“What If Gwen Stacy Had Lived?”

Some might assume this latest post was born out of that mini-rant at the end of my previous post, but I assure you this is not the case. It’s strictly coincidence that today’s post is yet another that happens to focus on my favorite platinum blonde from Spider-Man comics.

This one has actually been in the works for a while, and in addition to Ms. Stacy, we’ll also be returning (at least in part) to the theme of (my) human memory. I guess it was the new What If? series on Disney+ that set me on this path. When the show premiered this past summer, I was thinking of covering one of the issues of the original comic series here on the blog, which set me off to digging through my long boxes, which in turn led me to stumble across What If? #24 (Dec. 1980). Hadn’t I already covered this one? Mentioned it in my Gwen opus, at least? No… no, I did not. But I should have—why didn’t I?

This is what happens when you’ve lived on this Earth longer than just a couple of decades. You’ve lived so long and seen so much that memories start to get jumbled and you struggle to properly remember things. While it’s possible I just didn’t think of this story when I was writing that 2014 Gwen post because it was non-canonical, I’m pretty sure the truth is that I had just plum forgot. But when I found this issue in that long box and looked at the cover, it all came flooding back to me. Then I re-read the story and even more came back. This was an important part of my evolution into the Gwen worshipper I am today, and as such it demands coverage here.

Seven and a half years ago, I noted that Marvel Tales #’s 77-80 (Mar.-Jun. 1977), which reprinted Amazing Spider-Man #’s 96-99 (May-Aug. 1971), spotlighting Peter Parker’s separation and eventual reunion with Gwen Stacy, was “the first time I felt a tug in my heart for Gwen.” This issue of What If? fanned these flames even more, and for similar reasons.

But before I get into this any further, allow me to do some table setting.

Lovable Losers

We all lose sometime. Some of us lose a majority of the time. Then there are those unfortunate souls among us who seem to lose all the time—this would be Peter Parker’s category. Despite this, as a young reader I would buy my Spidey comics always holding out hope that I’d see Pete win in that issue, even as I knew the odds of this happening were like a million to one. And the one area where Pete NEVER won was his love life, which is why those Marvel Tales reprints of ASM 96-99 left such an impression on me, because Pete actually wins. When Gwen surprises him by returning from England, Stan Lee can’t resist breaking the fourth wall in observing, “Who says we never give Spidey a happy ending?”

This was the happiest I’d ever seen Peter Parker and the most positive outcome ever portrayed in any of his romantic relationships to that point. Of course, we’d be back on the misery train by ASM #100-101, but this storyline offered a glimmer of hope, at least. I was still a Mary Jane fan at this point (1977, I mean), but on some level it registered that I’d never seen MJ (nor anyone else for that matter) make Pete this happy; that only Gwen could offer him this level of joy.

Prior to this, the incident that had caused the couple’s separation was the death of Gwen’s father, Captain George Stacy, which occurred in Amazing Spider-Man #90 (Nov. 1970). This is what spurred Gwen’s “Spider-Man killed my father so I hate him” phase, which would become her defining trait, seemingly. Even for myself, a huge Gwen advocate for over twenty years now, it’s still one of the first things I think of when her name is dropped. The truth, however, is that this phase lasted for all of four and a half issues between ASM #91 to #95. So why does this image of her persist so strongly then? One factor would be the very intense and overly dramatic way this phase was portrayed in the comics.

Another factor (and likely a much larger one) is that in nearly every other portrayal of Gwen in the decades after her death, it was this version of the character we would be given—a Spidey-hating madwoman, pretty much. But as I said, this phase didn’t even last five issues. After her hysterical response to seeing Spider-Man in London and her subsequent fainting spell in ASM #95, she realizes by the end of this same issue that she’s been overreacting.

SIDEBAR: To modern eyes, Gwen might appear to have deep-seated psychological issues here. One could even characterize the whole Pete-Gwen romance as a toxic relationship, but we need to remember that Stan Lee, who was born in 1922, wrote this stuff between 1970 and ’71. Women crying and fainting over the slightest emotional distress was still a standard convention of melodrama at the time, and I certainly don’t believe Lee intended this to be any kind of reflection of Gwen’s true character. Whoever Peter’s serious girlfriend was at that time—be it Gwen, MJ, or whoever else—they were going to cry and faint a lot, because that was part of the melodramatic formula Lee tended to favor. (We also saw Betty Brant cry a lot when she was Pete’s girl; then never again once they broke up.)

