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

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“The Goblin’s Last Stand!”

The quick synopsis: With Gwen Stacy dead, Spidey tries to nab the Goblin but he manages to escape. Police arrive, along with an ambulance to collect Gwen, as Spidey has an emotional flashback. The cops want to take Spidey in for questioning, but he ain’t having it. There’s only one thing he’s living for now, and that’s to kill the Green Goblin. After searching high and low, Spidey finally finds Gobby and proceeds to beat the living hell out of him. He ultimately stops himself from killing the Goblin, but then Gobby winds up undone by his own treachery, impaled on his goblin-glider. Peter goes home, despondent. Mary Jane is waiting when Pete arrives and he lashes out at her. She almost leaves him, but then decides to stay.

The quick review: Ever wonder what it would have been like if Bruce Wayne had been bitten by that radioactive spider? Well, Amazing Spider-Man #122 would seem to offer us a glimpse, and the results are dramatic and powerful.

Let’s start with a deeper look at that Batman/Spider-Man comparison. Batman’s motivated by an angry, righteous yearning for justice and revenge. Spider-Man, on the other hand, has always been motivated by guilt—a much more passive motivator. This issue, however, shows us an enraged Spider-Man hell bent on revenge. This rage stands in such stark contrast to the fun-loving, quick-quipping hero we had always known before that it’s almost physically jarring. From the last page of #121, where he threatens the Goblin with, “You killed the woman I love– and for that you’re going to DIE!” to the final pages of #122, when he’s pounding the Goblin into absolute shit and calling him “filthy worm-eating scum!” . . . It’s just so damn POWERFUL. That degree of violence—and even language—was really pushing boundaries for its time.

worm-eating

It’s a gripping story that captures emotions that most comics wouldn’t touch back then, either. Spider-Man’s deep-felt grief and subsequent rage are palpable. Couple this with the Goblin’s psychopathic hatred and you’ve got a real cauldron of fury, here. Also—and this cannot be overstated—the draftsmanship of Gil Kane adds to the tale TREMENDOUSLY. Not only did Gil bring a fresh dynamism to the strip with his pencils, but at the same time, Jazzy Johnny’s inks kept the art looking and feeling like classic Spidey.

But I think my favorite part of the tale, at least as far as demonstrating how enraged Spidey is, comes when he goes looking for the Goblin at the Osborn townhouse and encounters a strung out Harry. Determined to find Norman Osborn, Pete’s about to walk off as Harry begs him to stay and not leave him alone. At this point, Pete thinks: “So now it comes down to it, doesn’t it, Peter? Do you stay– and help your friend? Or do you go find revenge– simple, vicious revenge? Not much of a contest . . . is there?”

He then proceeds to walk down the stairs and exits, slamming the door behind him.

coldpete

Again: POWERFUL stuff, here. And Gil Kane adds to it a lot, drawing Peter with his eyes bugged out like a goddamn madman.

The other really great sequence in this issue comes on the very last page. MJ is waiting for Pete at his apartment with the intention of consoling him, but instead Pete really let’s her have it:

mj-122JPG

This is likely the closest we’re ever going to come to seeing Mary Jane get her karmic comeuppance. It’s also a great character moment for her.

My only real critique of this issue has to do with something set up for later, and not with this story per se. On the next-to-last page, a shadowy figure is shown watching Spidey walk away from the Goblin’s lifeless body. Later, it’s revealed that this figure was HARRY OSBORN. Yes, the same Harry Osborn who was babbling incoherently from being strung out just six pages earlier. And not only is he standing in the alley, suddenly calm and collected, but it’s later revealed that after Spidey left, Harry carefully removed the Goblin costume from the body of his DEAD FATHER. Now it’s not remotely believable that Harry would be able to pull himself together so quickly—and then keep himself together while undressing his father’s corpse. So this part of the tale looks really sloppy in hindsight (in fact, I have to wonder if making the guy in the shadows Harry Osborn was not Conway’s original plan), but this is a topic for another day, as it has more to do with future storylines than it does with this one.

