If there’s one thing that defines Spider-Man, it’s that there are just as many bad stories there are good ones. For every Amazing Spider-Man #1 (Chameleon, Fantastic Four), we get Amazing Spider-Man #2 (The Vulture, Terrible Tinkerer). Not long after Gerry Conway gave us a new Goblin in Harry Osborn, Len Wein replaced him with Harry’s psychiatrist. Let’s not even get into the stories that retcon the good ones! Want to know the real reason why the burglar broke into the Parker home in Amazing Fantasy #15? We learn in Amazing Spider-Man #200 that he was looking for buried treasure! So it’s safe to say that Spider-Man’s history is cudgeled with stories we’d all like to forget, perhaps more often than we think.
Which brings us to Gerry Conway’s two-part clusterfunk “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”/”The Goblin’s Last Stand!” from Amazing Spider-Man #121 and #122. This story is rife with plot holes and out of character moments, yet for some reason people foolishly laud it as one of the best Spider-Man stories of all time. God knows why. What happens in this arc taints the Spider-Man Universe in ways that are so irrevocable, writers have tried for decades to retcon it away, failing every time.
Before we plunge in, let’s gain some background information. In 1972, 19 year old Gerry Conway took over as writer for Amazing Spider-Man, following Stan Lee’s ten year run and Roy Thomas’ brief stint before becoming the editor.
The mistakes begin there. 19 years old. At that age, Conway was far too close to Peter Parker’s age to write him correctly. The writer should have been more in line with Roy Thomas’ age at the time (32) or Stan Lee’s (50). The last thing Amazing Spider-Man needed was a college aged kid writing for a college aged kid, and it shows.
Before long Conway was doing drastic things that were slowly killing away any credibility in the title. In ASM #113, Conway gives Peter an ulcer and introduces the new gangster fashioned super villain Hammerhead, whom no one has seen or heard of since. In the next issue he has Spider-Man knocked silly by a vase-wielding Aunt May while over at ESU Flash Thompson expressed his concern over Peter’s ulcer to Gwen by exclaiming “What a laugh!” This would also launch the subplot of Aunt May living at Doctor Octopus’ house with his armed guards, which eventually gives way to her accepting his marriage proposal. Conway then has Harry “backflash” in ASM#120, resuming his consumption of LSD, an addiction which Stan Lee had Harry kick mere issues before! Where does Conway get off, messing with Lee’s characters like that?
As we all know, the betrayals didn’t end there. The very next issue would result in one of the most lauded, acclaimed and infamous Spider-Man tales of all time. So let me tell you why it sucks!
“The Night Gwen Stacy Died!” and “The Goblin’s Last Stand!”
Written by Gerry Conway
Illustrated by Gil Kane and John Romita
Inked by Tony Mortellaro
Colored by Andy Yanchus
Lettered by Artie Simek
THE PLOT: Due to Harry’s relapse in the last issue, in addition to his stocks falling, Norman Osborn yet again loses his mind and regains knowledge that he is the Green Goblin. Osborn seeks vengeance on Spider-Man, recalling that the masked crime fighter is Peter Parker, and goes after him at his apartment, finding Gwen Stacy waiting instead. Spidey, who throughout the issue is suffering from a head cold, sees that Gwen has been captured by Green Goblin and uses his Spider-Sense to find them at the George Washington Bridge.
Or is it the Brooklyn Bridge?
Ah, who cares.
LONG STORY SHORT: Knowing that his health isn’t at 100%, Peter gives it his all and temporarily knocks the Goblin off the bridge cables, then going to save Gwen who’s unconscious. Goblin rebounds and with his glider hits Gwen off the top of the bridge. In a panic, Peter shoots his webbing at Gwen and catches her by the legs. The day is saved!…oh actually, she’s dead. Goblin explains that the shock of the fall killed her and Spider-Man swears revenge.
Goblin manages to escape, and Spider-Man grieves to the police that he killed Gwen Stacy. Eventually through the help of Joe Robertson (unlike a tripped out Harry), Spider-Man finds the Goblin at one of Osborn’s warehouses and beats the living hell out of him. Spidey stops just short of killing him, realizing that it wouldn’t bring Gwen back. The Goblin remote controls his Goblin Glider to attack Spidey from behind, conveniently forgetting that he has his Spider-Sense. Peter ducks and the glider spears through Osborn’s chest, running it’s engine at full speed and killing him until he’s dead. Spider-man dusts his hands and swings away, while unbeknownst to him a shadowy figure looks on. On the last page Peter returns to his apartment and finds Mary Jane who seeks solace from Gwen’s murder. Peter bawls her out and yells at her to leave, sobbing in his room. Mary Jane is so rude she ignores his polite request.
