Revisiting the Gwenaissance

Hindsight being 20/20, this blog was clearly misnamed. I should have named it “The Gwen Stacy Tribute Blog,” or something along similar lines, like maybe “The Gwen Stacy Torch-Carriers Blog.” Clearly, I am well aware that I’m risking Gwen overdose here, but this very day is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Amazing Spider-Man #121—“The Night Gwen Stacy Died!”—and as Ms. Stacy is, after all, patroness saint of this blog, I feel I would be remiss if I failed to write about her today. So let’s mark the occasion by revisiting the Gwenaissance, as well as take a deeper dive into Gwen Stacy’s remarkable life after death.

How’s That Gwenaissance Going?

. . . Yeah, this is a well-known meme, probably long past its sell-by date, but I’m old, so it’s acceptable for me to be out of touch and behind the times.

I penned and published my original Gwen opus in July 2014, closing in on nine years ago now. This was just a few months before Gwen Stacy (or at least a form of the Gwen Stacy character) would return as a full-fledged, recurring Marvel character again, as Spider-Gwen debuted in Edge of Spider-Verse #2 (Nov. 2014). A few months after the whole “Spider-Verse” comic event had concluded, Spider-Gwen got her own title with Spider-Gwen #1 (Apr. 2015), which I made note of here at the time. The series lasted five issues before being re-launched. The relaunch then lasted thirty-four issues and ended in 2018.

Back in ye olden days, a quick cancellation would have been a bad sign for a comic, but nowadays it appears to be a willful publishing strategy on Marvel’s part (they seemed to have a similar strategy for their new Ms. Marvel, which launched around the same time as Spider-Gwen). As we’ll see, Spider-Gwen has been in a bunch of series as of 2023, but has still been published almost continuously (outside of an apparent COVID break in 2020) since her initial series debut eight years ago. And according to Wikipedia, Spider-Gwen #1 was the third-best selling comic of February 2015, selling over 300,000 copies. There are not many comics that break six figures in monthly sales in this day and age.

The next series was Spider-Gwen: Ghost-Spider, and that lasted ten issues (Dec. 2018-Sept. 2019). Then another series called Ghost-Spider that lasted another ten issues (Oct. 2019-Oct. 2020). Then we got another Gwen Stacy in a whole ’nother form. This time she was a hero called Nightbird, an associate of Nighthawk of the Squadron Supreme and existing on the Squadron Supreme’s Earth. The character got her own one-shot with Heroes Reborn: Night-Gwen #1 (Aug. 2021). Full disclosure: I’m getting all this info from research, not firsthand experience, as I stopped buying new comics (for the most part) several years ago.

Then last year we got Spider-Gwen: Gwenverse #1 (May 2022), which ran five issues through #5 (Oct. 2022). This series offered many more superhero versions of Gwen from alternate universes like Thorgwen, Iron-Gwen, a Gwen version of Captain America and so on.

Now just twelve days ago, they kicked off another five-issue miniseries starring Spider-Gwen, Spider-Gwen: Shadow Clones. Okay, so whenever I hear the word “clone” in any context remotely connected to Spider-Man, my first instinct is to gouge my eyes out so I never have to risk seeing another awful clone story again. But in this case, the Gwen clones here are modeled after classic Spider-Man villains like Doc Ock, Sandman, Rhino and Kraven. So it looks like some harmless fun, nothing as horrifying as the clone stuff we’ve seen with Spider-Man before. In any case, regardless of the premise, Spider-Gwen is still getting published regularly, so the character must hold significant fan appeal.

In addition to all this, the OG Gwen Stacy has also been appearing in other projects & places. So the short answer to our question today would seem to be: the Gwenaissance is still going strong. Stronger than anyone could have ever realistically expected, I’d say.

Gwen Stacy’s Low Point

But before continuing the discussion of how far we’ve come, we should talk about how bad things used to be, just to put all of this in context—as well as lay some groundwork for the discussion to come.

So . . . in the wake of Gerry Conway’s first run on ASM, Gwen Stacy was radioactive. Almost no one wanted to so much as drop her name afterward for a very long time. The Gwen clone (along with Pete’s clone) was even more radioactive. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement amongst nearly all the writers that came afterward that all this clone stuff was so terrible it was best left ignored. Now Len Wein had some plot points that referenced the Pete clone during his ASM run (which I’ll delve into deeper whenever I get to my next Spidey shark-jumping post) and Bill Mantlo had created a new villain called Carrion that was supposed to be another clone of Miles Warren, but there was no other clone stuff invoked outside of this. And none of these isolated invocations would be referenced again themselves for a long time afterward.

As it happened, the next writer to bring up the Gwen clone again was . . . Gerry Conway. Thirteen years after his original ASM run had ended, Conway brought back the Gwen clone in the pages of Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #8 (1988). Now in fairness to Conway, his purpose in returning to the Gwen clone here appeared to be an attempt to fix (at least somewhat) the original disaster he’d created. His aim was to retcon matters so that the Gwen clone was never an actual clone but an unidentified, genetically-altered female victim of the Jackal that merely appeared to be a clone of Gwen Stacy. With such intentions in mind, I could almost commend Conway—but like his original work on the Gwen clone, much of this still felt designed to diminish Gwen Stacy and her proper place in both Peter Parker’s history and his heart.

