When Spidey Jumped the Shark, Pt. 3

As I mentioned back in October, there’s probably not much suspense regarding this particular installment of the series. This is the Gerry Conway Era of Spider-Man I’m covering today, and if you were around when I kicked things off here at Paradox (coming up on nine years ago now) then you know where this is headed, though I think I may still have some surprises up my sleeve for you.

When Did It Start to Suck?

When our then-nineteen-year-old writer Gerry Conway cobbled together a mess of a plot (this is assuming he put together any kind of detailed plot at all) for Amazing Spider-Man #121 (Jun. 1973) which featured the death of Gwen Stacy. As covered in my sprawling Gwen post that practically kicked off the new blog address, the killing of Gwen Stacy, specifically, was not originally Conway’s idea (his original idea was to kill off someone for shock value, originally choosing Aunt May), but once John Romita suggested they kill Gwen instead, Conway did jump on the idea with both hands and both feet, because he held an irrational dislike of the Gwen character and was all too happy to get rid of her.

Now “suck” is a harsh term. Later years would bring us some truly great Spider-Man stories (including all the Spider-Man comics I grew up on and read as they were first published), so it’s not like Spidey just completely sucked forever afterward. At the same time, however, the loss of Gwen Stacy, and the criminally sloppy job done on the story that killed her off, left a scar that could never completely fade.

When Did It Pass Its Peak?

See above.

This wasn’t just when the Conway Era jumped the shark, this was when Spider-Man as a whole jumped. As Pierre Comtois (who I disagree with frequently, but boy oh boy, are we ever of one mind when it comes to this particular subject) put it in his series on Marvel Comics for TwoMorrows, Gwen Stacy was “the girl Peter should have married!” (Marvel Comics in the 1980s, p. 187) and her death “marked the climax of the whole Spider-Man saga.” (Marvel Comics in the 1970s, p. 133.)

As we explore this era, this might be the most maddening aspect of it: how it was just all over the place, giving us good stuff at times, bad stuff at other times, and then some of the worst stuff imaginable. Killing off Gwen is a strong example of this, as the follow-up issue, ASM #122, was quite excellent in a vacuum. The problem is that it was predicated on the awful issue that preceded it, ultimately rendering the entire two-parter a failure overall.

Note that while this was when the peak of quality was passed, it might not have been the low point for this era. The clone saga, which closed out Conway’s original tenure on Spidey, was probably worse, but then one could readily argue that the clone saga never happens if Gwen Stacy hadn’t been killed off in the first place. All roads of misery seem to find their way back to this one awful decision.

Is He Still Pete/Spidey?

This is the most interesting of our questions in this instance because my answer might come as a shock to some, and that answer is yes. Despite the myriad number of poor plot decisions, Conway’s characterization of Peter remained strong. The Boomer generation of writers that held the reigns over Amazing Spider-Man in the twenty years or so after Stan, they all clearly grew up on the character and knew him well. The only time Conway really tripped up in this category was in the aftermath of Gwen’s death, when Pete should have struggled much more with the decision to continue on as Spider-Man. (Really, he should have quit entirely and the strip should have effectively ended right there—that’s if we’re being true to the character, but this was obviously never going to happen. Even so, it should have at least haunted Pete forever afterward and made going on as Spider-Man a torturous struggle for him. Based on what we saw from Conway, Pete barely considered quitting.)

I should also take the opportunity here to note that I will likely be repeating a lot of info from that aforementioned Gwen opus of mine, so apologies in advance if the text starts to feel somewhat monotonous as a result. At the same time, the nature of today’s post does make this a tad inevitable.

Hammerhead, Doc Ock, and Canadian Islands

Conway started out co-plotting with artist John Romita, a collaboration that ran from  issues 111–119 (Aug. 1972-Apr.1973). After leaving as full-time penciler on ASM, Romita continued as co-plotter and de facto ASM art director through (at least) the brief Gil Kane run that followed, issues 120–124 (May 1973-Sept. 1973). Romita would also go on to do several iconic covers during this era and contribute some new character designs (such as the Punisher) in addition to returning for full pencils on one issue, #132 (May 1974). Ross Andru began his lengthy run as penciler on ASM with issue #125 (Oct. 1973) and would be the primary artist (outside of that one Romita fill-in for issue #132) through Conway’s last issue, #149 (Oct. 1975). Andru’s own run on the title would then continue several more years beyond this with writers Len Wein and Marv Wolfman.

Conway’s first issue, Amazing Spider-Man #111 (Aug. 1972), tied up some threads involving the Gibbon and Kraven the Hunter left in the previous issue (#110). Conway and Romita didn’t really start anything entirely their own until their second issue together, ASM #112 (Sept. 1972), which began a storyline that introduced Hammerhead and eventually set him against Doctor Octopus, with Spidey caught in the middle. Aunt May would eventually get tangled up in this plot too, evoking some past interactions between she and Ock from the Lee-Ditko and Lee-Romita Eras.

It had begun is Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 (1963) when Ock took May Parker and Betty Brant hostage, and May’s reaction upon their first meeting was “A doctor! How nice! Such a charming, soft-spoken gentleman!” When Spidey later bursts through a door to rescue them, May is struck by his lack of manners. “I’m sure Dr. Octopus would never had entered that way without knocking!”

Clearly, Lee had written all this as a joke. He would make the relationship a slightly more serious plot point in ASM #54 (Nov. 1967) when Ock answers a listing May had placed in the newspaper and becomes her boarder. When he first shows up on her front porch May does question him with, “Didn’t I hear something about you being wanted by the police?” Ock assures her it’s all a misunderstanding, and that Spidey was the actual crook in their altercation and that he was just trying to stop him. Pete flips out when he visits and finds Ock there, which, of course, was Lee’s purpose behind the plot development from the beginning: soap-opera drama placing Aunt May in jeopardy. Conway takes it up a notch here though, when he teases actual romantic possibilities between May and Ock, going so far as to have Ock declare his “love” for her in ASM # 115 (Dec. 1972), but most readers likely guessed that this was a ruse and that Ock simply wanted to use May for some nefarious purpose. That purpose would not be revealed until issue #131 (Apr. 1974), when we learn that May had inherited a Canadian island that happened to hold one of “the world’s most sophisticated nuclear breeding reactors.”

