Sex, Lies, and Comic Books: The Gwen Stacy Murder Case, Reopened

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Allow me to just say this up front: Buckle up folks, as this will likely devolve into an epic-length analysis and/or rant. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. [EDIT: A hair under 20,000 words here at final count, ladies and gentlemen. Proceed at your own risk!]

If you couldn’t already guess from that introduction, this is a post that has been simmering in my imagination for many years now. What kicked things into high gear most recently was the release of the film Amazing Spider-Man 2 just a couple months back. This film, of course, is in part an adaptation of the classic/infamous comic arc of Amazing Spider-Man #’s 121-122, which featured (spoilers) the death of Gwen Stacy. Based on some of the conversation that took place when this franchise was rebooted, it was clear this adaptation was on the horizon.

Still, despite the cynicism I carry with me as a longtime comics reader, I found myself actually getting my hopes up for the movie. One of the later trailers featured a scene where Gwen was talking about going to Oxford to study, followed by a scene of Spider-Man leaving her a webbed message of love on the Brooklyn Bridge. I should have known better, yet I couldn’t resist feeling hope at the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the creators behind this reboot would be bold enough to break from canon and blaze a new trail—and in so doing, reverse a four-decade-old mistake.

As one might readily deduce, I left the theater that afternoon very disappointed.

Critic Scott Mendelson put it best in his review when he said: “In terms of killing off Peter Parker’s girlfriend to mimic a story that was groundbreaking 41 years ago, Marc Webb, Emma Stone, and company spent so much time being excited that they could that they didn’t stop to wonder whether they should.”

Italics mine, for emphasis.

Among present-day comics fans, it would clearly seem I’m in the minority when it comes to my opinion of this story. Most of today’s fans hail it as groundbreaking and a signpost for a new era in comics—a darker, grittier, more adult, and more realistic era. This may be true, but the story also marked the beginning of some terrible trends from which the comics industry still hasn’t shaken itself free. I speak chiefly of the dread “women in refrigerators” trope and the trend of the self-indulgent, fanboy writer.

Some Personal History

I didn’t start out as a Gwen fan. Indeed, the road that led me to the place I stand today was a long and winding one.

The Gwen Stacy character died over a year before I bought my first Amazing Spider-Man comic. But as fate would have it, she did appear in that issue—ASM #136—via flashback. Precisely one year later I purchased my second-ever issue of ASM, #148, and Gwen appeared yet again (albeit in clone form).

The Gwen flashback from issue #136 was a full-page splash dramatically rendered by Ross Andru. It recapped the events of ASM #’s 121-122 quite efficiently, giving all the basic details of the story:

asm136-gwen

Even then, before I could yet read, I knew Marvel comics were different than other comics. They were steeped in raw, human emotion and drama. The one part of that splash that got me the most was this:

asm136-gwen-crop

Despite the fact that his costume covers his body and face completely, you can still feel Spider-Man’s agony here; almost hear his sobs as he cradles Gwen and nuzzles her neck. There was something so resonant and so powerful in the image of the hero finding the strength to go on after the devastation of losing the woman he loves that I can feel its pull now, just from writing about it.

This is all Gwen would be to me for several years: A tragic footnote in Spider-Man history. That’s likely all she remains to be for most fans today.

Starting out as a young Spider-Man fan when I did, Mary Jane quickly became the be-all and end-all for me. Although the term “shipper” had not yet entered the popular vernacular, this is definitely what I was when it came to the Peter Parker-Mary Jane Watson relationship, as I rooted and rooted for the two to get together. When Pete popped the question at the end of ASM #182 (July 1978), I was as giddy as the proverbial schoolgirl. When MJ turned him down the following issue, I was crestfallen.

It was around this same time that I started to catch up on Spidey history—mostly through reprints in Marvel Tales, but also via the occasional back issue. Gwen was a big presence in these issues, of course. But I knew these were reprints of stories published before my time; knew that Gwen’s fate was sealed as I read them, which made it easier to not let myself get too attached to her.

Eventually I got my hands on Marvel Tales #’s 77-79, which reprinted Amazing Spider-Man #’s 96-98. This was the famous drug storyline that was originally published without the Comics Code seal of approval. I remember it being an engrossing three-parter, and at the end, Pete and Gwen have a very emotional reunion when she suddenly returns from England. Beautifully penciled by Gil Kane, this was the first time I felt a tug in my heart for Gwen:

asm98-reunion

As it happens, this storyline revealed a rather ugly side of Mary Jane as well. Even so, I still remained very firmly planted in the MJ camp. (The seeds of my Gwen sympathies had been planted though, no doubt.)