Then came the 1990s, when the bulk of mainstream comic creators seemed to lose all their taste, judgment, and sanity, all at once, and back came the clones—with Conway’s attempt at that retcon a couple years prior just waved away, pretty much. Naturally, there was a whole lot of ugly business going on during this time, but thankfully I’ve managed to repress most of it. I know they brought the original Gwen clone back and did some awful, stupid things with her. I think they married her off to another Miles Warren clone or something. But please don’t even tell me if I’m right or wrong, I’d prefer to not even think about it at all.

There was one brief, shining moment for Gwen Stacy during the 90s though. It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, and some Spidey fans may not even be aware of its existence, as it didn’t take place in a Spidey comic, it took place during the “Age of Apocalypse” X-Men story line published in 1995. This story was so big and so sprawling that it created around ten new titles that temporarily supplanted all the regular X-Men titles. These titles took place in a new reality that was created when Legion (David Haller), the mutant son of Charles Xavier, goes back in time in an attempt to kill Magneto before he becomes the major threat to humanity that he was/is in the present day. But things go awry and Charles Xavier is the one who winds up killed. This alters the timeline, which leads to the evil, immortal mutant Apocalypse conquering most of the world before the Marvel Age can even get started.

Naturally, the story centers primarily on how this new reality affects the mutants of the X-Men books, but part of the story was the two-issue series, X-Universe 1-2 (May-Jun. 1995), which centered on how the other, non-mutant heroes of the Marvel Universe had changed in this altered reality. Many, if not most, are killed by Apocalypse, but several survivors, including Tony Stark, Dr. Donald Blake, Susan Storm, Ben Grimm, and Victor Von Doom lead a resistance movement. Another member of this group is our own Ms. Stacy. As the series begins, she is trying to help feed starving people in Africa (specifically Wakanda).

A couple pages later, this gathering is attacked by a terrorist group led by its financiers, Wilson Fisk and Norman Osborn. Gwen responds by whipping out a gun and blasting away, killing Fisk in the process. Clearly, this version of Gwen Stacy, brought to us by writers Scott Lobdell and Terry Kavanagh, with art by Carlos Pacheco, was one badass shit-kicker not to be messed with.

Eventually, “Age of Apocalypse” ends with the good-guy mutants, led by Magneto in this altered reality, managing to send Bishop back in time to save Xavier and restore the timeline. For me, I’d be tempted to keep this alternate reality if it meant we got to keep this version of Gwen Stacy.

So after this brief moment of glory, Gwen would pop up again in two different series. The first was a three-issue series by writer/artist Lee Weeks, Spider-Man: Death and Destiny 1-3 (Aug.-Oct. 2000). Then came Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s six-issue series, Spider-Man: Blue, published on an irregular release schedule running from July 2002 to April 2003. These weren’t bad, but as I observed in a Valentine’s post from several years back, Gwen really wasn’t given much of anything to do in either of these stories.

Just a short time after these appearances, the Gwen Stacy character reached its lowest point; a point that was somehow even lower than any of the clone stuff, which should have been impossible, yet somehow, inconceivably, happened anyway.

For those unaware, I’m referring to the story line known as “Sins Past” published in 2004. Written by J. Michael Straczynski with art by Mike Deodato, this one didn’t involve clones; rather it was meant to retcon past events involving the “real” Gwen Stacy. The premise was that Gwen had an affair with someone while she was dating Peter and became pregnant. She gave birth to twins while she was in Europe and these twins had somehow managed to magically grow to adulthood within just a few years and had returned to plague Peter Parker for this story line. The father of these twins was . . . are you ready? Norman freakin’ Osborn. The female twin was, of course, an exact double of Gwen—so when she was portrayed on covers of the comic, it looked like Gwen herself had risen from the dead.

No doubt about it, this was the lowest of any imaginable low point for Gwen Stacy. Ultimately, however, this makes her later comeback all the more amazing—but before we get to that, there was this one strange sorta interlude the following year that bears mentioning.

House of M

In 2005, Marvel had its “House of M” crossover event. “House of M” was a story line of this alternate reality created by the Scarlet Witch where mutants outnumber non-mutant humans and take over the world, led by Magneto. In this world, mutants/homo superior run everything and homo sapiens are the minority group that suffers terrible prejudice and oppression (a complete reversal of the regular Marvel reality). The main House of M title covered what most of the mutants were up to in this new reality, while several spin-off projects covered how other Marvel characters were faring. One of these was Spider-Man: House of M., where we see Pete/Spidey passing as a mutant, which allows him to live his ideal life.

This five-issue series was written by Mark Waid and Tom Peyer, two very talented writers who were fans of the classic Spider-Man, so they know Gwen and Captain Stacy well. Not only are Gwen and her father alive in this reality, so is Uncle Ben, and Gwen is married to Pete and the two have a young son, whom they named Richie (after Pete’s father). But the problem, paradoxically enough, is that this reality is so drastically altered from our regular one that the story doesn’t feel like a true Spider-Man story—even though Gwen and her father most definitely feel like the genuine articles here, Pete isn’t really Pete. It’s a version of Pete/Spidey fundamentally changed by the radically-different reality, which renders the tale feeling like something of an oddity.

Despite this, Gwen and her father are shown to be brilliant and brave throughout, just as Stan Lee intended, so Waid and Peyer earn a mountain of laurels for this. My fellow diehard Gwen (and Captain) Stacy fans out there will likely appreciate it.

