How Gwen Won the War

The occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Gwen Stacy last month renewed a lot of old debate and conversation—conversation I’ve been participating in (and stirring up) for quite a number of years now. And while working on my most recent Gwencentric posts, something finally struck me: in the battle of Mary Jane Watson versus Gwen Stacy, Ms. Stacy came out the winner by TKO a long, long time ago. Allow me to explain just how Gwen won the war.

At this point I feel compelled to remind everyone once again that this is a subjective blog written from my own personal point of view and sometimes my emotions play a big part in what I write and how I express myself. However, I will still usually back up my point of view with objective data whenever possible. I will try to do so again with this post.

Amazing Spider-Man #121

During that fiftieth anniversary more than a month back, I saw a lot of love and praise for ASM #121, “The Night Gwen Stacy Died.” This is understandable, because it is a landmark story in many ways. It is dramatic, exciting, and certainly shocking, with a stellar art job by Gil Kane and John Romita. It is also an iconic story in as much as a major character in one of the most popular comic titles of its day gets killed off—clearly a big deal. I cannot fault anyone for enjoying the story on any of these grounds.

But one thing this story is not is well written. When someone tries to tout this as a well-written story, that’s when I feel most compelled to voice my objections. Others may discount the bad writing (or not recognize it as such at all) in the story and still enjoy it, and that is certainly their prerogative, but speaking just for myself, the bad writing here (along with poisonous intentions of the credited author) ruin the whole story line for me.

Now when I first started reading comics as a kid, I did not read them critically—at least not the writing. There were times I really liked or disliked the art, but the writing I just accepted without much thought at all. If I had read Amazing Spider-Man #121, “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” at age eight or nine, I probably accept the “shock of the fall” explanation for Gwen’s death without a second thought. But I was around twelve or thirteen when I finally read the complete story and knew the “shock of the fall” was nonsense by then. Sometime later, when I came across the neck-snapping explanation, I actually found this to be even worse—I’d seen Spidey save people with his web line so many times; how could he do this after Gwen’s death, knowing he could possibly kill someone this way? For that matter, how did he miraculously manage to avoid harming anyone in the countless times he saved people with his web line prior to Gwen’s death?

Obviously, I’m not as forgiving of this story’s flaws as many other fans are. Still, while Conway’s explanations for this story’s problems have vacillated a great deal over the years, I’ve never accused him of lying; it’s possible his conflicting accounts of what happened are a result of his legitimately misremembering things. What I have accused him of being is extremely sloppy with his work during this time. And Lord knows he wasn’t the only Marvel writer back then who could get sloppy. For many of the writers at Marvel during this period, the Marvel Method seemed to become an excuse to be lazy, which often resulted in sloppily constructed stories riddled with errors. (Check out a few of my old Ghost Rider posts for some prime examples of how shoddy the work could get during this era.)

As covered in my original, sprawling Gwen post in 2014, the biggest problem here is that the story was likely never properly plotted out in the first place. John Romita has stated that there were no written notes or plot for this story; that he relayed the story to Gil Kane over the phone, which I can readily believe, because not only has Romita proved to be the most reliable source in my research, but also because a written plot or notes likely would have prevented the Brooklyn Bridge error, along with the confusing, unclear cause of Gwen’s death. But this is just my own conclusion; others are free to draw their own, of course.

But any way you slice it, the end result remains that this story, from a writing standpoint, was poorly executed. A good and competently-written tale simply would not have had the errors and problems this one had.

“Shocking Death”

In the present day, the cheap sales stunt of the “shocking” character death is far from shocking. In fact, it’s extraordinarily cliché at this point. In terms of the Amazing Spider-Man comic, a case could be made that it was already a cliché by the time ASM #121 was published in 1973. The fact that it was Gwen, specifically, that bit the dust in this issue was indeed shocking. But in a larger context, killing a character was already an overdone, hackneyed idea, at least by ASM standards.

Just look at the characters that had already died in the pages of Amazing by this point: Uncle Ben, Bennet Brant, the Crime-Master, Mendel Stromm, Frederick Foswell, Silvermane, and Captain Stacy. The latter had just died thirty issues earlier. So killing off a character was not some dynamic new course for Amazing Spider-Man by 1973. In reality, anything but death would have been a more creative, progressive direction. If you want to get rid of Gwen that badly, simply have her break up with Pete, transfer to another university, move back to Europe to live with her family there, join the Peace Corps . . . anything along these lines would have been a much fresher and more creative option.