This encapsulates the rollercoaster nature of Conway’s tenure. Hammerhead, with that Dick Tracy-style design was fun. The whole Doc Ock-Hammerhead rivalry was fun. All good stuff. But then the bad stuff is really bad: Aunt May’s relationship with Ock was ridiculous to begin with and then, incredibly, grew even worse with this Canadian island nonsense. So May Parker, who was always portrayed as being rather aged and poor, had a relative (an older, and extremely wealthy relative, most would logically assume) that died and left her an island in Canada? One with a nuclear reactor on it? If May had relations rich enough to own an island, why did she have so many money problems previously? Why didn’t she just ask said relations for some financial assistance? With family this rich, Peter should have grown up in a mansion, right? This was an utterly mindless development.

ASM #116 (Jan. 1973) kicked off a three-issue, reconfigured reprinting of the B&W Spectacular Spider-Man #1 magazine from ’68. I believe the original thought behind this was that reproducing old art would be less work and less time consuming than producing all-new art and that this could get them ahead on the production schedule. I don’t believe this worked, as I seem to recall Romita saying somewhere that fixing the art to fit the standard comic trim size was actually more work than producing new pages would have been. In any event, I was never a big fan of the original story to begin with, and it didn’t do much more for me in color, but there certainly wasn’t anything offensively bad about it.

Then comes the Hulk two-parter in ASM  119-120 (Apr.-May 1973). This was when Romita passed the penciling baton, as Kane took over with the second part, #120. Always great action to be found when the Hulk gets involved with something so this was good. But then we get to . . .

The Unpardonable Sin

This brings us to the you-know-what which I covered in the finest detail you-know-where-and-when. As I spelled it out then, the story that killed off Gwen was a mess, as there was basically no reasonable cause of death ever offered, and it wiped away what the strip had been clearly building toward under Stan Lee. If you sit down and read all of the Amazing Spider-Man comics in order (which is basically what I’ve been doing in prep for this series of posts), when you get to ASM #121, you get the all-too-real feeling that a hijacker has grabbed hold of the wheel of the car and driven it off the road. Everything feels like it’s suddenly going in the wrong direction.

This was bad. It began as a cheap stunt to shock the audience and grew into something even worse—the worst of the worst. Conway’s fan prejudices had poisoned the story, in addition to slipping on the most basic of plot banana peels: How did Gwen even die? What killed her? But personally, for me, the worst part of all of this had nothing to do with the terrible plot construction or Conway catering to his own inner fanboy. My biggest complaint is simply that this was not what Stan Lee wanted. Spider-Man was Lee’s baby, he was the man who originally conceived the character and shepherded the character for the first ten years of his existence. Spider-Man was born because of Lee, he’s the reason we have the webhead in our lives at all, so he should get his way. No one else should get their way with Spider-Man over Stan Lee, not Gerry Conway, not John Romita, nor ANYONE else.

And this is just the Gwen side of the equation. The other side (which I’ve never even gotten into here before) was nearly as bad in its own way. Because killing off Norman Osborn as the Green Goblin, Spidey’s greatest enemy, was also a terrible decision. For decades afterward, they tried coming up with replacement goblins and none of them really worked. The Hobgoblin did the best, at least at first, as long as his identity remained a mystery (and it also likely helped that this was a somewhat-new version of the character, as opposed to just another pretender putting on a Green Goblin costume), but none could ever truly compare to Norman Osborn, the villain that actually unmasked Spider-Man. Killing off such a villain was another really bad idea (though I’ll concede that the story that killed him off was well done and extremely compelling—certainly a vast improvement over the story that killed Gwen).

Aftermath

ASM #123 (Aug. 1973) sees Spidey getting blamed for the death of Norman Osborn. (Because of course he would be. Murphy’s Law applies to Peter Parker/Spider-Man more than anyone or anything else in the known universe—Conway got this aspect of the character right, at least.) Naturally, Jameson and the Bugle are leading the charge in this campaign, which leads to JJJ hiring Luke Cage to bring Spidey in. Before crossing paths with Cage, Spidey takes a swing across the city and briefly ponders the loss of Gwen. “It’s not like I feel guilty. I know I did everything I could to stop it . . . no, it’s something else. I feel alone,” he goes on, “more terribly alone than I ever felt in my life.”

If there was ever a time that Conway lost Peter’s character and voice (even if it’s just temporarily), it was here. “Not like I feel guilty”?? Peter Parker always feels guilty, it’s literally his defining character trait. And he would feel especially guilty here, particularly if you’re selling Spidey’s web line breaking Gwen’s neck as the cause of her death (we’ll get deeper into this later on). And even without that, the Goblin targeted Gwen precisely because of her relationship with him—Pete having a guilty conscience here would actually be more than reasonable because it really kinda is all his fault. And under no circumstances would he absolve himself in such a casual manner.

Pete goes on: “Maybe it’s time I chucked the whole thing. My heart just isn’t into the whole superhero game anymore. I’ve lost too many friends. Too many good people. Too many people I love. Maybe it’s time to hang up the web shooters. I’ve had it. Let somebody else play games with human lives. Spider-Man is finished!”

But of course, he never did quit. In fact, he never spoke of quitting again in this era. Pete should have been having this conversation with himself every issue for the next several years, but this was the first, last, and only time he questioned continuing as Spider-Man in the wake of Gwen’s death. A major weakness of this Conway run.

Things will get just a little bit worse before the issue is through. Pete later attends a school concert with MJ at her behest. Once there she pleads with him, “Relax, Peter . . . please? I asked you to come to this school concert for a reason, mister. You’ve just got to get out of yourself . . . dig?” This is just eight pages after attending Gwen’s funeral earlier in this same issue. Conway was trying too hard to push past the loss of Gwen and he wasn’t very subtle about it. Really, ASM #123 should have been a lot more like Daredevil #182, with Peter’s grief (and guilt) driving him out of his mind. The depiction Conway is offering here is just way off.