Dawn of the Gwenaissance

Just three years after Gwen’s lowest point with “Sins Past,” the Gwenaissance begins with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, released in May 2007, which had Bryce Dallas Howard playing Gwen Stacy. Now they did virtually nothing with Gwen and her presence in the film served no real purpose, but at least she wasn’t put in the movie just for the sake of shitting all over the character, which makes it a VAST improvement over “Sins Past.” For the first time in decades, things were starting to move (however slowly) in something of a positive direction for Gwen Stacy.

The momentum for Gwen really picked up the following year, when The Spectacular Spider-Man debuted on March 8, 2008, as part of the CW network’s Saturday morning kids block of programming. This show gave us a wonderful version of Gwen that grows and develops over the course of two seasons and is presented from the jump as Peter Parker’s soulmate (though granted, it does take Pete a while to wake up to this fact).

Then came The Amazing Spider-Man film released in July 2012. Played by Emma Stone, Gwen Stacy is Peter’s sole love interest and very serious girlfriend both here and in the sequel film to follow in 2014. While they made a few errors in the finer details of her family background, and repeated the cardinal sin of killing her off at the end of Amazing Spider-Man 2, the service the character otherwise received in these films was a beautiful and glorious thing to behold.

A couple months after the release of Amazing Spider-Man 2 in 2014, Spider-Gwen made her comics debut and, as noted earlier, has practically been a staple of the Marvel line ever since. This version of Gwen also appeared in the 2018 animated film, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and is set to reappear in the upcoming sequel, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, just a few months from now.

Who’da thunk it?

But as great as it is that this Gwen-based character has taken off and appears to have so much life, she is still not our Gwen; not the real Gwen. Not the classic-comics Gwen Stacy of Lee & Romita. But as I mentioned near the beginning, that Gwen, the OG Gwen (or at least a character that is supposed to be OG Gwen) has been popping up a lot in recent years as well.

Real Gwen vs. Propaganda Gwen

Intrigued by my parenthetical comment, above? Don’t worry, an explanation is forthcoming . . . eventually.

If you read the Lee-Romita run on ASM, there is no mistaking Gwen Stacy’s role in the narrative: she is Peter Parker’s soulmate and she and Peter are deeply and truly in love with each other. She was “the one” for Peter. After Conway killed Gwen off and tried to make MJ “the one,” this presented a problem, as by definition there can only be one “one.” So Conway began something of a propaganda campaign to make it seem like Gwen was never really “the one” (despite the fact that she was quite clearly written to be such under Stan Lee). Conway also effectively retconned Mary Jane (though the term “retcon” was not in the comics lexicon at the time), turning her from soap-opera villainess to heroine virtually overnight.

It’s maddening because Conway got Peter’s feelings so very right at the end of ASM #121 and throughout ASM #122—Pete was utterly distraught and so overwhelmed by grief and rage over the loss of his one true love that all he cared about was killing the Green Goblin. Even when his best friend Harry Osborn was suffering right in front of him and begging for help, he turned his back and walked away; didn’t give a damn about him, cared about nothing but revenge and satisfying his bloodlust.

But the propaganda campaign would kick off almost immediately afterward. With the very next issue, ASM #123, Conway was very suddenly portraying Pete as rather blasé about the loss of Gwen, as we see him claim to feel no guilt at all over her death and paying merely the briefest lip service to the idea of quitting as Spider-Man. The message here was that Gwen never really meant that much to him in the first place, so it’s not a big a deal that she’s dead, he’ll get over it.

At this same time, the MJ retcon had also begun in earnest.  As discussed back in January, MJ went from a heartless and shallow party girl with no deep ambitions to a studious college student with a heart of gold. I’m surprised Conway didn’t also make her a science major while he was at it.

So Gwen is out and MJ is in as the love interest, though things don’t get truly serious between her and Pete until an airport scene from Amazing Spider-Man #143 (Apr. 1975), when Pete and MJ share this epic goodbye kiss, an embrace that actually goes on for a couple of panels. Most readers here likely know the scene well—for those that don’t, here ‘tis:

In the immediate wake of this, the Gwen clone appears, just in time to stir up the romantic drama. She first pops up in Spidey’s view as a figure in the distance, making Pete/Spidey question his sanity. Then Aunt May sees her much closer up and she faints in the street from the shock. Then the Gwen clone shows up on Pete’s doorstep and he absolutely flips his lid, verbally eviscerating her.

Nothing in the above sequence rings true. Yes, Pete has every reason to be suspicious when his previously-dead girlfriend suddenly shows up on his doorstep, but he’s also seen plenty of crazy stuff as Spider-Man, so he would also know it’s possible that Gwen could be alive—how many of his archenemies appeared to die before his very eyes, only to later return? Plus, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last twenty-plus years I’ve spent on this Earth, it’s that people tend to believe what they want to believe. And in his heart of hearts, Peter would absolutely want to believe that Gwen could somehow return to him, alive and well.

So being suspicious is perfectly reasonable. Verbally abusing this girl and then storming off and leaving her there on the floor, face in her hands, crying, is not. The issue then ends with the reveal that somehow, some way, this is another Gwen Stacy.

Notice how this Gwen is portrayed as a hysterical mess, and how Peter is never shown to feel any kind relief or happiness over getting Gwen back—in fact, his every action seems to show only annoyance, frustration, and exasperation. This reaction might seem reasonable based on the behavior of the Gwen clone, but remember this is Conway’s propaganda version of Gwen Stacy—Propaganda Gwen—who was willfully designed to be unlikable.