Final verdict on the whole thing: Kudos to everyone involved in ASM #122, it was great, but it’s also the proverbial house built on sand—because no matter how pretty or well crafted, its foundation (ASM #121) was a mess. So the whole thing still inevitably falls apart as a complete storyline, for me. By itself, I might give ASM #122 an “A,” but the arc as a whole still gets an “F.”

The Last Spider-Man Story?

I realize I’m in the minority as far as my opinion of this story (hardly a surprise at this point). As it has more than its fair share of supporters, let’s go to one of them and let them state their case as to why this storyline is so compelling and so significant:

“The death of Gwen Stacy in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #121 and 122 was so powerful because it highlighted so many of the recurrent themes for Lee, Ditko and Romita’s run of the book: power, responsibility and guilt. Why did Gwen die? Gwen died because of who Peter Parker was. Gwen was an innocent, used as a tool by Spidey’s most hated and feared enemy, to strike at him in the cruelest manner possible, just because he could. And Peter, despite all the power at his disposal, trying as hard as he could, just couldn’t save her. It’s brutal, it’s cruel, and it’s unfair. That’s life. And Peter has to live with it.” (Tipton, Comics 101).

Well spoken and all true enough. But the problem is that I don’t see how Peter possibly can live with it, particularly given the way the story is constructed. Because he is 100% culpable in every way, from any angle you choose to take, in the death of the woman he loved—and this is something that no good-hearted man could ever truly live with. This may be the storyline’s greatest flaw.

First, Spidey’s responsible in as much as he simply failed to save her. That’s at the very least. If you choose to believe in the “snap!” theory, then she died directly by his hand, which is even worse. Sure, Pete can tell himself the Goblin was the one who knocked her off the bridge, but how much solace can he possibly find in that? And for how long? This is Peter Parker we’re talking about, the guy with the guiltiest conscience on Earth. Of course he’s going to blame himself—and the events here make that all too easy for him to do.

Second, it should also be noted that Pete failed to save Gwen after swearing over the corpse of Captain Stacy that he would always cherish her. In letting Gwen die, regardless of the circumstances, he has broken a solemn and near-sacred vow. This makes the circumstances even harder still to live with.

Third, and more broadly, it was Pete’s crime-fighting career as Spider-Man that put Gwen in the crosshairs in the first place. If not for this, she would have never been a target for the Green Goblin at all.

Fourth, Spidey’s reckless refusal to turn the Goblin over to the authorities after the three prior times he defeated him (in ASM #40, Spectacular Spider-Man #2, and ASM #98) is what led to him being free to snatch Gwen this time around. Had he been taken into custody after any of those THREE TIMES Spidey previously beat him, the threat of the Green Goblin would have been neutralized, or certainly lessened.

A few years earlier, you could’ve chalked up Spidey’s letting Norman stay on the loose to simple comic-book formula. Basically, Spidey can’t turn in Norman for his crimes as the Goblin because we want to keep him free to fight Spidey again in the future. It wasn’t realistic, but who cares? It’s a comic book; it’s fantasy; it was never meant to be realistic.

However, when you start injecting such stark realism into comics (as this storyline was meant to do), it quickly turns into a slippery slope. You can no longer brush off something like this as formula or convention—realism demands a realistic explanation. And if you look at it realistically, the only reason for Spidey not turning Norman over to the authorities was because he knew it meant giving up his secret identity. This was cowardly and selfish to a near-criminal degree.

Fifth (or maybe fourth and a half): Okay, so even without turning in the Green Goblin, Peter still could have let those in his inner circle know Norman was the Goblin and that he was Spider-Man, and that this could make any (or all) of them targets. Or at the absolute least, without spilling all the beans, he could have let them know that Norman was maybe a bit crazy and dangerous. Instead he kept all of them in the complete dark, leaving them utterly defenseless. If this didn’t cause Gwen’s death directly, it was surely a large contributing factor.

Now think about all the times Peter has thrown his Spider-Man costume in the garbage and quit. It’s happened quite often. The reasons for it have ranged from needing to be there for his Aunt May, to Peter being just plain sick of it all. But in the wake of this storyline, after failing as Spider-Man in the most dire manner one can conceive, he never seriously considers quitting. He thinks about it for all of one panel in issue #123; that’s it. This simply does not fly.

