The Only Really effective death in comics

August 27, 2004

Spider-Man: The Death of Gwen Stacy TPB

Writers: Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, John Marc DeMatties
Artists: Gil Kane, John Romita Sr.

By Avi Green

The early 1970’s were a time when groundbreaking – and I mean real forms of groundbreaking, were taking place in comics. Not just the “human interest” stories that first began in the late 1960’s, but also ones that dealt with even more important subjects, such as drug abuse, the Vietnam war, and even racism. This fine compilation here, collecting Amazing Spider-Man #96-98, and also #121-122, and even Webspinners: Untold Tales of Spider-Man #1, is something that not only presents an important story that Stan Lee worked upon back in the day, but also one of comicdom’s most sad, yet one of the very few well written, deaths of a female character in comics, that being Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker's late girlfriend, at the hands of the Green Goblin, alias Norman Osborn, the chemical researcher who, by ways of an accident, ended up insane, with extra strength, and determined to take up a career as a villain who would later become Spider-Man’s leading archnemesis because of his evil deed here.

You could say that it was what went on in the first three chapters of this trade that had what to do with the causes for Gwen’s death in the next two. But anyway, let’s now take focus on the story that takes place here.

Peter Parker is on his way back from London, where he’d hoped to visit Gwen Stacy, who’d fled there to take her mind off the death of her late dad, former NY police captain George Stacy, who’d died at the hands of Doctor Octopus, after he caused a chimney to shatter during one of his battles with Spider-Man on the rooftops of New York City, and he died when struck by the debris while saving a child from the danger above. Because Peter had to leap into action as Spidey to stop some local criminals in London, he decided it just wasn’t worth it to visit Gwen, since “she’d have put two and two together” figured out that Peter and Spidey were one and the same.

So, he returns to the Empire State University campus in New York, where Harry Osborn, son of Norman, invites him to attend a stage play starring Mary Jane Watson, who at that time was Harry’s girlfriend, though she’d been slowly becoming disillusioned with him, and was making friendly advances on Peter, whom she’d eventually become soul mates with. Before that though, he’s got to rescue a drug addict who’s attempting to commit suicide on a rooftop in downtown Queens after a serious overdose of LSD. And that’s just the start of what this whole groundbreaking story is about. The other is the reemergence of the Green Goblin personality in Norman Osborn, soon after the play, which he too has attended, has ended and everyone’s gone home, and he’s gone to find some Goblin equipment stored in one of the theater’s storage rooms (he once owned the place, and kept some of his weapons and costumes in there shortly before selling it), leading to the start of another clash between him and Spider-Man.

But what’s really compelling about this story is its groundbreaking focus on the problem of drug addiction that was starting to become a serious problem among people in society back then, and Harry Osborn himself had become addicted to LSD as well in an attempt to take his mind off the problems that were occurring to him at the time, whether it be with Mary Jane Watson, or even with his own father. Stan Lee had thought of the plot after being approached by the Education Department, who had asked him to address the problem of drug abuse that was spreading in society, but one problem was that the managers of the Comics Code Authority initially objected to the idea, so the story was published without the Code’s approval. It did so well that it convinced them to reevaluate their standards, and so, by the time that Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams did a similar story on drug abuse in Green Lantern co-starring Green Arrow a few months later, the Code had already reworked their standards enough so that it could be published without any such problems.

Harry had been buying various types of LSD from a drug dealer who’d been showing up on campus a few times, and, as shown in the middle of the story, ended up really making himself ill with a severe dose at his and Peter’s shared apartment. Peter later meets the dealer and his goons and deals them some good wallops, before finally attending the showdown for then with his archnemesis, who returns to his regular state of mind after seeing Harry asleep in the hospital (and when he was in the right frame of mind then, he couldn’t remember that Peter is Spidey). And then, more happy endings ensue, as Gwen, feeling that she’s got to get back to Peter, returns to New York, for a great kiss to conclude with.