It was late 1981 when I finally came upon reasonably-priced copies of ASM #’s 121-122 at the Quality Comics booth at the old U.S. #1 Flea Market out on Route 1 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Finally getting to read the full story of Gwen’s death left me with mixed feelings. Parts of it were as dramatic and powerful as I always imagined they’d be, but there were also parts that were terribly problematic. (I’ll get into the specifics on this later.)

Eventually, I would completely fill out the back issues of my Spider-Man collection, and some of what I discovered in those missing issues was startling. For example, in the famous drug story three-parter I mentioned a couple paragraphs back, Harry Osborn develops a drug habit in large part because of the rather cavalier way MJ dumps him. MJ’s behavior was harsh, but at the same time, it’s not like it’s her responsibility to keep dating the guy just so he’ll stay off drugs. What was beyond the pale, however, was the way she would shamelessly come on to Peter right in front of Harry.

In issue #105, the gang throws a party to celebrate Harry getting released from the hospital. And right before Harry arrives, MJ starts hitting on Pete again—with Gwen barely out of earshot! MJ’s only saving grace here is that at least she didn’t do it in front of Harry this time—though honestly, one gets the impression that if Harry had been there it likely would have made no difference.

This was the worst offense, but there were others. I’m not sure I knew what to make of it at the time, because none of this behavior was ever addressed by contemporary writers—it was almost as if it had never happened. Still, I couldn’t help but ask myself: This is the girl that was meant to be Pete’s soulmate? The one he should spend the rest of his life with? Or looking at it from the other end: Did MJ really deserve Pete? After all that conniving, manipulating, and back-stabbing, her karmic reward is . . . getting the guy she always had her sights on?

Here’s the thing, though: From all I could ascertain at the time, Spidey’s creator Stan Lee seemed fine with it. After all, he held the title of publisher when ASM #’s 121-122 came out, so he had to have approved the story, right? And although he’d stopped writing Spider-Man comics in 1972, he still wrote the Spider-Man daily newspaper strip, and Mary Jane was the primary love interest for Peter Parker from the day the strip started in early ‘77. In 1987, Stan even had the two characters get married in the daily strip, effectively forcing the comic books to follow suit. A few years earlier I would have been thrilled by this turn of events, but by then I was rather blasé about it. First, because the bloom had started to come off the rose for me where MJ was concerned, for the reasons I’ve just outlined; and second, because the storyline that led to them marrying in the comic book was completely rushed (the two hadn’t even been dating when Pete suddenly popped the question) and basically a mess.

It was about this same time (’87) that I started getting into comics journalism, primarily via Amazing Heroes and The Comics Journal. The Gwen Stacy storyline was old news at this point, but reading up on all the behind-the-scenes stuff going on at the time was quite educational. Before this, I had always dreamed of working in comics, first as an artist and later as a writer. But learning how the sausage was made in the comics business was sobering. Many of the writers and artists (not a majority, perhaps, but more than enough) sounded like petty, immature assholes. And the politics involved in getting (and keeping) assignments was stomach turning. Not only did I forsake my lifelong dream of entering the comics field, I started to cool on the hobby altogether.

Years passed before the death-of-Gwen storyline randomly popped up again. It was in a trade collection of the first couple of issues of Comic Book Artist that I saw an interview of Stan Lee by Roy Thomas, wherein Stan said: “I think he [writer Gerry Conway] was quoted somewhere as asking me whether he could kill her [Gwen Stacy] off and I said yes. I don’t remember that and can’t believe I would have. The reason is not that I have an aversion to a character dying in a series, but that I always wanted her to marry Peter Parker.”

This was surprising to hear. As I rolled it around in my head, the part that started pissing me off the most was how little respect the other creators involved had for Stan’s vision. The man was the founder of the Marvel Universe and certainly the most important creative figure in Spider-Man history, so why would you go so directly against his wishes like that? Moreso: If Gwen really was the girl Stan saw as Pete’s future wife, then how did she ever wind up getting killed off at all? Something wasn’t kosher.