That’s why I say this storyline only works if it’s the last Spider-Man story ever—and even then, that’s only if you don’t mind ending Spidey’s story on the darkest note imaginable.

Just consider how Spider-Man got his start: It all began with the death of Uncle Ben, who died because Spider-Man failed to act. Now Gwen Stacy has died precisely because he did act; because Spider-Man fought the good fight, which led to his rivalry with the Goblin, which led directly to her becoming a target and dying. With Gwen’s death comes the awful, existential conclusion that nothing Peter does matters. Whether he acts or fails to act, he loses either way—so why go on? The two deaths are the perfect bookends of his career as Spider-Man. In the first, he learned a lesson; found some meaning that enabled him to carry on. In the second, the only conclusion he could possibly draw is that there never was, nor could there ever be, any meaning to his absurd existence.

I believe that this is the reason the cause of Gwen’s death was never actually brought up in the comics. This is the reason Conway would “sure like to believe she was already dead” when Spidey caught Gwen with his web line. This is the reason most everything associated with this story was so summarily swept beneath the rug and utterly ignored for decades afterward. Because everyone creatively involved with Spider-Man recognized, on some level or other, that there’s no way Peter Parker could live with this, and that he certainly could never justify going on as Spider-Man in the wake of it. As I said, the story only works if it’s the last Spider-Man story.

But we all know that could never happen. Not as long as there are comics to be sold and money to be made.

Fan Reaction

Letters reacting to the events of ASM #121 would begin to see print in issue #124. Now I’m pretty sure Roy Thomas was handling the letters page here and not Conway, as by all accounts Conway was really shaken up by the hate mail; and also because the letters page declared the “snap” the cause of death while Conway was still going with the “shock of the fall” explanation in the comic itself. I could be wrong, however.

So the letters page of ASM #124 issue began with this introduction from Roy (or whomever):

SPECIAL BULLPEN NOTE: Well, we expected an avalanche of mail on SPIDER-MAN #121, the issue which featured the tragic death of Gwendolyn Stacy. . . but we were wrong. We got at least two avalanches. And letters are still pouring in literally by the hundreds. Herewith, a random sampling of the earliest arrivals, followed, of course, by our comments. . .

Nine letters followed. Here are highlights (at least) from each one:

First Letter: “How many times have I seen on the cover and on the Bullpen Bulletin pages, ‘Turning Point,’ ‘Most Important Issue,’ ‘It’s A Biggie,’ and the like? So I disregarded these ominous omens. Boy was I a dummy!”

Second Letter: “I have just finished SPIDER-MAN #121 and I am unable to contain my congratulations and anger. . . . My congratulations are in order because no SPIDER-MAN mag has over struck me as did ish #121. My anger, well, that’s obvious. All I can ask is that you, Mr. Conway create one HECKUVA story and return the only good thing that Marvel has ever given to that most knocked down, sorrow-ridden, and guilt-complexed character. If not, well, us college guys will just have to burn you in effigy, Mr. Conway—and you wouldn’t like that now, would you?”

Third Letter: “How much more agony must Parker live through? This issue, #121, has certain finality to it. I know that Gwen is really dead. So I have the right to cry. . . . Gentlemen, you have succeeded in placing the comic book, SPIDER-MAN, onto a newly defined aesthetic plane of realism. But Lord, you have also succeeded in touching my soul.”

Fourth Letter: “I only hope you make Gwen Stacy’s death as big a turning point as it deserves to be. I’m expecting some totally new directions and if you fail to do so, then Ms. Stacy’s death will have been in vain, so to speak.”

Fifth Letter: “As you said, SPIDER-MAN #121 was a shocker. Frankly, I wonder what kind of home life you people must have, or had, as children.”

Sixth Letter: “You rattlesnake, you buzzard, you large red insect, you worm, you cockroach, you lizard, you skunk, you tapeworm in the digestive system of humanity. Why is it when a superhero and his girl finally seem to be getting it together, you kill off the girl? May you lose every tooth in your head but one, and in that one may you have a toothache; may someone put arsenic in your midnight cocoa; may you be struck down by a spirit of justice and be reincarnated as an amoeba!”