By the start of the next issue, Pete has at least calmed down enough to show some modicum of kindness toward the Gwen clone.

Again, no joy at the possibility of getting Gwen—or at least a part of Gwen, somehow—back in his life. In fact, he feels “rotten” and wants to “crawl under a rock and die.” The underlying message here is Gwen = misery, which is completely wrong. If the Lee-Romita Peter, or even the Conway Peter from ASM #122, had gotten Gwen back, in any form, he would have embraced her and kissed her all over, declared his undying love for her, and, most importantly, begged her forgiveness for his failure to protect her.

Take note also of that kiss, how chaste it seems. Now compare it to the kiss with Mary Jane at the airport. Again, the message is that the connection with MJ is much more passionate, while the relationship with Gwen is dispassionate and perhaps more childish in nature. Less mature and therefore less serious; less real. This was yet another willful misrepresentation, as the Pete-Gwen relationship was nothing if not passionate. In the Lee-Romita years, whenever they weren’t in the midst of some soap-opera drama (which admittedly was often), Pete and Gwen were practically attached at the lips.

But this does raise a question, one that (unfortunately) calls us back to “Sins Past.”

Reluctantly Revisiting “Sins Past”

Now when this story line kicked off in Amazing Spider-Man #509 (Aug. 2004), the implication—or perhaps more accurately, the logical assumption—was that Gwen’s twins were fathered by Peter. Then, just before the “shock” reveal of Norman Osborn as the father, we had Pete telling MJ that the twins couldn’t be his because he had never slept with Gwen. Pretty sure this happened in issue #511, because this was the last issue I purchased. These comics were terrible from the start, but the idea that Gwen had slept with another guy (never mind the guy was Norman freakin’ Osborn) to get pregnant with these kids—while never having slept with Peter at all—was the last straw for me. This, for me, was when a line was crossed between the merely awful to the utterly insulting, hence the reason I stopped buying/reading the story line with this issue. So I only ever purchased and read the first three issues (509-511) of this six-part story. And I never regretted this decision one iota; was never even remotely tempted to see how the story line concluded (though I’d hear about it, eventually).

How much did I hate this story? Well, I discovered these three comics again in a pile in my basement in the spring of 2012—which surprised me, because I thought I had tossed them in the trash eight years earlier, shortly after buying #511. The mere sight of these comics again had so sickened me that I realized the trash was too good for them, ultimately deciding that these objects of blasphemy needed to die by fire. So I set up a “Ritual Burning” virtual event that I shared on Facebook on May 27, 2012. Think I’m kidding? Well, here’s the photographic proof:

Sidebar: What kind of paper do modern comics use? Because, as I recall, these things were rather slow to catch fire. I actually wound up pouring some gasoline on them to really get the fire going. I’m guessing older comics, printed on that old, newsprint-quality paper, would’ve burned much more readily and easily.

While it’s not much in the way of consolation, recent research revealed that this disgraceful story was finally, officially retconned out of its misery a couple years ago. I’m shocked it took ’em so long.

As the link points out, Straczynski’s original plan was for Peter to be the father, which would have avoided the most offensive aspects of this story for me—because Gwen had far too much character, was far too good a person, and so in love with Pete and so devoted to him that she would never cheat on him, EVER—but it still would have been utterly stupid nonsense, as Gwen’s “children” had somehow grown into physical adulthood within a span of about six years or so by make-believe-comics time. Even if you buy the rapid physical aging (which would already be a ridiculous buy by itself), there’s no explanation for their education, knowledge, and maturity. Also: there was absolutely no room and no way to fit an eight-month pregnancy into Gwen’s backstory. (You couldn’t even fit a one-month or a one-week pregnancy there, for that matter.) The very idea is just mindlessly stupid. All of this was mindlessly stupid.

If published today, this story line would have inspired a Reddit thread a million miles long, but back in ’04 Reddit was still a year away from its birth. In 2004, a comic fan who wanted to scream their rage at people via the internet would typically do so in Usenet newsgroups, which I did quite robustly. When I went virtually screaming about “Sins Past,” I think the group was rec.arts.comicbooks or maybe rec.arts.marvelcomics, or something like that.

I interacted with many fans in this newsgroup and even got into it with Straczynski himself while I was there. And while a large portion of fans agreed with my point of view, there was still a maddening number who would somehow rationalize all of the outrageously horrifying crap here as good storytelling—or at least not outrageously awful storytelling. I was left with the impression that such fans were so blindly loyal to Marvel (or perhaps more accurately, so addicted to their Marvel Comics buying habit), that there was literally nothing Marvel could publish that could be bad enough to get them to stop buying; that these sad souls would accept any crap Marvel deigned to feed them, cheering their approval between each and every swallow.

But there was one small group that disagreed with me a bit more rationally on one very specific point. They were almost all Baby Boomers that had grown up on the Lee-Romita Spider-Man, and the one specific point they could accept within this larger mess was that Gwen never slept with Peter. From their point of view, reading the Lee-Romita stuff as kids at the time it was first published, it was feasible to them that Pete and Gwen would wait until after marriage to sleep together. Or at least this is what they believed as kids during the era the original comics were published.