And among the things about the above three issues that’s really effective of course, it’s Lee’s comments on drug addiction, as embodied by Harry Osborn, which, for their time, were a very bold step. As Lee himself once said, “we’d be doing more harm to the public by not addressing the problem.” In this case, it certainly was so, and who knows how well any writer could pull it off, assuming they wanted to. And the battle with the Goblin is one of the best when dealing with Spidey’s rogues gallery, very entertaining.

What goes on above is probably just some of what leads to what happens in the next two issues, as Spidey, on his way back from a photography assignment to Montreal in Quebec, Canada, where he battled the Hulk, who was on a rampage there, discovers that Harry’s lapsed into his habit again, and this time he’s ended up really sick. His father balks at moving him to a hospital this time, despite the doctor’s advice, and not only does Norman now have problems with dropping stock prices, which threaten his company financially, he’s so angry and sees Peter as responsible for what’s happened to him and Harry that he yells at him to get out of his life.

And then, to make things worse…Norman’s mind, both what’s clear and what’s not, all comes flooding together in a flurry of images, both his own and his Goblin personality, and soon enough, he heads for one of his storage warehouses to get his costume and weapons ready once again. And to force Peter into action against him, he kidnaps Gwen from her apartment and brings her unconscious to the George Washington Bridge, where Spidey, who’s already having enough problems with a cold developed during his trip to Montreal, soon arrives to battle the monster, but, just when it would seem that he’s managed to save Gwen, he accidentally ended up contributing to her death as well. The Green Goblin knocks her off the top of the bridge arch, and when trying to stop her fall with his webbing, Spidey unintentionally ends up breaking her neck.

And the knowledge that the Goblin himself is the one who’s murdered Gwen is what really ends up sending Peter over the edge, to the point of yelling at him that this is going to be the day he dies. As it was, in the following issue. After his confrontation with the police, including even a sympathetic officer who recognizes his pain and despair, Spidey then goes to the Bugle offices to see Robbie Robertson to ask if there’s anything he can do in his part to help, then tracks the Goblin to a warehouse in Norman’s ownership for a final showdown. He doesn’t kill him himself, pulling himself away from that possiblity and coming to his senses before that can happen, but the Goblin, in an attempted sneak attack with his rocket glider, does. The horn-like parts of the glider were bent into a forward position by Spidey during their battle when he stomped on it, and when trying to stab the web-slinger with them, Norman ends up taking his own life instead. But, as he tells himself, he feels no meaning from seeing Norman’s demise, none at all.

A very powerful issue indeed, chronicling one of the very few meaningful deaths of a female supporting character in comics. Most of those we see today are nothing more than plain shock value, including the very forced backstory shoehorning elements that took place in 2004’s very wretched miniseries from DC, Identity Crisis. Today, that’s not something the audience usually tunes into comics for, and when it comes to female characters, it’s certainly going too far.

Norman Osborn of course has since returned from the grave, a real irony considering that Gwen on the other hand, a clone notwithstanding, is still dead. But even so, this is still a very well done story for its time, and is done with real feeling for it too, and the steps that were taken since the 1990’s haven’t diminished its impact one bit. After this, Peter developed a more serious relationship with Mary Jane, and today the two of them are married, and the part where she’s about to leave Peter to himself in the apartment, but stops herself from leaving, is very well done.

The last part, “The Kiss,” which was the first issue in a brief series called Webspinners, a series that featured stories hitherto untold in Spidey’s past career, and is scripted by JM DeMatties, with Romita as the artist, shows what Peter thought of his and Gwen’s relationship more in depth, and how, if there’s anything she did for him that he thanks her for, it’s that she taught him about what it’s like to love. That too is a very involving part, and works very well in capping the book. We get to see also some of Peter’s circle of friends of the time, from Flash Thompson, who’d initially been an antagonist towards Peter in high school, but later reconciled with him, Harry Osborn, the friend who’d ended up becoming a semi-nemesis, in part due to the madness caused by his drug addiction, Liz Allen, Jill and John Stacy, Mary Jane, and even Gwen herself.

And it all wraps things up quite nicely, in one well compiled book, telling of some of the most famous storylines in Spider-Man’s career during the early 1970’s. One which is very recommended for anyone’s bookshelf.

Copyright 2004 Avi Green. All rights reserved.

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