MY THOUGHTS: The first objectively wrong problem in this story is the fact that Peter’s not in great fighting shape. He’s suffering from a cold after fighting the Hulk in Montreal, Canada. The flaws are two-fold. 1) This wasn’t a factor at all in the Hulk story from ASM #119 and #120, so it comes out of nowhere once Peter’s back in New York. Everyone knows that when you get a cold, you feel it happening to you while you’re busy and preoccupied with other business, such as fighting the Green Jawed Giant along with the army. It’s horrible.
2) Conway distracts the reader with this humdrum tale of Peter huffing and wheezing through the issue, as though it’s just another day at the office. Because of Harry’s relapse, Norman’s returning insanity and Peter hacking his lungs up, we have no sense that Gwen is in any danger and thus cannot expect her to die. Granted, the cover made it a mystery as to who would die (which in itself was a mislead since Flash Thompson, Aunt May and Randy Robertson are nowhere to be seen in this story), but the story is called “The Night Gwen Stacy Died!” Gwen only appears in one scene before the Goblin kidnaps her! Conway even has to cheat by putting the title at the very end of the issue. People might think it’s smart, but it’s really not because it’s not.
The next point is Norman’s mania. In this issue Norman returns to the Green Goblin persona after not only his son overdoses on drugs again, but his stocks fall 13%! What horror! The thing about this is that it shows how bad a villain Norman actually is. Once the news of his falling business reaches him, he starts to hallucinate Spider-Man and blames him for his troubles, before hallucinating the images of Flash Thompson, Aunt May and Randy Robertson among others. What kind of villain would feel threatened by them? Did Flash bully Norman in high school too? Is he afraid that Randy won’t think he’s “with it”? Does Aunt May’s gaunt visage give him nightmares?
These are all nothing of course compared to the ignominy that follows in the next few pages. Spider-Man manages to find Gwen and the Goblin by using his Spider-Sense, which isn’t how the Spider-Sense works. Everyone knows, as explained in the 30th Anniversary issue in the 90s that the Spider-Sense activates when danger is directed towards Peter. I guess Conway isn’t as big a fan as he says he is if he didn’t read that issue. Even further, how is Peter able to use his Spider-Sense when he has a head cold? Conway introduces this plot point, then forgets about when it’s convenient. Talk about lousy writing.
At this point I’ll bring up the art. Done by Gil Kane with heavy embellishing by John Romita Sr., there’s no other way to describe it. It’s terrible. But aside from that, the coloring is also laden with a big flaw. The story is called “The Night Gwen Stacy Died!”, and Norman runs to his warehouse to suit up during a “night moist with the hint of tomorrow’s rain”, whatever that means. Yet in the third act fight scene between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin, the sky is colored pale blue. What’s the deal? Is it nighttime? Is it mid afternoon? Is it Daylight Savings Time? It would have been more accurate to title the story “The Early Evening Gwen Stacy Died!” or “During the 5:30 Rush Hour, Gwen Stacy Died!” The fact that they couldn’t get the time of day during her death right is just awful.
So Spider-Man puts all his strength into a Sunday Punch and whacks the Goblin off his glider, presumably trying to kill him, but we won’t worry about that. He rushes over to Gwen who is conveniently unconscious throughout the whole thing. And Spider-Man says “Looks like she’s in a state of shock! I’d better get her to a hospital–have them give her a sedative of some kind–” Wait, what? Do people fall asleep when they’re in shock? If she had fainted, that would be fine but shock? And why would she need a sedative, she’s unconscious already!
So as we all know, Spider-Man catches Gwen at “BREAK NECK SPEED” and hilariously talks to her corpse, bragging about how awesome he is until he stops to realize that for some reason Gwen has decided to stop breathing. Then the Goblin says “HA-HA!” and explains the SCIENCE of the situation!
“ROMANTIC IDIOT! She was dead before your webbing reached her! A fall from that height would kill anyone–before they struck the ground! But for you my friend, death will come more quickly and more surely than the shock of a sudden fall!”
Then Spider-Man rests easy from the horrifying thought that his webbing snapped Gwen’s neck in twain and blames the Goblin, swearing vengeance!
It goes without saying that this whole death scene is stupid. Gwen is knocked out through it all, thus having no reaction or emotion to being a hostage in her final scene in the series. There’s no (believable) explanation as to why she’s out cold, and without the dialogue the entire scene just looks weird. Spider-Man and the Goblin might as well be battling over a mannequin.
