In the first of a new series here at Flickering Myth looking at classic comic book story arcs, Jessie Robertson explores ‘The Night Gwen Stacy Died’…
Issues: The Amazing Spider-Man #121-122 (June-July 1973)
Writer: Gerry Conway
Pencil Art: Gil Kane
Inking: John Romita Sr/ Tony Mortallero
“She was young, she was beautiful, she was innocent and she would pay for it all with her life.”
These are the words etched on the back of my trade paperback as flavor text. Ominous grim words. In the history of Spider-Man lore, this event shaped his professional and personal life forever. Let’s talk about the story itself first.
The basic plot is that Green Goblin and Spider-Man both know each other’s secret identities (Norman Osborn and Peter Parker, respectively). Norman Osborn is insane and has a fragmented mind, where when he’s the Goblin, he forgets he’s Norman and vice versa. His goal is to kill Spider-Man. He goes after Peter Parker at his apartment but finds Peter’s recently returned from Paris-girlfriend Gwen Stacy. Goblin leaves a message for Peter, a pumpkin bomb on top of the purse he bought her for Christmas. Spider-Man finds them on top of the Brooklyn Bridge and engages Goblin, but during the battle, the seemingly unconscious Gwen is knocked off the top of the bridge. Spider-Man directs his webbing to save her, but when he tries to wake her, she is already dead. Goblin then tells him as much. From there, Peter loses control and beats Goblin within an inch of his own life. He regains control of his anger and stops himself, but Goblin has remotely signaled his “Goblin-Glider” to strike Spider-Man; the plan backfires and it impales the Goblin himself. Spider-Man feels remorseful not only because a man has died due to an accident but Norman Osborn is his best friend Harry’s father. That is the overall plot in a nutshell.
At the beginning of most comics, you’ll have an individual title for the issue; #121 begins with the narrator telling you to wait until the end, to keep the suspense up which was a great idea because if you’d just plastered ‘The Night Gwen Stacy Died’ at the beginning of the issue, it would still have an effect but may have lost some of the surprise element while reading the issue. The thing I enjoy about the artwork of these issues is the weathered faces of the older characters and the straight clean faces of the younger. It’s not a huge detail but I like the way it looks on the page. Spider-Man is also drawn really well, dodging and twisting his body to avoid Goblin’s trick weapons and the backgrounds stay simple to add to the “amazing” nature of Spider-Man’s agility.
Now for some history on the involved storyline: Harry Osborn (Norman’s son) had recently developed a drug habit which had put hm into a coma and had him lashing out at Peter in previous issues. Harry and Peter were fighting over Mary Jane Watson, whom Harry thought he was dating and Peter was trying to stave off affections from. Peter, in fact, was dating and in love with Gwen Stacy. Tragedy had also recently struck her when her father, the police Captain, was killed in the line of duty and Spider-Man was blamed. At this point, Gwen was hoping for a marriage proposal from Peter, but when it did not come, she fled to relatives in Paris.
According to the creators of this storyline, Gwen Stacy was killed because there was no where to feasibly go with her character. The next natural step for her and Peter would be to get married but that was not going to happen with Spider-Man. At the end of issue #122, Peter finds Mary Jane waiting for him, to comfort him with the loss of her good friend and his girlfriend; Peter chides her but she does not leave his side. This is the event the essentially puts them on the path to true love and marriage, as Mary Jane Watson becomes Mary Jane Parker later on.
Another major impact this had on Spider-Man lore is the passing of the Green Goblin from Norman Osborn to his son Harry, who then become a tortuous rival to Spider-Man for years to come until he met a very similar fate at the hands of his own glider.
Let’s talk about this panel now:
This is where Gwen has been knocked off the bridge, Spider-Man shoots down some webbing and grabs her by the ankles. In the very next panel, it looks like she was webbed around the waist, which I’ve always thought was strange. Now, the crux of this scenario is Spider-Man blames himself for Gwen’s death even though Goblin tells him she was already dead. In the original printing of issue #121, there is a “snap” sound effect by Gwen’s head, giving you the impression when Spider-Man catches her with the web that her head suffered a whiplash or snapping effect. It was then hypothesized that Spider-Man catching her in that manner, snapping her head back severely is what caused her death. In fact, editor of Marvel comics at the time, Roy Thomas, only 3 issues later, would print in the Letters section that this was in fact her cause of death. This fact, coupled with the manner of Uncle Ben’s death, would be another haunting memory to plague Peter Parker for years to come.
This storyline was used in the 2002 Spider-Man film , but instead of Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane Watson was thrown off the bridge. Spider-Man saved her life though and Green Goblin still accidentally killed himself. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man borrowed a lot of ideas from this plot line; Harry Osborn trying to gain Mary Jane’s affection even though she has feelings for Peter, Norman having split personalities, and Harry swearing revenge for the death of his father on Spider-Man. The latest Spider-Man franchise again borrowed this storyline, in 2013’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but instead of Norman Osborn, it’s Harry who becomes Green Goblin and puts Gwen Stacy in her perilous predicament.
Now, as comics are prone to do, characters do not stay dead forever. They return in some form or fashion, as was the case in Amazing Spider-Man; less than two years later, Gwen reappeared, with no memory of what had happened to her. She was a clone, created by Miles Warren who had been in love with her at the time of her death. Her clone and several others would appear in several storylines over the years, including the much maligned “Clone Saga” that all Spider-Man fans loathed and would recall as one of the worst Spider-Man stories.
Norman Osborn would also return to comics, apparently having survived the Glider and pulling strings and manipulating Spider-Man’s life, going on to starting his own militant branch of S.H.I.E.L.D. called H.A.M.M.E.R.
Even though these characters came back, it does not diminish the overall impact this story had. The killing of a major character in a major title was simply not done as much in those days, nonetheless the title character’s love interest. The fact that this storyline is re-used again and again shows that it stands the test of time of being a true classic. It gives you so many sides of the Spider-Man character as well, as Peter struggles to deal with losing his girlfriend, trying to save a friend from the struggles of drug addiction and how to manage his super powers being a teen fresh out of college. ‘The Death of Gwen Stacy’ will go down as a benchmark moment not just for Spider-Man but in comics history.
Next time I’ll be taking a look at a classic story about the big blue boy scout…