Modern eyes might also see Gwen as an underdeveloped character, a point on which I would agree. But again, back then, the only thing that mattered was that Pete loved her. If Peter Parker loved her then she must be an extraordinary person. Comic readers, the vast majority of whom were still kids during this era, didn’t need much more than this to root for the couple. It was a simpler time.

In any case, Gwen would then return to the U. S. at the end of ASM #98, have that glorious reunion with Peter, and all seemed right with the world as issue #99 opened.

But with this being a Spider-Man comic, and Peter Parker being Peter Parker, the happiness could only last so long.

Come and Knock on Our Door

As we just went over, Peter Parker was almost constantly beset with difficulties and setbacks, particularly where his love life was concerned. The happiness he found in ASM 98-99 was predictably short lived, as we quickly returned to the status quo of Pete and Gwen miscommunicating and manufacturing suffering for each other, even though Gwen was over her irrational hatred of Spider-Man. We’re talking Three’s Company levels of narrative contrivance here. But here in What If? #24, written by Tony Isabella and drawn by Gil Kane (with finishes by a cast of thousands, seemingly), all of the narrative contrivances, all of that Three’s Company nonsense, are summarily swept away.

This new What If? reality diverges from our own when Spidey leaps after Gwen rather than try to catch her with his web line, and by so doing saves her. He gets her to the dock, whips off his mask, and then administers CPR. When Gwen comes to and sees Pete in his Spidey duds, she’s shocked, angry, and scared, reverting back to her old, you-killed-my-father self. But Pete begs her to allow him to explain, and she relents.

…And that’s it. One panel of forthright communication and all those contrived misunderstandings disappear. Since I was already tired of these contrivances at a grade-school age, this struck me as extraordinarily refreshing when I first read it—and still does when I go back and read it today. Now these What If? stories were all one-offs, meaning Isabella only had this one issue to tell his story, which I’m sure played a part in the narrative expediency here, but I still love the way it came off, intentional or not.

With all the soap opera stuff put to bed, the Pete-Gwen relationship is pure bliss hereafter. Much as it was in ASM 98-99, I’d never seen Peter Parker happier. As Spider-Man, however, he was still left with a few things to worry about.

Spidey’s Greatest Enemy

Believing Spidey and Gwen to be finished as a result of their plunge into the East River, the Goblin flies off to consolidate his power as “crime boss of all New York!” Which, if you were a regular reader of ASM in the sixties and early seventies, you know was always his strategic endgame. Spidey inevitably turns up to squash these plans, leading the Goblin to flee, but not before dropping off an envelope in the mail, which he has addressed to the webhead’s “greatest enemy save myself.”

Spider-Man catches up with the Goblin at his townhouse home, with Harry present, and they have what would appear to be their final battle (in this reality, anyway). In another refreshing surprise, this also has a positive ending of sorts, as the Norman Osborn personality asserts itself and overcomes the Goblin’s control. It’s a non-violent resolution that ends a horribly violent cycle and leaves everyone a legit chance at healing and true happiness.

All that’s left are the wedding plans. In another nice touch, Joe Robertson gives Gwen away at the ceremony—he always seemed to get along quite well with Gwen’s father, Captain Stacy, and I always felt like the two of them both knew Peter Parker was Spider-Man (and had many off-panel discussions over this fact). The main ceremony goes off without a problem, as Pete and Gwen are declared man and wife and kiss. It’s immediately afterward that everything blows up.

At this point that Jameson bursts in with several police officers holding a warrant for Peter’s arrest, as JJJ declares he is Spider-Man, with evidence to back up this claim provided by the Goblin. Aunt May either faints or has a heart attack (it’s not clear which), and Peter is forced to crash through a window to escape. In another one of my favorite bits from this tale, as the cops open fire on Pete as he’s fleeing, the former overly-delicate snowflake Gwen sternly admonishes, “Stop shooting you mindless fools! Can’t you see that he’s gone?”

