The Original Woman in a Refrigerator
The “Women in Refrigerators” trope takes its name from a storyline that ran in Green Lantern in the mid-1990s wherein Green Lantern comes home to discover that the villain Major Force has killed his girlfriend and stuffed her into the refrigerator. (Digression: They made the absolute worst comics back in the 90s. Oh God, so many bad comics; so, so many.) The phrase itself was first popularized by writer Gail Simone in 1999 when she used it as the title of a website she created that held a list of every female character that had ever been “killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a disease or had other life-derailing tragedies befall her” as a plot device for a comic book storyline. Alas, when one goes down the list, it appears to have every major female character in the history of superhero comics on it (along with most of the minor ones). After checking every name, it appears to me that the first female character in comics history to ever get the “refrigerator” treatment was—you guessed it—Gwen Stacy.
About a year after “Who Killed Gwen Stacy?” originally ran in the Comics Buyer’s Guide, Arnold T. Blumberg took up the cause in the pages of Comic Book Market Place. In his article, they reprinted the letters page from ASM #125, wherein they passed the buck on Gwen’s death to “fate” and declared it “inescapable.” Blumberg’s response to this was such a note-perfect critique of the “women in refrigerators” trope that I’m just going to sit back and let him speak for himself:
“Since they couldn’t marry Peter and Gwen, they say it was ‘inescapable’—Gwen had to die. Not only is this a glaring and desperate attempt to absolve themselves of creative responsibility in the eyes of fans, it brings up an even more disturbing question: Was the writing staff so unable to think of any other potential avenues for the character’s fate? Couldn’t Gwen simply have left town, met someone else, gotten a job? Since when is a brutal demise the only alternative for a female character besides marriage? The misogynistic implications of this thinking are staggering.” (Blumberg, p. 62)
In his review of Amazing Spider-Man 2, Scott Mendelson echoed this sentiment: “Never mind the young woman [Gwen] was on her way to Oxford, a perfect example of how to realistically write out a major character without having to resort to a now-clichéd ‘shocking death.’ Never mind the fact that Gwen helped Spidey save the day from Electro’s blackout and then was immediately murdered as de facto punishment for her heroic pluck. The most important thing about Gwen Stacy will be that she died. Her death only matters in how it affects the male superhero and how he grows or changes as a result. Even as the somewhat fantastically perfect girlfriend, her life was meaningless save how her murder affected Peter and established the Green Goblin as an arch-villain for The Amazing Spider-Man 3. Filmmakers like to talk up the allegedly positive qualities of the hero’s girlfriend as an excuse for not having female superheroes, but in the end Gwen lived only to die violently.”
All of this brings us to a wider, related trend.
Death in Comics
One of the saddest trends in comics these days is the lugubrious death march that has been going on for years now with no end in sight. Seems like no more than a couple weeks go by without an announcement of the “shocking” death of one character or another, with the death usually coming in some outrageously sensational manner. As noted above, female characters seem to get the worst of it, but no character of any gender or race is safe nowadays.
The reasons for these deaths seem primarily twofold. First, it’s used as either a cheap sales stunt or otherwise as a way to “shake things up” (there’s a familiar phrase) in a strip that’s deemed “stale.”
Stan Lee has some words on this specific topic—I suggest we all listen to him: “I personally hate killing characters in comics, I don’t understand the editorial thinking behind [it]. I had come up with these characters for a reason. Too many people in comics today ask themselves, ‘What can I do to keep the readers’ interest, what can I do as a surprise?’ Unfortunately, the easiest answer seems to be, ‘We’ll kill a character.’ I just feel that’s the cowardly way out. It should be that we just think of more clever ideas.” (Brick)
The second reason for so much of the death going on is because apparently there are a lot of writers out there who take great delight in killing off characters they happen to dislike. Whether or not the fans (or anyone else) agree with the writer’s opinion on the particular character hardly seems to matter at all. It’s a power trip.
Which, in turn, brings us to the next ugly trend.
The Self-Indulgent, Fanboy Writer
When asked what started the Marvel Revolution in comics, Stan Lee will often say it began with him trying to write something that he would like to read; something that he thought would be entertaining. This is a pretty good rule of thumb, as long as one understands what is meant by it. It means you should write something you, personally, believe has value, artistic or otherwise. It means writing up to a higher standard. What it does NOT mean is writing just to satisfy your own selfish whims.