The last straw came with the 2002 DVD, Stan Lee’s Mutants, Monsters & Marvels. The DVD featured a largely unremarkable interview of Stan by Kevin Smith, but among the extras was an interview with Stan’s wife, Joan. The second I heard her voice I was bowled over, as she spoke with a very thick British accent. Now it was clear precisely why Stan saw Gwen as the girl he wanted Peter Parker to marry, as Gwen Stacy also had a British background. Obviously, Stan had based Gwen on his wife. Now I was livid. Not only did Conway & company go against Stan’s vision, it was now plain just how personal this vision had been to Stan. This made the offense ten times as grievous.

It was at this point that I finally defected to the Gwen Stacy camp.

The Every-Teen Superhero

Most modern readers barely know the Gwen Stacy character and have little affection for her. With this in mind, a little look back in Spidey history seems called for.

From the beginning of the Marvel Age, the Marvel house style set itself apart from all the other comics publishers. And within the Marvel Universe, the style of Amazing Spider-Man would in turn set itself apart from every other title in the line. As the first teenaged protagonist of a superhero book, Peter Parker was still in school and faced all the typical difficulties of an American teen. As Spider-Man, of course, he dealt with some new threat to his very life with every new issue. His problems as Spider-Man were exciting, while his dilemmas as Peter Parker were very relatable to the young, comics-reading audience.

One of the constant dilemmas for Pete was his love life. At first, this consisted of him getting rejected by the other girls at school because he was a scrawny bookworm. Then he finally got a legitimate love interest in Daily Bugle secretary Betty Brant. Things started out fast and furious between the two, with Pete ready to share the secret of Spider-Man with her by issue #11, but then in this same issue, Betty’s brother Bennett (yeah, I know, Stan had a real thing for alliteration) is shot and killed—and Betty blames Spidey for it. This puts the kibosh on Pete’s plan to share his secret identity with her. The romance between the two would continue, but Pete’s double-life would only let it go so far. Right around the time Pete graduated high school and started college, they would split for good.

In these early years, you have to give equal credit to Stan Lee and the artist, Steve Ditko. Lee brought the characterization and soap-opera style, serial storytelling; Ditko gave us fantastic visual designs, unique atmosphere, and a one-of-a-kind style. Ditko also deserves credit for some of the plotting (certainly more in later issues; likely less in earlier ones), since he and Lee worked via the Marvel Method. For those unfamiliar with it, the Marvel Method was a means of collaboration between writer and artist wherein the artist does not work from a full script. Instead, he gets a rough plot from the writer (sometimes in written form; other times through casual conversation) and draws it up on his own, giving the various plot points as much or as little space as he deems necessary. Then the writer adds dialogue and captions after the art is finished.

The End of the Lee-Ditko Era

Near the end of their collaboration on Spider-Man, Lee began to leave more and more of the plotting to Ditko, eventually giving up the plotting altogether. As Lee put it in a 1966 interview: “I don’t plot Spider-Man any more. Steve Ditko, the artist, has been doing the stories. I guess I’ll leave him alone until sales start to slip. Since Spidey got so popular, Ditko thinks he’s the genius of the world. We were arguing so much over plot lines, I told him to start making up his own stories. He won’t let anybody else ink his drawings either. He just drops off the finished pages with notes at the margins and I fill in the dialogue. I never know what he’ll come up with next, but it’s interesting to work that way.” (Freedland, p. 29)

According to legend, the main point of contention between the two men was the identity of the Green Goblin. First introduced in ASM #14 (July 1964), the mystery of the man beneath the Goblin mask had remained unresolved for two years, through Ditko’s last issue, #38 (July 1966). The fact that Lee revealed the Goblin’s true identity as Norman Osborn in the very next issue (#39, penciled by John Romita) would appear to lend credence to the legend.

Although many fans lamented Ditko’s departure from the strip, I think it came at the perfect time. While his art remained stellar, Ditko’s influence on plot and characterization was beginning to drag the strip down. I’m guessing Ditko’s fascination with Ayn Rand and her philosophy of objectivism (or at least Ditko’s interpretation of it) was the cause. In Ditko’s mind, it seemed there was no such thing as a good person having a bad day—people were either good or bad, with no in between. Hence, for example, Flash Thompson wasn’t just some misguided, lunkhead jock, he was a hateful and terrible person. J. Jonah Jameson wasn’t just a stubborn, curmudgeonly™ skinflint, he was a soulless and despicable monster who would do anything to bring down Spider-Man.