The months that immediately followed the deaths of Gwen and the Goblin had just a few highlights, with most of the stories coming off weak, with a couple that were outright terrible (falling into the latter category would be issue #131, with the Canadian island debacle). A few notable events: ASM #126 (Nov. 1973) had the return of the Kangaroo, along with Jonas Harrow, who had first appeared in a flashback in ASM #114 (Nov. 1972) as the discredited surgeon who created Hammerhead. Harrow would be an ASM mainstay throughout the 70s, a thorn in Spidey’s side that the webslinger didn’t even know existed. The beginnings of the Spider-Mobile are to be found in this issue as well. Now the Spider-Mobile could have (and really should have) been a disaster, as the idea of Spidey trying to fight crime while driving a car through Manhattan traffic is ludicrous, But Conway took the right approach here and just had fun with it, making the inherent silliness of the idea entertaining. (To me, at least—your own mileage may vary on this one.)

Then there was the new Vulture that Conway introduced across ASM 127-128 (Dec.-Jan. 1973-1974). This was another bad one, as I touched upon about a year and a half ago.

Darkness, Darkness

Allow me to invoke the Spidey issue of the FantaCo’s Chronicles Series from 1982 here for the next part of this post. Even forty years later, this magazine could (and should) be used as a bible for anyone who writes (or has aspirations of writing) Spider-Man comics:

The next two supporting characters introduced into Spider-Man were killers the reader was supposed to sympathize with, The first, John Jameson, had been around since issue #1 and had fought Spider-man in issue #42. But a moonstone he wore around his neck somehow changed him into the Man-Wolf—a werewolf-like killer who would later appear in his own series in Adventures in Fear.

The second was the Punisher, Conway and artist Ross Andru’s nod to Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry.” An AWOL marine, according to later extrapolations on the Punisher’s beginning, he has become a vigilante executioner after mobsters murdered his family. Although he is at first hired to eliminate Spider-Man (who is wanted for the deaths of Ms. Stacy and Norman Osborn), he will eventually team up with Spider-Man several times. (Steve Webb, “Gerry Conway: Life Hanging by a Thread,” FantaCo’s Chronicles Series No. 5, July 1982, p. 14.)

Man-Wolf first showed up in ASM #124 (Sept. 1973) while the Punisher would debut five months later in issue #129 (Feb. 1974). I’ve gotta tell ya, when I first read ASM #124 (or got the Power book-and-record set, I’m honestly not sure which I was exposed to first) I never presumed John Jameson killed anyone as the Man-Wolf, since we never actually saw this in the story. Once I got hold of Marvel Tales # 102 (Apr. 1979), which fully reprinted ASM #125 (Oct. 1973), John Jameson’s conversation with his father, JJJ, in the middle of the issue seemed to support this presumption, as it strongly suggests John never killed anyone, despite the savage nature of his wolf self. But on the story’s last page, Spidey does speak a few lines that cast some doubt on this. “Who knows,” the webhead observes, “maybe he’s already killed someone. If he hasn’t, it was luck.”

But even if the Man-Wolf hadn’t killed anyone up to that point, the beast certainly seemed to have murderous impulses. And no one would argue that the Punisher wasn’t a stone-cold killer. This all contributed to the much darker flavor Conway was bringing to Spider-Man, clearly. The larger questions were: was this darkness a good thing? And: might this darkness have been just a bit too dark for the pages of Amazing Spider-Man? In any event, it was a fresh atmosphere for the title, if nothing else.

Another villain that debuted in issue #129 was the Jackal, who was clearly inspired by classic Ditko era villains like the Goblin, the Big Man, and the Crime-Master, as he had a secret identity and aspirations of becoming the Crime Boss of New York. He ended up something very different from this, but such was not the plan when Conway originally created him. I wonder what he might have been if not for a change in course dictated from above—and for those unaware, I speak of Stan Lee’s order to restore Gwen to the strip. In Conway’s own words, “at the time we introduced the Jackal, I had no idea he would become a central figure in the ‘revival’ of Gwen Stacy. Gwen’s return was something Stan decided we needed to do in response to fan pressure.” (Gerry Conway, “Turning Point,” Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man Volume 13.)

In ASM 132-133 (May-Jun. 1974) Conway brought back the Molten Man and Liz Allan. Molty had been the villain in the issue where Liz originally said goodbye to Peter, at their high school graduation in ASM #28 (Sept. 1965), which inspired Conway to make a connection between Liz and Molty, revealing him to be Liz’s step-brother. Conway also tweaked Molty’s power set—previously, he had this metal-like epidermis, but now that metal-like epidermis was giving off tremendous, near-combustible heat. I liked bringing Liz back and liked the Molten Man (with the change in power set), but was not a big fan of connecting the two characters. I think it hurts when there are too many characters in a superhero strip with superhuman connections. I believe it’s better when the “normal” supporting characters remain as normal as possible, as this helps with the suspension of disbelief. When a supporting character like Liz Allan suddenly gets connected to a supervillain like the Molten Man, readers can smell the contrivance from miles away.

Immediately after this, in ASM 134-135 (Jul.-Aug 1974), we are introduced to the Tarantula and see the Punisher return. I liked the Tarantula and appreciated the timely geopolitics in his background. And the Punisher always added some juice whenever he showed up.

This brings us to the first issue of Amazing that I ever bought off the stands.

“The Green Goblin Lives Again!”

The importance of Amazing Spider-Man #136 (Sept. 1974) in the history of my own fandom cannot be overstated. I may have already owned Mego dolls of Spidey and the Goblin prior to getting this comic, but if I didn’t, I certainly got them not long afterward. I’ve been a Spidey nut for as long as I can remember but this comic brought my devotion to another level.

