This summer we’ve resurrected one of our favorite features, I ♥ Comics, and each Wednesday through Labor Day comics bloggers and creators will discuss the things they love about the medium.
This week, our guest contributor is Bully, the comics-loving bull behind the blog Comics Oughta Be Fun.
I ♥ Gwen Stacy.
Oh, not ♥-♥ her in a romantic way (although I wouldn’t say no to a Gwen-kiss on my fuzzy little stuffed nose), but just plain love her as a character, an amorous interest, and yes, the turning point around which Spider-Man’s world revolves. Sure, I like Mary Jane. The Black Cat was a fun whirl. But nobody, nobody seems to define “comic book girlfriend” with quite the energy and vivaciousness as Miss Gwendolyn Stacy. M.J. gets bonus points for her five-star jackpot-hitting first appearance, but it was Gwen who did most of the heavy lifting during her relationship with Peter to turn him into the considerate and loving soul he’s become.
(It’s not her only characteristic, but it’s vitally important that we have to say “she was” when we speak of Gwen)
…She was, quite simply, the shining star in The Amazing Spider-Man in the late sixties and early seventies. She was Peter’s reason for living, for get-going, for web-swinging, for not giving up. If she’d lived long enough for them to see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves together, Peter woulda make Gwen a mix tap that ended with Bryan Adams’s “Everything I Do (I Do It For You).” She was all that superhero girlfriends up to that point had never been: spunky, sassy, energetic, smart as a whip, fantastic dancer, great dresser, good sense of humor, an empathic sense of concern for her friends and a deep devoted love for her father, and—one of the most important characteristics in a Spidey supporting character—able to hold her own in a verbal fight. Gwen is no pushover—she’s more capable of trading catty barbs with the sharp-tongued Mary Jane than anyone, including Spidey. She gives as good as she gets. She’s a liberated woman who suggests Peter take her to R-rated movies (“You could cover my eyes during the spicy parts.”). Sure, she has her faults—who in the Marvel Universe is perfect? So what if she’s a bit prone to burst into tears at a misunderstood phone call from Peter? What better companion for the soul-searching Parker than a bouncy blonde who has her own occasional emo moments? And oh, those go-go boots!
The ramping up of Gwen as a character was the perfect way to make Peter both happy in love and tormented over his secret identity at the same time. It’s a formula that worked well for decades for Superman, but had never been explored as dramatically at Marvel before. While Pete doesn’t neglect kindly old Aunt May during this period, the trips out to Queens are less frequent and Peter’s world is more often defined by his circle of Manhattan friends: Gwen, Harry, Mary Jane, home-from-Vietnam Flash and newer cast members like Hobie Brown and Randy Robertson. Gwen’s influence on Peter is immeasurable—without going as far as to debate the pretty-moot question of whether they were physically intimate or not (does it really matter?), Gwen is the woman who made Petey a man. For the first time in his life Peter Parker stopped being defined solely as a student and a nephew. These are the years that, as Stan might put it, “Spidey breaks out!”—living his own life, setting his own pace, defining his own future. Yes, always forefront in Spidey’s mind is the hard lesson that with great power comes yadda yadda yadda you know the rest, but it’s a period where Spider-Man’s responsibility is no longer restricted to dealing with the guilt of his uncle’s death. The Gwen years are when Peter sees and learns of dramatic social and racial injustice and begins to fight against them with full Spider-strength. He’s no longer a boy; he’s a Spider-Man, and Gwen is there by Peter’s side through most of it, calling him by her catchphrase “man o’ mine.” She grounded him, brought him down to earth.
It didn’t hurt that she was knock-out gorgeous, of course. I’ve said it before on my own blog and I’ll say it here now: Kirby drew power; Ditko drew quirky, but nobody, nobody drew beautiful like John Romita, Sr. Though Gwen debuted in the Ditko-drawn ASM #31 and Gil Kane was the main Spider-illustrator for the latter Gwen years, her look and energy is absolutely defined by Romita. Pete’s not shallow, of course. Despite eventually marrying a supermodel wife, cavorting with a curvaceous cat burglar and dating a bevy of beauties…man, lucky Parker!…Wait, what was I getting at? My point (and I do have one) is that you coulda put a paper sack over Gwen’s face and I’m pretty sure they still would have fallen in love. But I’m not denying the male-appeal of Romita’s artwork as making Gwendy the woman all the Spider-Man male supporting characters wanted to date.
