Friday, June 24, 2005

The greatest story ever told?



Amazing Spider-Man 121 - 122

Is there anything more about Gwen Stacy's death to be said? I'm not sure, but what I'd like to do here is focus on one question. Was this story any good? Not what its ramifications were, not whether Gwen's death was necessary or desirable. Just whether it was handled well. Was it a classic?

Here is a plot synopsis of what happens, from someone who believes it was indeed a classic.

Review on samruby.com

It has shock value. Spider-Man's girlfriend is killed by the Green Goblin, who then dies in turn. It is a story which defined the 1970s. At the time, most people hated it. I hate it still.

Part of what's wrong is that both deaths are botched. Gwen is thrown off the bridge, Peter snags her with his webbing, there is a "snap" sound effect. Gwen comes up, not saying anything. Peter says, "Hey, kid - what's wrong? Don't you understand? I saved you .. .you can't be. Don't be dead." And then Norman flies up saying "Romantic idiot! She was dead before your webbing reached her! A fall from that height would kill anyone ... before they struck the ground." This is making clear that it was the fall which killed Gwen. I spent several years in my childhood wondering why, if this were true, freefall parachutists don't plummet to the ground, stone dead. I can't begin to understand why the Goblin's words weren't edited out - as they simply make no sense.

When the cause of death (broken neck) has to be clarified four issues later in a letters page, you can be certain that the death was poorly scripted.

The Goblin's death is almost as bad. From the end of 121, we're left certain of Peter's motives. "I'm going to get you, Goblin ... you killed the woman I love, and for that, you're going to die." Which, at the end of 122, turns out the case. The logic of what has happened (girlfriend murdered, a vow of revenge) can only be resolved well in two different ways. Peter can kill Norman (which certainly would be my preferred option) or he can relent at the last moment, and deliver the Goblin up to the police. Neither happens - Peter indeed relents, but the Goblin dies anyway, after he accidentally steers his Goblin-flyer into his own ribcage. A convenient ending which removes the Goblin, with his awkward knowledge of Peter's identity, without staining Peter's character by making him a killer. This is an ugly, cheap cop-out of a death.

Let's go back to the murderee. Gwen's last words, or rather, thoughts are "If only Peter would come back, we could talk about it, and maybe understand what went wrong in Harry's life...to make him what he is." The goblin then appears. For fifty issues or so, we've been wondering what would happen when Gwen found out that Peter is Spider-Man. Now we have a chance to find out, but we don't. The Goblin kidnaps Gwen off-caption. Whatever words were said are lost. What a scene that could have been, with Spider-Man's worst enemy revealing the truth to his girlfriend. Unfortunately, the writer, Gerry Conway, lacked either the desire or the wit to write it.

The next time Gwen appears, she's unconscious. Why? We don't get to find out. "Gwen. 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," says Peter. Then Norman and Peter throw her around like a sack of potatoes till she ends up dead. From a story point of view, I can only conclude that this was because Conway had no idea how to write this if Gwen was able to say anything. He had absolutely no empathy with the character of Gwen, no feeling for a human being losing her life. Gwen was simply a plot device. Clumsily, she was being removed from Spider-Man in order to make way for Mary Jane Watson, who makes her first move at the end of 122.

Add in a ridiculous quote from Peter to the effect that he was guilty of Gwen's death ("She doesn't need an ambulance, officer, she's dead, and Spider-Man killed her), horrible, stilted prose ("Cursed interloper", "You're the creep who's going to pay"), an inability to know which bridge it was and you have a crass, badly written and emotionally manipulative storyline. Memorable? Momentous? I'll give it that. But classic? Not in any sense I would use the word.

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