I enjoyed the story immensely and Ross Andru’s art was marvelous (no pun intended). The fact that Spidey was fighting his best friend captivated me. The scenario was just so inherently dramatic. And if you’re young and just getting into comics (as I was), it’s understandable why one might find this so compelling. It’s only when you place this story within the context of the larger Spidey mythos that it becomes deeply problematic.

As mentioned earlier, the Norman Osborn Goblin was Spidey’s all-time greatest adversary and none of the other Goblins to come after him could ever possibly measure up. And of all the guys to ever assume the Goblin identity after Norman, Harry was actually the worst choice of all. Because Harry already filled another important role in Spider-Man’s life as Peter Parker’s friend, and making him the Goblin obviously shatters this. All the writers that succeeded Conway those first couple of decades after he left had a tacit understanding of this.

I should also add: It takes a certain level of egotism—megalomania, really—to put on a goblin costume and fly around the city on a rocket-propelled metal bat, terrorizing people and trying to take over the town. Harry was the opposite of a megalomaniac, being one of the most insecure dudes you could ever imagine. So making him the Goblin also made no character sense—a fact that later Spider-Man writer Roger Stern understood quite well.

When Roger Stern first started writing Spidey, he received many requests from fans to bring back classic villains, with the most requested villain of all being the Green Goblin. Two of the three previous incarnations of the Goblin were (at the time) dead, however, and Stern didn’t want to use the sole living option, Harry Osborn, in the role again (all of which ultimately led to the creation of the Hobgoblin). In Stern’s mind, Harry was never any kind of legitimate Goblin in the first place, explaining, “[Harry] wasn’t really the Green Goblin—he had a psychotic episode and thought he was the Green Goblin.” In order to put on the Goblin costume again, Stern felt Harry would have to suffer through another psychotic episode. “Harry I liked,” Stern said. “I didn’t want to put him through this crap again. He had grown into a really good friend for Peter.” (Glenn Greenberg, “Pro2Pro Roundtable: When Hobby Met Spidey,” Back Issue #35, Aug. 2009, p. 11.)

Harry was Peter’s friend, and Peter Parker didn’t have many good friends. It was a bad idea to ever make him a villain at all. And as mentioned earlier, only Norman Osborn should have ever been, or ever should be, the Green Goblin. On the stone tablets of the Ten Spidey Commandments, “Norman Osborn is the Green Goblin” has gotta make the top two or three. “Harry Osborn is Peter Parker’s friend, never his enemy” should also be right up there, somewhere.

When this two-part story is concluded in issue #137 (Oct. 1974) the Harry Osborn character is left an utter wreck, as he’s carried off to a mental hospital, cackling like a madman. This development is another check in the negative column for Conway.

The Closing Stretch

I know a number of fans see many of the original villains Conway created as too goofy, holding little appeal, but I’m not one of them. Besides, I always appreciate when a writer tries to bring new characters to a strip (as opposed to just mucking around with the established characters), and honestly, I liked most of these new villains. In addition to Hammerhead, the Man-Wolf and the Tarantula, ASM #138 (Nov. 1974) gave us the Mindworm; #139 (Dec. 1974) introduced the Grizzly, whose costume was precisely as creative as the Rhino’s, but I still liked it; and in issue #143 (Apr. 1975) we got the Cyclone. Conway also brought back a few classic villains. In addition to the previously mentioned Molten Man, there was Mysterio (albeit with a new guy under the fishbowl) and the Scorpion in issues 141-142 (Feb.-Mar 1975) and 145-146 (Jun.-Jul. 1975), respectively.

There were also a few personal developments for Peter Parker during this time. The same issue that gave us the Grizzly, #139, saw Pete find a new apartment for himself, a “tenement in Chelsea,” three and a half rooms, $110 a month. The following issue, #140 (Jan. 1975), introduced Pete’s new tenement neighbor, Gloria Grant. This would be Pete’s home for the next dozen years of Spidey comics.

Now the ugly part. Yep, it’s time to talk about those damn clones.

Apparently, Stan Lee had been catching so much flak from fans on the college circuit over Gwen’s death that he finally ordered Conway to bring Gwen back. Conway did not exactly follow orders though, because he did not bring back the real Gwen, he created a facsimile of Gwen in the form of a clone. And then he made a clone of Pete/Spidey, as well. Most of you already know the disaster this led to in later decades, but what you may not be aware of is that it was also a fairly-big disaster in its own time. Enough so that for many years afterward, subsequent writers were loath to touch it—which is telling, because we all know how comic writers love their callbacks and revisiting past plots.

How toxic was this? For some context, let’s look back on an old Marvel reprint series, Marvel Saga. The series told the story of the Marvel Universe in a linear, historical manner, reprinting panels from the original comics. The series ran for 25 issues, from Dec. 1985 through Dec. 1987. When Pete and Mary Jane got married in both the comics and the newspaper strip in the summer of ‘87, they put out a special Saga recounting the history of their relationship in issue #22 (Sept. 1987). When they got to the clone part of Spidey’s history they did not identify the Gwen clone as such, instead referring to her as simply “another woman”:

From Marvel Saga #22 (Sept. 1987), featuring panels from ASM #147 (Aug. 1974).

Again, as I mentioned back in 2014, in the decade and a half after Conway left, all the clone stuff was almost completely ignored by the writers that came afterward. And you can’t ignore it more willfully than they did here. In fact, this feels like they’re actively trying to erase it from Spidey’s history entirely—that’s how toxic, how radioactive, this was.

Now clearly, the spirit of Stan Lee’s order to Conway was to somehow restore the real Gwen Stacy. As mentioned, what we got was not the real Gwen Stacy, but a sham—a sham created for the sole purpose of making Gwen go away forever. As Conway would reveal many years later:

I did, however, manage to get one crucial concession: Stan agreed that whatever we did, we should not invalidate the original story [ASM #121], and that when we were done “bringing Gwen back” we could write her out of the series permanently. Which is how and why I came up with the Jackal storyline, which in turn led to the Clone Wars epic [in the 1990s]. (Gerry Conway, “All Things Must Pass,” Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man Volume 15.)

