Monday, August 21, 2017

The Night Gwen Stacy Died!

It's been a long time since I've opened and re-read the classic Amazing Spider-Man #121, the pivotal issue from mid-1973 which shook things up by killing off a major character who had been a part of the book for over seven years. It's certainly no spoiler at this point to reveal that the person in question was Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker's girlfriend, hurled to her death by the Green Goblin (though thanks to the way writer Gerry Conway handled the situation, the actual cause of death has been a matter of debate). And so, since we know who died, how she died, and who can be blamed as the catalyst for her death, the question in hindsight becomes how well the story is able to dramatically convey not only the impact of the climax, but how well it ramps up the tension to get us to that point. The death itself was arguably what really carried the ball here as far as what the reader would most remember from this story. There was also the issue's cover by John Romita, along with its many "OMG!" exclamations, which had buyers forking over their 20¢ in order to find out who kicked the bucket.

But how memorable were the 27 pages of story which preceded that final page? Giving the issue another read after all this time, Conway's tale sets the stage well enough for the shock of Peter's life, as well as our wide-eyed shock of Spider-Man's raised fist of vengeance that decries his loss.

Since it's Romita's eye-catching cover which does the lion's share of selling this issue, it's appropriate to take a more critical look at it since there's no longer the heat of the moment prodding us to turn the page to the story. We could start with the choices we're given of who will be the one to die--yet right off the bat, we can make some reasonable picks as to who will survive, particularly when applying the cover's assertion questioning Spider-Man's ability to go on when faced with this person's loss.

  • J. Jonah Jameson - Chances are that there's practically no one who would have trouble going on with their life after finding Jameson's name in the Obituaries section of the Daily Bugle--and that goes double for Spider-Man, who's found himself on the receiving end of Jameson's scathing editorials. Joe Robertson could easily step in to fill the void left by Jameson, though admittedly Jameson's cantankerousness would be missed. On occasion.
  • Norman Osborn - His troubled son, Harry, might have a difficult time moving on. Spider-Man, not so much.
  • Flash Thompson - A thorn in Peter's side for most of his adult life, though Peter and Flash by this time had settled their differences for the most part. Peter would attend the funeral, no doubt--maybe even be a pall bearer. But aside from being honored that Flash was Spider-Man's biggest booster, there is no turning point that applies here for Peter.
  • Randy Robertson - Peter isn't super-close to Randy, so he'd likely be trying to comfort his father Joe more than himself.
  • Harry Osborn - Peter has admitted in the past that he hasn't been much of a friend to Harry; in fact, that's pretty much been mutually the case with these two. So while Peter would mourn for Harry, he'd be far from heartbroken. That said, at first glance Harry could also be a candidate for death, given his recurring addiction to drugs and the fact that he's in dire straits in that respect in this issue.

Thanks to the process of elimination, that brings us to the four candidates who are more likely to be marked for death:

  • Aunt May--Conway probably wouldn't give her a tragic death, given her advanced years, but she would technically meet the cover's condition of "Someone I cannot save!" while also being a turning point for Peter, and her death would unquestionably have a profound impact on him. But a comforting talk with Gwen, and an issue where he sifts through his memories of her, and that's that as far as dealing with her loss.
  • Mary Jane Watson--less of a hallmark than Gwen in the book, and still a rather flighty and pointless character, MJ's death would have to be extremely tragic for it to register to any degree with Peter, or the reader.
  • Joe Robertson--his death would definitely cause shockwaves with several of the other characters, including Peter, and would be a regrettable loss for the book, where he's developed into one of its most popular supporting characters. But, out of the blue like this, the circumstances of his death would have to resemble something along the lines of Captain Stacy's, which would be too obvious and lacking in originality.
  • Gwen Stacy--the most personal to Peter aside from Aunt May, the tragedy of her death would be a tragedy for Peter, as well. His loss would linger and his sense of responsibility for being helpless to prevent her death would be overwhelming and provide story material for at least the following six issues before tapering off.

It also bears noting that three candidates--Flash, Randy, and Aunt May--are nowhere to be found in this issue, which leaves just six people who Spider-Man feels close to. And that number is reduced to four when we also put an X through Jameson and Norman Osborn--three, if you also toss out Harry. That doesn't say much for how many people Peter considers himself close to, does it?

Inside, the story picks up with Peter returning from Montreal where Spider-Man battled the Hulk, to find Harry waging a battle of his own--and losing.

We'll find Mary Jane's contribution to this story to be minimal, if that. Other than her comment here, which seems in poor taste, her few appearances are mostly token ones. Even when asked her opinion on what could have made Harry relapse into drug abuse, she has nothing to offer to the conversation--which could be due to guilt over the fact that she hasn't been much of a girlfriend to him, or, worse, that she's come to realize that she doesn't want the baggage that Harry brings to their relationship. Taking into account what this issue portends, Conway perhaps feels this isn't the time to sidetrack to all of that.

The person who does have a few things to say in this story, however, is Norman Osborn, and he starts with Peter--or, more accurately, starts in on Peter.

In his thoughts, Peter is naturally recalling that Osborn's memories of his identity as the Green Goblin--memories which include Peter's identity as Spider-Man--are currently buried, though his agitation suggests that those memories might be on the verge of returning. But while Peter's concern is valid, we learn that Osborn's mental state is only part of the reason for his being on edge.