Poison Pen

As established, Conway’s initial impulse was to kill off a supporting character for shock value. Writing for shock value is never a wise artistic course for a writer. Then he latched onto Romita’s suggestion to kill off Gwen, specifically, because he actively disliked the character—a dislike he has publicly admitted to many times in recent decades. Catering solely to one’s own idiosyncratic, irrational fan tastes is also an unwise artistic course for a writer.

What makes this even worse (for me, anyway) is that Gwen was meant to represent Joan Lee, beloved wife of Spidey’s creator, Stan Lee. So in killing off Gwen, you’re symbolically killing off Joan, and kinda figuratively slapping Stan Lee’s face in the process. When I first learned Gwen represented Joan, I figured Conway must not have known this at the time of ASM #121, because I couldn’t imagine he would have killed off Gwen had he known. But subsequent research revealed Conway (along with nearly all of the bullpen) did know that Gwen represented Joan Lee and, apparently, he simply didn’t see this as that big of a deal.

And maybe Conway was right; maybe it wasn’t really that big of a deal at the time. After all, didn’t Stan pair up Pete with MJ himself in the newspaper strip a few years later and eventually have them get married? Then again, maybe Gwen’s death did annoy Stan to some degree, but he just bit his lip and kept his annoyance to himself . . . at least at first. The earliest record of Stan’s feelings on the subject that I could find go back to an appearance at James Madison University in March of 1978. He was asked about the changes being made to Marvel characters being adapted for live-action television programming at the time and he said:

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. (“Hello Culture Lovers! Stan the Man Raps with Marvel Maniacs at James Madison University,” The Comics Journal #42, Oct. 1978, p. 50.)

Let me emphasize this for anyone who may have missed the context here: no one asked Lee anything about Gwen Stacy. He was asked about the television adaptations that were running on the CBS television network at the time. But when Lee started to explain how he “hated” changes being made to his characters, Gwen’s death just popped right up in his head and out of his mouth, completely unprovoked. To me, this is telling. It tells me that Gwen’s death was something that weighed on Stan Lee. It was weighing on him five years after the fact, in 1978, and it continued to bother him for pretty much the rest of his days. As late as 2014, he was still openly voicing his displeasure over the decision to kill Gwen, as I got into here just over a year ago.

So while Lee may have approved Gwen’s death to some extent or other, I can’t believe he ever truly liked the idea. If he did formally approve of it (and that’s still a mighty big “if” to me), he did so because, as he said himself, “It isn’t fair, I think, for me to control something I’m no longer writing.”

Getting Personal

I am a professional writer and editor. As such, I sympathized greatly with my fellow writer and editor Stan Lee, particularly when I learned he had based Gwen on his wife and that his original plan and vision for the Pete and Gwen characters was figuratively tossed in the trash after he left the book. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I would feel if I was in Stan Lee’s position. This sympathy would grow even stronger as I uncovered more and more evidence of just how much Gwen’s death had irked Lee. That’s when I started taking it more personally myself and getting actively angry about the issue. But looking back, the one thing that turned me into a full-on, near-religious Gwen fanatic had more to do with another, more modern ASM story line than it did with ASM #121.

Blog regulars can easily guess the story line, right? Yes, it was “Sins Past.” Of all the bad comics I have read in my life, the portrayal of Gwen in this story remains the most egregious disservice to a character that I have ever witnessed. This would be in addition to basically everything else in the story being terrible. (Except the art. Mike Deodato did a fine job on this one; it’s just a shame his efforts were wasted on a completely awful story.) Moreover, it felt like an even bigger slap to Stan Lee’s face than killing the character had been. Killing Gwen off was bad, but “Sins Past” utterly desecrated the character. Even now, writing about it with nearly twenty years of distance, I can still feel my blood pressure rising as I type.

This is how my overly emotional and irrational attachment to the Gwen character set in so deeply. It is because of this attachment that I want see the character get the treatment she deserves, which means treating her the way Stan Lee had intended her to be treated and playing the role Stan had wanted for her.

Platinum Blonde

At the time Gwen made her first appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #31 (Dec. 1965), Stan Lee wasn’t even writing the book; Steve Ditko was. As Lee told the Herald Tribune in January of 1966:

I don’t plot Spider-Man any more. Steve Ditko, the artist, has been doing the stories. I guess I’ll leave him alone until sales start to slip. Since Spidey got so popular, Ditko thinks he’s the genius of the world. We were arguing so much over plot lines I told him to start making up his own stories. He won’t let anybody else ink his drawings either. He just drops off the finished pages with notes at the margins and I fill in the dialogue. I never know what he’ll come up with next, but it’s interesting to work that way.