Conway wound up using the Gwen clone as the flimsiest straw man in history. Any new comics fan who was just starting out on Spider-Man would naturally prefer Mary Jane to this version of Gwen Stacy, as she was the most delicate snowflake imaginable, in addition to being a bit of an airhead. While Gwen was never portrayed in the most ideal light, not even under Stan, this was still pretty blatant (and quite literal) character assassination.

Gwen vs. Mary Jane

In the romantic debate of Gwen vs. Mary Jane, I am a Gwen partisan. This was not always the case, as I was pretty big Pete-MJ ’shipper as a child, when I got started as a comics reader near the end of Conway’s original run in the mid-70s. As I grew up and became more immersed in the comics and caught up on all the Lee-written issues of ASM, it would become clear to me that Gwen was the true soulmate. I’ve been regularly making a public case for this for almost nine years now, so in the interest of fairness, let me allow Gerry Conway to make a case for his point of view, courtesy of Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story:

[Gwen] was a nonentity, a pretty face. She brought nothing to the mix. It made no sense to me that Peter Parker would end up with a babe like that who had no problems. Only a damaged person would end up with a damaged guy like Peter Parker. And Gwen Stacy was perfect! It was basically Stan fulfilling Stan’s own fantasy. Stan married a woman who was pretty much a babe—Joan Lee was a very attractive blond who was obviously Stan’s ideal female. And I think Gwen was simply Stan replicating his wife, just like Sue Storm was a replication of his wife. And that’s where his blind spot was. The amazing thing was that he created a character like Mary Jane Watson, who was probably the most interesting female character in comics, and he never used her to the extent that he could have. Instead of Peter Parker’s girlfriend, he made her Peter Parker’s best friend’s girlfriend. Which is so wrong, and so stupid, and such a waste. So killing Gwen was a totally logical if not inevitable choice. (Howe, pp. 136-137.)

There’s a lot to disagree with here, but for now I’ll focus on the one thing he said that I found intriguing: “Only a damaged person would end up with a damaged guy like Peter Parker.” This mindset could have made for an intriguing approach to Mary Jane. But the only time we saw any hint of this in the comics was at the very end of ASM #131:

This is interesting because Mary Jane is clearly shown to have issues with trust, intimacy, and/or possibly commitment here. Conway is exploring new depths we’d never seen in the character before (or since, really). But the exploring ended here, just when it got started, as MJ would show none of this complexity or depth again. In fact, from here on out, her relationship with Pete was pretty much your standard comic-book romance with the same old formula soap-opera tropes. The above panels were the only glimpse Conway ever gave us of the more complex, “damaged” version of Mary Jane Watson.

Instead, Conway started making some pretty major changes to the character of Mary Jane, nearly all of which only made her more like Gwen. Now if MJ had always been this great, so-very-interesting character, why change her at all? And certainly, why would you make her more like that “nonentity,” Gwen Stacy?

For example, in the Lee-Romita Era when she first appeared, Mary Jane was not enrolled in college. She hung out with Pete’s college crew, socialized and partied with them, but she did not attend classes with them. As originally presented, MJ was just an utterly shallow party girl who possessed no serious interests of any kind. She never held any kind of regular job outside of a couple gigs as a dancer and/or stage performer. Gwen, on the other hand, was a science major who took her studies very seriously. In the immediate wake of Gwen’s death, Conway suddenly had Mary Jane attending classes at ESU with no explanation, as if she had always been enrolled there.

Then there’s a scene in ASM #136 where MJ is out with Pete and she tells him, “When we were in high school, you were demon dull.” This makes it sound like she went to the same high school with Peter, which, of course, she did not. She and Pete weren’t even introduced to each other until after Pete had graduated high school and was in college. Before Conway had done this overnight makeover, fans might legitimately question if MJ had ever even graduated high school at all—being “too cool for school,” literally, would have certainly fit her character as written by Stan. Being a high school dropout also could have played well into Conway’s view of her as “damaged.”

The Lee-Romita Mary Jane could also be monstrously awful at times. The best (or perhaps I should say worst) examples of this were her utterly cruel treatment of Harry Osborn, flirting with Peter right in front of him on several occasions, dumping him callously, and then never expressing any regret that this may have pushed him into drug abuse. MJ was not a sensitive person and didn’t have much use for anyone that didn’t want to keep the party going 24/7. On the other side, Gwen cared very much about others, and we would regularly see her prioritize her father or Pete before herself. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems that Stan’s portrayal of Gwen as a good and kind person was to demonstrate her worthiness of Peter. Conversely, MJ was portrayed as an unkind person to demonstrate she was not worthy of Peter (or Harry either, for that matter). When you read all the classic comics by Lee and Romita, this becomes abundantly clear.

Again, in the wake of Gwen’s death, Conway reverses this almost instantly, as MJ suddenly becomes this kind and thoughtful person who was concerned for others—much like Gwen was. That last page of ASM #122 was her greatest character moment at the time, and probably remains her best moment to date.

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This is a great moment and wonderful start to a potential rehabbing of the MJ character—but that’s all it is: a start. After all the crap she’s pulled in the past, you could never rehab MJ in just one page, not even a page this good. But I’m beginning to wonder if Conway thought he finished the job with just this page. If so, he was dead wrong—Mary Jane still had a lot of work to do and a lot of restitution to make. This page by itself does not erase her prior sins, and it most certainly does not suddenly make her worthy of our hero, Peter Parker.

Even if the MJ character could theoretically make restitution, erase her sins, and believably be made into a good person, Gwen already was a good person, requiring no rehabbing at all. Every way you look at it, I don’t see how anyone can make a rational case for picking MJ over Gwen. Killing Gwen to clear a path For MJ as Pete’s love interest was never remotely “logical” (in fact it’s the opposite of logical) and certainly not “inevitable.”

