Wednesday, March 27, 2013

One Life To Give

Considering how its predecessor tale in "real life" left the matter so unresolved, it's only natural to assume that the What If? story that served as an unofficial follow-up to Gwen Stacy's death would deal head-on with the circumstances of her plunge from the George Washington Bridge. After all, it would have to, if she actually takes that plunge as before:

But this recap only adds a small amount of revision to what's gone before. In the earlier story, the Goblin maintains that the shock of the fall itself is what killed Gwen, even before Spider-Man's webbing reached her. And as we see here, writer Tony Isabella sticks with that general assumption--but also seems to imply that Spidey's webbing played a part, given the panel's image and the timing of its narrative. As a result, once again the issue is left as up in the air as Gwen herself. You and I, with perfectly good eyes, can see that there is no "shock of the fall" in play here--Gwen is unconscious, unable to experience any shock whatsoever. The shock of the halt to that fall is another matter, but it's apparent that Isabella is reluctant to tread on the ground that Gerry Conway, writer of the original story, has established.

Yet if you can get past that minor frustration that remains niggling to this day, What If? #24 is a very good story by Isabella, who has a great feel for what's gone before and writes Peter Parker and his supporting characters as if he were the book's regular scripter during the time these events originally took place.

In fact, the story reads so smoothly, at times it almost seems that you're reading a natural extension to the original. Indeed, Isabella comes up with a way to add to that impression, by beginning the story with "our" Peter Parker mourning the one-year anniversary of Gwen's death:

It's a sequence that reads very realistically, with Peter remembering his time with Gwen with a mixture of joy and sadness. And it provides a nice segue to the Watcher, who gets us to the point of this story by showing us the what-might-have-been aspect to Gwen's death that we've been waiting to see:

Once he reaches Gwen, Spider-Man has no choice but to use his own body to cushion the fall into the river for Gwen (who, I might point out, seems to have survived the shock of this fall just fine, so far), and his strength allows them both to come out of the plunge with only a little mouth-to-mouth necessary for Gwen. It's funny--Isabella could have avoided all of the uncomfortable questions about Gwen's original death entirely by just having Spider-Man get her off the top of the bridge and out of harm's way before he tangles with the Goblin. What guy is okay with leaving his girlfriend on top of a bridge that's over 600 feet high while he begins a battle with a deadly foe? We can probably chalk it up to Peter not thinking clearly because of his flu symptoms. This guy must be one of the least resistant people to viruses I've ever seen.

So, Gwen is saved. But Peter's not home free yet:

Yeah, that old chestnut. But now, Peter has the chance to give Gwen a full account of the circumstances of her father's death. Imagine my surprise at seeing the matter confronted in a What If? story, as it would have made a pretty good story in Amazing Spider-Man when Gwen was still alive. And though condensing it, look how much Isabella manages to pack into the scene:

And since Peter is finally unloading some of the burdens he's been carrying all this time, he goes for broke and decides to totally change the direction of his life here and now:

Oh come on, you don't need to see the following panels, do you? What do you think she says? :)

Anyway, you've probably noticed that a certain Goblin still needs to be dealt with, and so Peter makes his apologies to Gwen and swings off to find him. (And, shock of shocks, you won't see any flu symptoms from this point on.) Spidey tracks down the Goblin as he's attempting to establish himself as New York's new crime boss, bragging to some assembled hoods about how he killed the web-slinger. Of course, that's Spider-Man's cue to make his entrance. But there's now a complication, as the fact that the Goblin knows Peter's identity is starting to make the rounds:

The Goblin escapes in the melee, but Spider-Man knows that he can find him at Norman Osborn's residence. By now, Osborn has also told his son about everything that's happened with Peter, which puts Harry in the uncomfortable position of taking the side of either his lunatic father or his best friend:

But when Spider-Man gains the upper hand, Harry makes his choice:

Believe it or not, it turns out to be the best choice for all concerned. Harry's willingness to fight for his father snaps Osborn out of his insane identity as the Goblin. And even though Osborn hasn't forgotten his acts or that Peter is Spider-Man, Harry convinces Peter to let him care for his father and see to his recovery. Which is another lingering issue off Peter's table, this time for good.

Everything seems to be turning up roses for Peter, doesn't it? In fact, look who he picks as his Best Man while Harry is seeing to his dad:

But just when things are looking their brightest for Peter, you just know who's going to throw a wrench into the works:

It seems the Goblin, when he was still on the run, mailed a little dossier of Peter/Spider-Man to Jameson which revealed Peter's secret. And since Spider-Man is still wanted by the police, Jameson brings them in tow to Peter's wedding, while also running a newspaper story exposing Peter's double identity to the world. Things go from bad to worse, though, when Jameson's accusations make Aunt May keel over with a heart attack. And you know things have truly gone nuts when Flash Thompson ends up being the voice of reason:

And this time, I will show you what happens next. Because this could have gone one of two ways, and all that's come before has us leaning toward the direction of Peter making a stand in terms of cooperating with the authorities and clearing his name. After all, most of the issue has Peter confronting all the things that have held him back in his life--and, one after another, each development has made him a more mature and more responsible person, as well as a happier one. Now he has another opportunity to move past a difficult chapter in his life as Spider-Man, by settling things with the police once and for all and making sure Jonah Jameson comes to terms with his issues with him. And what about Gwen? He's committed to a new life with the woman he loves--doesn't she factor into his decision? She damn well should. Now that the world knows he's Spider-Man, Peter doesn't have the luxury of letting his wife bear the burden of being alone and having a fugitive for a husband.

So, given all of that, you'll probably be as astonished as I was to see the choice that Peter makes:

He bolts. What he hopes to accomplish, aside from Aunt May getting cared for (which I'm reasonably sure would have happened regardless), I have no idea. Afterward, he seems as clueless about it as the rest of us:

The cover caption shouts, "Whatever You Do, Spider-Man... Don't Save Her!", giving us the impression that Gwen remaining alive would be far worse for Spider-Man than the tragedy of her death. But while things look grim for Peter, it was his own actions which made his life take a turn for the worse. The Goblin was simply the catalyst--it's Peter himself who has added fuel to Jameson's fire. What laws has Peter broken as Spider-Man? The most serious charge against him is that he's wanted for questioning in the death of Gwen's father, which he could clear up at a simple hearing. After that, Peter's friendly lawyer, Matt Murdock, could probably dig up enough dirt on Jameson to insist that he print a retraction as to the claim that Peter is Spider-Man, or see a nice little exposé on himself go public. The point being that the situation facing Peter was far from irreparable; and with his responsibilities to both Gwen and Aunt May, becoming a fugitive was not an option I expected him to choose, even in the heat of the moment.

Still, top marks for this story by Isabella, which fits like a glove with the original story and covers all the bases. This follow-up also sees the return of Gil Kane on artwork--joined this time by Frank Giacoia on inks, whose work nicely smooths out Kane's rough edges. Perhaps this story could have used a more satisfying ending, as shamelessly as it leaves the door open for a sequel (which the Watcher readily taunts us with). But though that was never written, you can still enjoy the many other nice touches that Isabella adds to this story, and perhaps come up with your own happy ending for Peter and Gwen. I don't think you'll find anyone who'll object to doing an end run around the Watcher.


Doc Savage said...

For a smart guy, Peter Parker makes a lot of stupid choices...

Never seen this What If? before. Great review!

Comicsfan said...

Thanks! It's a fine story.

The Uncanny Fox said...

I've always preferred the explanation that the sudden stop killed Gwen, that she was doomed no matter what Peter did. It kind of adds to the tragedy of the whole situation.

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