In comic-book terms, it means writing as a writer; not writing as a fan. And that’s the greatest error in Conway’s judgment in putting together “The Night Gwen Stacy Died!”—it’s that he wrote it primarily to satisfy his own selfish whims as a fan. As I mentioned earlier, Conway has stated over and over again how much he disliked the Gwen Stacy character. Here are several more, separate quotes from Conway on the subject, just to hammer the point home:
“Gwen Stacy to me had always seemed like a bad afterthought. She was certainly the least interesting of [Peter’s early love interests]. I always thought Gwen Stacy just didn’t have anything to recommend her as a girlfriend. Gwen was introduced in issue 31, then I bumped her off in 121, so she was around for about 90 issues. Now, not to criticize the work, but it was not very memorable stuff, to my mind. I was a Mary Jane partisan. As far as I was concerned, between the two, there really wasn’t much choice. I just wanted to write a story that would enable me to make Mary Jane Peter’s main squeeze.” (Brick)
“She was a nonentity, a pretty face. She brought nothing to the mix. It made no sense to me that Peter Parker would end up with a babe like that who had no problems. Only a damaged person would end up with a damaged guy like Peter Parker. And Gwen Stacy was perfect! It was basically Stan fulfilling Stan’s own fantasy. Stan married a woman who was pretty much a babe—Joan Lee was a very attractive blond who was obviously Stan’s ideal female. And I think Gwen was simply Stan replicating his wife, just like Sue Storm was a replication of his wife. And that’s where his blind spot was. The amazing thing was that he created a character like Mary Jane Watson, who was probably the most interesting female character in comics, and he never used her to the extent that he could have. Instead of Peter Parker’s girlfriend, he made her Peter Parker’s best friend’s girlfriend. Which is so wrong, and so stupid, and such a waste. So killing Gwen was a totally logical if not inevitable choice.” (Howe, pp. 136-137)
“I don’t have any regrets. I think it was the right thing to do. I think that Mary Jane is a much better foil than Gwen is. Gwen in the comics, and I’ll defend this till my dying day, was much more interesting after she was killed than she ever was as a character.” (Comic Book Resources)
“Gwen was a fantasy, the ultimate blonde dream—also unrealistic and ultimately untouchable. In my view Peter had to get past pursuing fantasy figures before he could become available for a serious relationship.” (Back Issue No. 23, p. 14)
“That’s why I decided to kill off Gwen in the first place. I preferred Mary Jane as a character and as a love interest to Peter.” (Back Issue No. 44, p. 69)
. . . So yeah folks, in case you couldn’t read between the lines there, Conway really didn’t like Gwen Stacy; he much preferred Mary Jane. Which begs the question: Why?
Well, why do any of us like (or dislike) anything? We can try to rationalize it, but most of the time it comes down to “I like what I like because I like it.” Conway’s preference of MJ over Gwen is a fairly perfect example of this. He can say he disliked Gwen; he can say liked MJ; but he can’t offer any real objective reasons for why—he just likes what he likes.
Conway keeps insisting MJ was a better character, a better foil, but based on what? Stan didn’t really flesh out either character. If anything, MJ got even less service than Gwen did. All we knew about MJ was that she was Anna Watson’s niece, she was pretty, and that she liked to party and call guys “tiger.” Seriously, did I miss anything? Mary Jane was not enrolled in college and almost never expressed an interest in anything serious in the sixty-plus issues before Gerry took over.
Now as I’ve already pointed out, I can understand how Gwen might come off as a drag to some in her later appearances, when her primary purpose as a character was to create conflict for Peter. But going by her early appearances, Gwen was the grooviest, ginchiest chick this side of Gidget. She was at least Mary Jane’s equal in terms of beauty and style, matching her miniskirt for miniskirt, go-go boot for go-go boot:
And when it came to the snappy patter, Gwen always held her ground—in fact, more often than not, she came out on top of her redheaded rival:
In one of my earliest posts on this blogsite, I mentioned my love of Ghost Rider as a kid and that the reasons for this love were “wholly subjective and fairly arbitrary.” I think the same applies to Conway’s love of MJ. Maybe it’s as simple as he just prefers redheads. I’m not being flip here; I’m serious. I think it’s just some distinctive quirk of taste on Conway’s part that’s at the root of his preference. (After all, he did replace Sue in the FF with Medusa—another redhead taking the place of a blonde! It’s not completely out of left field, folks!) If it’s not the redhead thing, then it’s likely something else equally random.
Regardless, the point is that you can’t write a story to satisfy your own quirks and prejudices. Ultimately, that’s what Conway did—Gwen died simply because Conway didn’t like her and wanted to make MJ Pete’s girl. Even if Romita was the first to suggest it, Conway was still the writer, and as such he could have chosen a different direction. If he stopped to think about it rationally, and if he had the maturity at the time to recognize it, Conway would have realized he was letting his own peculiar biases as a fan influence his creative choices, and you can’t do that as a writer.
There’s an even bigger issue here, and that is this: Gerry Conway did not create Spider-Man, nor did he create Gwen Stacy, the Green Goblin, Mary Jane, Harry Osborn, or any of the other major characters in this storyline. He didn’t build the house—Lee, Ditko, and Romita built the house and he’s just living in it for a time. Moreso, at some point when he moves on, another writer will be figuratively living there. Comic book writers need to respect each other’s property; you need to show respect to the guy who built the house you currently enjoy and you need to leave the house in good shape for the guy that’s going to be living there after you.