Even for those who would argue that MJ was not an awful person (and this would be damn hard, and likely impossible, to do, based on the Lee-Romita work that preceded Conway), Gwen would still be the better match (and this is without even getting into Stan’s wishes for his characters). What are the key traits of Peter Parker? Well, aside from the guilt he’s constantly carrying, he invented his webbing and web shooters completely on his own, as a teenager, so he’s obviously a brilliant scientific prodigy. Gwen is also a science major and likely a pretty smart cookie herself. (Wouldn’t she have to be, in order to capture Peter’s attention as completely as she did?)

My original Gwen post was inspired by the release of Amazing Spider-Man 2 in 2014, and it pleased me greatly to see that despite all the stuff those movies got wrong, they absolutely nailed this part of the Gwen character.

Yes, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone were dating in real life when these films were shot, so part of the chemistry popping off the screen here is a result of this—but not all. Pete/Spidey having a girlfriend that can go toe-to-toe with him intellectually, particularly on the science, is a big part of why this works so smashingly well. It’s also part of what makes Gwen the ideal partner for Pete.

Ron Frenz put it best in a Roundtable discussion for Back Issue about fifteen years back:

Gwen was the girl Pete should have married. She was the soulmate. She was perfect for Pete, and I don’t doubt for a minute that if he would have told her the truth about being Spider-Man, she would have dealt with it. I think that was Stan’s problem, there was no way this relationship was not going to end in marriage. At that time, with Stan in charge, people were recognizing that marriage wouldn’t be good for the character, so they made the decision to kill her. (Dan Johnson, “Pro2Pro Roundtable: Twenty Years of Webbed Bliss,” Back Issue #23, Aug. 2007, p. 14.)

People, in the words of the MCU Captain America, I could do this all day. Literally. In fact, I could probably go on forever. (Hell, I’ve already been going for closing in on nine years now.) But I’m choosing to stop here (for the moment, anyway) and get this post moving forward (at least temporarily).

Marvel Team-Up

I’m not going to give this title too much attention here, but it certainly merits a mention, at least, as it got its start within the timeframe I’m covering today and was a long-time showcase for Spidey. These stories were action-oriented team-ups where Spidey shared the stage with a guest star, and so there wasn’t a lot of character development going on. (And as far as I know, such has always been, and remains, the case. All of the major events and the deepest character moments in Spidey’s life happen in the pages of Amazing, not Spectacular, Team-Up, Web, or anyplace else, really.)

Marvel Team-Up was bi-monthly from its first issue (Mar. 1972) through issue #7 (Mar. 1973), then went monthly with issue #8 (Apr. 1973). Roy Thomas kicked things off in Marvel Team-Up #1 (Mar. 1972) with a Spidey-Torch tandem, a paring Gerry Conway continued with in the second and third issues. In the stories to follow, Spidey would team with the X-Men, the Vision, and the Thing. The latter team-up, #6 (Jan. 1973), was one of my earliest encounters with Spider-Man in comics form, courtesy of the local barbershop.

Other notable issues: Spidey first met the Werewolf by Night in MTU #12 (Aug. 1973), plotted by Gerry Conway and published at nearly the same time as the first Man-Wolf appearance in ASM #124 (Sept. 1973), which, of course, was likewise written by Conway. Some readers may have thought they were suffering from double vision if they happened to see the two issues together on a spinner rack somewhere.

Spidey first met the Ghost Rider in #15 (Nov. 1973), a story that looms larger in Ghost Rider’s history as it introduced his longtime nemesis, the Orb. Then Stegron first appeared in MTU #19 (Mar. 1974), in a team-up with Ka-Zar. Another notable issue was when the Frankenstein Monster appeared in issue #36 (Aug. 1975).

After the debut issue by Thomas, all these MTU stories were written by either Conway or Len Wein and featured classic, Bronze-Age art from Ross Andru, Gil Kane, Sal Buscema, and Jim Mooney.

Giant-Size Spider-Man

During this period there were no Spidey annuals with original stories published. But this was not a bad thing as we actually got something better. Across ’74 and ’75 we got an annual-sized series of comics that was published quarterly and they called them (well, most of them) Giant-Size Spider-Man. Like the then-new MTU series, these were action-centered stories where Spidey shared the stage with a guest star, and so, like MTU, there wasn’t a lot of major character development going on, but they were still great fun.

The first of these was actually titled Giant-Size Super-Heroes #1 (June 1974). Script by Gerry Conway with pencils by Gil Kane, it featured Spidey taking on Morbius the Living Vampire and the Man-Wolf. The first issue of Giant-Size Spider-Man was published the following month (Jul. 1974), and was titled “Ship of Fiends!” This one featured Dracula, himself! I didn’t get this when it came out (in fact, I didn’t get any of the Giant-Size series when they were originally published) but I saw a house ad for it in Doctor Strange #2 (Aug. 1974)—which I had purchased on that shore trip in the summer of ’74 alongside ASM #136—and was utterly transfixed. Spider-Man fighting Dracula? If any back issue stores existed anywhere near us in 1974 and I was aware of them, I would have nagged my parents endlessly to take me there, just to find this one comic. Written by Len Wein and penciled by Ross Andru, the Dracula confrontation teased by that ad and by the glorious Gil Kane cover was a real bait-and-switch, but Dracula did appear in the story.

 

Giant-Size Spider-Man #2 (Oct. 1974), “Masterstroke!” Guest-starring Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, was written by Len Wein and penciled by Ross Andru. From Dracula right into Fu Manchu, the webhead was facing off against some very big names of popular, mass-market literature. Then came an encounter with one of the biggest names from the pulps, Doc Savage, in Giant-Size Spider-Man #3 (Jan. 1975), “The Yesterday Connection!” was written by Gerry Conway with pencils by Ross Andru.

