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

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Stan the Man & His Characters

Let’s take a moment to discuss Stan Lee’s approach to comics writing. What made his approach so great was his emphasis on characters. Lee recognized and appreciated the value of characterization better than virtually any comics writer/creator that preceded him. Before Stan Lee and the whole Marvel Revolution, nearly all comic book characters were one-dimensional. Lee’s approach made them two-dimensional—and it would take quite a while before the other comics companies even attempted to catch up. As Denny O’Neil later recalled, “Up ‘til that point [1968], almost everything at DC had been plot oriented. Characterization, if it was there at all, was secondary.” (Eury, p. 127)

The convention prior to Lee, generally speaking, was that superheroes fought villains and spoiled their evil plans because it was the right thing to do. Lee’s protagonists were still heroic, but not perfect. While they were still largely motivated by a strong sense of morality, there were usually other factors at work, also. On the flipside, Lee’s villains were not always 100% evil. Dr. Doom, for example, was a tragic figure. So was the Mole Man. Magneto had a political agenda.

Lee’s approach, however, was applied chiefly to the main characters in his stories. The deeper you went into the supporting cast, the less characterization you were likely to see. This is logical to an extent—there are only so many pages in a comic book, so you can’t spend too much time on background characters without the lead(s) suffering. And the lead characters are the ones people are buying the comic for. Plus Lee knew he was still writing primarily for kids and probably didn’t want things to get too complex with a deep cast of idiosyncratic characters.

So supporting players were more apt to be given short shrift, characterization-wise, than lead characters, which was understandable to a large extent. But sadly, female characters in general also seemed more apt to be given short shrift. Some might argue that part of the reason for this is that an inordinate number of supporting characters happened to be female—a consequence of having exclusively male leads in most of the titles in the line. But the truth is that even in the team books (Fantastic Four, Avengers, X-Men), the women on those teams were very one-dimensional. They also tended to be far less powerful than their male counterparts (they were certainly more prone to fainting from exhaustion than the men were, at least).

Just as Ditko had his weaknesses, so did Stan, and sexism was one of them. Some of the romance comics he wrote back then are painful to read today; and even within the superhero books, sexism was all too common. Just google the words “Reed Richards sexist” and see for yourself. Here are some of the lowlights:

reed1 reed3

In all fairness, I think Stan came to recognize this blind spot and tried to course correct a bit later on, but even so, portraying female characters in a progressive way would never be his strong suit.

Untapped Potential

What makes the situation so frustrating is that it’s not like Stan didn’t have great ideas for the Gwen character—it’s that he sort of put them out there and then did nothing with them.

First of all, she was a science major. This is the one aspect of Gwen’s background that was criminally underserved. Even today, you don’t see a lot of female scientists in entertainment media—had they played up this aspect of Gwen’s character more, it would have been extraordinarily forward thinking. Plus, if she’s the girlfriend of Peter Parker, who’s also majoring in science and a genius, then Gwen’s got to be a pretty smart cookie just to hold up her end of the scientific conversation, right? Maybe she’s even smarter than Pete. We don’t really know, because aside from a few panels where it’s briefly mentioned, we never really see Gwen exploring her interests in the sciences.

Over in the pages of Daredevil (#57 to be exact, cover date October 1969), they made the bold decision to have Daredevil reveal his secret identity to love interest Karen Page. I can’t help but wonder what might have been had Stan chosen to take this course with Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man. In my imagination I see a strip where Spidey is no longer completely alone in carrying his burdens; a strip where his scientist girlfriend mixes up fresh batches of web fluid for him and helps him in his endless fight against the bad guys. (Or even better: His scientist girlfriend and her brilliant detective father both help him fight bad guys. This would have been far more interesting, imo, than killing Captain Stacy off just to preserve the hackneyed secret identity trope. But I digress.)

Speaking of Gwen’s father, how about this guy, huh? A great character in his own right, there was a lot left unexplored with Captain George Stacy, too. First, he’s a cop and a great detective. We know from ASM #90 that he figured out Pete was Spidey at some point, but we don’t know precisely when. It’s quite possible he had put it all together before he was even formally introduced to Peter Parker. He’s also a bit up there in years, smokes a pipe, and walks with a cane. How did he come to need a cane? Like everything else, it’s never explained.

Then there’s Gwen’s mother. This woman is truly a total mystery, as nothing of her is ever mentioned in the series. The only fact we can logically assume is that she died at some point in the past, leaving Captain Stacy a widower. You have to assume she died because otherwise she would have been there to support her daughter after Captain Stacy passed, right? I think we can also safely assume that the relationship between Captain & Mrs. Stacy was a May-December romance, as the captain is a bit on the older side and Gwen is an only child (as opposed to the youngest child in a much larger brood).