Seventh Letter: “Realism has always been a significant ingredient in Marvel’s success, and, unfortunately, a reality of life is the certainty of eventual death. But as sorry as I am about Gwen’s demise, I am anxiously awaiting the introduction of new characters in SPIDER-MAN and Peter Parker’s life.”

Eighth Letter: “How DARE you kill Gwendolyn Stacy!? You are a pack of soulless, mercenary sadists. I am no longer a True Believer.”

Ninth Letter: “You guys should change your names to the Marvel Soap Opera & Murder Co. Inc. Just like Spidey, you re giving my ulcers ulcers!”

. . . And then Roy Thomas (or whoever) returned to declare the following:

And that’s how it went, folks. Schizoid! Utterly schizoid!!

Almost everyone was deeply moved and saddened by Gwen’s death. But even those who wrote some of the most sensitive, sorrow-stricken, “how could you” filled missives had to conclude (are you ready?) that we did the right thing.

Of course, not everyone felt that way. Some promised never to buy a SPIDEY mag again. Others called us “murderers,” “fiends,” “assassins,” and a slew of unprintable epithets. And yet. . .the number of Marvelites who gave us a sort of quavering nod of approval frankly amazed us.

Next issue: the full story-behind-the-story (Subtitled, “So NOW I Know Whom to Blame!”), plus your comments on SPIDEY #122, in which the Green Goblin not only bit the dust, but made a seven-course dinner of it. Tamam shud!

. . .As promised, the editorial response to this controversial storyline would indeed come in the lettercol of the next issue (#125), along with a smattering of more fan mail—three letters, to be precise.

The first was from one Kip Hitz: “Shocking but necessary. I think you’ve done the right thing. The storyline needed to be changed. I don’t mean to imply that I was pleased, but Gwen Stacy was always too perfect a character, and that part of the mag was stagnant. Just the same, it is tragic. You shouldn’t work a relationship like that into the storyline again unless you’re prepared to consummate it.”

This is followed by a letter from Richard Nathan, who brings up many of the criticisms I pointed out earlier:

Okay, Conway. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You’re a good writer, but you’re just not good enough for SPIDER-MAN. The atrocity you committed in issue #121 was only the latest of your crimes. You must be taken off this magazine!

And would you mind explaining one thing? What do you mean by claiming that a fall from that height would kill anyone before they struck the ground? Every day skydivers fall that distance and further before their chutes open. It doesn’t kill them. I myself have fallen that distance skydiving and I’m still around.

So not only do you kill Gwen Stacy, you kill her in a way that doesn’t make sense. And, even if there is some scientific explanation which I do not grasp, than half of the characters in Marvel Comics should be dead, because they are always falling from such heights and being saved at the last minute. Marvel Comics seem to be getting less consistent every month, and your consistency used to be one of the greatest things about Marvel.

I am disgusted with all of you for letting Issue #121 happen.

The third letter said (in part): “Thank you for taking my advice. I didn’t expect you to, and I certainty didn’t expect you to follow my suggestion in such a drastic manner. A few issues ago, I wrote you a brief latter concerning Peter Parker’s journalistic career, and at the end, I tossed off a post-script requesting that you get rid of Marvel’s prize twerp, Gwen Stacy. And in SPIDER-MAN #121, you did it. Congratulations on a good move.”

. . . Then Roy Thomas (or whoever) took the floor to deliver the promised story-behind-the-story:

And there you have it. Solemn acceptance. Fierce anger. Ebullient joy. A sampling of the maddening wide spectrum of response to the death of Gwen Stacy in SPIDER-MAN #121.

At this point, we feel obliged to take a paragraph or two to explain a few points of contention:

First, for the many who wrote and complained that the fall alone could not have killed Gwen if she were unconscious (and therefore unable to be scared to death, the usual explanation for a person dying before hitting the ground), it saddens us to have to say that the whiplash effect she underwent when Spidey’s webbing stopped her so suddenly was, in fact, what killed her. In short, it was impossible for Peter to save her. He couldn’t have swung down in time; the action he did take resulted in her death; if he had done nothing, she still would certainly have perished. There was no way out.