Jameson is left gloating until Robbie tenders his resignation via shoving a copy of the Bugle in his face. He then comforts Gwen and promises to help her and Peter find a way forward. We end with Pete alone on a rooftop lamenting his fate and wondering how he’s ever going to get out of this mess. On the surface, it might feel like just another tragic ending to a What If? story… but is it really?

Tony Isabella Q&A

Normally, if I have the good fortune to score an interview with a creator (as I do today), I save it for the end of a post. This time, however, I think the perfect spot for this Q&A with writer Tony Isabella would be right here and now:

What was the process for getting a What If? assignment back then? Did you propose the topic for this issue or did the editor bring the topic to you?

When Roy Thomas was in charge, it was very informal. He asked me if I had any ideas for What If? and the Gwen Stacy story came to my mind immediately. I’d always hated how Gwen was killed off and, in some fashion, this was my chance to right that “wrong.”

Roy gave me the green light. I plotted the story in my usual page-by-page and panel-by-panel manner. It was assigned to Gil Kane, but he took a long time to get to it. That’s why there are other folks listed in the credits. This was a story I really wanted to write, so it didn’t take me long to script it.

Most What If? stories ended rather unhappily, if not flat-out disastrously. Was it blanket editorial policy to have bleak endings for What If? stories? How much creative freedom were you granted in putting this story together?

To the best of my knowledge, there was no such blanket editorial policy in place. I had freedom to tell the story I wanted to tell. I don’t consider the ending of this story to be completely unhappy. True, Peter Parker is exposed as Spider-Man and must go on the run, but he’s married the woman he loves and has the support of the most important people in his life. By contrast, J. Jonah Jameson ends up exposed as a cruel and petty man and loses the loyalty and respect of Robbie Robertson. All of that would have driven the sequel I had in mind from the moment I pitched this story. Alas, with Roy gone, and despite the tremendous acclaim for this story, I was never able to successfully pitch the sequel to any other Marvel editor.

Serial stories that we get in soap operas and comics often require a great deal of manufactured drama, and Amazing Spider-Man was no exception, particularly where the Peter Parker-Gwen Stacy romance was concerned. Did you find it refreshing to just wave that all away in one panel in this story?

I generally subscribe to the theory that every comic book is the first for some reader. However, in this case, I figured anyone who bought the issue was already at least moderately familiar with the Gwen/Peter relationship. Condensing that background as I did made for more dramatic writing and saved pages for the rest of my tale.

As a young reader at the time (and a huge Spider-Man fan), I was very pleased to get past the soap opera and just see Peter Parker happy with the woman he loved. Was this your intention when you wrote the story, or was it just a part of the net effect of the premise (that is, having a living Gwen Stacy in the story)?

I’ve never been a writer who thought heaping endless misery on characters was a good thing. Yes, you want to put your characters into challenging and even desperate situations, but you also have to realize your readers like and even love those characters. Like all of us, they deserve some clear victories and happy moments in their lives.

I can’t help but notice Mary Jane is only mentioned once in the story and never actually seen at all—should anything be read into this? Were you (or are you) an MJ or Gwen partisan? (Or were you one of those old-school guys still carrying a torch for Betty Brant?)

Mary Jane didn’t become a serious partner for Peter until after Gwen had died, which is why she didn’t figure more prominently in a story in which Gwen didn’t die. I like Mary Jane a lot and, for the most part, Marvel has done good things with her. I still think Gwen, especially after her appearances in the movies, is the best partner for Peter. She’s courageous and smart, probably as smart as Peter. Add to that her familiarity with the rougher parts of life as the daughter of a police officer.

I’m not old-school anything. In fact, it pisses me off when older fans were not buying any new comics in decades like some sort of badge of honor. Comics and comics universes grow and evolve. Which I’m good with as long as it doesn’t violate the core values of the characters. That said, I was never a huge fan of Betty Brant. She didn’t have the pizzazz of Gwen or Mary Jane. Writers tried to make her more relevant over time, but she never clicked with me.

What was your opinion of the stories that killed off Gwen and the Goblin (ASM 121-122) at the time they were published? Has your opinion on them changed over time?

I hated them with a burning passion. I thought killing Gwen was a cheap way to generate interest in a then-moribund Spider-Man book and that, while the Green Goblin had to pay the ultimate price for that, it meant the loss of Spider-Man’s ultimate arch-foe. However, my thinking on the latter event has changed over time.

