peter’s first, and possibly truest, love forever changed the wall crawler’s life. Many feel, myself included, that issues #121 and #122 of The Amazing Spiderman signaled the end of the Silver Age of Comics.
For those of you who have not read those issues or the reprints the plot goes like this:

Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin, suffered from amnesia, suspending his identity as the supervillain and that Spider-Man and Peter Parker are the same person.

Harry Osborn, Peter's best friend and Norman's son, became addicted to drugs and was sequestered in the Osborn home for detoxification in order to keep a potentially embarrassing issue from becoming public and hurting Norman Osborn's business.

Peter, Gwen, and friend Mary Jane Watson visit Harry, who is going through withdrawal . His father Norman is furious about Harry's condition, blames Peter, Gwen, and Mary Jane for Harry's drug abuse, and throws them out. To add to his already stressed psyche Norman hears that he is facing financial ruin, he suffers a breakdown, and suddenly remembers everything. He again becomes the Green Goblin and makes it his goal to kill Peter/Spider-Man for all the misery he imagines Spider-Man has caused him and his family.

The Green Goblin abducts Gwen and lures Spider-Man to the George Washington Bridge (which in the story is clearly illustrated as the Brooklyn Bridge). Holding an unconscious Gwen, he gloats at Peter. The two fight, and just when Spider-Man seems to get hold of Gwen, Norman hurls her off the bridge. Spider-Man shoots a web strand at her legs, and catches her. As he pulls her up, he thinks he has saved her. However, he soon realizes she is already dead. Peter is unsure whether the snap from her sudden stop broke her neck or if Osborn had broken it previously, but he blames himself for her death regardless. The Green Goblin escapes, and Peter cries over Gwen's corpse and swears he will kill the Goblin.

Spider-Man tracks Green Goblin down to a warehouse where Peter beats Norman to a pulp. But he cannot bring himself to kill him and freezes. Norman uses the opportunity to send his glider to impale Spider-Man from behind. Warned by his spider-sense, Peter jumps away just in time, and the glider instead impales the Green Goblin and seemingly kills him.

Peter goes home, feeling washed-out, hurt, and deeply empty. When he meets Mary Jane, her sympathy is lost on him. He berates MJ as a shallow party girl who cannot understand what “normals” like he and Gwen feel. But then, Mary Jane also cries, and for the first time, Peter begins to see her as more than just the facade she puts forth. The last shot in the story is of Mary Jane closing the door to Peter’s apartment as she goes in to comfort him.

Comic readers today might wonder what all the fuss was about. Modern comics can certainly be much darker than these issues. The death of a continuing character, the hero’s girlfriend, might be sad but it is hardly earth shaking. But at the time this sort of thing never happened. Lois Lane might fall from buildings at an annoyingly regular rate, but Superman was always there to catch her. Robin may have been “the Boy Hostage” but Batman never failed him. (This was well before the death of Tim Drake). In short, those closest to the hero, origin stories notwithstanding, were immune.
Both Marvel and DC were moving towards more adult stories that had long lasting impact both on the characters and upon the industry itself. The Spiderman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow drug issues (Amazing Spiderman #96-98 and Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85-86) both in 1971 and the death of Gwen’s father Captain Stacy in AMS #90 the year before. These events effectively destroyed the power of The Comics Code Authority and paved the way for Gwen’s death in 1973.

So why Gwen? It was an editorial decision as much as a creative one. , it was a decision made jointly by Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr. and Roy Thomas. According to an article in Comics Buyers Guide, they killed Gwen because they did not know what to do with her anymore. Gwen and Peter had gotten to the point in their relationship where marriage was inevitable, but nobody at Marvel wanted a married Spider-Man: it would have drastically aged him and would have made plotting difficult. At the time, he was still a college student in his late teens. Furthermore, a breakup would have appeared unrealistic.

That seems a little thin to me. I think it was simply that they liked Mary Jane better and wanted her to be the main female in peter’s life. She has been portrayed as more outgoing, saucier and frankly sexier than the “girl next door” Gwen. In any event the decision was made and comics changed forever.

The impact of Gwen’s death left creators and fans looking for some sense of closure. Spidey was a wreck for several years in the comics. Neither really wanted to let her go. There was the clone saga in which a love struck Professor Warren cloned Gwen. There were revelations about Gwen giving birth to children fathered by Norman Osborn before her death. Gwen is a continuing character in The Ultimate Spiderman where she “died” but came back. Alex Ross made her the pivotal character in the Marvel’s Mini Series taking the position that her death illustrated that our heroes were fallible and capable of failure.

I think that we all just loved Gwen too much to let her go. I can tell you as someone who was in high school when those issues hit the stands that fans were furious over the decision to kill Gwen. I don’t believe that the creators at Marvel realized how much her character resonated with the readers. Maybe it was because this stunningly beautiful girl chose “Puny Parker” from all of the big men on campus which made the vast number of adolescent boys who read Spiderman hopeful that maybe they would win “their” Gwen someday. Maybe it was her innate sweetness, or sympathy for the loss of her father. Somehow, Gwen was just more real than your average hero squeeze.

Whatever the reason, Gwen Stacy who died 26 years ago remains a very real presence in the Marvel Universe. He helped to change comics as an art form forever. Her death ushered out the simpler days, and writing, of the Silver Age and ushered in the more realistic Bronze Age. Her death was not in vain.

Next a retro review.

About what?

I dunno!

Be there!

That’s 30!


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