Wednesday, January 2, 2013

"If we're going to kill someone, it's got to be someone very important"

Amazing Spider Man #121 & #122 (June and July 1973)

As we end our chronological look at the early Marvel superhero books, we're going against precedent in several ways. First, we're jumping ahead a couple of years--past a time of merely average stories to the point where the creative staff at Marvel realized they needed to do something to shake up Amazing Spider Man before it became stagnant.

Also, I've generally done little or no research before doing the chronological reviews, since I wanted to be able to write about the stories as is--and not be swayed by any knowledge of the creative process behind it.  Not that discussing that process isn't interesting and worthwhile--it simply wasn't the purpose of this series.

But this time out, I'm going to be talking about the creative process. This is because it's both particularly interesting AND--font of never-ending knowledge that I am--I already know quite a bit about it.

That's in part because I ran across references to this story arc a couple of years ago, when I was preparing a lecture I was giving to a History of Illustration class. The lecture would be about Milt Caniff, writer and artist of the best adventure comic strip ever--Terry and the Pirates.

In a 1941 story line, Caniff killed off a sympathetic major character named Raven Sherman. John Romita Sr, who would grow up to draw Spider Man, was ten years old at the time. He remembered not just the impact that death had on him as a kid, but that all the grown-ups were talking about it as well. He was struck by how much Raven's death meant to everyone.

So when editor Roy Thomas, writer Gerry Conway and Romita were talking about who to whack, Romita remembers pointing out that "If we're going to kill someone, it's got to be someone important. You can't kill minor characters and get any kind of reaction."

So who to kill? Poor Gwen quickly moved to the top of the list. As the decades passed and those involved were asked about the decision, memories sometimes became a little fuzzy. Certainly the fact that Gwen was constantly overshadowed by the vivacious Mary Jane was a factor. The most commonly stated reason, though, seems to be that Conway, Romita and Thomas simply didn't know what to do with Gwen. Peter was still too young (in comic book time) to get married and the creative staff didn't want to deal with the storytelling problems a married Spider Man would bring them.

Thus, Gwen Stacy's death warrant was signed.

The two-part story that evolved out of all that is quite excellent. Norman Osborne becomes the Green Goblin again and at the same time blames Peter for Harry's ongoing drug problems. He kidnaps Gwen and takes her to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge. (This was incorrectly identified as the George Washington Bridge in a caption from the original printing.) There is a fight and Gwen gets knocked off the top of the bridge.

Spidey webs her before she hits bottom and hauls her back up. But it's too late--she's already dead.

We probably oughta talk about the exact cause of Gwen's death--this is a source of some fan controversy because there's that gosh-darn "SNAP!" sound effect when Peter webs her. A few panels later, Goblin is gloating that a fall from that height will kill someone whether or not they hit bottom, but the SNAP implies that the whiplash of stopping when Peter webs her has broken her neck.

A few issues later, Roy Thomas confirms this in the letter column: " saddens us to have to say that the whiplash effect she underwent when Spidey's webbing stopped her so suddenly was, in fact, what killed her. In short, it was impossible for Peter to save her. He couldn't have swung down in time; the action he did take resulted in her death; if he had done nothing, she still would certainly have perished. There was no way out."

But then some reprints have left out the SNAP. And comic writers/editors can retcon events in a heartbeat. So who the heck knows? It really doesn't change the emotions inherent in the story, though. Peter had no choice but to web her as she would have died for sure anyways. It's clear that the Green Goblin is morally responsible for her death.


It's all done with incredible skill in terms of both writing and visual storytelling, hitting all the right emotional notes. It's a classic story not just because something important happens, but also because it's superb drama. Peter's reaction--his disbelief that Gwen can be dead because he had obviously just saved her--can't help but tug at your heart.

That's the first issue. In the next, Spider Man tracks down Goblin and beats the snot out of him. Peter comes within his eye-teeth of killing Osborne, but it's not in him to do that. But Goblin ends up accidentally offing himself when he tries one more time to kill Peter.

It's the last page of this story that--more than any other moment--makes this story arc a true classic. Mary Jane comes to Peter to comfort him. He snaps at her, essentially telling her she's a shallow party girl who isn't capable of feeling grief over anything.

He tells her to leave. That very last panel, where she decides to stay, glues the entire story together and helps elevate Mary Jane to a person with depth--someone we can really accept at Peter's eventual wife. It'll take them over another 14 years of real-world time to get there,when the characters had matured enough to make the idea of marriage more acceptable. Even so fans can legitimately debate whether marrying Peter off to anyone was a good idea. (Though I say that without in any way justifying or excusing the offensively bad idea known as "One More Day.")  But the idea that Peter and Mary Jane could one day fall in love with each other became perfectly believable at that exact moment.

And this officially ends our chronological look at Marvel. I've enjoyed doing it, but I'm really looking forward to being able to jump around the various comic book universes on a more random basis. As I said a few weeks ago, I appreciate the fact that I have regular readers and I hope that any of you who come to this blog primarily for the Marvel chronological reviews will stick with me. Remember, life without a regular dose of my brilliant insights is really not a life worth living.


  1. this is a great post. I remember the time well. it's too bad with all the death stunts comics do now the power of this story has been diluted. I mean, they've brought Gwen, Bucky, Hal, probably Barry and Uncle Ben back from the dead over and over.

    great post! I posted it over at a website where there's a thread about comics, hope you get some viewers!

  2. Thanks for sharing the post. I agree the "coming back from the dead" thing is very overused. I understand the temptation for comic book writers to go that route, especially since it CAN be done "realistically" in a comic book universe. But it should be a rare thing and characters that get a meaningful death that have a lot of emotional impact should stay dead--otherwise it cheapens the original story.

  3. I have enjoyed your journey through my childhood!


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