Sunday, February 9, 2014

Marvel Collectors' Item Classics #23: The Month Gwen Stacy Died!

The Month Gwen Stacy Died
by Professor Scott McIntyre

How does one say goodbye to true love? Relationships end in all manner of ways, but can be boiled down to two: break ups and death. Marvel had done both before, but playing the death card was usually done sparingly. At this stage of the game, only Janice Cord in Iron Man got the swinging axe in a poorly illustrated and badly motivated death during the climactic battle between Iron Man, Titanium Man and the Crimson Dynamo. Her final words revealed she knew Tony Stark was under the shell. Then, instead of jetting her to a hospital, Iron Man left her to finish off his enemy. She died a few minutes later. The impact was minimal and while Tony mentioned her a few times afterward, she was pretty much forgotten in the annals of history. Gwen Stacy, however, was another story.

Gwen and Peter Parker met in college and slowly fell in love. While their relationship was a bumpy one, with the usual Marvel Soap Opera keeping them from being truly happy, that love was mostly clear and sweet. It was the shadow of Spider-Man that always came between them. Whether it was because Peter had to constantly slip away to become the eponymous hero, or because Spider-Man was involved in her father’s death, Peter could never tell Gwen his secret. That secret became the true cause of her death and that death was a powerful one. She was beloved by fans as much as by Parker himself and her demise was treated with the utmost seriousness. This was no five-month-along supporting character meant to be killed off when things got dull. Gwen was a major character, as important to the mythos as Jonah Jameson and Aunt May. She was intended to be a part of the cast forever, with long range plans to have her marry Peter when it came time. So when it was decided she was a “a bit of a pill” and less interesting than the flighty Mary Jane Watson, the word to kill her off came down. Did she die in a ray blast, or saving a child? Were her last words “I love you Peter” to the masked hero? No. In fact, clich├ęs of the genre were avoided. Peter and Gwen had no last few minutes together. No parting words. Her unconscious form was callously knocked off the George Washington Bridge. Her still living body fell until Spider-Man spun a line and snagged her leg. He neglected to allow for the whiplash and her neck snapped like a dry twig. She was gone before he pulled her back into his arms.

What if he knew? Would Peter ever realize he had actually killed his one true love? For whatever reason, this was ignored in the text, but the fans noticed it. The Green Goblin, ostensibly the cause of her death,  said the shock of the sudden fall killed her. Nobody out there bought it for a moment. Finally, it was acknowledged in a later letters page that it was the sudden stop that snuffed her life. So Peter was spared this horrible agony, something that would have driven him to rock bottom. Something that the Peter Parker we knew could never crawl back from. It was better that way, for his sake, but for us – dead is dead. Gwen, the girl for us all, so beautifully illustrated by John Romita, was gone. She was too serious and dour to stay, Gerry Conway reasoned. Time to say goodbye.

Yet, by killing her, he somehow made her a stronger character.

I didn’t read it when it happened, I hadn’t discovered comics yet, but over time I read many of the Lee/Romita reprints and fell in love with Gwen, like everyone else did years earlier. I had no idea she was gone.  Finally, I read a later issue where her death was mentioned and, as a pre-teen, I was shattered. I fell into a funk that dragged me low for weeks. I had to find the issue where she died. I had to see it. Maybe then, I could move on. Needless to say, the cost of the original issue was well beyond my paltry allowance. However, I did manage to find the Marvel Tales reprint. So, I read and read, and read again. I found the follow up issue, hoping against hope her death was temporary and that I misread, or it was a trick. No. My young mind couldn’t conjure her resurrection and I finally accepted it. Gwen was dead. Forever.

Life changes you. You grow up, meet real people, fall in love, watch friends and family come and go. No longer do I pine for Gwen Stacy. No longer to I wish I could return her to life. Now it would be a cheat, along with the return of Norman Osborn, Jean Grey and so many others. Gwen is dead. Very dead. Even in 2008, when “Brand New Day” reset the timeline and brought back Harry Osborn, Gwen was not returned with him. This makes her even more an important figure: too important to bring back. She is a better, more powerful character after death than she ever was in life. During the “House of M” storyline, major Marvel heroes were granted their greatest desires. Peter’s was a life without problems; his identity known, he became famous and accepted. Uncle Ben was still alive and Peter was married with a child. His wife? Gwen. Not Mary Jane; Gwen. When he had that dream taken from him, he was inconsolable. When J. Michael Straczynski needed a story to shake Peter to his core, he went back to Gwen in a controversial and disgusting arc about Gwen’s kids, sired by Norman Osborn. Yet, regardless of my distaste for that turn of events, the fact remains that Gwen is still fodder for gut-wrenching torture for Peter. So while he has moved on, her specter remains and her memory haunts him.

That is her legacy. She lives within Peter, a part of him he always loves, always wishes he still had. This dour, serious, “bit of a pill” who needed to be killed off latched onto the long term consciousness of the characters, the writers, and the readers. Gwen never really left. Gerry Conway didn’t give her a quick death. He gave her something much more.



  1. Well done, Prof. Scott. Well done.....

  2. Scott,

    Enjoyed the piece, and nice observation about how Gwen grew more significant in death.