Dr Mike ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
Fifty years ago, on March 13, 1973, Amazing Spider-Man #121 hit the newsstands and comic book spinner racks. After “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” nothing would ever quite be the same for superheroes again.
The cover of ASM #121 pitches this story as crucial. Comic book covers were then, and will certainly always be, devices of pure hype. Designed to encourage the potential buyer to pluck the comic off the shelf, the promotional images and blurbs on the cover pit a fan’s wide-eyed wonder against that fan’s weary cynicism. Aware that comic covers of the past had tricked readers into believing all sorts of things, this cover reassures us that this story is “Not a trick! Not an imaginary tale—but the most startlingly unexpected turning point in this web slinger’s entire life!”
We view Spider-Man from behind as he swings towards a series of headshots of his supporting cast. “Someone close to me is about to die!” he shouts. Spidey had the best developed supporting cast in comics and they narratively spun through his life like a finely tuned soap opera engine. So naturally a reader would worry who was about to go. Could it be kindly Aunt May, who was always near death anyway? Or Peter Parker’s aggressive boss, J. Jonah Jameson? By the end of the story, readers would know that Peter Parker’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy was the victim.
The story began melodramatically enough with Peter’s best friend Harry Osborn relapsing into drug addiction, moved along with Harry’s father Norman Osborn becoming the Green Goblin in a reaction to that (and other stressors), and concluded with one of the most harrowing splash pages of all time. The final image of Spider-Man swearing revenge upon the Goblin seared its way into popular culture.
For decades superheroes had lived in fear that their loved ones would be killed. After all, that’s the main reason superheroes say they wear masks and have secret identities. In this story, that worst fear was realized. Aware that Parker was Spider-Man, the Green Goblin kidnapped Gwen to lure Spidey into battle. The villain struck at her when the fight was not going his way. Although fans have long debated whether Spidey himself contributed to her demise by webbing Gwen’s stylish go-go boot (a “snap” sound effect can be read as suggesting her neck broke at that moment), the Goblin was the true murderer here.
Or at least the Goblin was the culprit in the fictional world. In the real world, it was writer Gerry Conway, Marvel editors Roy Thomas and Stan Lee, and former regular Spidey artist John Romita who planned the nefarious deed. When the creators were looking for a way to generate interest in the series by killing off a supporting character, Romita suggested Gwen was the ideal victim because she was too perfect for Peter and brought no real drama to the series. Gwen’s death could push Peter Parker into new dramatic directions.
The story paid off. A great deal of fan interest surrounded the series. And eventually, this penchant for spectacularly killing off characters to generate buzz would become a cynical strategy for most comic book companies.
The curious thing is, Gwen never really died. The presence of a single go-go boot on the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #144 heralded the return of Gwen Stacy. Granted, Gwen eventually turned out to be a clone (because hey, it’s comics). Eventually through the miracle of multiverses, we would come to know Spider-Gwen, now better known as Ghost Spider, from an alternate universe where Gwen got bitten by a radioactive Spider instead. And, of course, Gwen has been an important part of many films and cartoons.
I often say that Gwen is like a Schrödinger’s cat, trapped in a state of death and life. Here though, the conditions that collapse that state are the fan’s needs. We want to have the tragedy of Gwen’s demise affect Peter Parker and ultimately propel him towards true love with Mary Jane Watson. But we also like Gwen and we don’t want her to die for commercial hype reasons.