Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Way Back

As dramatic as the death of Gwen Stacy was in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man, there would be additional drama to be found in how her death would affect Peter Parker, her boyfriend who had grown to deeply love her. Long-time readers of the book had invested a lot in the character of Gwen, because we were witness to that growth for nearly every step of the way--and for Peter, whose life as Spider-Man was never a glamorous one and who seemed to be the poster boy for hard luck cases, Gwen was the one bright spot in his life, one of the few that seemed to have a good chance of giving him a shot at happiness.

So when Gwen lost her life, it felt like a vacuum in these pages. Everything had changed so suddenly, and so many of the characters were at loose ends. Complicating matters was the death of Norman Osborn, whose identity as the Green Goblin was carefully hidden by a figure in the shadows. And there was Peter, who had to go on--not just as Peter, of course, but also as Spider-Man. Spider-Man still had books to sell, so Spider-Man couldn't just stay out of action due to grief. Yet when in action, Spider-Man couldn't be the same old quick-witted "Spidey," at least not for a while--because Peter had to come to terms with Gwen's death, and Spider-Man coming to terms with it while out adventuring was going to be a delicate balancing act.

There was a wealth of characterization to be mined while this situation played out, and there was simply no better person to handle the book during this period than writer Gerry Conway, who had been the brainchild behind taking out Gwen in the first place but who consequently opened the flood gates to such good story material. I've made no secret of my opinion that Conway's writing style presents too heavy a mood for most comic books, and comics characters in particular. When Conway takes the reins of a title, you can almost see cloud cover moving over the lives of those characters--souring their mood with pessimism and bitterness and sapping the joy out of their lives for the duration, their dialog becoming tense and confrontational. But the very reasons Conway often makes for such a depressing read also make him the near-perfect choice for this period in Peter's life following this kind of jolt that causes such a change of course for him. And as readers, still in shock ourselves, Conway makes it possible for us to empathize with Peter on levels that might have eluded the style of writers less likely to probe so deeply.

So in that sense, issue #123--the first issue following Spider-Man's confrontation with the Goblin, and where Peter must start to truly deal with his feelings in the aftermath and try to begin to pull his life back together--this is where perhaps the real drama in this story hits. And as you can see by the cover, Conway has no intention of letting Spider-Man sit on the sidelines nursing the same wounds that Peter is dealing with.

Before we get to the story, it bears mentioning that this issue pulls out all the stops in the art department--with pencils by both Gil Kane and John Romita, with Romita inking as well (along with Tony Mortellaro). And while it's clear that Kane has done most of the layouts, it's interesting to see where Romita has stepped in and wonder exactly why. It could have been preconferenced with Conway; it could have been to help meet a deadline; heck, it could have been to give Kane a chance to skip out for a quick bite. But for the reader, this issue--which completes the pivot on the "turning point" put in motion with Gwen's death--effectively begins a new chapter in the life of both Peter and Spider-Man, and it's nice to see these two veterans of the book combining their talents to take us through the transition.

There's a lot to sweep up before Luke Cage enters the picture, of course. The news of Gwen's death has already reverberated--and now Norman Osborn is discovered dead. Obviously one death is more high profile than the other, and that's important to this story because it serves to draw in J. Jonah Jameson who, in turn, will draw in Cage. But Conway gives us something more with Jameson's typical bile where Spider-Man is concerned, since Osborn was something of a peer of Jameson's and his death strikes a chord with the publisher that can only make him lash out in a familiar direction, only with conviction this time born of grief rather than annoyance:

As you can see, Jameson's leaps in logic haven't mellowed with time; and strangely enough, Spider-Man has always been the one person in his life for whom he'll push aside his newspaper man's instincts of investigating a story and avoid jumping to conclusions. So far as he and the police know, the Green Goblin is still at large, and might be at the very least a person of interest in Osborn's death--yet Jameson only has eyes for putting a stake through Spider-Man for this outrage.

As Jameson departs, it falls to Joe Robertson, as it usually does, to make some kind of sense of Jameson's antics--or, rather, make sense of the man. "Robbie" has been one of my favorite characters in this book, and I always enjoy his scenes:

But it's high time we get a look at where this "easy-going" publisher's next stop takes him, as he seeks an effective weapon for his mission of vengeance:

You've probably surmised that Jameson is short on details with Cage and has limited his talk to just the proposition--and since Cage is fairly new on the scene, with only twelve issues of his own series under his (chain)belt (and only four more to come before his series was cancelled), he doesn't know Spider-Man from Adam, nor does he have any reason to doubt any story Jameson might have spun in terms of the wall-crawler's capture. He only knows that five grand has been dropped on his desk to do a job--an issue which will have ramifications later in this story.

