It’s another Spidey Miscellanea post, kids! This time I’ll be doling out some more material related to Stan Lee and Gwen Stacy. (It should be no surprise to regular readers that I’ve accumulated a whole lot of notes and research connected to this particular subject.)
First up is a YouTube video that I came across a while back that I didn’t believe I could use in any prior posts without it feeling like shoehorning. It’s Stan at a panel during the 2nd Annual Salt Lake Comic Con in 2014.
It’s 2014 in this clip, forty-one years removed from “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” in ASM #121, and you can tell this still annoys the hell out of Stan, even after all this time. The fact that it bothered him this much plays an IMMENSE role in why it bothers me so much. Of course, we all know why this bothered him so much—because Gwen was basically a stand-in for his much beloved wife, Joan.
Then this AARP article made me feel even worse. In addition to all of the abuse he suffered in his twilight years, it also reveals that in one of his last conversations with the author, Stan confided:
“To tell you the truth, I never thought of myself as much of a success,” he said, and I could tell it wasn’t false humility. “When I was younger, I was embarrassed about the things I wrote. I felt there were men building bridges, doing medical research. And here I am writing these ridiculous comic book stories.”
I could only find a tiny bit of solace in the words that followed:
He admitted it was his years of interacting with fans that made him recognize some value in his work. He needed them as much as they needed him. Lee said, “People always tell me things like, ‘When I was a child, my mother was gone, my father was drunk, but your comic books were there for me.’ These characters are important to people in ways I can’t even understand. But is that success? Is it being wealthy? I know a lot of people richer than I am. Is it being happy all the time? Nobody’s happy all the time. But then again, I don’t think anybody ever stops a bridge builder on the street and says, ‘Your bridges! They’re thrilling!’ ”
I also ran across some Gwen-related text in an old Comics Journal review of the then-ongoing Flash storyline where Iris Allen was killed:
Ideally, any fictional death should be a comment on human mortality—an excellent example being the death of Hawk in Amazing Adventures #34, followed by Killraven’s helpless rage: “I will cry to the heavens for justice… and they will reply with their own retribution.” In lieu of a personal vision, a writer may structure the fatality to reflect the crucial characteristics of the person destined to die—a melodramatic rendering of death used as an indirect comment on mortality.
If they are well-crafted, such deaths are convincing because the writer’s motives are not totally transparent. The deaths of Gwen Stacy, Thunderbird, Arthur Curry Jr., Chemical King, Sharon Carter, Steve Trevor-Howard, and Jarella have in common the writers perfunctory interest in these characters. In each case, it was obvious that the writers had merely executed cumbersome characters. (That they should improve on dull characters— perish forbid.) Once Fox ceased writing stories in which Iris Allen’s stereotype had a place, she became a non-character, and remained a non-character to the end. In terms of character evocation, then, Iris’s death was almost as meaningless as the ones listed above.
Gene Phillips, “The Fastest Man—Bereaved,” The Comics Journal #58, Sept. 1980, p. 47.
That the character deaths listed were a result of “the writers perfunctory interest” in them is, to me, a spot-on observation. (In Gwen’s case it went a lot deeper than a mere lack of interest—as we know, Conway actively hated Gwen Stacy.) That all these comic-book deaths took place during a short span from the mid to late 70s signals a negative trend taking hold—the trend of the fanboy writer who writes to please an audience of one: himself, as I first discussed here in my Gwen opus.
“That they should improve on dull characters—perish forbid.” Again, spot on. To improve or develop characters would require some love and dedication to the craft of writing, which I fear many comic writers lack. Most of them seem to prefer creative masturbation to actual writing. Actually no, it’s worse than just creative masturbation (which would be writing solely for the purpose of self-pleasure). Many of these writers aren’t just writing out characters because they have no interest in them; their aim is to erase characters entirely so they can never be used by anyone ever again. There’s a very real element of spite in this. It’s an attempt to hijack the very destiny of the character/strip. It’s a power trip and it’s utterly selfish. And very ugly.
The nature of superhero comics, with their sorcery and pseudoscience, allows for anything to happen in any given story—this is at once the genre’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. One of the riskier things this allows is bringing a character back from the dead, which I think we can all agree happens far too often. In the case of Gwen Stacy, however, I feel it’s more than called for. It really should have happened while Stan was still alive, so he could have seen the greatest creative sin done to him rectified, but even now that he’s gone, it should still happen, simply because it’s the right thing to do.
“History is written by the winners.”
“History is a lie agreed upon.”
“Repeat a lie often enough and people will start to believe it.”
All of these axioms apply to Amazing Spider-Man #121 (June 1973), “The Night Gwen Stacy Died.” Because the truth is that this was a bad story, riddled with errors, poorly (perhaps even barely) planned, created with poisonous intentions, and met with near-universal scorn and hatred by fans upon its publication. But in the years and decades since it was first published, Marvel hijacked the narrative and buried this truth, rather than admit they screwed up and gave us a terrible story. Over time, ASM #121 even began to be hailed as groundbreaking and a landmark in comics history. This was (and is) a lie, one agreed upon and written by the winners, and repeated so often that people today generally accept it as the truth.
I realize this is a futile battle but I still can’t bring myself to stop fighting it. Today, perhaps more than ever, lies must be fought. And sometimes the only way to fight a lie is to scream the truth right back in its face.