Secondly, the why of it alt. We gotta be honest and admit that it wasn’t Gerry’s idea alone. Kip Hitz is very close when, in his letter above, he calls it “necessary.” Gerry had been reading over the past few years’ issues and had come to the conclusion that something was wrong—or, more accurately, missing. The relationship between Pete and Gwen had been through a lot of inconsequential ups and downs, and unless the two were to be married, there was nowhere else to take it. But marriage seemed wrong, too. Peter just wasn’t ready.

So Gerry. Roy, and Stan debated the question long and hard… and it turned out that all had reached the same inescapable conclusion. Gwen’s death was simply fated to happen.

We’ve said before that our stories just seem to write themselves, that we often don’t have any control over them. This was such a case. Events had shaped themselves in such a way that their only logical resolution was tragedy. And the rest, as they say, is history.

So don’t blame Gerry. Don’t blame Stan. Don’t blame anyone. Only the inscrutable, inexorable workings of circumstances are culpable this time.

And no one regrets it more than we. It was a hard, hard story to write.

‘Nuff said!

. . .Wow. This has to be one of the feeblest, most shameless attempts at passing the buck I’ve ever heard in my entire life. “Necessary?” “Fated to happen?” You “often don’t have any control over” your stories, huh? “Only the inscrutable, inexorable workings of circumstances are culpable?” How in the hell could anyone say that a creative writer is not responsible for what he writes? Was someone holding a gun to Gerry’s head? This was ridiculous, pathetic, and sad—one hell of a trifecta.

Letters would continue to chime in on the subject for several more issues. One noteworthy missive was a follow-up from Richard Nathan in issue #127, which featured this classic zinger: “Somebody ought to throw Gerry Conway off the George Washington Bridge to see if the fall kills him before impact.”

“A few more letters like these,” Thomas responded, “and Gerry may leap without any encouragement from us.”

As noted, it was claimed at the time that the fan reaction was “schizoid”—intimating that it was evenly split between the positive and the negative. The ratio of approval to disapproval in the letters published would seem to reflect this balanced reaction. Years later, the parties involved would all basically concede that this was pretty much bullshit; that there never was any “maddening wide spectrum” of fan response. As Sean Howe put it in his book, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story: “The readership started hyperventilating as soon as the issue [#121] hit stands.” (Howe, p. 137)

Gerry Conway later admitted that the reaction to the storyline was like “having a big dumpster of excrement hit Marvel.” (Comic Book Resources) He would add: “I got a lot of hate mail, a lot of angry comments at conventions, so I just stopped reading mail and I stopped going to conventions. It was a lot easier to isolate yourself from this stuff back then.” (Ryan)

Roy Thomas told Brick: “People hated it. I know Gerry and Stan got the flack, and Gerry was very sensitive about it at the time, because not only had he gone through channels but he was very pleased with the story. . . . Gerry got letters calling him a murderer, and Stan was probably called the same thing.”

John Romita recalled, “When the issue finally came out, the fans were outraged. They threatened me and Gerry and Stan.” (DeFalco, p. 32)

Conway told Brick: “I have to say, it really made my professional career in comics unpleasant for a number of years.” He would later tell Howe: “The pretty horrendous backlash that I received from the fan press, and the lack of support I got from Stan, who said we did it behind his back, had a huge impact on me in terms of my emotional state. . . . I couldn’t go to conventions.” (Howe, p. 137)

Conway elaborated a couple of years afterward: “Yes, Stan did blame me. That was a defensive move on his part. He didn’t really know that things were going to explode like that. None of us did. I felt very traumatized, because I was a kid. I was like 19 years old, 20 years old, when this happened. For many years, I couldn’t go to conventions. I didn’t read letters from fans ‘cause they were just filled with anger and hate and you get kind of impressionable about that kind of stuff.” (Comic Book Resources)

NEXT: Whodunit?

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