Spider-Man and the Desecration of Gwen Stacy
|FEATURES - MOVIES|
Here's to Gwen Stacy, the real loss from the original Spider-Man comic strips...
As you read this, I'm raising a glass of something strong to Marc Webb. Not because the (500) Days of Summer (2009) director has recently delivered a decent reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, which for the record he has, but because he's ended years of anguish and disappointment that myself and many other fans have felt over Marvel's desecration of the memory of Peter Parker's first true love, the one and only Gwen Stacy.
[Comic book spoilers follow]
After being given little more than a walk-on part in Sam Raimi's competent but cluttered third Spider-Man movie back in 2007, Webb eschewed party girl turned model Mary Jane Watson as the wall-crawler's love interest in the recent The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and instead resurrected the bright young thing who, for me at least, was always the better match for Parker; and who made controversial comic book history high atop the George Washington Bridge in June 1973 when writer Gerry Conway brought their budding romance to a shocking and abrupt end.
First appearing in issue #31 of The Amazing Spider-Man way back in December 1965, Gwen was created by the dynamic duo of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko to provide Peter Parker with a new love interest after his dalliance with Betty Brant (who ultimately ended up marrying Ned Leeds, one of several incarnations of Hobgoblin) and before he hit the jackpot with redhead Mary Jane. Though initially ignored by Peter, prompting Gwen to date both Flash Thompson and Harry Osborn (one of two incarnations of Spidey foe The Green Goblin), the two young academics eventually get together after he finishes with Betty; although true to Parker form, things don't run exactly to plan.
After her father, Captain George Stacy, attacks Peter while being mind-controlled, Gwen mistakenly thinks it was Peter who instigated the fight and breaks off their relationship, only for them to reconcile and face an even bigger test when she ends up blaming Spider-Man for the death of her father during a battle with Doctor Octopus. Though it was actually Ock's fault, after his robotic tentacles sent debris raining down on Captain Stacy, Peter feels guilty about his death and their relationship temporarily stalls once more as a result.
After coming to terms with her loss during a break to Europe, Gwen reunites with Peter and things are going well until the Green Goblin (aka Norman Osborn), who has discovered Spider-Man's secret identity, kidnaps Gwen and flies her to the top of the George Washington Bridge on his glider to force Spider-Man to face him. Naturally Spidey shows up to rescue his alter ego's girlfriend, but as he arrives on the scene the Goblin throws her off the bridge, her purpose in luring our hero into the open fulfilled. Reacting instinctively, Spidey shoots a web line to catch her, snagging her ankle, but in doing so her neck snaps and she dies in what was one of the most jaw-dropping turns of events to have ever hit comic books.
A brutal change of pace
Quite simply, Gwen Stacy's death changed everything. Never before had a hero failed so devastatingly in a rescue attempt, nor had a major character been so casually and unexpectedly snuffed out of existence. The event also had major, irreversible (or so we thought at the time, but we'll get there in a moment) consequences in the Spider-verse. Gwen's death brought Peter and Mary Jane closer, leading to their eventual romance and marriage, and also displaced Doc Ock as the webslinger's number one villain, a crown that the Goblin has held ever since.
In the wake of her death, Gwen was mourned both in the comics (her death a major factor in Mary Jane's maturity from party girl to future wife material for Peter Parker) and in the readership, and the event became so iconic that twenty-one years later it formed the pivotal point of the fourth and final issue of Marvels (1994), the series that brought artist Alex Ross to the world's attention. Had this been the final word on Gwen's life and death (despite what had come before it) then it would have quite possibly been the most heartbreaking, perfect, realistic and emotional treatment of the death of a beloved character ever to grace the inked page.
However, and to be fair they're not alone in this, Marvel have never been very good at letting the dead rest in peace, and so a mere two years after pulling the most unexpected, audacious and brilliant surprise on their readers, they began to devalue Gwen Stacy's memory.
In the web-slinger's closet
In May 1975, Gwen suddenly appeared in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man #144, apparently alive and well, but with no recollection of anything since the night of her supposed death. Of course, it turns out that this isn't Gwen, but it is the start of the most divisive and, for me, tedious arc in Spidey's long history, the Clone Saga. Initially sold to the readers as a clone who disappears off to make a life for herself at the end of this original saga, this Gwen is eventually revealed to be a genetically altered woman called Joyce Delaney. More clones and revelations followed, including the fact that this clone was actually the second clone and, frankly, I'm surprised you can't feel my sighs in these words at just how ridiculous the whole Clone Saga became (two words – Maximum Clonage!), but at least Marvel never did anything as cheap or crass as really bringing the genuine Gwen Stacy back, as they did with Norman Osborn, who also allegedly died that night on the George Washington Bridge.
No...they did something much worse and much more insulting. They destroyed Gwen Stacy's innocence.
Until August 2004, we were able to sneer at the utter stupidity of the numerous Gwen clones (including four that end up serving and entertaining Deadpool until they die in a plane crash...then come back. I'm not making this up – honest!), safe in the fact that we could remember this wonderful girl with fondness, and celebrate her and Peter's rather sweet romance. Then came issue #509 of The Amazing Spider-Man, the first part of the six-issue Sins Past arc written by none other than J. Michael Straczynski (who really should have known better) and our image of the wholesome, innocent, studious girl whose death had rocked not only Peter Parker's universe but ours too was smashed into a thousand irreparable pieces.
Committing the literary equivalent act of urinating on her grave, Straczynski revealed that the real reason Gwen had gone to Europe was because she and Norman Osborn, the alter ego of the Green Goblin and the man, lest we forget, who was responsible for her death, had had an affair, and she had given birth to twins in France, a boy and a girl called Gabriel and Sarah. Gwen had threatened to raise the children with Peter, refusing Osborn access, and this was why he had thrown her off the George Washington Bridge that night. What's even worse is that Mary Jane subsequently reveals to Peter that she had known all along about the affair.
If the surprise of Gwen's original death had been shocking, this revelation was the equivalent of being kicked in the nether regions by the Hulk. I can pinpoint this as the moment that I lost faith in Marvel, and though I picked up the Ultimate Spider-Man comics, I've never touched the regular continuity since.
In Straczynski's defence, he has since stated that he regrets the version of Sins Past that was published and that his original plan was for Peter to be the father of Gwen's twins, but that Marvel vetoed this idea because they thought it would age the character too much if he had two grown-up children (they developed much faster than regular human beings due to Osborn's chemically enhanced blood). He has also stated that he had hoped to retcon the twins out of Spider-Man's history during the One More Day storyline but that Gabriel Osborn has since appeared in the post-One More Day continuity; and as a result the devalued version of Gwen Stacy remains canon.
Though the nasty taste that this revised history of Peter Parker's first love leaves in my (and many other fans') mouth can never be completely washed away, I am eternally grateful to Marc Webb for at long last giving the character of Gwen Stacy her dignity back – if only on the big screen. And, though I fear her destiny is still ultimately going to come to a tragic end on the George Washington Bridge at the conclusion of this new trilogy, at least a whole new generation are getting to know the Gwen that I knew and loved.
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