The Stacy family also appears to have come to the states relatively recently from Great Britain. This fact comes to us out of left field in the wake of Captain Stacy’s death and is never really delved into at uncleartall. Up until issue #93, you would have never even guessed it, but then on page 2, panel 2, Gwen is picking up the phone and talking to her Uncle Arthur—identified as George Stacy’s older brother—and he’s inviting her to come to England to live with him and her aunt. (Gwen accepts the offer at the end of the issue.) Then in ASM #95, on the very last page, Uncle Arthur calls Gwen over to see a newscast on the television about Spider-Man, telling her, “according to this newscast, he seems a decent sort. I’d venture to say the chap’s a bloomin’ hero!” The thick British accent makes it clear that he was born and raised in England, lest anyone think this branch of the Stacy family had recently relocated to the UK from the states or elsewhere.

There’s also evidence to suggest that the Stacy family was one of means (i.e., they were loaded). Sometimes Gwen & her father appear to live in a nice suburban home (I’m guessing on Long Island), while at other times they appear to live in a Manhattan apartment. If they were somewhat wealthy, as I suspect they were, it’s quite possible they owned property in both places. Now I realize it’s more likely that the reason they were drawn in seemingly different domiciles was because Stan and/or the artist never kept close track of these things from issue to issue. But as it happens, the possibility of family wealth still jibes with some of the other evidence.

For example: After Captain Stacy dies and Gwen is basically left an orphan, she never seems to have trouble keeping a roof over her head or paying for her college tuition. This despite the fact that she has no job and no apparent income. (On top of it all, if you slapped a top hat on Uncle Arthur, the guy would be a dead ringer for Uncle Pennybags of Monopoly fame—now c’mon, any guy that looks like that has gotta be rich!) In any case, once again we can never be exactly sure of the family finances because none of this was ever directly addressed in the comics.

Despite all this, Stan still gave us enough character glimpses to demonstrate some very admirable qualities in Gwen. For one, she was fiercely loyal, both to her father:

asm61-gwen-dad

. . . And to Pete:

asm69-slap

And her love for Peter was true, deep, and selfless:

asm82-dontcare

It was after Captain Stacy died that the Gwen character really suffered, becoming even more of a one-note personality. At least before she was a reasonably self-assured coed (though even then, she probably cried too much). After ASM #90, her character seemed defined by her hatred of Spider-Man and how the mere sight of him was unbearable to her, as it reminded her of her beloved, lost father. Stan loved this kind of melodramatic conflict (in fact it was largely a replay of the old Bennett Brant storyline), and it did provide some short-term juice, but it hurt the character in the long term. Critic Thomas Fagan summed it up pretty well:

“When the ‘should I tell Gwen?’ hook (as epitomized in SM #87) began to dull, he [Stan Lee] ruthlessly killed Gwen’s father in issue #90. Yet, this action did not help Gwen’s role. The killing did provide momentum for a few issues, and did give Gwen a credible performance as a grieving orphan, but her role had lost momentum. She was a shadow of the formerly strong-minded and confident coed of the early issues. She had fallen into the simple-minded ‘what, oh, what is wrong with my Petey’ syndrome Betty Brant had managed to avoid. . . . While Captain Stacy’s elimination also eliminated several loose plot-ends, it also undercut Gwen’s role. Some of the most telling and human conversations and situations in Marveldom at that time took place between Gwen and her father. Family situations are often convoluted and impossible in comics as a rule, and Gwen’s sharing of her problems with her dad, and his gently caring of her, refreshed the medium.” (Fagan, p. 35)

Very cogent analysis. The only point above that I’d disagree with is the idea that Betty Brant wasn’t swallowed up by the “what is wrong with my Petey” syndrome; she clearly was. (But that’s the subject of another post.)

In this same article, Fagan offered an analysis of the Mary Jane character that was pretty spot-on as well:

“Let me tell you about Mary Jane Watson. Gentler treatment of a more undeserving character has rarely happened in Marvel. Only Marvel’s periodic and casual pardons of Galactus’s mass murders readily exceeds the ample forgiveness accorded MJ’s transgressions. . . . I sat back and waited for this soap-opera villainess to get her lumps. I’m still waiting. . . . Mary Jane is the type of person one frequents when decent company is unavailable.” (Ibid)

Enter Gerry Conway

“He [Gerry Conway] writes really well for a seventeen-year-old kid,” Roy Thomas observed.