The Good, Bad, and Ugly
It may seem to some that I’ve really gone out of my way to rip Gerry Conway to shreds here. This was honestly not my intention. Conway did some good work on the strip that I really enjoyed. The problem is the bad stuff was so bad it was absolutely toxic. Killing off Gwen was the worst of the worst—and the many reverberations of this continue to hurt the strip to this very day.
On the good side of Conway’s tenure, right out of the chute, I liked Hammerhead and enjoyed his rivalry with Doc Ock. The two villains had an unlikely and inexplicable chemistry together. I also liked the Punisher. I think Conway did a great job of turning lemons into lemonade with the Spider-Mobile. I liked the reintroduction of Liz Allen to the strip. I think Conway also had a real flair for creating villains that tied in nicely with contemporary political issues, such as the Tarantula and Cyclone. I even liked the Grizzly and the Mindworm.
On the bad side, the Doc Ock-Aunt May romance and near-marriage was just plain silly. Aunt May inheriting a nuclear power plant was even sillier. Making Harry Osborn into the Green Goblin was just a bad idea. And of course, he killed off Gwen Stacy—which was bad enough on its own, but this also led to the Gwen clone, which was even worse.
Here’s the best evidence I can offer for how bad this stuff was: For literally decades afterward, no other Spidey writer would touch it. With a few brief exceptions, all of it—the Ock-May relationship, Harry as the Goblin, Gwen & her clone—would be completely ignored, like none of it ever happened. When any of it finally did get recognized again, the results were disastrous. Turning Harry evil again was terrible, and bringing back the clones nearly sank the strip altogether.
(Let me point out that these things were all brought back in the 90s. Again, just a terrible decade for comics.)
Some might argue that you can’t blame Gerry for the Gwen clone because he brought her into the strip under orders from Stan Lee. But that’s not exactly true. In the wake of the fan reaction to ASM #’s 121-122, Stan did order Gerry to bring Gwen back. But the decision to bring her back in clone form was Gerry’s, and it was this specific decision that would eventually lead to disaster.
This could be read as another example of Conway’s immaturity as a writer at the time. He could have simply deferred to Stan and respected his wishes by bringing back the REAL Gwen, but instead—and whether he did it consciously or not, we can’t know—he effectively followed Stan’s order to the letter while perverting its spirit. Creating a clone of Gwen Stacy did not undo the events of ASM 121-122; it did not give the “real” Gwen back to us. So of course the storyline flopped—and the flop was likely expedited by Conway writing the Gwen clone as a ninny and an airhead who didn’t remotely resemble the Gwen we knew from her earliest appearances. If you came late to the proceedings like I did, if you started reading after ASM #122 and all you knew of Gwen was Conway’s portrayal of her via the clone, then of course you’re going to prefer MJ to her. But it’s a rigged game.
And of course, the Gwen clone eventually lead to the Spider-Man clone, which twenty years later led to the Clone Saga, which lead to absolute catastrophe.
Requiem for Conway
So yes, there were some things I liked about Conway’s tenure on ASM, and other things that I really disliked. But this is truly not personal; I’m just offering my honest opinion of the work. And truthfully, if they had handed me the creative reins of Amazing Spider-Man while I was still a teenager, I likely would have done a much worse job that was even more self-serving than what Conway gave us. That’s the real problem here: Gerry Conway never should have gotten the job in the first place—at least not at that point in his life/career. They never should have given the job to any kid so inexperienced, no matter how good you thought he might be, how hard he was willing to work, or how much you may have liked him personally. Again, nothing against Conway, but when the plucky teenager started sniffing around for a writing assignment, someone at Marvel or DC (or both, really) should have told him to look them up after he graduated college with his B.A. in English.
Which isn’t to say that a degree and some published articles on your résumé guarantees good (or even competent) work. As hard as I may have been on Conway in this post, there have been much worse stories and writers on Spider-Man in more recent years. In fact, the most offensively bad Spidey storyline ever (“Sins Past” from ASM #’s 509-514) was written by a guy with a fairly impressive curriculum vitae.
But the comics industry was different then. Yeah, Stan and a lot of the younger creators who followed him were trying to do some more sophisticated and serious things in the medium, but to the guys in the suits who called the shots, comics were still garbage entertainment made for little kids and mentally-challenged adults. The suits didn’t care who wrote the books or what the stories were about, as long as sales met certain levels and guys got their work in on time. Content was meaningless to them; they likely believed that content had almost no impact sales anyway. This is how little they thought of their consumers and their product.
. . .Which is how we ended up with an inexperienced teenager writing the most popular comic book in North America.
