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

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Whodunit?

As the credited writer, Gerry Conway is the logical candidate to consider the ultimate decider of Gwen’s fate. In recent years, he hasn’t exactly shied away from this responsibility, either. In promoting the recent Spider-Man movie, he told an interviewer: “I didn’t feel Gwen brought anything to the storyline. She was kind of a bland, almost Barbie-esque-type figure, more of a wish-fulfillment object than a person. I didn’t see anyway I could write her, and make her interesting. So I was [saying], ‘Well, let’s kill off Gwen Stacy.’” (Ryan)

Back in the day however, Conway wasn’t so anxious to take credit. In fact, as critic Dwight Decker recalled in 1979, “Gerry Conway once approached me at a convention with a request: ‘You write for the fan press—tell your readers that killing off Gwen Stacy wasn’t my idea.’ He was only following orders, in other words.” (Decker, p. 82)

The title of that 1998 Comics Buyer’s Guide article by Scott Brick (“Who Killed Gwen Stacy?”) signified the primary objective of the piece, which was to discover who made the decision to kill off Gwen Stacy and how the whole story was put together. Like everything else associated with this tale, there are few definitive answers.

Roy Thomas told Brick: “According to the introduction Gerry wrote for the Clone Genesis trade paperback, he claims it was actually John [Romita]’s suggestion. I don’t know. John wasn’t used to coming up with the ideas that then became the actual stories, but maybe he was playing around with it and it got out of hand. All I know is, we went through all the right channels. I’m sure they just convinced Stan we needed to shake things up a little bit.”

In 2004, Conway told Tom DeFalco, “John Romita, Roy, Stan and I—we all talked about it, and we decided to do that story because things had gotten too nice. We wanted to shake things up.” (DeFalco, p. 47)

More recently, Conway said that, “[Romita] was the primary guy who thought it would be a good idea to change things up on Spider-Man by doing something dramatic. He felt that it would be good to kill off one of the main characters, and I agreed: This would be a good way to keep things real. The character [Romita] had in mind to kill off was Aunt May, and I thought that would be a mistake… Aunt May was Spidey’s ongoing conscience, a reminder of his role in the death of his Uncle Ben. (Ryan)

But Romita told Brick that, “At the time I remember, we were talking about Aunt May dying. I protested against it, I thought Aunt May was crucial to the premise. I then made the recommendation that it should be one of the girls, either Gwen or Mary Jane. I opted for Gwen because I thought it would be more shocking. Mary Jane was like a passing fancy there and wouldn’t be quite so shocking. So my recommendation was it should be Gwen Stacy, for the reason that it would shock me, as a reader. I felt like Gerry took a bad rap, I don’t think it was Gerry’s idea to kill her.”

Romita would later reiterate this recollection of events to DeFalco: “Roy and Gerry wanted to do something to shake up the book, and get people to pay attention. They were going to kill somebody in the strip for shock value and I think they settled on Aunt May. I didn’t like that idea. If you kill Aunt May, Peter Parker’s secret identity is not a problem anymore because there’s no one for him to protect. . . . That’s when I remembered Milton Caniff and his strip Terry and the Pirates. People in the street were shocked when Pat Ryan’s girlfriend [Raven Sherman] was killed in Terry and the Pirates. I thought we would really shake up the fans if we killed Peter’s girlfriend.” (DeFalco, p. 32)

As writer of The Fantastic Four, Conway put Reed and Sue’s baby son Franklin into a vegetative, comatose state; then had Sue walk out on Reed; replace her on the team with Medusa; and even had Sue file for divorce at one point. As writer of Thor, Conway solved the love triangle of Thor-Sif-Jane Foster by temporarily killing off Foster, then having Sif and Foster merge into one being with a dual existence. My point in all this is that at this stage of his career, Conway was not only capable of shaking up the status quo, it actually seemed to be his modus operandi. So the idea of him wanting to shake up Amazing Spider-Man seems more than just possible to me; in fact it seems highly probable.