“Well,” Stan Lee responded, “can’t we get someone who writes really well for a twenty-five-year-old kid?” (Howe, p. 114)

So it was that, despite Lee’s misgivings, Gerry Conway was hired to write for Marvel Comics. And just year or so later, he would be handed the reins of Marvel’s best seller and most popular character, The Amazing Spider-Man.

Conway’s first issue was #111, where he finished off a story Stan had begun the previous issue involving Kraven and the Gibbon. Issues 112-115 introduced Hammerhead and featured his feud with Dr. Octopus. Issues 116-118 were an adaptation and expansion of material that originally saw print in the black-and-white magazine, Spectacular Spider-Man #1, by Lee and Romita. Issues 119-120 saw Spidey travel to Canada to battle the Hulk. Then we get to ASM #’s 121-122, “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” and “The Goblin’s Last Stand!” This was Conway’s third proper, original storyline on the book.

For the moment, let me just review these two specific issues in a vacuum and stick to the good & bad of each. If we’re going in chronological order, that means we start with the bad.

“The Night Gwen Stacy Died”

The quick synopsis: Pete returns from Canada and goes to see Harry, who’s just had a drug relapse. While there, he meets up with Gwen & MJ, as well as Norman Osborn, who looks like he’s about to go cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. The gang departs, with Pete splitting for the Daily Bugle to drop off some photos. While he’s there, Norman reverts to his Green Goblin persona and snatches Gwen. Spidey catches up to them at a bridge, and starts to duke it out with the Goblin while Gwen lies unconscious. At one point, the Goblin knocks the unconscious Gwen off the bridge, forcing Spidey to save her with his web line. But when Spidey pulls her up, she’s dead. The story ends with Spidey swearing murderous revenge on the Goblin for killing the woman he loved.

The quick review: Yeesh, wotta mess.

Where do I even begin? I guess with the generally poor narrative construction.

As Dwight R. Decker observed in the pages of The Comics Journal: “It [‘The Night Gwen Stacy Died’] was still a wretchedly written story, though. Gwen goes over the bridge and that’s it; she was hardly even seen up to that point in the story, and the reader feels nothing in particular. When Stan killed off Pamela Hawley, Nick Fury’s girlfriend, in Sgt. Fury #18, he showed how to do it, how to squeeze your heart until it hurts.” (Decker, The Comics Journal No. 52, p. 82)

. . . Actually, you don’t even need to pull back issues from any other series—just stick to ASM and pull #90, featuring the death of Captain Stacy.

As issue #90 opens, Spidey barely escapes the clutches of Doc Ock with his life, then collapses in the street shortly after changing to Peter Parker. Luckily, Captain Stacy is there to catch him (holding Peter with one hand while never losing the grip of his cane in the other!). By story’s end, Stacy sacrifices himself to save the life of a young child, pushing him out of the way of falling debris. Before he expires, as Spidey is carrying him to a doctor, he reveals that he knows Spider-Man is Peter Parker and implores him to look after Gwen. Spidey promises the dead captain that he will love and cherish Gwen for as long as he lives.

Now that is some major comic-book style drama; that is how you give proper service to a character. (In all fairness, I feel compelled to say here, yet again, that even though the death of Captain Stacy was a much better written story, it was still just as tragic a waste of a character as the loss of Gwen was. But once again, that’s a subject for another post.)

Gwen has dialogue in precisely four panels on two pages within the first five pages of issue #121. That’s it. After that, there are just a couple thought balloons where she laments Harry’s condition and wishes Pete was there just prior to the Goblin grabbing her. She’s knocked out during the entire bridge sequence and gets no dramatic goodbye of any kind. Moreso, there was never any interaction with Pete earlier in the story to suggest what a wonderful person she was or what a great girlfriend she was. To give the story some dramatic “oomf,” they needed to give us a scene or two like this early on to remind us of just what Peter would be losing later in the story. But we got nothing.

WTF?

Okay, getting to the plot details, in all seriousness now: How the fuck did Gwen even die? This is the biggest problem here, and it’s what ultimately destroys the story.