Sure, there’s some missteps in Gwen’s evolution. It’s fair to say that she’s not always handled in precisely this manner. When Gwen is shoehorned into a Spidey plot rather than being part of Peter’s life—when she’s sent to the Savage Land to model in a bikini, for example (ASM #103)—well, that doesn’t quite work. Gwen’s world is one that Spidey can’t quite occupy, but that gives Peter all the more reason to embrace his inner Parker rather than web-swinging 24/7. Even superheroes need to strive for a normal everyday life of love and kisses.
And…Gwen died. To quote another seventies love story, what can you say about a girl who died? She loved her man, she brought joy and vivacity to his world. Gwen’s death understandably changed Spider-Man’s life forever, in a way no event has since the shooting of Uncle Ben. Nothing that has occurred later has been as vital a turning point for Spider-Man: not the death of his wife and aunt (since reversed), not the loss of his child (swept away in editorial mandate limbo). Not the recent revelation of his secret identity that turned his life completely around. Despite the Marvel hype machine arguing that “this is the biggest Spider-event yet!”, none of these seem to have had the life-changing effect on Peter in the way the death of Gwen has, and I’d argue that’s in part the evolution of Marvel Comics and the superhero mythos in general. As time goes by, the stakes get raised, and bigger and bigger events must happen—but in an effort to outdo the last big story, the effects are less significant than ever. The death of Gwen in ’73 was a big event. It wasn’t heralded for months ahead of time, nor were there internet sites to endless discuss it, but it was a major change to a world where the good guys didn’t die, most certainly not one we’d gotten to know and love over the past eight years. The Marvel heroes of today live in a world where death isn’t permanent and the universe can change in the blink of an eye, so it’s hard to imagine the effect that Gwen’s death had on not merely Peter but on us as fans. Add to that the sublimely Spider-Man touch of making our hero culpable of putting her in that position, and responsible—depending on how you read that tiny “snap” sound effect in the fateful panel—of actually causing her death. No matter that Gwen would have died anyway and Spidey had no other choice: that’s the way the fates play with hapless Peter Parker. It’s the Uncle Ben story ramped up to a different but not imitative level: an innocent dies because of Spider-Man, and only he must live with the pain and guilt of that knowledge. For many comics fans, the Silver Age rings down its curtain on that story. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Gwen was vitally important not just to Peter but to the history of Marvel Comics as perhaps the first “adult” love of Pete’s life, and maybe one of the most influential romances in superhero comics. (I don’t think we’d have had Koriand’r and Dick Grayson, or Clark and Lois in married life, without the strides Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, and Gerry Conway took to advance the Peter/Gwen relationship beyond mere “I can’t love her because I am Spider-Man” cliché). Lamenting his life and trying to give up the identity of Spider-Man is a long-running theme for the book, but it was during the Gwen years when Pete’s harried life was cranked up to the next level: date with Gwen or stop the Vulture? We feel the pain when he has a terse phone chat with her breaking a date—he (and we) know it’s because he suddenly has six arms, but it’s heartbreaking for him, her, and for us. We want nothing more than these two crazy kids to get back together and be happy. Most tellingly, it’s more often during this period that Pete takes actions that risk revealing his secret identity in order to save Gwen. Through Gwen we saw a Peter who was at last growing beyond his teen years into an adult, where the stakes were higher and the risks were more dangerous—but the rewards more fulfilling. We’ve seen his love and devotion to other women in his life: Aunt May or course, and later Mary Jane, and a wild assortment of girlfriends from mousy (Deb Whitman) to outrageous (Felicia Hardy)…but Gwen is his first true adult romantic love, not a teen crush or a high school girlfriend, and the years in which his life (and the Amazing Spider-Man comic) revolve around her would change him, and Marvel, forever.