While Conway’s story has changed over the years, Romita’s side of it has remained remarkably consistent. He even submits a rationale for why he thought it would be a good idea to kill Gwen, offering up the example of Terry and the Pirates on nearly every occasion he’s been questioned on the subject. Given this, and given Gerry’s m.o. as a writer, I absolutely believe the idea of “shaking up” the strip came from Conway, not Romita. I also believe Conway’s first impulse was to off Aunt May, but Romita thought that a mistake and suggested Gwen instead. So killing Gwen was not Conway’s initial idea—it was Romita’s—but once Romita put it out there, Conway jumped on it. Because the one part of Conway’s story that has never changed is this: He absolutely hated Gwen Stacy.

Looking back on it all, Roy Thomas told Brick: “I could have said no and squelched it, but my feeling was, let’s think about it, let’s consider it. Once it got considered, we just did it, and it was only later that we realized success has many fathers and failure is an orphan, and although this wasn’t really a failure, it seems like an orphan anyway.”

This is likely as close as we’re ever going to come to getting a mea culpa out of any of the involved parties. You know the old saying if it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck? Well, If the story “seems like an orphan,” that’s probably because it is/was a failure.

What Did Stan Know and When Did He Know It?

“Stan did not say ‘No’ to this. He was fine with it,” Conway insisted in a 2013 interview. “But Stan did get a lot of heat at conventions and college campuses, and as a result of that, he started claiming that it had happened when he had been out of the office.” (Comic Book Resources)

Conway again in 2014: “The assumption was that because I was the writer and the sole person credited with writing the story that therefore it was all me. But this had to go through Stan Lee, and Roy Thomas, who was the editor-in-chief, and both of them agreed with this. But Stan basically washed his hands of it. He went to some college-speaking engagement, and got a lot of heat. His response was, oh, I didn’t know they were doing that—I was out of town. It’s like, come on, he’s the head of the company!” (Ryan)

So how much did Stan actually know and when did he know it? The earliest article I could find on the subject was one that ran in The Comics Journal transcribing a Stan Lee speaking event at James Madison University in Virgina, in March 1978. When asked about certain changes that were then being made to the character and backstory of Captain America, Lee responded thusly: “Well, in all honesty, I hate it when people change the origins and the various little institutions and schticks that I’ve given these characters and stories. But I try to be fair about it. It isn’t fair, I think, for me to control something I’m no longer writing. When I wrote the scripts I did them my way. Of course, I’m dealing with people who are creative writers and I try to get the best work out of them. It’s very hard to get the best work out of a creative writer if you’re giving him too many orders. . . . But from a personal point of view, of course, I hated it on television when they changed the origins of two characters [Spider-Man and the Hulk]. I hated it when Conway killed Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man. I hated it.” (The Comics Journal #42, p. 50)

Roy Thomas would respond to this via letter, which would be printed in the pages of the Journal just two issues later. After discussing a couple of unrelated topics, he said of Stan:

“The most important clarification of the issue, however —well, the most glaring anyway; I don’t know how truly important it is— is Stan’s doubtless sincere statement that he ‘just hated it’ when Gerry Conway killed off Gwen Stacy.

“That’s true, as far as Stan’s much-vaunted poor memory goes. However, what Stan has forgotten over the years is that he both approved and applauded the suggestion (by me) that Gwen Stacy be killed—before Gerry ever heard of it.

“John Romita and I had been discussing the possibility, just as a way of shaking Spider-Man out of certain creative doldrums that had lain heavy upon the strip, we felt, for some time. One day after 5:00, when I was editor-in-chief, I bearded Stan in his lair and mentioned the idea, quite tentatively—with enthusiasm, but no special fervor. Stan seized upon it at once; his enthusiasm was far greater than my own, at the time.

“It was only after the story had been published, and the readers didn’t seem to share his/our enthusiasm, that he began somehow to get the idea that he hadn’t liked the idea at all. Eventually, over the years, in his many college lectures, he gradually settled (quite sincerely, I’m sure) into the almost totally inaccurate version that someone (read: Gerry) had done the dirty deed while he was out of town.