This is just an educated guess, but I’m thinking the Marvel Method was a big contributing factor in why this issue was such a disaster. The bridge where Spidey battles the Goblin is prime evidence of this—notice how I never mentioned which bridge this was in my synopsis? That’s because Spidey identified it as the George Washington Bridge in his dialogue, but what Gil Kane drew was the Brooklyn Bridge.

gwb

“Gil [Kane] was an awesome artist and a great gentleman,” Conway later recalled. “He wasn’t the strongest person at following your notes.” (Comic Book Resources)

According to John Romita, however, there were no written notes: “There was no written plot, it was verbally plotted, so when I did [inked] the drawings, Gerry then gets it to do the sound effects and placement of balloons.” (Brick)

If Conway added the dialogue and captions after the book was drawn, he should have realized Kane had drawn the Brooklyn Bridge, not the GWB. Maybe Conway couldn’t tell the difference between the two bridges, or maybe he just wasn’t paying close enough attention. (In later reprints, the dialogue in this panel would be changed so that it was correctly identified as the Brooklyn Bridge.)

Just to add to the confusion, John Romita would later reveal to The Comics Journal that, “Gil [Kane] used to get all the plum issues. I plotted that sequence [the famous Harry Osborn drug-addiction story] with Stan, as I did with all of them. I was just being used on something, probably The Fantastic Four. . . . So I gave the plot to Gil by phone, and he got all the plum issues that way! He got the death of Captain Stacy, the death of Gwen Stacy and the drug issues. Those were all major sequences. It was just luck of the draw.” (The Comics Journal No. 252, p. 113)

So if we go by this, Conway hashed the plot out with Romita, who then passed it on to Kane, likely over the phone. This would have left a lot of room for miscommunication, obviously—not only in regard to the bridge, but in the cause of Gwen’s death as well.

fallshock

Conway’s original thought process was that Gwen would have died from the “shock of the fall” (as indicated in the Goblin’s dialogue). Had this story been done full script, it’s slightly possible that someone might have seen this in the dialogue and realized that no one dies from the “shock” of a fall and it would have been sent back to Conway for correction. (I characterize the possibility as “slight” because the writers at Marvel all functioned as their own editors back then.)

So I’m guessing that the loose plot Kane worked from probably went something like this: “Goblin’s got Gwen on a bridge and she’s not moving or speaking; apparently unconscious. Spidey goes to grab her but Goblin knocks her off. Spidey snares her with his web line and pulls her up, but it’s too late, she’s dead.”

From this, perhaps Kane assumed the twist was that the Goblin killed Gwen before he even took her to the bridge. This actually would have worked as a brilliant subversion of reader expectations, and it also would have let Spidey off the hook in as much as there would’ve been no immediate action he could have taken to save her. Oh, if only they had gone this route.

But they didn’t. Which brings us to the infamous “snap!”

The “Snap!”

Gerry Conway would later say: “Was Spider-Man really responsible for Gwen’s death, or was she dead before his web caught her? I wouldn’t go to comic book conventions for many years because I kept getting asked that question.” (DeFalco, p. 47)

In the panel where Spidey catches Gwen with his web, there’s a “swik!” sound effect where the web catches her leg; then an itty-bitty “snap!” sound near Gwen’s head. What was this “snap!” meant to signify?

The "snap!" heard 'round the world.
The “snap!” heard ’round the world.

In 1998, the twenty-fifth anniversary year of the original publication of the comics, Scott Brick wrote an article for the Comics Buyer’s Guide exploring the details of how the storyline came to be. Of the “snap!” Brick observed: “Ignoring the snap!’s presence, it seems clear that the script’s original intention was to blame Gwen’s demise upon the fall itself, not its sudden interruption. Clearly, the ‘snap!’ must therefore have been added later. . . . Conspiracy theorists began wondering, Who could have done it? The letterer, perhaps, in a moment of inspiration? The writer or artist? Or might it have been an editorial concession to the almighty Comics Code Authority, an end-run around their restrictive policies? . . . The issue’s letterer, Artie Simek, unfortunately passed away in the ‘70’s; the best resource to discover where the ‘snap!’ came from is therefore gone.”

John Romita would add: “At that stage [after Romita inked the pages], it’s quite possible that it [the “snap!”] was added, and I’ll tell you something, that’s not an uncommon thing. When we did it this way, the drawings created a lot of subtleties that were never envisioned. It’s certainly not impossible that the emotion grabbed [Gerry] when he saw the artwork.” (Brick)

Conway would confess to Brick that, “I did it [added the “snap!”]. It was my fault or my credit, one or the other.” Conway would later elaborate, “I guess Gil had drawn it in such a way that it seemed pretty obvious to me that Gwen’s neck was being broken by the catch, so I just added the sound effect.” (Comic Book Resources)

In my research for this article, I quickly discovered that this is a very blurry subject, as Conway himself has vacillated on the question wildly. In the above quote, it would seem adding the “snap!” was a conscious choice. But there are several other interviews I’ve found where he describes it a “subconscious” or “subliminal” decision. Of all the quotes I came across, I found this particular excerpt (from an interview by Tom DeFalco) the most telling:

Tom DeFalco: “In your mind, was Gwen still alive until her neck snapped?”