Today’s comics villains are ridiculously overused. The Joker kills dozens of people and comes back two months later to kill a couple dozen more. The Green Goblin comes back again and again, sometimes Norman, sometimes Harry. Heck, if you told me Liz Allen was the new Green Goblin, it wouldn’t surprise me.

Chester Gould, creator of Dick Tracy and that strip’s architect for decades, had the right idea. Come up with terrific villains, then put them in the ground after a story or two. He even kept this cool makeshift graveyard for them in his back yard.

Your story was still going with the “shock of the fall” explanation for Gwen’s death. Were you aware of the problematic nature of this explanation at the time you wrote What If? #24? If so, did you stick with it just to respect canon?

Honestly, since the whole point of the story was that she lived, I didn’t feel I needed to worry overmuch about exactly what killed her in the ongoing continuity. “Shock of the fall” was much easier to skip past than “Spider-Man snapped her neck trying to save her.” I always thought the latter was unnecessarily cruel. One more way comic books were becoming more brutal.

What inspired you to make JJJ the ultimate villain in this story, as opposed to the Goblin or some other, more conventional supervillain?

The worst villains have a human face. You don’t always realize how truly villainous they are until they reveal that. I can point to the January 6 attempted overthrow of our democracy as an example of that. The Goblin’s revenge on Peter was only possible because of JJJ, a man completely unconcerned about the dire consequences of his actions until they backfired on him.

I assume you had nothing to do with the cover bulb, “Whatever you do, Spider-Man… don’t save her!” I’m guessing covers were handled completely by editorial, correct?

My best guess would be that editor of record Denny O’Neil wrote that cover copy.

The cover also had the blurb, “At last! The most eagerly awaited What If? of all!” Do you know if this was truly the case? Had the readers been clamoring for this story since What If? started? Or was this merely hyperbole?

Hyperbole aside, since I’ve no way of knowing if this was truly the case, I know there were many letters requesting this. So many I was surprised no other writer had pitched it to Roy and that, as soon as it appeared, I started hearing from readers who considered it their favorite What If? story and even some who wished Marvel would replace the then-current Spider-Man continuity with this one. I would’ve happily written a “Mr. and Mrs. Spider-Man” series and even pitched one well before Marvel launched X-Men Forever, continuing Chris Claremont’s pivotal run. Heck, in more recent times, I even pitched Ghost Rider Forever, which would have continued my run on that title.

Lastly, do you have any opinion on the apparent resurgence of interest in Gwen and her use in more modern comics—or as I refer to this resurgence on my blog, the “Gwenaissance”?

My reading of current Marvel titles has been sporadic for many years now. However, I do try to catch up on some of them via trade paperbacks from my local library. I’ll try to catch up on Gwen in her various spider-identities in the near future. If anyone wants to send me a timeline, that would be terrific.

…I’d like to take this opportunity to publicly thank Mr. Isabella for taking the time to answer my questions related to this story. I would also like to encourage fans to check out his own blog here.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

I’ve touched on the typically dour endings of What If? on the blog before, specifically with the issue that gave us an alternate reality where Bullseye did not kill Elektra, which I found notable precisely because it bucked the tragic-ending trend. There’s a theory that’s been making the rounds among fandom & critics for quite a while about why this What If? trend got started and, personally, I put a lot of stock in it.

The theory is that these alternate-reality tales tend to end in tragedy because it’s a rather twisted way of Marvel justifying their creative decisions, as well shame any fan that had the audacity to root for a different outcome. It was as if they were saying, “See how bad it would have been if we gave you what you wanted? Don’t ever question what we do again; we know what’s best for these characters and what’s best for you.” One of the strongest examples of this would come six months after this Gwen Stacy story, in What If? #27 (June 1981), “What If Phoenix Had Not Died?”

Now I did not get to experience the fan backlash over Gwen’s death firsthand (it was before my time), but I did get to experience the backlash in the wake of Phoenix/Jean Grey’s death in X-Men #137 (Sept. 1980). While Jean/Phoenix’s death was better portrayed and certainly made more sense (in every way) than Gwen’s, fans were still not happy with it. Jean Grey was a great character and much beloved by readers; no one was pleased with the idea that they wouldn’t be seeing her in the pages of X-Men anymore, even if you were among those that felt the character’s death had become dramatically necessary. In such an atmosphere, it would be foolish for Marvel to give us a What If? story that offered a joyous alternative to the harsh reality we were stuck with reading every month, right? Which is why I believe they gave us a story that was even more horrifying than Jean dying. In this story, Jean/Phoenix lives but winds up killing all of her teammates/friends before going on to destroy the entire world.