It's a fragile picture that Conway gives us of Harry. Flipping back through prior issues, there's no indication that Harry is on the road back to drug use (until a recent scene where Harry doubles over on the street), so this development seems to come out of nowhere--and we're left to assume that it's his concern for his father that's at the root of why he's once more turned to narcotics, in order to cope. In other words: Since Harry can do nothing substantive to help turn his father's financial affairs around, he seeks escape just as he once had, by tripping on LSD. Drawing that conclusion would be a stretch even for a letter writer looking to snag a no-prize. How ironic that, if Harry were in his proper frame of mind, he'd realize that he's only added to his father's state of anxiety.

As for Peter, he's run his errands and is prepared to head back to his apartment to meet with Gwen--even though, for the reader who is already familiar with how this story plays out, there is now the disturbing realization that, earlier in the day, Peter had seen Gwen alive for the last time.

We're halfway through the story now, and we see that Conway has begun stacking the deck against Peter by springing a virus on him this close to zero hour, presumably to handicap Spider-Man sufficiently so that he won't be at the top of his form and be able to make his best effort to save Gwen when she needs him the most--or maybe as an omen of how terrible this day will end for Peter. More than once I've wanted to somehow reach my hands into the printed page and throttle the writer who resorts to this kind of distraction. There are numerous instances where Spider-Man has had a rough time of it with the Green Goblin without being debilitated by illness--what's the point of introducing coughing and dizziness at this juncture? In this issue's follow-up, where Spider-Man goes after the Goblin with a vengeance, this virus has mysteriously vanished--apparently because it's no longer needed. Was it ever?

And speaking of the Goblin, Osborn has finally reached the breaking point--and there's little doubt at this point that hallucinations of Spider-Man will trigger his regression into madness.

(It's still unclear why Osborn would be tormented by images of Flash Thompson or Randy Robertson. I would think that, right about now, images of the business sharks that are trying to sink Osborn's finances would be more front and center than either of those two.)

At last, the Goblin makes his appearance, beautifully unveiled by artist Gil Kane. Unfortunately, it's only ourselves and the insane fiend who approaches who are present at Gwen's last conscious moments.

With the stage set, the final player to be brought into this drama is of course Spider-Man, who's out on his feet but who thinks that he's far better off getting home by swinging through the air, hundreds of feet above the streets in dizzying maneuvers, than by simply hailing a cab.

The scene would have played just as well if it were Peter who had arrived home to find that Gwen had been kidnapped, his emotions playing out on his face while he frantically changed to Spider-Man to follow. Instead, Spider-Man assesses the situation and takes off in pursuit, with only Conway's narrative to give any indication of the potential danger. Would Spidey be just as calm in manner if it were his aunt who had been taken?

Spider-Man's business-as-usual mood even carries over to when the action begins. As hero and villain start mixing it up, while the damsel in distress is literally up for grabs, you'd think that this is just another day at the office for the web-slinger.

"Pumpkin boy"? Why isn't Peter dropping the cute epithets and heatedly calling this guy "Osborn"? His girlfriend lies unconscious, maybe injured, and threatened by one of his deadliest enemies, one who knows his secret identity--and it's a long way down to the ground. Have the gloves really been taken off by Spider-Man? It would be difficult to tell if we hadn't heard the words exclaimed for ourselves.

It's at this point when Peter's illness is exploited as a factor that would have considerable implications on this battle's outcome. Throwing his all into one punch, Spider-Man kayos the Goblin, or at least conveys that impression--giving Spidey time to rescue Gwen, while also giving the reader the impression that she might not be kicking the bucket today after all. Yet the Goblin recovers--and in a maneuver that you would think would be foiled by a spider-sense that has, time and again, warned of an approaching attack (and an announced attack, at that), the Goblin makes good on his threat to both of these people.

What follows is a scene that has been replayed and/or described in a number of other stories, even a What If tale that gives it a much different ending. As mentioned before, the circumstances of Gwen's death have caused no small amount of head-scratching whenever this subject is broached in forums or other venues of discussion--yet as a *ahem* cliffhanger, it serves to end the issue in the shocking impact that it promised and raise anticipation for its conclusion, where we'll really see the gloves come off of Spider-Man's clenched hands.

Perhaps it wasn't the case in 1973, but Conway's dialog for Spider-Man as he faces the reality of Gwen's death borders on cliché, with wince-worthy lines like "Don't be dead, Gwen--I don't want you to be dead!" and "Don't you understand? I saved you..." leading the charge. It does a disservice to what should otherwise be a powerful scene, as this hero doesn't seem to be grieving so much as putting on a performance. For what it's worth, Spider-Man's one-man mission to take his revenge on the Goblin will see Conway step up to the plate and bring this character to vivid, vengeful life--while also finally revealing the human being beneath the mask who's suffered the most profound loss of his life.


Amazing Spider-Man #121

Script: Gerry Conway
Pencils: Gil Kane
Inks: John Romita and Tony Mortellaro
Letterer: Artie Simek


Jared said...

I have never noticed how cheesy the dialogue here is mostly because that Romita art is so perfect. The story could about be told words.

Marvel Comics grew up in this issue. I don't think there had to that point been a death so shocking. This issue is remarkable. No matter how many times I reread it, the death is still shocking and chilling.

Comicsfan said...

Jared, I think Gil Kane probably deserves his share of the accolades for the artwork on this issue--but Romita's inks (along with Mr. Mortellaro's) finished Kane's pencils beautifully, no doubt.