“Under pain of death and deprivation of all my first issues, the foregoing is a true statement. I’m not trying to stir up Stan’s wrath; but my memory for such matters has almost invariably been better than Stan’s (or that of most people involved for that matter doubtless because an ongoing history of comic books is a hobby of mine).” (The Comics Journal #44, p. 19)

This would appear to settle the issue. But then if we go back to that Roy-Stan interview from Comic Book Artist in ‘98, we find this:

Roy Thomas: You’ll be glad to know I’m not going to ask you about who killed off Gwen Stacy. We’ll skip that entirely, as we’ve had enough of that.

Stan Lee: [laughs] It’s funny, because obviously my memory is wrong. I think Gerry Conway has said that I told him to kill her off, but I don’t remember saying that.

Roy Thomas: Actually, what he said was that evidently it was John Romita’s idea. All Gerry said is that we okayed it with you, but he never claimed that it was your idea. I don’t think you would have ever come up with that idea.

Stan Lee: The memory I have is him asking me how to write the thing, and I said, “Hey, it’s your book, just keep it in character and write it.” I took off, came back, and she was dead! I think he [Conway] was quoted somewhere as asking me whether he could kill her 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. But even more than that, only a short time earlier we had killed off her father and I didn’t want it to look like I had something against the Stacy family!

Roy Thomas: I do remember you agreeing to it. You probably felt that it was our ball—me as editor, and Gerry and John—and it was our job. I don’t think you wanted to stand in the way, but you were never enthusiastic about the idea.

Stan Lee: If I agreed to it, it was probably because I had my mind on something else. I was careless, because if I had really considered it, I would have said, “Roy, let’s talk this over.”

This presents a real problem, as Thomas is directly contradicting himself. In ‘79 he says “Stan seized upon it [the idea of killing off Gwen] at once; his enthusiasm was far greater than my own, at the time.” Then nineteen years later, in 1998, his recollection is “I don’t think you wanted to stand in the way, but you were never enthusiastic about the idea.” Adding to the controversy is what he told Brick in the Comics Buyer’s Guide:

“Stan has always said his memory wasn’t his strongest point. I say this with great respect for Stan… When people used to ask him, ‘Why did you kill Gwen Stacy off?’ Stan came up with this story off the top of his head that Gerry Conway did it while Stan was out of town. It’s sort of true in the sense that he may not have been paying attention. We’d all try to sneak in stuff behind his back that we thought was good, here and there, as we found our own voice. That’s only natural. At the same time, the idea that the three of us together, or even separately, would have tried to sneak in the death of Gwen Stacy without Stan approving it is just so absurd. . . . Besides, he was never out of town that long.” (Brick)

This is where I believe we’re starting to get a clearer picture of the truth. Take the above quote, “We’d all try to sneak in stuff behind his back that we thought was good, here and there, as we found our own voice,” and add to it the one oddly specific detail from Roy’s Journal letter: “One day after 5:00, when I was editor-in-chief, I bearded Stan in his lair and mentioned the idea, quite tentatively.”

After five o’clock. Quittin’ time, just when the guy is looking for the exit—I bet it was a Friday, too.

Listen, I’m not judging Thomas here; in fact I’m guilty of pulling this move once or twice myself (trying to slip something by the boss, that is). Most of us who have worked in an office environment have likely tried it. (Nowadays, it’s probably more apt to be done by slipping something in at the bottom of a long email and hoping the boss won’t notice. Then later you can defend yourself with, “but I sent you an email!”) In any case, I think there’s ample evidence here that Stan was not completely in the loop on this one, and he certainly would never have been enthusiastic about it, considering where the inspiration for the character came from. (If he was enthusiastic about anything, it was more likely the thought of leaving work and getting his weekend started.)

