Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Nerd Rage #11: Gwen Stacy, Dead or Alive

What? A picture of Gwen Stacy alive and without Spider-Man?
What madness is this?!
I imagine that by now most of you have seen The Amazing Spider-Man (at least if you cared about seeing it). The film has gotten mixed reviews but one thing I think we can all agree on is that Emma Stone was a great female lead in the film, especially compared to Kirsten Dunst in the original Spider-Man trilogy. If you’re not a big comic book fan it’s possible that you were surprised by the fact that Peter Parker was eyeing a blonde girl named Gwen Stacy rather than Mary Jane Watson (even Stone admitted she had no idea who the character was before she took the role). Gwen doesn’t show up in adaptations too often, for actually pretty dumb reasons, but the last few years she’s been appearing a bit more. The Spectacular Spider-Man (the TV show) featured her as a main character and I believe is the first cartoon to do that (the only one time I recall ever seeing her was in one episode of Spider-Man: The Animated Series and she was way out of character).

Here’s my point: I was so impressed with Emma Stone’s performance (and the pretty darn good characterization) that I started thinking; why is Gwen Stacy not in the comics today. Well short answer is that she’s dead. She died in 1973 after being killed by Spidey’s archenemy the Green Goblin. The death has stuck all this time, nearly forty years; she’s been dead longer than Marvel’s target audience has been alive. Today I want to talk about Gwen, about her character, about why creators are hesitant to use her and whether or not it’s finally time to bring her back into the fold.

Before we get to the good stuff I want to make it clear that I’m still a fan of the Peter/MJ relationship and am far more interested in seeing that restored than anything to do with Gwen. I didn’t grow up with Spider-Man dating Gwen; I grew up with Spider-Man married to Mary Jane. This is just 1) a hypothetical situation that doesn’t mean anything and 2) even if it’s a possibility with the Spider-Marriage looking to be gone for good it would be a bit close minded of me to not revisit this character.

Let’s learn about Gwen Stacy after the jump.

Gwen in her natural state; crying over Peter Parker
Let’s begin by talking about who Gwen was. I talked about this a bit way back in the pre-blog for One More Day but let’s go into greater detail. Gwen Stacy was for all intent and purposes Spider-Man’s first true love (he’d dated women before this but it’s mostly accepted that at the time Gwen was the love of his life). It’s pretty clear that Gwen was brought in specifically to be Peter’s love interest. In fact Stan Lee, her creator, has admitted that he always planned on the two eventually getting married (meaning that even Spider-Man’s creator totally doesn’t have a problem with the concept of Peter being married, which tells me a lot about what is and isn’t ruining his character). The problem with this though is that she was, well, specifically created just to be Peter’s love interest which kind of implies there’s not much more to her than that.

When Gwen first showed up she was pretty interesting; she was a science geek just like Peter but unlike Peter she was extremely popular. In fact she was a damn beauty queen (again I need to say this: why is Mary Jane vilified by writers and editors for being a model when Gwen was a freaking beauty queen and no one says “boo”?), which seems a bit weird but hey, it does add layers to her . She was also spunky and tended to be outspoken. The problem is that this depiction didn’t last. I think the change may have coincided with the departure of artist Steve Ditko and the arrival of John Romita, Sr. but regardless Gwen eventually lost a lot of those elements when she and Pete finally started seriously going out. In its place was a co-dependent Daddy’s Girl who was incredibly weak (I’m sorry but she was) and ultimately seemed to want she just wanted someone to take care of her. Every time I read an old Spider-Man comic from this era when I was a kid she was crying about Peter being away or ignoring her. She wasn’t mad that Peter was ditching her, she wasn’t standing up for herself; she was just weeping. I really had nothing good to say about Gwen during this time; she basically stopped being a character and became a plot device to force romantic tension into the Spider-Man books. This shit could slide in the late-60s/early-70s but if a comic writer tried this garbage in 2012 you know he’d get called out on it.

Pictured: The only thing you actually know about Gwen Stacy
So anyway by 1973 the decision to kill Gwen came to fruition at the decree of Amazing Spider-Man writer Gerry Conway, artist John Romita Sr., and editor Roy Thomas. The reasons for her death included the creative team not knowing what to do with her, believing that at this point her marriage to Peter was inevitable but no one at Marvel wanted a married Spider-Man (OH REALLY?!) and that apparently Conway largely disliked Gwen as a character and was itching to have Mary Jane replace her as Peter’s one true love. Huh. Suddenly the MJ haters’ position is slightly clearer. Her death occurred in The Amazing Spider-Man #121 and it was considered the second most important event of the Spider-Man mythos (after Uncle Ben’s murder) and the event haunts Peter to this day. Now many people have said this is the first of an unfortunate trend in comic books where women seem to have a lot more negative things happen to them than their male counterparts. This has been referred to as Women in Refrigerators. I agree that her death probably could have been avoided if the team had opted to fix Gwen rather than just toss her out for dramatic effect, but what can you do?