Part of that is the sheer wonderful timing Stan Lee had in starting his new comics line. Without the space race, would there have been the Fantastic Four? Without the cold war, would there have been a Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.*? (*Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage and Law-Enforcement Division) Without the fear of atomic power, would there have been the X-Men? And without the post-JFK, Vietnam-era rise of youth culture, would there have been a post-Ditko Spidey quite the way we got it? Brilliant as it was, Lee and Ditko’s Spidey fought science villains, gangsters, and even an alien or two. In the Romita years, however, Spidey was battling injustice on campus, fighting racism and hate crimes, and taking down corrupt electoral policies. Gwen came along just at the right time to be, in my humble little stuffed opinion, the first modern female supporting cast member who wasn’t a caricature or a clich233;. Gwen debuted in 1965 and died in 1973, eight whirlwind years that accompanied some of the greatest social changes in recent American history. Vietnam, the rise of youth and protest culture, black power, the Beatles, psychedelica, Watergate, drug culture, the rise of feminism and the sexual revolution accompanied by the national availability of the birth control pill (uh, not that a little stuffed bull knows anything about that)…these are the elements of the world Gwen Stacy lived in, and it’s a very different world from the 1950s in which Lois Lane existed (or even the early sixties of Sue Storm). Marvel Comics as a company was in many ways evolving and changing to meet the times. Bullpen Bulletins of the period proudly crow the love for their mags by college students…not only kids, but older teenagers and those in their twenties, the same age as Peter, Harry, Mary Jane, Flash, and of course, Gwen. The watchword of Marvel from the beginning has always been comics that related more to real life than the Distinguished Competition, and Amazing Spider-Man was the way we would have had to live if we had superpowers—not sitting on the top of the world in a secluded fortress, but dealing with school, dating, and family problems in between fighting costumed creeps.
See, in their own way, Marvel really was producing comics that were dramatically different for this age of social consciousness…Spidey wasn’t just battle gangsters and supervillains (although those never went away); he was fighting corrupt city councilmen, prison overcrowding, political terrorists and street-level injustice. Leave the FF to cosmic threats and Thor to handle strikes from the mythological world: the Gwen years cemented Spider-Man’s status as hero of the people, hero of New York City, a perfect storm of a character, storylines and real-world culture that lead to the massive domination of the comic book field by Marvel, who defined the seventies superhero culture. Consider this: while it seems such a large gap between their periods, Gwen’s death in ’73 only slightly predates the debut of the new X-Men in ’75. Only two years separate these iconic moments, probably only a matter of months within the truncated timeline of the Marvel Universe. If pointing to the Silver and Bronze Ages’ beginnings and ends is your cup of tea, there’s no two events are more distinct to mark the end of one age and the beginning of another. Jean Grey died for our sins in 1980, but Gwen did it first.
Even dead, Gwen casts a long shadow over the Spider-Man mythology. Long-dead decades for us and even several years gone for Peter, she’s still a vital and persistent part of Spider-Man’s world. Give or take a few clones, she’s never come back, but her fans—and the writers—still have Gwen firmly in their minds and hearts. Despite her death in the Marvel Universe she holds persistently to life in alternate realities: a freedom fighter during the Age of Apocalypse, Peter’s wife during House of M…one of my favorite What If issues (v. 1, #24) asks “What If Gwen Stacy Had Lived?” and provides us with a clever twist that actually would have been an interesting storyline for the mainstream Spider-Man: the pair become engaged but are torn apart during their wedding by a vindictive J. Jonah Jameson revealing Spidey’s secret identity, sending our arachnid hero on the run. Her legacy lives on the main Marvel Universe, too: Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s sublime and jazzy Spider-Man: Blue pays tribute to Gwen and her influence on Peter’s life, Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels #4 spirals a story around Gwen’s death, and while I choose to delete J. Michael Straczynski’s “Sins Past” from my own personal Spider-Man canon, there’s a lovely bit in an earlier JMS issue where Peter and Mary Jane set up a Gwen Stacy Memorial Library. Who doesn’t love seeing Gwen in a post-death Book Club with Moira Mactaggert and Mockingbird in the Dead Girl miniseries? (Commies, that’s who.) And did you ever think you’d see a live-action Gwen? Complete with her trademark headband?
Y’know…I look back on everything I’ve written here, and I guess it’s a good critical analysis of how effective and important Gwen Stacy was in the history of Spider-Man, but at the heart of it, it boils down to this: Gwen was funny, pretty, sassy, spunky, energetic, strong-willed, and worthy of being loved. Like Helen Hunt did to Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, Gwen Stacy made Peter Parker want to be a better man. Face it, tiger: you hit the jackpot. Twice. And so did we, the readers.
Hmmm. Maybe I do ♥-♥ Gwen Stacy.