Okay, so let’s take a moment to acknowledge how utterly stupid this conversation is. We’re talking about the sex lives of fictional comic-book characters. It’s like discussing the sex lives of Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, or Kermit the Frog. None of them really have sex lives because none of them are real. But the fact remains, if we’re going to indulge in a hypothetical discussion about Peter Parker having a mature and serious romantic relationship in the present day and in real-world terms, then the relationship had to be sexual, at least from a modern, adult perspective. I don’t begrudge those Baby Boomers seeing things the way they do, because this may be a reasonable position given the time and circumstances under which they first read the stories. But from a modern, mature-adult perspective, if we don’t believe Peter and Gwen were sexually active, then it becomes difficult to view it as a serious, adult relationship.

Now I don’t believe any of the creators involved—not Lee, not Romita, nor anyone else—were even thinking about whether or not Pete and Gwen were sexually active off-panel. But I am dead certain that it was Stan Lee’s intent to show the two being in as serious a relationship as he felt he could portray on a comic-book page at the time.

Which brings us back to Peter’s chaste interactions with the Gwen clone in 1975. Unlike the Lee stories, which may have unintentionally left room for the impression that Pete and Gwen’s relationship was not that deep (or at least not sexually active), the scenes Pete shared with the Gwen clone in ’75 strike me as consciously designed to minimize the depth of Peter Parker’s relationship with Gwen Stacy.

Return of the Gwen Clone

Thirteen years after being introduced and then summarily dispatched, the Gwen clone returned in the aforementioned Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #8 (1988), wherein Conway’s propaganda campaign would resume. The reaction of Spidey on the cover tells all: “Oh no!” he declares. “Not again! Gwen Stacy is back!” It would only get worse when we got to the interior pages Just look at this sad, pathetic creature.

Conway picking up right where he left off, as Propaganda Gwen remains the most fragile snowflake conceivable. And the hits just keep on coming.

Ah yes, “Spider-Man killed my father,” of course. As I pointed out in January of last year, this Spider-Man-killed-my-father thing only lasted four and a half issues from ASM #91 to #95, but somehow became a defining quality of Gwen Stacy as a character. This story does nothing to correct this misperception; if anything, it encourages it.

But there’s more damage being done here beyond just Gwen.

“Gwen, Captain Stacy died saving a kid from a falling building. I didn’t touch him.”

No, you didn’t touch him, Spidey. What you did do was cause Doc Ock’s tentacles to go wild, which caused the falling debris that did kill him. For some time afterward, under Lee, Pete would wrestle with an appropriate amount of guilt over this. Under Conway, the death of Captain George Stacy was no big deal at all. Moreover, Spidey himself now apparently finds it ludicrous that anyone could blame him for his death.

Also: Pete wouldn’t refer to him as “Captain Stacy” when discussing him with Gwen; he would have referred to him as “your father” or “your Dad.”

When Captain Stacy died in Amazing Spider-Man #90 (Nov. 1970), it was the most monumental event to occur in the pages of ASM up to that point. Had Gwen lived and continued her relationship with Peter (as Stan Lee intended), Captain Stacy would have continued to be referenced and would have cast an immense shadow over the strip forever afterward. Keep in mind, at the end of Amazing Spider-Man #100 (Sept. 1971), when Spidey is lost in that nightmare fighting off all his old foes, the voice of the silver-haired father figure that calls him back to reality is not that of Uncle Ben, it’s Captain Stacy.

But once Gwen was killed off, Captain Stacy became collateral damage. He was reduced to essentially nobody, with Pete barely ever giving him another thought again. Basically, when Conway killed Gwen, she took her father with her. Two pillars of Spider-Man’s supporting cast and perhaps the two biggest supporting characters of the Lee-Romita era, essentially erased. While I’ve always recognized how much damage Conway did to the strip in the broadest terms when he killed off Gwen, it’s only occurring to me just now how much damage he did to the Lee-Romita era, specifically. Damn near everything done during this era—Spider-Man’s greatest era—was effectively undone by Conway.

“Gwen always was a screamer.” Not always, though—just when Conway was writing her. Another clear propaganda message that Gwen was a spineless marshmallow. Everything upsets her, and whenever she’s upset, she deals with it by screaming and crying like a baby and blindly running away, with no clear idea where she’s even going. She displays no character, no strength of any kind, little intelligence, zero agency, and has virtually no attractive qualities aside from her pretty face. This is Conway’s Propaganda Gwen, who is nothing like the true Gwen Stacy of Lee & Romita—that Gwen had agency and strength. That Gwen, the real Gwen, would slap the taste out of a guy’s mouth for talking the slightest shit about the man she loves.

This Gwen has not been seen in the Marvel Universe for a very long time now. The closest we’ve come to seeing her again, incredibly enough, is not even in the pages of a proper Spidey comic, but in a couple of alternate reality, X-Men tie-in books.

616 Gwen

As I said earlier, beyond Spider-Gwen, the OG Gwen Stacy—or as the kids today would likely put it, the Gwen Stacy of Earth-616—has been making a number of appearances in recent years as well. (For those keeping score, Spider-Gwen’s homeworld is Earth-65. If you really want to make your head spin, check out this Marvel wiki on all the variant Gwens throughout the Marvel multiverse.)

So how does a dead woman keep appearing in stories so long after she died? Well, the writers often have to bend over backward pretty far to make it work, and have ultimately failed every time so far. But even with all this failure, we can find consolation in the mere fact that they keep bringing her back, which must mean there’s some fan appetite for her. And if they keep it up like this, then sooner or later somebody is bound to get the character right, even if it’s just by accident.

Someday. Maybe. We hope. But it certainly hasn’t happened yet.