While this transaction has taken place, Peter has been facing the inevitable--Gwen's funeral. It's rendered as a single, simple scene--but one which speaks volumes, and one which it appears Romita has drawn on his own:

Though Spider-Man has yet to enter the story, Conway perhaps strikes his first balance here with Peter in terms of grieving over Gwen. As we'll see in future issues, it will take additional time for Peter to simply put her memory out of his mind and get on with his life--but as far as the funeral itself, Conway uses it solely to pay deference to Gwen's involvement in Peter's life, moving us fairly quickly past dwelling on any elements of her life that might have been suitable to this service. The priest lamenting her has already done so; any eulogies spoken on her behalf have already been said. Even the burial has apparently been taken care of beforehand. All that's left are a few brief panels with mourners as they depart--Aunt May, Flash Thompson, and Joe Robertson. As for Peter, who is solemn for the most part, Conway has already had him spilling (and raging) his grief in the prior issue, so a more subdued tone seems the right call to make here.

Of course, given recent events, Peter has cause to revisit this old chestnut once again:

And if that isn't a cue for a good sock in the jaw, I don't know what is:

But Cage's reputation has preceded him--or, that is to say, his work ethic. And while Cage sees five-thousand dollars one way, Spidey riles Cage with his own interpretation:

Cage doesn't make it that easy for Spider-Man, and the fight goes on. Cage gets his licks in, but Spider-Man is his match and then some, though Cage is about 300 pounds of muscle and doesn't intend to go down easy. He also takes the opportunity to let the wall-crawler know that his life isn't as simple as the label Spider-Man attempts to pin on him:

Spider-Man leaves well enough alone at that point, and departs. But since we know that things aren't likely to end there, Conway takes the opportunity to give us an interlude with Peter and seeing how well he's getting on with his life. And that includes a scene with Harry Osborn, back at the apartment they share. We haven't seen Harry since he was in his sickbed tripping on acid, and was pleading with Peter to stay with him; but Peter was single-mindedly focused on settling the score with the Goblin at the time, and he ignored Harry's calls for help. So with Harry's father now dead, and Harry thrust into estate matters, their scene at the apartment is chilled, to say the least--and appropriately depicted thus by Kane:

Cut to a school concert later that evening, where Mary Jane has brought Peter in an attempt to take his mind off things. But someone's come calling who isn't in a mood for listening to a band:

And Round Two explodes, with Spider-Man making it clear that there won't be a third:

But Cage has some welled-up anger of his own, and is willing to pound his own message into Spider-Man:

Finally, though, Spider-Man's anger recedes, and he decides to end the conflict, only in a way that leaves room for a meeting of minds:

And talk they do. They reach an understanding off-panel, and it subsequently leaves Jameson in no position to talk about anything:

If this appearance by Cage were indeed used simply as a plug for his failing series, then it was reasonably well-handled, all things considered--since weaving in a major battle with Luke Cage in the midst of all that was going on with Peter could have easily come across as intrusive and ill-timed. But as we'd see in the very next issue, Peter's state of mind in the wake of Gwen's death wasn't smoothed over by a long shot--and Conway would now be able to fully delve into the matter of Peter's recovery, while demonstrating that his life as Spider-Man might be an unexpected form of therapy that would compel Peter to deal with the living.


Murray said...

For me, this was a special issue of Hero for Hire, guest-starring Spider-Man.

I wasn't a fan of Spider-Man's angst and soap opera (which seems positively light-hearted compared to most comics today), so none of the legendary death of Gwen made much impact in me. I only bought this issue because Luke Cage was on the cover. I had a passing familiarity with the cast to be able to follow what was going on. Two people had died, one very important to Peter/Spider-Man. I didn't disrespect their grief and kept a virtual moment of silence, but...let's get back to the action!

Yes, Hero for Hire would soon be gone, but Luke Cage immediately segued into Power Man without missing an issue or changing the numbering, so to say he was "cancelled four issues later" is a little misleading.

Comicsfan said...

Sweet Christmas, Murray! That's a good observation about Cage's first series--perhaps it would have been more accurate to say that it was regrouping. Cage has persevered with both a recycled name and being partnered with another floundering character, and I can't say I'm sorry to see the "Hero for Hire" handle kicked to the curb. Personally I liked him best when he became leader of his own Avengers team--this time with Spidey along for the ride.