In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Spider-Man, we’re doing four straight months of polls having to do with Spider-Man, culminating with the release of the Amazing Spider-Man film in July. We’ve done Spider-Man covers, Spider-Man characters, Spider-Man creators and now, finally, Spider-Man stories!
To date, I think this is simply the best thing that Marvel has ever produced, and I’m guessing they’re never going to top it. A nerd, a loser, a geek, Peter Parker was going through all the things that much of the comic-reading population was going through…with one exception. Most of us geeks never get bitten by a radioactive spider. The “hero that could be you” concept jumped into full bloom. But even more than that, the genius of this story is the lesson it teaches through tragedy. Peter works on so many levels: identification, humor… but the thing which will always make him the most fascinating for me, is that here we have the first protagonist who ended up becoming a hero not just because he intrinsically knew it was the right thing to do, but because he SCREWED UP MAJORLY AND IT COST HIM! I love redemption stories, and this is simply one of the ultimates. For all the good things Peter does, he will never, ever be able to truly forgive himself for what his mistake caused. It is a lovely character, and one I never get tired of reading.
Now, virtually everyone knows this by memory, so we tend to take it for granted. But consider this — whereas the origins of icons like Superman and Batman and Captain America have constantly been tweaked, twisted, retconned and rebooted, Spider-Man’s origins have remained essentially unchanged. This is a testament to just how good and complete Lee and Ditko got it from the get-go. Even when there have been stories that attempt to tweak Spidey’s origin – Amazing Spider-Man #200, for instance – they have failed to reinvent the core of his origin and have been, at the very least, divisive for fans.But that is only half of it. Let’s imagine that the one and only appearance of “Spider-Man” was this one little odd tale, not as an origin, not as a springboard for more adventures, but as a complete story, in itself.Even in that circumstance, it is a superior story. The journey of the mocked and timid underdog, handed ownership of extraordinary gifts without having earned them, uses his awesome might for self-interest rather than righteous good, then experiences dire consequences because of his behavior. It is a Good Samaritan tale, twisted and brutalized.But, even more intriguing, it richly deconstructs the hero/villain paradigm. It is the villain that refuses to abandon the sense of entitlement that his power has “earned” him. It is the hero that understands that his power entitles him to nothing. It is the hero that comes to the realization that “with great power there must also come — great responsibility.” That message has much deeper and more profound impact when it is learned organically through adversity and failure, than through steadfast righteous principle from the outset……and all of that in only eleven pages.
My favorite Spider-Man story is my favorite superhero story is my favorite comic is my favorite story. That said, I don’t know what to say about it, at least not without rambling endlessly. I like the timeless art of Ditko, but more than the execution, I like the story. A man makes a mistake and learns a lesson, and I think the lesson is a good one. Just like the story.
Much has been discussed about the importance and impact of “The Death of Gwen Stacy” throughout the years — how it was instrumental in ending the Silver Age of comics; how the hero fails to rescue the damsel in distress; how Gwen is captured and killed because of Spider-Man’s actions, not in spite of them; how the character of Gwen Stacy had become stale, and her death was an inevitable moment in Spider-Man’s ongoing narrative; how she, therefore, doesn’t deserve the “sacred cow” status she has been given.The list of themes that can extracted from this story are nearly infinite, and it will continue to resonate and inspire discussion, analysis, and disagreement as the years go on.All that aside, here is why we should cherish these two issues and why they deserve to be considered one of, if not the greatest of, Spidey’s greatest stories:In #122, Spider-Man, intent on revenge, finds Green Goblin hiding out in one of Norman Osborn’s warehouses. The battle is renewed, and Spider-Man outmatches Goblin from the start. When Spider-Man finally gets up close and personal, he nearly beats Goblin to death. But… but, suddenly, he stops. He stops and whispers “Good lord… what in the name of heaven am I doing?” Now, put yourself in Spider-Man’s costume for that moment. Would you have stopped? If you were in those circumstances, could you have? I don’t know if I could have. I really don’t.This is why Spider-Man is a hero. Not because he can defeat a powerful villain like the Green Goblin, but because he can stop himself from sinking to the Goblin’s level… even in circumstances that we may see him as having an unquestionably free pass to do so.