“Clone Conspiracy”

Just two months ago, I lamented seeing something about the Scarlet Spider/Ben Reilly coming back to present-day Spidey comics. I hated the mere idea of this with a white-hot passion, and certainly had no intention of looking up any more info on this, let alone read the actual comics. Then I started doing research for this post, and doing a basic Google search on Gwen Stacy caused this image to come up:

Further research revealed that this image came from a Spidey storyline that ran from 2016 to 2017 called “The Clone Conspiracy,” the story that had featured the return of (ugh) Ben Reilly. I didn’t want to read this story, but I did want to offer complete coverage of Gwen Stacy appearances since her death, so I held my nose and dove in.

The story line featured the return of the Jackal (in an Anubis-style jackal mask, which I’ll concede was pretty cool), whose latest plot involved restoring the dead to life (making the new Anubis mask all the more apropos—in fact, the full title of this story line is “Dead No More: The Clone Conspiracy”). And he brought back every character that had previously died in Spider-Man comics, which naturally included Gwen Stacy and her father, Captain George Stacy. The big plot twist here was that this Jackal was not Miles Warren, but the somehow-resurrected Ben Reilly. Yes, he was reduced to a puddle of goo when last seen, but Miles Warren managed to somehow turn that goo back into a viable person. After which, Reilly turned on Warren and became the main villain, reducing Warren to his lackey here.

Again, the premise, in case it didn’t completely sink in the first time, is that all the dead characters come back. Literally all of them. These are not clones (except in the case of Reilly, who started out as a clone), but fully-revived and restored corpses. Gross in many ways, but also a miracle, in the most literal, Book-of-Revelation sense of the word. So the plot may not involve actual cloning, but still, as it involves Miles Warren, Ben Reilly, and Kaine, it falls into the clone story category.

As such, it maintains the long-standing tradition of terrible clone stories, as seeing this virtual legion of dead characters casually come back to life sabotages all potential drama. Comics today generally make death feel like a joke, but the nature of this story line increases this feeling exponentially. Never mind that the Peter Parker we get here is more Tony Stark than Peter Parker, running the massively wealthy corporation that is Parker Industries, which leaves Spider-Man feeling more like Iron Man than Spidey, flying around on some kind of rocket-cycle instead of web-slinging to and fro.

But for the purposes of the post, the biggest failure here, once more, is the failure to get Gwen and Captain Stacy right and/or getting Pete’s relationship with them right. Now writer Dan Slott doesn’t fail as hard here as others have in the past. In fact, there are some aspects that feel almost right . . . but not quite. From the jump, when Spidey first sees Gwen (in the image I shared a few paragraphs back), and she greets him with “Hey, Spidey, long time, no see, huh?”—it’s all wrong. Gwen is not going to return from the frickin’ dead and speak to Spidey/Pete in this casually humorous tone. Moreover, this just makes her resurrection feel even more like a joke.

Also, yet again, seeing Gwen and her father resurrected should bring Spidey immense relief and joy, but it doesn’t. Now later on, Slott does devote an entire issue of this story line, Amazing Spider-Man #23 (Mar. 2017), to Pete and Gwen having a private talk, and portions of this conversation ring a bit more true. Alone together, Gwen says, “I’m back from the dead, Peter . . . You not wanting to hold me. Talk to me. Run away with me. That’s weird.” This has been my major complaint every other time Pete appeared to get Gwen back in the past, so I’m fully on board with this sentiment. Slott then offers a somewhat reasonable justification for Pete’s behavior: He either can’t or won’t accept that she’s the real Gwen. And after all the clone crap he’s been through, this is certainly understandable, but at the same time, Reilly had just given him a grand tour of the facility, and he should understand by the pseudoscience and story logic here that this is the real Gwen Stacy, back from the dead. Thus, he should be expressing a lot more love, regret, and remorse for Gwen (and her father). Instead, they waste most of the conversation debating whether or not Gwen is real and what makes a person real.

Finally, out of near exasperation over Pete not believing she’s the real thing, Gwen just kisses him. Pete displays no pleasure from this, just shock and extreme discomfort. “I guess you have your answer now,” Gwen tells him as he has his back to her. “Peter . . . the least you can do is look at me.” Before turning around to face her, he puts his Spider-Man mask back on—to hide what is likely written all over his face, I assume.

This is some good stuff, so it wasn’t all bad here. What’s missing is Pete and Gwen talking about how much they truly mean to each other. Outside of this, there was just one awful portion in the middle of the issue when they discussed Pete moving on after she died. “I always knew MJ was there, in the wings,” Gwen says. “Even if neither of you could see it at the time. I could feel it.” Utter propaganda, of course. But I could almost shake it off and ignore it at this point, as it’s such blatant b.s.—it was so perfectly obvious who Pete truly preferred in the original comics, it renders all these attempts at retconning feeling farcical to me at this stage.

This Gwen was supposed to be the real Gwen, but she wasn’t. She wasn’t the full-on Propaganda Gwen, but she still had more of the propaganda version in her than the real thing.

Spider-Man: Life Story

In 2019, Marvel put out the six-issue series Spider-Man: Life Story, written by Chip Zdarsky and drawn by Mark Bagley. The series starts with an interesting premise: Go back to Spider-Man’s beginning in the 1960s and tell his story from there with the characters aging in real time. So issue #1 (May 2019) would cover the 1960s, issue #2 (Jun. 2019) the 1970s, all the way to issue #6 (Oct. 2019) covering the 2010s.