So Ditko was coming up with the stories on his own, penciling them, and then inking them. We’ll never know what Stan saw in the figure that Ditko had drawn in ASM #31 that made him think of his wife, but inspiration struck somehow, from somewhere. We can’t even be sure Stan came up with the name “Gwen Stacy” himself, or if Ditko had suggested the name in his margin notes. The one thing we do know is that Ditko wasn’t coloring the strip. Someone in-house did this (possibly Stan Goldberg) and made Gwen platinum blonde at the direction of Stan Lee—because this was how Joan Lee had colored her hair at the time.

After Ditko left, Lee made Gwen the primary love interest. In the years that followed, he added more details to Gwen’s background that were inspired by Joan, particularly her British heritage. These details largely disappeared in the years after Gwen’s death in ASM #121. Gwen herself, in fact, would disappear for a very long time, with barely a reference being made to her for many years afterward.

By the turn of the millennium, Stan Lee was getting old. It was great fun seeing him make all those cameos in Marvel movies, and Stan was clearly enjoying himself, but he was reaching an age where you couldn’t help but wonder how much time he had left. In the 2010s, there were rumblings that both he and Joan were suffering elder abuse, which only increased my sympathies and emotions for the two. When Joan died in 2017 and Stan followed in 2018, my feelings grew stronger still. Now it felt like I was one of just a handful of voices left in the world defending Stan Lee and fighting for his legacy. Gwen Stacy became more of a crusade for me than ever.

The Epiphany

Not all bloggers write their posts in published order. I started my “shark jumper” post for the Conway era around November last year and had it done by December. I wrote my new Gwenaissance post immediately after. My Valentine’s post for February was actually written after the Gwenaissance one, which I scheduled for March to match the pub date anniversary of ASM #121. Working on those two Gwen-heavy posts back-to-back is what led me to my epiphany.

It started with the shark post. Going over Conway’s ASM run in order, issue by issue, I started to realize the changes Conway was making to Mary Jane—changes that were designed to soften the character and make her better girlfriend material for Peter—had actually made her more like Gwen. Then, as I got into that recent Gwenaissance post, it became clear that Conway had done a similar reconstruction of Gwen and the Pete-Gwen relationship, mostly via the Gwen clone. In doing this, Conway replaced Lee’s version of Gwen Stacy with his own Propaganda Gwen, while MJ essentially became Gwen.

After finishing that last Gwenaissance post, I took a step back. Turning down the volume knob on my emotions and trying to be as objective as I could, I realized some things. On a strictly emotional, irrational level, I still wanted (and want) to see the Gwen Stacy character of the Lee-Romita era recognized as Peter Parker’s soulmate and the one, true love of his life, because this is what Stan Lee intended, and because she was the specific character he based on his wife Joan. But taking my emotions out of it and considering just how much Conway changed Mary Jane to better make her work as Pete’s romantic interest, and how much these changes only made her more like Gwen, along with all his efforts to retroactively make Gwen less like Gwen, didn’t all this make Gwen the true winner in this rivalry? Putting emotional considerations aside, the answer struck me as a clear yes.

Even in the MCU, the MJ character played by Zendaya bears virtually no resemblance to the Mary Jane Watson character from Spider-Man comics. This MJ is Michelle Jones-Watson (and she apparently dropped the “Watson” from her name in the most recent No Way Home installment of the franchise). Clearly the “MJ” nickname was merely meant as an homage to Mary Jane, with “Michelle Jones” signifying that this character was, in fact, new and different. If anything, Michelle Jones would seem to have a lot more in common with Gwen Stacy, particularly her loyalty, her character, her intelligence, and her striving for academic success. Really, she’s Gwen Stacy in everything but name.

Now this epiphany doesn’t erase my emotions and irrational desires—as I said, I still (and likely always will) want to see the Lee-Romita Gwen receive her proper service—but it has mitigated some of my anger, even if it’s by just a tad. So maybe/hopefully I’ll carry around a bit less rage over the subject going forward.

Unless, of course, some writer comes along and subjects Gwen to another “Sins Past.” That’ll put me on a one-way flight back to Crazy Town for sure.