If comics were held in higher esteem at the time, if the men in charge took their product more seriously, teenaged Gerry Conway would have never been handed the reins of Amazing Spider-Man. But whatever I or anyone else might think of his work here, we can’t blame him for taking the job, right? If we were offered a shot at Amazing Spider-Man when we were eighteen we would have taken it. Even if we knew in our heart of hearts we probably weren’t up to the challenge, it would ultimately be an opportunity too big to pass up. Which makes it hard to get too angry at the guy.
And yet . . .
It would be nice to hear Conway express some regret over what he did. There was a time when he wasn’t all that excited at the prospect of discussing this storyline with anyone. Only years later, after the angry mob of villagers with their torches and pitchforks had dissipated, was he was no longer shy about discussing it. In fact, it kinda seems like he takes pride in the storyline now. The same storyline that he ran and hid from for years.
Even if he refuses to admit such regret, Conway should still possess enough self-awareness at this point in his life to recognize the deep flaws of his story (which are obvious and many, as I have meticulously pointed out). Maybe someday he’ll give us at least that.
The Funny Part
Which brings us back, full circle, to the most recent film(s). The portrayal of Gwen was not perfect in this new film franchise. They left out her British background. They got her father, Captain George Stacy, all wrong. For some reason they also added a mother and younger brothers to her family, which took away the tragic-orphan aspect of Gwen’s character after her father’s death.
But here’s the funny part: Aside from this, these recent films addressed and fixed nearly every other problem with the character and the storyline that I’ve outlined here.
Gwen doesn’t die by a snapped neck; she dies from a blow to the head. So Spidey still fails to save her, but he’s not directly responsible for the immediate cause of her death.
And Gwen’s death does have a somewhat more appropriate effect on Peter Parker. He does quit being Spider-Man in the wake of this tragedy, at least temporarily. (Longer than one panel in a comic book, certainly.) Still not great, but an improvement.
The Gwen character also gets a whole lot more service before she dies. She doesn’t cry and whine nearly as much as she did in the comics. Her skills as a scientist are clearly demonstrated. She’s smart, brave and strong. The character has agency. She plays a key role in defeating both the Lizard and Electro. Pete shares his secret identity with her. Her father still dies in the film series, but she never blames Pete/Spider-Man for this.
As I said, they fixed nearly every other problem. And yet after addressing and fixing so much, they still manage to repeat the worst mistake of all: She still dies at the end.
It’s a mistake that I believe will prove fatal for the franchise going forward. As Scott Mendelson pointed out: “Sony’s obsessive focus on crafting a kind of ‘universe’ around the various Spidey foes is both the core narrative flaw of this sequel (Peter had no real arc) and the likely path for a third film. . . . The problem is that no one particularly likes the villains in this specific franchise. They like the hero and they like the hero’s plucky girlfriend. But said girlfriend just bit the dust, which means that the third Amazing Spider-Man movie, which in turn follows two installments that were somewhat liked or tolerated without being loved, will enter theaters in June 2016 with less of what you liked and more of what you disliked.”
It would be too easy to end this post on a down note. Instead, I’m going to try and look at the bright side, even if it is a bit of an uphill battle.
Despite the “monumental” nature of ASM #’s 121-122, the storyline did not loom large over the strip for very long, subsequently. As stated earlier, for nearly two decades afterward, Gwen was hardly mentioned; barely even alluded to in the pages of Spider-Man. Not only was Gwen gone, it was like she had been erased from history. When she finally was referenced again, it was as part of the awful Clone Saga—a storyline so bad she was literally better off dead. Just when you thought it couldn’t possibly get worse, we got “Sins Past,” a storyline that destroyed the Gwen character in blasphemous and sickening fashion. At this point, there was no reason for anyone to have a shred of hope left in their hearts for Gwen Stacy.
Then something amazing happened. Against all odds, Gwen mounted a comeback. First she popped up in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. Nothing overly special about it, but at least she didn’t appear in the film just to die, or otherwise take abuse (literally or figuratively). It was a start.
Then she showed up in the Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon a few years back, and get this: She was treated as Peter Parker’s soulmate and true love. This was pure gold. Then came the Amazing Spider-Man film franchise, where the positive character service continued. No one in their right mind could have ever imagined this series of events transpiring just a few years earlier. Yes, she died in the second installment, but not before a lot of good work had been done. After decades of being discarded and abused, Gwen was finally getting at least some of her due.
Ten years after the original publication of the “Who Killed Gwen Stacy?” article, it would be reprinted in a 2008 issue of the Comics Buyer’s Guide (#1647). By this point, it had been thirty-five years since ASM #’s 121-122 had been published. Author Scott Brick returned to add some fresh insights to go along with his reprinted article. Among these insights, his sharpest observation was this: “She [Gwen Stacy] was a much-loved character who died according to the whims of her creators, yet she’s stayed alive seemingly according to her own.”
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