Then GSSM #4 (Apr. 1975) sees the Punisher return for his third appearance in “To Sow the Seeds of Death’s Day!” Script by Gerry Conway, pencils by Ross Andru. Issue, #5 (Jul. 1975), “Beware the Path of the Monster!” saw Spidey cross paths with the Man-Thing while taking on his old foe the Lizard, once again by Gerry Conway and Ross Andru. The final issue of GSSM, #6 (Sept. 1975), was a straight reprint of Amazing Spider-Man Annual #4 (Nov. 1967), which featured a team-up between Spidey and the Human Torch.

While a touch outside the chronology of this series of posts, I should probably add here that the team of Conway and Andru would also give us the Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man treasury edition released in early 1976. As noted, this was after the end of the proper Conway Era on ASM, but probably makes the most sense to include here, given the creative team. This was the first superhero team-up co-produced by “the big two” and thus was and is a pretty big deal. The $2 cover price earned a hard “no” from my Pop at the time it was published, but I got it a few years later from a back issue bin somewhere and enjoyed it greatly. Even as an adult, I find it a great read, so this one goes into the plus column for Conway.

Spidey Super Stories also got its start during this time, with the first issue cover dated October 1974. Though not connected to the regular Spider-Man continuity, it would go on to have a lengthy run, so I felt it deserved a mention. For more on this rather unique experiment in comics publishing, click here.

Conway’s Apology (and Non-Apologies)

In November of 2021, on his Attack of the 50 year old Comic Books blog, Alan Stewart authored a post trying to make sense out of the god-awful mess that was Conway’s Mister Kline saga, which ran across Daredevil, Iron Man, and even had a brief pit stop in Sub-Mariner. Near the end of the post, Stewart provided the following quote from Conway, taken from his foreword to the eighth volume of the Iron Man Masterworks:

Iron Man (along with Sub-Mariner, and soon after, Daredevil) was my first foray into scripting an ongoing comic book series. I’m afraid it shows, particularly in the poor development of that man of supposed mystery, the puppet master I called Mister Kline. I honestly don’t recall what I intended when I introduced him as the player-behind the-scenes, but the final reveal (here and in a concurrent issue of Daredevil) must have been disappointing for readers. What can I say now, but, sorry, folks—I was still on the bottom end of a long learning curve. (A curve I’m still following to this day, I might add.)

This inspired me to go hunting for forewords to the ASM Masterworks volumes to see if Conway may have offered similar words regarding his ASM tenure. The first ASM Masterworks volume to reprint Conway’s work was #12, which reprinted ASM 110-120, but it had no foreword. The three volumes to follow, however, did have forewords written by Conway: volume #13, which reprinted ASM 121-131; volume #14, which reprinted ASM 132-142 plus Giant-Size Superheroes #1; and volume #15, which reprinted ASM 143-155. I didn’t own these volumes (because they’re expensive and I’m poor, and besides I already own nearly all of the original comics, anyway), but being a seasoned interwebs scrounger, I was able to find the text of those three forewords. Right off the bat, with that first foreword from the thirteenth volume, I found myself a bit disturbed.

First, Conway seems to express nothing but exorbitant pride in his ASM work, particularly the death of Gwen Stacy, characterizing 1973 as “a watershed year for comics, and for [Spider-Man],” as well as the “year comics changed forever.” He would go on:

Without the death of Gwen Stacy, would there have been an alcoholic Tony Stark?

Without Gwen’s fatal fall, would Daredevil have met Elektra?

Would Wolverine have gone so dark?

These are some pretty long reaches, in my eyes. The answers to those questions, in my mind, are an easy yes, yes, and yes.

Then Conway describes the genesis of the death of Gwen Stacy as beginning with John Romita’s supposed idea to kill off Aunt May; Conway claims he countered this with the suggestion they bump off Gwen instead. This wasn’t the first time Conway made this claim (while also claiming the opposite at other times) and I’ve already debunked it in my original Gwen post, but as long as we’re here, let me offer up some fresh evidence (fresh in terms of this blog, I mean) straight from Conway’s own mouth. In a 2006 Back Issue interview conducted with both he and Romita, he stated: “As I remember, John, I think it was originally your idea to kill Gwen Stacy.” (Dan Johnson, “Pro2Pro: Gerry Conway and John Romita Sr.,” Back Issue #18, Oct. 2006, p. 56.)

This Masterworks foreword is dated 2010, just four years later. How did Conway’s memory do a complete flip-flop in just four years?

Whatever the case, Conway’s 2006 statement is the correct one, clearly. While the stories of Conway and even editor Roy Thomas have vacillated over the years, Romita’s has never changed, and it goes as follows: He was approached by Conway and/or Roy Thomas with the idea of killing off Aunt May and nixed it, feeling (correctly) that without Aunt May, Spidey would have no need for a secret identity anymore. He then countered with Gwen Stacy because of his fond memories of Milt Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates newspaper strip and its storyline that killed off Pat Ryan’s girlfriend, Raven Sherman. Literally every time Romita is asked about the death of Gwen Stacy, he brings up Terry and the Pirates. This is why I trust Romita’s memory of these events above everyone else’s.

And I should note here that Romita’s motives in suggesting Gwen die were pure, as he was just trying to produce a compelling story. Conway’s motives were impure and completely self-serving, as he was looking to remake the strip to fit his own idiosyncratic fan prejudices (preferring Mary Jane over Gwen for no rational reason).

Then Conway made another outlandish claim. After he got back Gil Kane’s penciled pages for ASM #121 to dialogue and caption, he claimed to realize that the art left it unclear how Gwen died, saying, “Characters had fallen from greater heights in comics and been caught without injury. So why couldn’t Gwen survive a fall like this?”

That’s what most of the readers were wondering too, when the issue was first published. And the real explanation is that, at the time, the teenaged Conway thought the “shock of the fall” would kill her. He not only made this clear through the Goblin’s dialogue in the issue, he was still sticking to this story fifteen months later in Amazing Spider-Man #136 (Sept. 1974).

Captions at the the top of the seventh page of “The Green Goblin Lives Again!” from ASM #136 (Sept. 1974).