2 thoughts on “How Gwen Won the War”

  1. Dude you said you left your emotions aside and try to see things objectively, but your bias is showing. Cinematic MJ is nothing like Gwen Stacy. Just because they share a few personality traits doesn’t make them the same character, because the traits that you listed are SO GENERIC. If anything original Gwen is such an underdeveloped character that in a post about how future SpiderMan’s lovers were turned into Gwen, you can’t really list a defining characteristic of her other than she’s Spider Man lover, and “she’s smart and nice I guess”.

    Stan Lee is right. Your insistance on having people writing Gwen the way he intended is simply unfair to all the writers that have worked on ASM. Can you imagine being an established, creative writer and got told, “no you can’t do this because this interpretation of the character is perfect. Stick to the formula”. At that point just ask an A.I to do it. You keep touting “Oh Stan Lee hated Gwen’s death” as if it holds any value. At that point he no longer works on ASM, his words have no value than any average Joe Schmoe. Imagine as a reader, and you have some personal feelings/interpretations about a character, the writer has no right to tell you, “hey that’s wrong, you shouldn’t feel that way”.

    Final points, if you hate on the writer for having a personal vendetta on Gwen, but you’re butthurt about people “disrespecting” Gwen, and insist on having her rewritten, that’s just double standard. At that point you’re doing exactly what the writer you hated did, just with the opposite emotions. They hate Gwen, you adored her. And you talk as if killing off Gwen is some form of disrespect to Joan herself. Dude you are delusional.

    Tbh I thought ASM#121 is trash too because the writing in that issue is garbage, not because of the death. BUT it was ground breaking, even if this was done for cheap shock value. You really understated how influential it was. You mentioned all the previous dead characters as if they aren’t minor characters no one really care about. Gwen was THE definitive hero’s love interest at the time. All the things you listed to be more “creative” ARE the boring options. 10 cent if they went that route, future writers would have just brought them back together, and 121 would have been just another generic ASM issue.

    1. Cinematic MJ is a lot more like classic Gwen Stacy than classic Mary Jane Watson. Yes, both characters—like nearly all love interests and supporting characters in superhero comics in the 60s—were underdeveloped. Gwen was a sensitive, honest, unselfish person with an interest in higher learning while Mary Jane was completely self-interested and only cared about partying. That may not seem like much, but it’s enough to say that Michelle Jones-Watson is a lot more like Gwen.

      You want to talk about being fair to writers? How about this: when a writer creates something, they own it, not the exploitive publisher. In such a world, Spider-Man ends with Lee, Ditko, and Romita, and all those later writers have to come up with their own characters and ideas. Assuming they have some talent, this shouldn’t be too big of a challenge. But as this isn’t the way comics industry works, can new writers at least respect the work and wishes of the guy(s) that created what they’re writing—y’know, the guy(s) that gave them a career and a living and a life? Such respect does not require being held prisoner by any formula.

      Spider-Man started as an idea with Stan Lee. He went on to write many good stories about Spider-Man across many years that brought joy to a whole lot of people. So not only is he no “Joe Schmoe,” not only should his opinion have value, it should have the highest value. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

      Along these same lines, killing off Gwen was not a form of disrespect to Joan Lee, it’s disrespecting Stan, the writer and creator who chose to model Gwen after her.

      If you agree ASM #121 was trash because of the garbage writing, I don’t understand how you can then consider it groundbreaking. How can bad writing be groundbreaking? Or groundbreaking in any positive way? Again, the whole idea of the decision to kill off Gwen to be “groundbreaking” is a lie that has been repeated so often and for so long that people have come to take it for granted as truth. Nothing in this story had any net-positive effect in the long run and it didn’t inspire any of the good work that followed. Starlin would have still done everything he did; ditto Gerber, Englehart, Miller, Moore and others.

      Any influence this story had was not good. If it inspired any trends at all, those trends were negative, like women in refrigerators and stunt character deaths. It did nothing to reverse the overall downward trend in comic sales and fan response was overwhelmingly negative. By his own admission, Conway avoided conventions for years afterward to avoid blowback from fans. You may think that the alternatives to killing Gwen were all “boring options,” but writing something for the sole purpose of shock is almost always worse and certainly more destructive in the long run. You also say that if Gwen had been written out without being killed off that future writers would have just brought her back—well, what does that tell you?

      While I am happy to engage in critical discussion here, I don’t want this place to become a toxic sinkhole like (seemingly) every other site on the web. I reserve the right to ignore attack-style comments like this in the future and will likely just delete them if this becomes a recurring problem. All civil and polite discourse remains welcome, of course.

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