Now, when it comes to the Gerry Conway scripted “The Night Gwen Stacy Died/The Green Goblin’s Last Stand”, most fans are bound to talk about the impact the deaths of Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn had on superhero comic books in general. Unsurprisingly so, as it is indeed, a tale ballsy for its time. It was unheard of to kill off the titular superhero’s love interest and the arch-nemesis in a single story. I would, however, like to talk about a less discussed aspect of the tale which appeals to me the most. Which is saying a lot as the entire story is well crafted and perfectly executed. I am talking about the “Epilogue” scene between Peter and Mary Jane in ASM #122. It is but one page but oh, what a page it is. The range of emotion captured through the artwork of Gil Kane and strong inking of John Romita Sr. is moving, to say the least. But what touches me the most is how the moment between MJ and Peter plays the element of much needed hope in an otherwise downer of a story. The inclusion of this one page really subverts the entire tone of the arc, which could otherwise be viewed as rather sexist. It is here, on this masterful and undiluted page, where Mary Jane Watson develops into one of my favorite Marvel characters.And that is the precise reason why I sincerely feel “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” is not any run-of-the-mill “Women in Refrigerators” tale. Though many WiR stories have been produced thanks to writers trying to replicate the impact the story had on the superhero comic culture, and failing miserably because they lacked Conway’s knack for sophisticated drama telling. One of the reasons I find this story superior to even the finest of WiR stories like Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” is because it actively sets out to serve as a tool for the development of a male and female character’s emotional arc. Here, Gwen’s tragedy serves to strengthen Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship, as opposed to Barbara Gordon’s tragedy used as an exploitative tool to explore the Batman and Joker’s relationship. Sure, the story chronicles the ever building tension between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin finally coming to a head, but it was meant to close the chapter on Norman’s story. What Conway intended “Death of Gwen Stacy” to initiate was the tale of Peter + MJ, which has now evolved into a full fledged saga.Speaking of evolution, “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” is almost as coming of age a tale as “Amazing Fantasy #15″. Not only does Gwen’s death force Peter and Mary Jane to grow up and prime them for a mature relationship, but it also expands the significance of not one, but two female characters. Let’s face it, Gwen Stacy was a pretty irrelevant character when it came to the bigger comic landscape. Her shocking death however, changed all of that! Suddenly, she became iconic. As for Mary Jane, I am sure her creator Stan Lee himself never calculated her potential to be so immense. A character who started out as a playful distraction blossoming into one of the every best supporting characters in superhero comics? Especially a character who was a non-superpowered young girl? Unheard of in the early 70s! And yet, Gerry Conway realized just how much promise MJ Watson- a fresh off the Second Wave take on women’s representation in a predominantly male targeted medium, had. He sensed she was too good and unique a personality to be marginalized and made his decision to give her a much more substantial and important role in the Spidey mythos. Starting with “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”.Thematically, it has been tragedies which have helped shape Peter Parker into the man he becomes. Uncle Ben’s death grounds him and gives him the determination to put his powers to their best use ever. And Gwen’s death gives him a better and fuller understanding of a relationship, and helps him have his first mature relationship yet, with Mary Jane. It was a great loss which gave birth to the career of my favorite webslinging superhero, and it was a great loss which gave birth to my favorite love story in not only comics, but also in all of fiction. The wonderful and hope filled love story of Peter and MJ, borne out of the fateful night Gwen Stacy died.
Given the lesson about responsibility learned in his first appearance, the natural question which follows– which to me is the core of the Spider-Man series– is one of how to balance conflicting responsibilities. Peter has decided to feel responsible for not only his own problems, but everybody else’s as well. What do you do when the weight of responsibility threatens to crush you? Nothing brings this point home more than this story, a perfect ending for the story begun in Amazing Fantasy. Peter is starting college, has a chance to make new friends (such as Harry and Gwen). But his aunt is sick. His responsibilities as a student, his social responsibilities to his nearly-friends, his financial responsibilities, his responsibilities to his aunt… this is enough to overwhelm him even before you consider Dr. Octopus. And then the metaphorical ceiling which seems to be crushing down becomes a literal
ceiling, as a subway station comes crashing down on his head.