After Ditko left, Lee (thankfully) started to turn these characters back into something resembling the actual human beings they were meant to be, with some shades of gray to them. Many even began to smile with some regularity.

Gwen Arrives

Gwen Stacy was first introduced in ASM #31, within the last eight issues of Ditko’s run. Now I’ve heard it from some Mary Jane supporters that Gwen was fickle; that she didn’t actually take a shine to Peter Parker until MJ came along and made her jealous. To these people, all I can say is: what comic were you reading? From the get-go, long before MJ showed up, Gwen clearly had a thing for Pete:

asm31

In the above scene, Peter is so distracted with worry over his sick Aunt May that he doesn’t even hear Flash when he calls him over to introduce him to their new college classmates, Harry Osborn and Gwen Stacy. As you might expect in a Spider-Man comic, the other kids interpret this as a snub, assuming that, as a scholarship student, ol’ Pete is too much of a big shot to stop and chat with them. Only Gwen is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt . . . at first.

Later on, Gwen tries to start a one-on-one conversation with him and again Pete appears to give her the brush off—he’s still so consumed with worry over his aunt that he’s simply not paying attention—which causes Gwen to stomp away in anger, now just as insulted and annoyed as everyone else. Again, this is to be expected in a Lee-written Spider-Man comic. The course of true love never did run smooth for old webhead in those days.

In issue #36, Gwen sees Peter Parker run away from danger and assumes he’s a coward. (He was just running off to change into Spider-Man, of course.) So far, things are running according to superhero formula. Just like Lois Lane was too dumb to recognize that Clark Kent, the guy sitting right next to her at work, was just Superman with glasses on, Gwen can’t seem to recognize Peter Parker’s true character, either.

Or can she? By the next issue:

asm37

. . . And then the issue after that:

asm38

What makes the Gwen/Lois contrast even more stark is that Spider-Man wears a full-body costume, which means there’s nothing recognizable about him in his civilian identity. So when you see Peter Parker run away from danger, it’s perfectly logical and reasonable to conclude he’s a coward—unlike Clark Kent, who looks an awful lot like Superman, there’s no immediate reason to suspect that Peter ran off to change into Spider-Man. But Gwen ain’t no Lois Lane. In fact, she’s kinda the anti-Lois Lane (or maybe the Bizarro Lois Lane, if one wants to stick with the Superman motif). Because despite all the superficial evidence to the contrary, she can’t help but recognize Pete’s true nature. Clearly, Gwen’s got a lot on the ball. She’s very perceptive and a great judge of character.

Jazzy Johnny Makes the Scene

As mentioned earlier, issue #38 was Ditko’s last, as John Romita took over with issue #39. Now take a moment to scroll back up and check out those Ditko panels once again and count the smiling faces. How many ya got? Not many, right? I got none myself, unless you want to count a smirk or two out of Peter as a smile (I didn’t). The dour atmosphere is about to change drastically, however, now that Jazzy Johnny is holding the pencil and collaborating with Smilin’ Stan. Right off the bat, in their very first issue together, we get this:

asm39

It’s the first time Harry Osborn has resembled a human being in nine issues. And Gwen’s joy (and expression) at the two of them connecting is delightful. Even Flash Thompson—Flash Thompson!—displays a heart, observing in the next panel: “Parker’s a funny guy! After all the needlin’ he’s taken from him, there he is talkin’ to Harry like a Dutch uncle! He’s either a real weak sister—or a lot more man than we ever thought he was!”

By issue #41 (right before Pete and Mary Jane finally meet in issue #42), the sparks between Pete and Gwen are really starting to fly:

asm41-first

Mary Jane Watson finally meets Peter face-to-face in the final panel of issue #42. Two issues later (ASM #44), Ms. Watson is introduced to Pete’s collegiate circle, including Gwen. Now is Gwen jealous here? Of course she is—but her attraction to Pete was well established long before this point:

asm44-breathing

These years were probably the peak for Gwen Stacy. After about a dozen issues of Gwen and Mary Jane jockeying for Pete’s attention, Gwen would win out and become his official girlfriend, while MJ was paired off with Harry Osborn. Unfortunately, being Pete’s girlfriend would turn Gwen into more of a plot device than a character. It’s a shame because Gwen had so much potential and hardly any of it was ever explored in any kind of depth.

NEXT: Stan the Man & His Characters

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