Gwen becomes a martyr at this point. She already had lost ground as a well-rounded character over the past few years but once she died that was pretty much forever known as Spider-Man’s Dead Girlfriend. She became famous not for being the college science geek, or the teenage beauty queen but because she was killed and Peter felt really bad about it. As a plot device she would get a tremendous amount of use to torture Spider-Man with her memory, including the entire motivation of “college professor turned psycho” Warren Miles aka The Jackal (who started the Clone Saga mess solely because he blamed Peter for her death). Gwen’s death has been so engrained into comic book mythology it is considered sacred and thus irreversible; on the same level as Captain America’s sidekick Bucky and the second Robin Jason Todd (I know what you’re thinking, but we'll get back to that). This wasn’t limited to the comic book. For decades Gwen wasn’t allowed into adaptations, especially animated ones, because the creators felt that to have Gwen show up meant that they would have to kill her and they didn’t want to do that because, you know, the kids. In Ultimate Spider-Man, a Spidey comic book set in a completely separate continuity than the main comics, they brought Gwen in for the SOLE PURPOSE OF EVENTUALLY KILLING HER (which they did in an even more pointless way than back in 1973). Think about that for a second: Gwen Stacy’s defining character trait has become that her death was “really important”, to the point that writers not even dealing with the main canon feel that if they write her they have to kill her. That’s really f**ked up.

A side note I must mention but isn’t that important to this whole thing; the Sins Past story. During his controversial run as writer of Amazing Spider-Man during the 2000s J. Michael Straczynski had several ideas for bringing back Gwen (because for his faults Straczynski can never be accused of being afraid to challenge the status quo) but was vetoed by the higher ups for the reasons in the above paragraph. Instead he wrote a story that retconed Gwen’s past making it that she had an affair with the Green Goblin (!), got pregnant (!!) and secretly gave birth to twins in France (!!!) but then decided to reject the father in favor of her true love Peter and that’s the real reason why the Goblin killed her. What’s more these twins, Gabriel and Sarah, because they have dues ex machina Goblin blood or something, age two or three times the normal rate so by the time they meet Spider-Man they’re already conveniently, ridiculously, grown. Oh, and they want revenge against Peter Parker for some reason or another. It’s pretty goddamn stupid, painfully superfluous and it kind of damages Gwen’s character even more. Fun fact: Straczynski apparently wanted one of the changes of One More Day to include this whole storyline to be thrown out (and Gwen, of course, to be brought back to life) but was again vetoed. So remember kids: Marvel firmly believed that the Spider-Marriage was such a detriment to the Spider-Man mythos that it was magically removed from canon but this silly nonsense with Gwen’s goblin adult kids running around the place was A-OKAY!

Gwen, doing the spread eagle with her boyfriend's archenemy
 Like I said that’s not too important so let’s move on.

In recent years the fear of using Gwen in adapted material has disappeared. She appeared in a lead role and Peter’s love interest in both the Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon and the Amazing Spider-Man movie where she was portrayed vastly different than she had in the comic, as well as a supporting (but pointless) role in Spider-Man 3. As I said Emma Stone was awesome as Gwen in the most recent film. However if you were a fan of the flick but new to the franchise and wanted to read more about Spider-Man you’d be confused to learn that Gwen is nowhere to be found. In July current Amazing writer Dan Slott was asked in an interview whether he’s entertain the idea of bringing Gwen back to coincide with the movie he flat out said he’d never do that. Even now, 39 years after the fact, writers not named Straczynski are still too afraid to pull the trigger on Stacy.

Here’s my question: does Gwen still need to be left in the grave when she’s getting so much mainstream attention? The character, despite her misuse in the end, had potential and in the hands of a good writer who can think outside the box I see no reason why she couldn’t come back. She’d be a wanted addition: she’s pretty much the only love interest besides Mary Jane that every comic book fan knows about (save perhaps The Black Cat) and it would shake up the books in what would be a good way...provided the writer was up to it. Literally every single reason I can think of to not bring her back can be argued.

-“Marvel wouldn’t betray the integrity of the comics by inserting something just because the movies did it.” Except that recently Nick Fury was replaced by his never before mentioned or hinted at black son who takes his name, his job at SHIELD and looks suspiciously like Samuel L. Jackson.

"Affirmative Action, motherf@#$er!"
-“Gwen’s death is too important to the mythos to undo.” Maybe this was true years ago but I’d say that the resurrection of the Green Goblin, who died during that same storyline, and the retcon in Sins Past has messed up the original impact of the story to the point that it really wouldn’t matter. So long as Uncle Ben stays dead I don’t think it will destroy the integrity of the books.

 -“Gwen’s death is sacred. It’s one of the few times where ‘Death Means Death’ in Comics.” I used to believe this with all my heart but then Jason Todd AND Bucky, the other two characters where “Death Means Death” were brought back to life within two years of each other. Obviously integrity isn’t a concern here and at this point it doesn’t matter. No death in superhero comics is permanent, no matter what.

-“There’s no logical way to bring her back without being a cop-out.” That may be true. That said if Spider-Man made a deal with Mephisto just to erase his marriage, Superboy-Prime altered the multiverse by punching a wall really hard, and DC Comics just tossed out decades of characterization just so they didn’t have to worry about continuity anymore then Marvel can bring Gwen back to life however they want, regardless of how dumb. “She was napping but she’s awake now.”

There's a good chance this entire blog entry was done because I think she's super cute
Gwen Stacy doesn’t need to be brought back but we know there’s going to be a sequel to that movie and kids are going to start thinking of Gwen Stacy as an integral part of the Spider-Man mythos and it really doesn’t make sense not to capitalize on this by resurrecting her when the only reasons we have to do so are pretty obsolete and silly in comparison to how fast and loose the companies have been playing when continuity the last ten years. I’d welcome the story opportunities. 

By the way, I was looking for pictures of Gwen Stacy that show her a) alive and b) not with Spider-Man but rather alone so I could show her as a character and not a prop. I found barely anything. That might tell you everything you need to know about how she is currently viewed.

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