Saturday, August 6, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Amazing Spider-Man: The Death of Gwen Stacy'

The Book: The Amazing Spider-Man: The Death of Gwen Stacy

The Author: Gerry Conway (and a whole team of writers and artists)

How I Found It: I'd heard for years about this immortal story arc--the death of Spider-Man's first true love--and finally decided to go for broke and read it once it became apparent that Gwen will be Peter's love interest in the impending franchise reboot. As ever, big ups to my local library.

The Review: I was perhaps not the ideal reader for this volume. I have little experience with the Spider-Man comics, if any; my only knowledge has been gleaned from the films, Wikipedia article-skimming, and a novelization of, I'm given to understand, the Peter/Mary Jane plotline in the Ultimate comics. (Mary Jane by Judith O'Brien, for anyone wondering--it actually remains a favorite novel of mine to this day, because it so accurately reflected high school life, and because it made me an eternal lover of Peter/Mary Jane.) Since I've been a devout Peter/Mary Jane shipper since childhood--they're one of the first fictional couples I remember really loving, before even Roswell's Max and Liz or The X-Files' Mulder and Scully--I just wasn't expecting to get so wrapped up in the death of Peter's first love. After all, he moved on and found happiness eventually with Mary Jane, so I knew it would be okay. That would negate the emotional impact, I thought.

Except that it really didn't. Even knowing next to nothing about Peter and Gwen's history together, next to nothing about the storyline in the comics up until then, I was still emotionally devastated by the story and surprised by how effective it was even years later. I can see now why this is such a landmark story, not only for Spider-Man but for comics in general. It's truly a feat.

At first, I admit, I got a good laugh at the artwork. One of my favorite Doctor Who episodes has a moment where the Doctor's former companion reveals K9, the old robot dog that used to assist her and the Doctor in the classic series, now worn out and broken. Rose, the current companion, looks at the very out-of-date robot and says, "Why does he look so... disco?" That was pretty much my reaction. When Peter's walking around wearing gold chains and painfully Technicolor suits, and Harry looks closer to thirty than college age... yeah. Stack that on top of Peter's habit of exclaiming that old-school expression of annoyance, "Nuts!", and calling Gwen "Gwendy" and I was... well, there was a lot of cheese apparent in some parts of the story. As a modern reader, it was a little hard to get past some of the more dated aspects.

That said, though, the plot itself still felt relevant. From what I understand, from context and Wikipedia readings, Peter begins the story broken up from Gwen, who has fled to Europe after the death of her police captain father. He was killed trying to save a child from a falling building cornice, and Gwen blamed Spider-Man. Her grief pushed her and Peter apart and led to her going overseas, and now Peter is left alone in New York with his best friend and roommate, Harry Osborn.

Peter's day is about to get pretty eventful. His Aunt May, at least, seems to be recovering well from the death of his Uncle Ben, going out on the town with Anna Watson. On his walk through the City, Peter, as Spider-Man, follows speeding cop cars to the site of a building where a man, stoned on LSD, is about to jump off. Spider-Man saves the jumper, but drugs are about to hit much closer to home. Harry, seething with jealousy over the way Mary Jane's been flirting with Peter (ostensibly to make Harry jealous), decides that LSD and pill-popping would be a great solution to his problems, a way to forget about Mary Jane.

Though Peter worries about his friend's seeming pill addiction, he's got bigger problems. Harry's father, Norman, is the Green Goblin--unknowingly. When he's Norman, his memories of being the Goblin are safely buried, but could be triggered at any time of undue stress... which would lead to him remembering that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, something Peter can't risk. Unfortunately, over the course of the next few months, Norman is about to remember, and when he does, the Goblin will rob Peter of the love of his life... and maybe even Peter's own principles.

To start with, I'd read a bit about the anti-drugs angle in this story, but I was surprised at just how strongly it was present. I will give the writers credit for knowing that they were in a position to reach many, many kids, and that they probably did so admirably. In 1973, drugs were still as big an issue as they are today, apparently. Yes, it gets a bit soapbox-y, but Spider-Man saving the jumper was admirable, and seeing Harry's spiral into schizophrenia as the result of his taking LSD was heartbreaking.