See how bad it would have been if we gave you what you wanted? Don’t ever question what we do again; we know what’s best for these characters and what’s best for you.

At first glance, this tale of the survival of Gwen Stacy would also seem to be portrayed as disastrous (though nowhere near the galactic scale of the Phoenix story, obviously), but as Tony Isabella pointed out above, was this resolution truly tragic?

Get What You Need

The first time I read What If? #24, it struck me as a downer ending. After all, Spidey’s secret identity has been exposed, he’s on the run from the law, his happiness with Gwen has been shattered, and Aunt May has possibly died of a heart attack. Then, as was my wont in those bygone days, I went back and re-read the story. Then I re-read it again. And again and again. At some point I realized this was not the dour ending I first thought it to be.

By the end of the tale, Peter’s immediate happiness may be in question, but his ultimate happiness is not—because he’s got Gwen. Moreso, though Jameson has accused Spidey of a number of crimes, we readers know that he’s not guilty of any of them. In fact, the only reason these accusations of criminality lingered so long was because Spider-Man could never respond to them for fear of exposing his secret identity, which is now no longer an issue after being outed by Jameson. So when/if anything goes to court, we know Spidey will absolutely be exonerated.

As for Aunt May… come on. That old bird is going to bury all of us; who are we kidding?

When I asked myself which path Peter would take if given a choice, the answer was suddenly ridiculously easy: he’d want to live in the reality that still had Gwen in it, regardless of any other circumstances. THIS is Peter’s happy ending. Heck, even Norman Osborn is alive and possibly on the road to mental health by the end of the story—it’s EVERYONE’S happy ending. (Well, except for JJJ, maybe.) What we got in the regular continuity, THAT was the tragedy.

This is why I placed Tony Isabella’s words before my own. Since, as it turned out, my conclusions matched his intentions in writing the story, I wanted to offer these conclusions afterward, in support of his point of view. In fact, once I had my epiphany about the ending, I remember thinking at the time that I’d really love to see a sequel to this story (which again aligned with what Isabella wanted), if for no other reason than to satisfy my curiosity over whether they’d really give the Spidey of this reality that ultimate happy ending (which struck me as inevitable by that point), or if they’d bend over backwards still trying to twist it into an even bigger tragedy somehow. More than forty years later, even though we never did get that sequel, it still pleases me to know that Mr. Isabella would have taken the story into precisely the direction I would have hoped.

2 thoughts on ““What If Gwen Stacy Had Lived?””

  1. Great interview and commentary, Crusty! When I read ASM #121, new off the racks in 1973, I’d been reading ASM off and on for years, mainly due to my comics collecting being very irregular up until 1973, when I was 10 going on 11, and my dad had thrown out a lot of the comics I’d collected before 1972 during one of our periodic moves. One old comic I managed to keep, however, was ASM #98, with that happy ending! As a little kid, I loved Spider-Man, from the cartoons and the comics, but between issues 98 and 121, the only issue I got was 111 and 120, from which point I rarely missed an issue for the next 10 years or so. 121 was a shocker although to be honest I can’t remember what my initial reaction was upon getting to that last page. Years later, having read many other Spider-Man comics, including nearly all of those that came prior to 121, reading that story again actually caused tears to stream from my middle-aged eyes. With so much horror and tragedy in the real world, it seems strange to feel so saddened by a story about the death of a fictional character who has since been brought back in several variations. Still, even as adults, we can become vested in these fictional characters, and care about what happens to them, even knowing it’s all at the whims of the people making up the stories. And when tragedy strikes them, we can’t help but feel sad for them. And although there have been other characters named Gwen Stacy in comics and movies, none of them were the particular Gwen Stacy created so long ago by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko. Too bad Isabella never got to do a sequel to that What If? story. Sounds like it would have been an entertaining follow-up.

    1. We definitely grow more sentimental as we age. I’ve found this to be the case with both myself and everyone else I know of a similar age or older.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.