In order to understand Conway’s false logic at the time, allow me to make a digression here. For all my fellow Gen Xers out there, you remember that kid Mikey from the old Life cereal commercials? Did you hear the same rumor I did about him, circa fourth grade? The one about how Mikey died from swallowing a whole bag of Pop Rocks in one gulp and then guzzling a can of soda, causing his stomach to explode? This is just one example of an outrageous rumor that made the rounds among kids back in the 1970s (demonstrating that this sort of nonsense didn’t just start with the internet and social media).

Another example of said nonsense would be the one about the Empire State Building. Way back when, it was an accepted truth among many of us kids that if you jumped off the top of the Empire State Building, you would be dead before you hit the ground. Why? Because the “shock of the fall” would kill you. As in the sheer force, or velocity, of a fall from such a great height would somehow cause sufficient physical harm, or “shock,” to kill you all by itself. This is ridiculous, of course.

The young and very naïve Conway still must have believed this when he was putting together ASM #121. But Conway did not cop to this here, instead taking the extreme opposite course, painting it like he always recognized that the fall by itself couldn’t kill Gwen, and thus he willfully added the infamous “snap” sound effect to indicate that Spidey’s web had caused Gwen’s neck to break. As he put it:

Yes, I know there’s been controversy about whether the fall itself, or Spidey’s catch, was responsible for Gwen’s death. Let me clear it up for you now, once and for all. As far as I’m concerned, as the writer of the story, that sound effect is there for a reason. Let’s not be coy. Yes, in trying to save Gwen, Peter killed the woman he loved. I’d also like to point out, if he hadn’t tried to save her, she would have been dead anyway. It was a lose-lose situation. Sometimes life is like that. Bad things happen.

Sure, bad things do happen. And there are many times in life when bad things happen randomly and good people suffer through no fault of their own. You know what’s not random? Bad writing—which is what this was. Also poor (or non-existent) planning. Readily avoidable if we had an editor pointing out the problems with the plot before it was drawn or if Marvel simply hired an experienced, mature writer to do the job in the first place. Let me also point out that this “snap” claim is at complete odds with what Conway has said previously, particularly in that DeFalco book quoted in my original Gwen post, wherein he couldn’t explain why he added the “snap,” calling it a “subconscious” choice, and later adding, “I’d sure like to believe she [Gwen] was already dead” when Spidey’s web line caught her.

Ultimately, this is all irrelevant (apart from demonstrating just how inconsistent Conway’s story has been over the years), as the broken neck explanation doesn’t work either, so if Conway thinks the “snap” solves his cause-of-death problem, he’s sadly mistaken. As I wrote in 2014: “Spider-Man had been around over ten years when this issue [ASM #121] saw print, and in that time he often used his web line to save people from falling—and none of them ever suffered injury from it.” Going back now to do more complete research on Conway’s full run on ASM, I discovered a fine example of this JUST ONE ISSUE PRIOR, in ASM #120.

No shock-of-the-fall problems for this guy, nor any broken necks.

Conway’s foreword to the fourteenth volume of ASM Masterworks was a bit less troublesome. A good portion of the beginning was devoted to singing the praises of Ross Andru, which is something I can certainly get behind. On the other hand, he expressed a fondness for the Harry-as-Goblin storyline, invoking the Raimi films’ adaptation of this as some kind of proof of its quality. As I said earlier, making Harry the Goblin was a terrible creative choice in my opinion, Raimi or no Raimi.

In the fifteenth volume, Conway refers to those original clone stories as being “epically controversial,” which would be in line with what he said in Volume 13, when he observed that the storyline led to turning “Marvel continuity into a pretzel back in the 1990s.” But he still never directly expresses any regret over writing it, nor does he concede that he may have made any major mistakes, let alone offer anything close to that apology he gave for the Mr. Kline mess.

In fact, just this past summer, when he was interviewed at Terrificon, Conway was asked what he thought should be included in a hypothetical “Best of Gerry Conway” collection, and the first story he offered was ASM 121-122.

I’m not out for blood here, but it would be nice if Conway acknowledged that this story is deeply flawed, and that these flaws likely resulted from the sloppy and reckless approach that appear to have been his modus operandi  at the time.

As for the clones, Conway should take no pride in this mess ever; not under any circumstances. A mess, by the way, which is apparently still ongoing. Now believe me, I don’t go looking for these things, but with my browsing habits, all kinds of comics-related (particularly Spidey-related) stuff pops up in my newsfeed all the time. And a couple months ago, something popped up that absolutely blew my mind. Now if I got bad information or somehow misread what I saw, by all means, someone tell me, but I saw Ben Reilly somehow walking around, alive and well in present-day Spider-Man comics again. Didn’t he dissolve into goo twenty-five years ago? Please, Dear God, someone tell me I somehow got this wrong—I am begging you, please. If not, all I can say is . . . has Marvel lost its %*&#ing mind??

Looking Forward to Looking Back

In an attempt to end this on a more positive note, let me plug one of my favorite comic blogs. Going by Mike’s Amazing World, the 50th anniversary of the release of ASM #121 is March 13, 2023—precisely two months from today. Which means at some point in the relatively-near future Alan Stewart will likely be covering the issue on his Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books blog. I am greatly looking forward to reading his take on this. As a fan who was experiencing this in real time, reading the issues as they were being published, I am very curious to hear how it struck him when he first read it as a young teen in 1973.

As for this blog, I’ll be continuing this Shark-jumping Spidey series on an irregular schedule going forward, along with some other hopefully-fun stuff as ideas strike me (or as circumstances might demand). Hope you can all join me for the ride throughout 2023, and a belated Happy New Year to all!

 

 

3 thoughts on “When Spidey Jumped the Shark, Pt. 3”

    1. No pressure, Alan. Just curious to read how this story struck you when you first read it as a kid (and I think it’s safe to assume you read it when originally published, right?). If I had first read the story at such an age, I imagine I probably would have just accepted it as is—I don’t recall approaching my comics with a critical mindset until several years later in life.

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