Reading this, never having had much experience with "old school" comics, I was surprised at how knowing the creators were, occasionally throwing in little metafictional notes (reminders to the reader about certain things from issues past, for one thing). I got a giggle out of the third issue, where Peter and Gwen separately philosophize about missing the other, and when we finally get back to the action, the panel notes, "And now that the longest soliloquies since Hamlet have come to an end..." It was fun to see the writers really knowing their audience, probably thinking that the young (predominantly male, I'd assume) audience reading the comics just wouldn't care about Peter Parker's romantic life. I haven't read many comics at all today, so I don't know if those little nods still exist. Somehow I get the feeling they don't, that these are charming remnants of a bygone era. For one thing, the cutesy, knowing tone is at an end by the time Peter arrives in his apartment to find Gwen's purse and a weapon of the Green Goblin's.

What a confrontation it is. What a death scene. What aftermath. I knew the outcome, of course I did, but I was holding my breath as soon as Peter swung up to the bridge to see the Goblin with an unconscious Gwen. There's so much at play here that it stunned me, and the pages immediately following Gwen's death left me sobbing.

"I saved you, honey. Don't you see?... I saved you." These are Peter's denial-ridden words when he realizes his beloved has died... and sadly, that it might have been his fault. No one will ever confirm or deny, it seems, as it's been debated in the decades since the storyline wrapped, but it might have been Peter's heroic actions that caused Gwen's death. He caught her by the ankle with his webbing, and the telltale SNAP! effect by her head seems to indicate that whiplash killed her, although the Goblin says a fall from that height would have killed anyone.

Was Peter at fault, for more reasons than one: because the Goblin knowing his real identity put Gwen in danger for associating with him, because his catching her might have killed her after all? Was he at as much fault as the Goblin? That's the question that seems to drive his downward spiral. The fifth issue chronicles Spider-Man's vengeful pursuit of the Goblin, and it's just breathtaking. That's the only way I can describe it. Even not knowing much of Spider-Man outside of these few issues, I could see just how much he'd been driven off the deep end by Gwen's death.

"'No?' Do I hear you begging, Goblin? Don't make me sick, friend--why should I show you any mercy? What mercy did you show Gwen? Answer me that, Green Goblin--ANSWER ME THAT!"

Those are Peter's words as he attacks the Goblin, tormented with grief. It's the same standard thing you see in nearly any TV show or movie that features this sort of a confrontation after the hero's loved one has died at the hands of the villain, but what astonished me is that all of the emotion is conveyed through words, not even so much the artwork. We don't see much of Peter with his mask off after the death happens. He's in the suit nearly all the time, leaving us blind to his facial expressions. A medium which can use art to show emotion chose not to, instead leaving nearly all the weight on Peter's anguished words--that was incredibly brave, and perhaps made it even more moving to me, someone who's touched by words more than anything.

After the confrontation is finished and Peter's still standing, the groundwork is seemingly laid for the future. Mary Jane is profoundly affected by the death of her good friend, and stays to comfort Peter. I think it was a wise choice to include a small snippet, after the close of the final issue, of a recently-penned Peter/Gwen story. A glimpse into one of the last nights Peter and Gwen would ever share, it's a moving meditation on regret and remembrance after loss.

"How many moments in our lives go by like that? 'We'll do it tomorrow,' we say. 'No, I don't feel like it... you go without me.' 'Maybe some other time.' But those tomorrows we take for granted... don't always come."

I don't think that many comics can claim to have made their readers think so much, to feel so deeply, as this one did. With a still-timely anti-drug message, a moral struggle for the ages, and a landmark death in the history of comics, this volume, scarcely over 100 pages, still packs a powerful punch over thirty years later. I've emerged from this reading experience with a better appreciation of the Spider-Man mythos as well as the history of comics, and for that I'm grateful. For any Spider-Man lovers or even doubters, for anyone who wants a glimpse into comic book history, see if you can find this one--if you can, it's well worth a read. Peter loves and misses you, Gwen. I think I will, too.

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