As I said, interesting premise, but the execution was awful, because for whatever reason, Zdarsky was determined to include all of the material from the regular Spidey continuity. Which means some of the most terrible stuff wound up getting incorporated into this story, like most of the clone stuff from the 70s is included the 70s issue (#2), and the even worse clone stuff from the 90s is included in the 90s issue (#4). So instead of taking this opportunity to avoid these god-awful mistakes, you emphasize them.

Time for some brutal honesty. While I love Spider-Man, the truth is that in the sixty years they’ve been publishing comics about him, more than half that time (more than thirty years), the comics have been bad. Sometimes merely bad; other times astonishingly and offensively bad. At this point most of this is beyond retconning. The best strategy going forward would seem to be simply ignore all this awful stuff, but instead they keep doing the exact opposite. If anyone out there has a thesis as to why they keep doing this, feel free to share (because Lord knows I certainly don’t understand it).

Personally, one of the things that interested me about this story when first published was (no surprise) how they’d handle Gwen Stacy. Well, she did marry Pete, but it was then revealed that she was a clone and then the real Gwen was killed. Pete then goes on to marry MJ in the 80s book and has kids with her. Any masochists out there who want more details on this story, Comic Book Resources has got you covered.

Moving on.

Giant-Size Gwen Stacy

In 2020, we were supposed to get a five-issue Gwen Stacy miniseries set in Spidey’s past, but thanks to COVID, only two issues were published, Gwen Stacy #1 (Apr. 2020) and Gwen Stacy #2 (May 2020). Finally, in late summer last year, the complete story was published in full as Giant-Size Gwen Stacy #1 (Oct. 2022).

Written by Christo Gage with art by Todd Nauck, the story is set in the Ditko era, when the Crime-Master was still alive and active, so circa Amazing Spider-Man 26-27 (Jun.-Jul. 1965), before Pete and Gwen even met. And it’s a fun and entertaining story, with most of my criticism amounting to quibbles, really. And most of these pertain to Captain Stacy, who’s portrayed as a regular ol’ New York police detective, and I’ve always contended that there has to be more to his backstory than this. He was born and raised in Britain, appearing to come from a rather wealthy family, who somehow found his way onto the NYPD, but how? There’s a story here that begs telling but no one appears to be interested in telling it.

One other very minor, nit-picky quibble: there are a couple times where George refers to his daughter as “Gwendy.” (He also did this in “Clone Conspiracy” once or twice.) Captain George Stacy refers to his daughter as “Gwen” or “Gwendolyn.” Only Pete and occasionally someone else in their social circle call her “Gwendy.”

Another (slightly larger) criticism: there are points where the story gets a bit too continuity obsessed—trying to fill in holes where there never really were holes to begin with. For example: trying to create an explanation for why the Green Goblin stopped trying to make himself the crime boss of New York. I think most readers just assumed (as I did) that at a certain point Gobby chose to prioritize getting rid of Spider-Man first before resuming these ambitions.

Regardless, whatever other small thing they may have gotten wrong, Gwen’s brilliant mind and heroic character are on full display here, so they got her most important aspects right. Plus we got a bunch of appearances from classic Spidey villains in their classic forms, which was fun. The fact that it’s set before Pete and Gwen meet is an advantage as this naturally avoids any possible misrepresentation of the Pete-Gwen relationship.

“Judgment Day”

During the same summer Giant-Size Gwen Stacy was published, Marvel was in the midst yet another big event. It began with the Eternals and the X-Men having a tiff, which somehow led to this Celestial named the Progenitor calling for all of humanity to be judged. This became a crossover event for all of Marvel’s books (or most of them, anyway) titled “Judgment Day,” wherein all the residents of Marvel’s Earth-616 are assigned a personal judge, visible only to them. In Amazing Spider-Man #10/Legacy #904 (Nov. 2022), Peter Parker’s judge took the form of Gwen Stacy.

Cover of Amazing Spider-Man #10/Legacy #904 (Nov. 2022). Marvel really loves putting Gwen Stacy on the covers of their Spidey comics, don’t they?

Similar to her appearance in “Clone Conspiracy,” there’s a bit too much levity here in regard to Gwen showing up. Pete’s just a little too flip and joke-y about having the specter of Gwen Stacy following him around and constantly watching him, even when he’s sleeping; let alone judging his very worthiness to live. In addition to being the wrong emotional response, it just reminds us and reinforces the fact that death means nothing in modern comics; seeing the dead up and about, walking around, it isn’t the least bit disconcerting to anyone. And while there’s always a place for humor in comics, especially Spidey comics, that place is certainly not here, not in a tale of this nature. The comedic touches not only minimize death, they minimize how much Gwen and her loss should mean to Pete.

So this apparition of Gwen Stacy representing the judgment of the Progenitor is following Pete everywhere, and it all comes to a head when she follows him to work and sees he’s working for Norman Osborn. (Don’t ask.) Apparently (and understandably) upset by this, she starts floating away and Pete catches up to her on the roof (or an upper terrace floor, it’s not abundantly clear), where we finally get to the good stuff. Pete implores her to wait and she stops.

“I know you’re upset because I’m working for Norman,” he begins. “And I understand. But I also . . . I know you’re not Gwen. Not Really. I’d feel it if you were. Maybe my memories of her? Maybe the Celestial knew how I often ask myself what Gwen would think of me . . . and how I’ve lived my life since she died. Either way, I want to explain myself to you— her.”

