Sunday, 22 November 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #121. The Death of Gwen Stacy

Amazing Spider-Man #121, the death of Gwen Stacy
(Cover from June 1973.)

"The Night Gwen Stacy Died"

Words by Gerry Conway.
Art by Gil Kane/John Romita/Tony Mortellaro.
Lettering by Artie Simek.
Colours by Andy Yanchus.


Just as lives change, so do times. Had this issue been produced in a more recent era, it would have been marketed as an, "event," with eight different variant covers, five million copies shipped and a media blitz. As it is, there's none of that.

Granted, the men behind it were shrewd enough to know they had a big deal on their hands. The cover lets you know that, as does the decision to hide the story's title until the very last panel. But they had the sense to not give the game away. We're told someone's going to die but not who. It means the comic gets by purely on surprise and power.

And of course the death of Gwen Stacy is more than a surprise. It's an outright shock. Never before had a comic done anything so dramatic or daring. Lois Lane might have got kidnapped on a virtually daily basis but you were never left in any doubt that, thanks to Superman, she'd escape without a scratch on her.

But this isn't Superman. This is Spider-Man; and Spider-Man does things differently.

Amazing Spider-Man #121, how does Gwen Stacy die?
But exactly how does she die? To me it's pretty unambiguous. As Spider-Man fires his webbing to save her, he hears a, "Swik."

We see a, "Snap."

Clearly the sudden halt to her descent has broken her neck, killing her instantly.

The Goblin has other ideas, claiming that a fall from that height would kill anyone long before they hit the ground. Oh yeah? Try telling that to all the zillions of parachutists out there. No no no, in his attempts to save her, Spider-Man - not the Green Goblin - killed Gwen Stacy, and that makes her death all the more shocking.

But, shock ending aside, does the story actually stand up?

Well, yeah, in its own way. It has to be said that, up to the climax, it's not an exceptional tale. Harry's on the drugs - been done before. Norman Osborn, a man under pressure, snaps and rushes to a secret hideout to become the Green Goblin - been done before. Peter Parker goes into battle feeling under the weather - been done before. We even get the obligatory scene at the Daily Bugle where J Jonah Jameson has a rant at Peter before discovering he's got sensational pictures of Spider-Man. So, all in all, just another Spider-Tale from the production line that's been churning them out for a decade now.

But, in a way, that's the story's strength. It means you're not prepared for it to become so epoch-making. Yes, we know someone's going to die but the front cover hints at one of a whole bunch of people. Events early on suggest it's either Harry or Norman Osborn. The cover implies it might even be Randy Robertson, a dispensable character if ever there was one. And, had this story been done now, you know it would've been a double-length issue, with the last few pages each containing less frames than the one before until it climaxed with one big frame (And mustn't forget the internal monologue that'd accompany each picture. Mustn't forget to let us know just what Peter Parker's thinking as his beloved plummets to her death. The word, "no" would have featured at some point, as well as, "can't.").

OK, so this does end with one big frame - but the build up to it involves no gimmicks, just the style of story-telling we'd expect to see in any issue. And the normality of the tale, the fact that it's executed just like any other up until that fateful scene, that's why the climax hits so hard when it arrives.

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