Then there’s the death itself. The reason Goblin gives the readers, and Stan Lee later reiterated in the letters pages is ludicrous. I might buy someone dying of shock from a great height, but you can’t do it when you’re asleep. For all we know, Gwen was having a Freddie Kruger induced nightmare and died coincidently once she began to fall. This scene is so bad that it’s long since been retconned to an even dumber yet funnier explanation, of Spider-Man’s web-line giving Gwen whiplash and breaking her neck. That makes plenty of sense considering that Peter had a cold and wasn’t at his best, but are we really going along with that? Does that make Spider-Man the relatable hero we all love to relate to relatably? “He’s so relatable, he can have a cold, try to save his kidnapped girlfriend and accidently kill her because of said cold!”
So the next issue begins and Spider-Man starts to pummel the Goblin until he’s knocked out of the air “Just like Gwen!” After saving himself, he sees the police daring to investigate Gwen’s body and interrupts to touch her face and reminisce about the good old days with MJ and Harry and Potsie and Ralph Malph and the Fonz. Throughout all this, Peter is rambling in grief and coming off as a crazy person to the police and onlookers at the scene. He confesses to killing Gwen and then throws the one sympathetic policemen into his partner before swinging away to avoid questioning. Thus begins both his quest for revenge and the quest to clear his name!
This begins a series of scenes where Peter Parker is way out of character. For one thing, he doesn’t take responsibility and go in for questioning when the cop asks him to do so. Peter then goes to the Osborn Townhouse in his civilian identity, planning to murder Norman presumably in front of his drug addled son, who happens to be Peter’s best friend. When Peter only finds Harry freaking out at his presence, he ditches him to continue the search for Norman and ignores Harry’s cries for help. Peter would never ignore cries for help. The only other time he did that was in Amazing Fantasy #15, and look what happened then. Has he learned nothing since? He shouldn’t have been surprised when Harry came back and blew up his apartment a year later.
Peter changes to Spider-Man and goes to the Daily Bugle to ask Joe Robertson about the whereabouts of Norman Osborn, as if Robbie could just find that information out of nowhere. Because the issue is badly written, he does, despite reports that Spider-Man killed Gwen Stacy. Spider-Man implicitly denies this, despite confessing to Gwen’s death to the police less than an hour ago. Consistency please!
When Spider-Man tracks down the Goblin, they battle in one Osborn’s Abandoned Warehouses of Evil. One of his many apparently. Spidey beats him mercilessly until he realizes “Oh, I guess if I keep hitting him he’ll die.” and decides that actually, he won’t kill the Goblin because he wouldn’t want to be a murderer like he is. Goblin, as said before, forgets about Peter’s Spider-Sense and kills himself through that lack of foresight. This entire battle has both opponents forgetting important things just so the plot can move forward. Peter had every intention of killing the Goblin and says so repeatedly until the moment comes when he exclaims “What in the name of heaven am I doing? In another moment, I might have killed him!” Conway ducks out of this plot faster than Spidey ducked the incoming glider, and the result is not just the death of the Green Goblin, but the death of comic book storytelling as we knew it. Conway not only killed off Gwen, Peter’s stalwart girlfriend who was always by his side and never whined or complained about anything, but also Norman Osborn, Peter’s most interesting and humorously designed villain.
What really burns my spaghetti about this story is the legacy that it produced. Writers couldn’t remove their memories from it, and Conway himself brought Gwen back through a storyline which eventually lead to the Clone Saga in the 90s, which beat the Spider-Man franchise further in its grave, where it was sent to by this story. Norman had to be revived in a last-ditch effort to end that terrible story which no one liked nor made a website and podcast about, and has since enjoyed fame as an Avengers villain. The Spider-Man issues immediately following this tale were so dark and depressing (classic villains such as Doc Ock, Hammerhead and the Kangaroo were subsequently killed off) that Marvel made a second Spider-Man title shortly after dubbed “Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man” just to assist sales.
Worst of all, it was the final scene from #122 which lead to the romance and eventual wedding of Peter and Mary Jane Watson, who was totally Harry’s girl at the time of Gwen’s death. It’s too unbelievable to have Mary Jane show compassion or empathy when she’s been shown to love parties and a good time in 99% of her previous appearances. I swear, it’s as though Conway hadn’t read the comics at all before writing this.
So there you have it. Irrefutable proof that the Death of Gwen Stacy storyline is a bloated, ungodly, badly written, immoral piece of dreck that has tainted the Spider-Man Saga forever. I can only hope Marvel eventually gets to retconning it in full force. Hopefully this won’t be adapted in the ASM 2 with Garfield and Stone, but if it is, God only knows they can come up with a better script than this story got.
0/100 MARY JAAANE!!!s