Monday, August 20, 2012

Ignorance Is Bliss

What's wrong with this picture?

This image, of course, is from the classic Amazing Spider-Man #121, where Gwen Stacy--Peter Parker's girlfriend--is killed during a battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. For those of us who were around to read this issue when it came off the racks, it certainly hit us like a train wreck. Marvel hadn't yet spread Spider-Man so thin between a half-dozen separate titles, so Amazing and Marvel Team-Up were the only books at the time chronicling the character's adventures. As a result, ASM was the only one featuring any of Peter's friends or love interests to any extent--and up until this point, with the exception of Harry Osborn being hooked on drugs and Gwen's father, Capt. Stacy, being killed in a battle between Spider-Man and Dr. Octopus, Peter's hard-luck life had been limited to his own misfortunes.

So his girlfriend's death sent shockwaves through the book's readership, as well as Marvel books in general. There had been other powerful character deaths in Marvel books (e.g., Lady Dorma); but it felt like writer Gerry Conway had taken the gloves off, as far as other Marvel characters' mortality was concerned.

The circumstances of Gwen's death were, shall we say, up in the air. We readers know what we saw. Spider-Man, in a desperate move to stop her plunge off the George Washington Bridge, tried to snag her with his webbing. As you can see, he did--but the sudden jerk of the stop snapped her neck, killing her. And then, a curious thing happened. Conway writes the follow-up scene as if Peter doesn't understand why she's dead. Instead, he has the Goblin put it to him this way:
"Romantic idiot! She was dead before your webbing reached her! A fall from that height would kill anyone--before they struck the ground!"
And Peter reacts like he swallows that explanation--which, of course, makes him want to take bloody vengeance on the Goblin. So in the back of my mind, I thought, "We'll come back to this, after the Goblin's been dealt with. Peter will find out the truth, and he'll be wracked with guilt."

Well, we didn't--he didn't--and therefore he wasn't.  It was like a burden the readers themselves were forced to carry in secret--Spider-Man, who apparently didn't think to gradually slow her body instead of yanking it to a stop with his web line, killed his own girlfriend and doesn't realize it. Conway, in a podcast interview, stated that he thought that Peter would probably have killed himself, had he realized what had actually happened. Perhaps that's a bit extreme--but it may be fair to say that the character would probably, at the very least, have had a dark change in direction. A "damned if he does, damned if he doesn't" mindset--his inaction is responsible for the death of his Uncle Ben, and his direct action (however accidental) is responsible for killing the girl he loves.

We come a little closer to Peter finally waking up and smelling this coffee in a brief scene from issue #190 (written by Marv Wolfman), where John Jameson is falling off of the Brooklyn Bridge, and Spider-Man must act to save him. But look what's going through his mind as he grapples with how to save him:

It seems clear that, in Peter's mind, he bears direct responsibility for the way that Gwen died--and from all indications, he's since come to terms with it. What isn't clear is how Wolfman felt confident enough in the assertion to reach this conclusion in print, when until now the subject has been limited to the realm of speculation.

A year and a half later, writer Denny O'Neil finally puts the matter to rest in a scene which definitively establishes what happened in regard to Gwen's tragic death, and Spider-Man's role in it, when he must act to save another person from a similar fall.

Anyway, if you were wondering just what was so odd about that first picture... well, aside from the fact that maybe Gwen uses too much starch in her skirt, so that gravity doesn't make it flip when she's upside down after Spider-Man catches her--take a look at the webbing. Gwen is snagged around her legs; yet, as she's pulled up, the angle is all wrong, with the webbing now apparently attached to her torso and having disappeared from her legs entirely. Jeez, no wonder Spidey took so long to put two and two together!

1 comment:

maw maw said...

John Byrne drew this scene (thus plotted it). Byrne was a keen observer of Marvel's early years (no doubt he read ASM 121), and was at least partly responsible for the reference to Gwen's death, and how Peter could try to do better when faced with a similar situation (parallel construction, as Jim Shooter would say).

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