He then gets into some details about what’s been going on in the modern ASM strip, including how Norman Osborn has somehow made a fresh start for himself.

“The way I see it, it’s my responsibility to help him,” he goes on. “It’s my responsibility to keep him from becoming the man who killed you. Do you understand?

“I’m doing this because I still love you.”

This big energy field surrounds the floating Gwen as she pronounces her judgment: Peter is worthy. Then she follows up with, “And so receive my gift!” Another flash of light and she falls to the floor, somehow different now. Changed.

Tears streaming down both their faces, Gwen touches his cheek and tells him, “I’m leaving, Peter. He says he just wanted to give us a moment . . . to see that beautiful heart of yours open . . .”

With this, Gwen fades away.

Some outstanding work by writer Zeb Wells and artist Nick Dragotta here. This was absolutely beautiful—but not without its flaws.

For instance, after Gwen fades out, Peter reacts with, “Huh. What a day.” Such a low-key reaction feels woefully inadequate after what we’ve just seen.

Then it’s revealed that Norman Osborn has witnessed all this. He freaks out, naturally, but then regains his composure, telling himself, “Everything is fine,” just as it’s revealed there’s another Judge-Gwen, and this one is looking over his shoulder. A fun and intriguing ending, so much so that, for a moment, I was almost tempted to look for the following issue to see where it might go, but . . . nah.

“I’m doing this because I still love you.” This could have been a perfect moment. But then, based on their later interactions, I had to ask: Was Pete talking about capital L, Love? Or something less? Once again, as sweet as this was, it kinda feels like Pete’s relationship with Gwen was being painted as more like innocent, adolescent puppy love; not the deeply passionate, true-love-of-his-life Love. He says he still loves her, but is he still in love with her? What we see between them here leaves plenty of room for doubt regarding these specific questions. They confess how much they “miss” each other, but not how much they love or truly mean to each other.

There are parts where their deeper connection is hinted at, like when Pete remarks that he knows the judge isn’t Gwen because he’d “feel it” if she were, and then recognizes it when the real Gwen appears because “I can tell.” But this isn’t delved into any more deeply beyond these succinct remarks.

This Gwen was supposed to be the real Gwen, but she wasn’t. Not quite. Yet again, my guess is that they won’t portray the Gwen relationship as anything too deep or meaningful because Marvel is determined to preserve the MJ-is-the-one lie. This priority has led to Propaganda Gwen largely replacing the real, Stan Lee Gwen in the annals of Marvel History.

But amazingly enough, I can feel the real Gwen out there, still fighting somehow for her rightful place. Most of these more modern representations feel closer to Propaganda Gwen than the real thing, yes . . . but it also feels like they’re inching ever so slowly in the direction of the real Gwen. “Clone Conspiracy” hinted at the greater depths of the Pete-Gwen relationship in some subtle, even clever ways. It was the only good thing in an otherwise terrible story line. Then this one, this “Judgment Day” tie-in, feels like it’s taking still more steps toward the real Gwen, even if they don’t quite get there.

It’s starting to feel possible that one day some writer might actually cross the finish line. I just hope I’m alive to see it. Or maybe I could write it myself—hey, somebody from Marvel out there, just let me know where to send my résumé! (Seriously, I could use the work.)

One quick plug before saying goodbye: For a calmer, more objective perspective on Amazing Spider-Man #121, “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” check out Alan Stewart’s most recent post on his 50 Year Old Comics blog here.

7 thoughts on “Revisiting the Gwenaissance”

  1. Great post, Crusty. Highly informative from my perspective, as I’ve managed to largely steer clear of the various “clone sagas” over the decades. (Yes, even the first one.)

    And, as always, thanks for the plug! 😉

  2. Much enjoyed reading your post, Crusty! I find the Gwenaissance fascinating, although I haven’t been following it all that closely. The “real” Gwen has been dead a half-century now but her echoes have been reverberating ever more loudly in so many strange ways over the couple of decades. The idea of Gwen refuses to die, despite all efforts against her.

    1. For almost twenty years, from 1975 to ’94, Gwen was barely referenced— just that Spectacular annual and maybe one or two other isolated times. Then her clone pops back up in those 90s books (not an ideal presentation for the character), and she disappears again. Around 2007-08, she just starts to spring back to life and I really can’t offer any explanation as to how or why. It’s been an amazing thing to witness.

      1. Yes, and I wonder if these new versions of Gwen mostly appeal to a younger generation whose parents may not have even been born yet when ASM #121 was published but have read up enough on Spider-Man lore after seeing the movies to have some familiarity with her. Doesn’t strike me that there’d be enough gray or silver-haired old geezers like us who were familiar with Gwen when she was still Peter Parker’s main squeeze and there was only one comic a month that featured new stories starring Spider-Man (that is, even before Marvel Team-Up started). At 60, I’m just a few years old enough to remember those days.

        1. All we can do is offer up hypotheses; I don’t know that there can ever be a definitive answer. The one thing I’ll say is that it’s not just the new versions of Gwen keeping the character alive—as I point out in the post, the original Gwen still keeps showing up with some frequency, even though she’s supposed to be dead! Plus, I don’t see how you can completely separate the original Gwen from the new versions. I mean, whatever the differences, they are all based on the original Gwen Stacy, right? So the original character must have some kind of special appeal, otherwise how could these other characters have ever gotten off the ground in the first place?

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