Even Gerry Conway, after all his earlier complaints that Lee had basically sold him out, would concede to Sean Howe, “He [Stan Lee] was okay with it to the extent that Stan paid attention to anything. At that time he was primarily interested in expanding the line, asserting his authority as publisher to the higher-ups that owned Marvel, and promoting his own brand and his own career. Once he stopped writing a given comic he stopped thinking about it. And so when he stopped writing Spider-Man, even though he had a proprietary interest in it, really, it was ‘Yeah, whatever you want to do.’” (Howe, p. 137)

So despite his notoriously bad memory, I think Stan Lee’s version of events is fairly close to the truth. I believe he was told of the plan to kill Gwen, but it was likely not a very in-depth conversation and he probably wasn’t paying very close attention. If he had been paying closer attention, maybe he would have put his foot down and said no; but then again, maybe not. I think it’s also possible that he didn’t realize how far along the plans were, and when the issue came out he may have been off on a speaking engagement at some college and when someone asked him about it, he may have been legitimately surprised.

As for Thomas’s ‘79 letter to the Journal, I believe this was a clear-cut case of a nice guy throwing himself onto the proverbial grenade for his friend. Conway had been suffering for a long time under the burden of this and I think Thomas just wanted to help lift that burden from him by taking on the responsibility for the storyline himself. I do find it impossible to believe Thomas came up with the idea of killing Gwen and then gave it to Gerry to carry out, as this would run contrary to everything I ever read about Thomas and his tenure as editor-in-chief.

By all accounts, Thomas was not a heavy-handed boss. Quite the opposite, in fact. As a writer himself, he was loathe to interfere in the work of other writers on his staff, just as a matter of principle (in much the same way Stan Lee didn’t want to impose his own will onto his writers). It’s just not remotely believable that he would dictate such a major storyline to Conway like that. Also, at the time, Thomas was simply too busy running the whole operation to micromanage anyone else. Based on everything I’ve read, Marvel was a real house of chaos back then.

Reality vs. Fiction

One thing about the World War II generation: They’ve got their priorities in order. After living through the Great Depression and then staring down World War II, when there was a very real chance that the madman ruling Germany just might conquer the whole world, it’s hard to get too worked up over a fictional character in a comic book. As Romita told Brick: “I never lost track of the fact that they were characters to be juggled around in the strip. When I say she [Gwen Stacy] was my favorite character, it wasn’t that I was under the assumption she was real.”

This same attitude is reflected in a statement Stan Lee has made several times; one that he repeated to Brick: “Gerry says that he had asked me if he could kill Gwen and that I said yes, and that may well be the case, but I don’t know why I ever said yes. If I’m not writing it myself, I really don’t have the right to tell another writer how to do it.”

It’s an alien thing to many of us fans today to see these creators so disconnected from their work—especially since many of us are connected to this very same work with an almost religious zeal. Lee and Romita were right, in that you shouldn’t treat your job like it’s your religion; nor should you treat fictional characters as if they’re real people. This is part of what makes them mature, well-adjusted adults (and conversely, what makes many of us fanboys—myself included, I confess—maladjusted adults, seemingly stuck in a state of perpetual adolescence).

In this case though, I wish they had been just a little bit less mature, and a little bit more attached to (and proprietary about) their work. If they had been, we could have avoided a whole lot of headaches.

Legacy

The chief legacy of this storyline that supporters always lay claim to is that it changed the game by having the hero fail to rescue the damsel in distress. In so doing, it marked the beginning of a new age—a darker, grittier, more realistic era in comics. I would not try to argue against this; in fact I’d largely agree with it. What I would argue is that making comics darker and more realistic was not necessarily a good thing for the medium. It fact, it might be what’s killing the medium. Forty years ago, your average comic title sold in the hundreds of thousands. Today, the best-selling titles sell only in the tens of thousands. Forty years ago, just about every kid in the United States owned at least a handful of comics and you could buy them almost anywhere—on newsstands, in pharmacies, in supermarkets. Today you have to find a specialty store and the age of the average comics reader is thirty years old. I’m not saying the dark/gritty trend is the sole reason for this downward business trend, but I think it’s more than reasonable to chalk it up as a contributing factor.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this sprawling doctoral dissertation/diatribe, some of the uglier creative trends in comics seem to have gotten their start with this storyline as well—and these have to be considered part of its legacy also. So let’s have a look at them.

NEXT: The Original Woman in a Refrigerator

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