Gerry Conway: “Could be! Honestly, I don’t know—I’m not sure why I added that sound effect, or what I meant to accomplish; as I say, it was the result of a subconscious decision. Consciously, I’ve always thought that she was already dead when Spider-Man caught her. But if that’s true, why did I put that ‘SNAP’ in? . . . It’s one of a very few inspired moments in my career when my subconscious mind made a choice that meant so much more than my conscious mind ever intended. That said, I’d sure like to believe she was already dead.” (DeFalco, pp. 47-48)

“I don’t know,” is not an acceptable answer to this question. As a writer, if you’re talking about something intangible like, say, character psychology, then you can sometimes write from your gut and not have a rational explanation for your creative choices. But you can’t take this approach when it comes to a major plot point (or in this case, THE major plot point) of your story. If you’re going to title your story “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” then you better be damn sure and damn clear just how Gwen Stacy died. If it’s anything less than crystal clear, you have absolutely failed in your job as the writer. The idea that Conway recognized on some subconscious level that the shock of the fall wouldn’t kill Gwen and thus added the “snap!” as some kind of failsafe is just outlandish backpedaling after realizing his original cause of death did not work at all.

What’s more, I remain unconvinced Conway was the one who even added the “snap!” (Not that I’m calling Conway a liar; I think it’s entirely possible that he legitimately does not remember the series of events as they took place.) He clearly and absolutely believed the “shock of the fall” would have killed Gwen when he initially wrote the story, and even fifteen months later he was still holding firm to this position. Just take another look at that full-page splash from ASM #136 for confirmation—specifically, the caption box in the upper-right corner:

asm136-gwen-fall

So I think there’s a very good chance that someone in editorial, or maybe even Simek on his own, put the “snap!” in because they realized the “shock of the fall” explanation made no sense. You’ll also notice the “snap!” is white, or uncolored. Most sound effects were colored in. Now I’m not sure how the production process worked back then, precisely, so this may or may not be further evidence that the “snap!” was added in at the last minute, perhaps after the rest of the book had already been colored. (Once again, this would be altered in later reprints of the issue, which featured a colorized “snap!”)

It should be noted that, to the best of my knowledge (and full disclosure, I stopped reading Spidey circa ’94, when the Spider-Clone mess started), the direct cause of Gwen’s death has never been acknowledged or even discussed in the actual comic-book pages of Spider-Man. It was only on the letters page (of issue #125, to be exact) that Gwen’s neck snapping was offered up as the official cause of her death.

And I’ve got news for you: this explanation doesn’t work either.

Spider-Man had been around over ten years when this issue saw print, and in that time he often used his web line to save people—and none of them ever suffered injury from it. If his web line functioned like a rope or chain, you might be able to make a case for the possibility of it causing harm or even death. But Spidey’s web has always demonstrated an elastic quality, much like bungee cord. And nobody’s ever broken their neck from the whiplash of a bungee cord that I’m aware of. (And if it ever has happened, it’s extraordinarily rare.) They usually attach the cord to the lower legs, too—right where Spidey’s web snags Gwen. And based on the way the panels are paced, it doesn’t appear Gwen was in freefall more than a couple of seconds (at most); Spidey snags her and pulls her up rather quickly. So it doesn’t seem like she even fell all that far.

In addition, let’s keep in mind that Peter Parker is a scientific genius. He invented his web-shooters when he was, what, sixteen? Wouldn’t he know the physics of how they operated better than anyone? If there were any risk at all of injuring someone by catching them with his web line, he would know it and adjust the use of his webbing accordingly, right? He certainly wouldn’t commit so egregious an error as to use it recklessly when the life of the woman he loves hangs in the balance.

The bottom line is this: They needed to offer readers an explanation for Gwen’s death and went with the idea of her neck snapping because it was slightly more plausible than the “shock of the fall” explanation (which was utterly ridiculous). But really, the idea of Gwen’s neck snapping from Spidey’s web line is nearly as outrageous. When something crazy or outrageous has to happen in your story simply because it’s necessitated by the plot, that’s the definition of bad writing.

So this first part of the storyline was pretty much bad in every conceivable way. Thankfully, the second part would come off much better.

NEXT: “The Goblin’s Last Stand!”

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