When introduced in Amazing Fantasy #15, Peter Parker’s described as “Midtown High’s only professional wallflower!” We see a lonely kid, stood apart from the rest, dressed in noticeably uncool clothes. With the only stand out being the foreboding shadow dwarfing poor Peter. Something only we are treated to. A page later, we see him attempt to ask out the beautiful, raven haired, Sally. Only to be turned down for what is apparently the “umpteenth” time. Even after gaining phenomenal Spidey powers, his life is still a mess. He’s still a troubled neurotic teen, who can’t catch a break. Before the end of his high school career, he starts dating Betty Brant, the first girl who was kind to him. Only to break off the relationship because he doesn’t want someone he cares for to be hurt from his super heroics. Harkening back to Uncle Ben, and foreshadowing the rest of his life. We see him continue with his life, growing as Spider-Man, going off to college. And then Gwen Stacy walks into his life.
When we talk about Gwen Stacy, the defining moment is her death. Discussion of Gwen starts at her end. The reason for this is simple. She’s incredibly bland. She is wish fulfilment. As former Spider-Man writer, Gerry Conway puts it:
“She brought nothing to the mix. It made no sense to me that Peter Parker would end up with a babe like that who had no problems. Only a damaged person would end up with a damaged guy like Peter Parker. And Gwen Stacy was perfect!”
So if she was so bland, and the only interesting point is her death, than why do we still talk about her?
Writers and Artists, such as Gerry Conway, and John Romita, have frequently pointed out Gwen’s true role in the Spider-Man comics. Wish fulfilment for the readers. Peter Parker was created by Stan Lee to stand in for the readers. A nerdy teen, riddled with anxiety and problems. Even when gaining incredible strength and abilities, he’s still burdened by the same everyday problems as the reader. The introduction of Gwen, and later Mary Jane, was Stan’s way of adding a little light to Peters life. And there for, us. Conway describes the look and creation of Gwen as:
“It was basically Stan fulfilling Stan’s own fantasy. Stan married a woman who was pretty much a babe – Joan Lee was a very attractive blond who was obviously Stan’s ideal female.”
When John Romita took over on the art for Amazing Spider-Man, his experience with romance comics, brought a stunning beauty to Gwen. As well as finally revealing the outright bombshell that is Mary Jane Watson. With Steve Ditko’s moody style pushed aside, we could fall in love with the truly stunning Gwen. We fell for her alongside Peter Parker. Meaning that when she was taken from us in that moment of tragedy, it meant something.
When Gwen died in 1973, comic deaths for heroes were rare. The most significant deaths in comics at this point, were Uncle Ben, and Bruce Wayne’s parents. Deaths that have not been undone. In a post Death of Superman, Blackest Night world. A comic book death is almost an everyday occurrence. Something that is almost certain to be undone in a few months to a couple of years. We would have walked away from the event with only the mildest of annoyance or empathy, taking to the internet to predict how and when the death would be undone.
However, it wasn’t originally Gwen Stacy who was up for the chopping block. Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, originally planned for Aunt May to die in this arc. Something that, to be honest, could happen at any moment simply by the look of her. It was artist John Romita who suggested to the pair, that they kill Gwen Stacy instead. As Romita put it in an interview:
“Yes, I’m the murderer.”
The tragic circumstances of Gwen’s death, adds to her legacy. Being kidnapped by Spider-Man’s arch enemy, The Green Goblin. As the Goblin throws Gwen from the George Washington Bridge, Spidey grabs her with his web. Only for the smallest sound effect of a ‘Snap!’ by her neck to appear, as he catches her. As he pulls her pack up, he cradles her in his arms. Forever feeling responsible for the death of another person he loves. Gwen died never knowing of Peter and Spider-Man’s connection, providing an extra layer of tragedy to her end.
Our attachment to Gwen Stacy, comes in hindsight. Stories such as the beautiful Spider-Man: Blue by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, have retroactively given us more detailed, and touching reasons to love the blonde beauty. In Spider-Man: Blue, the entire story retells Peter and Gwen’s meeting, and their short time together, in the form of an audible letter from Peter, as he spends his valentine’s day felling blue and thinking of her. At the end of it all, her death brought us two things. An overly referenced but iconic death. And the relationship between Peter Parker and Mary Jane. Both Romita and Conway have spoken about their feelings on Mary Jane vs. Gwen Stacy. Romita, the man who suggested the death, states:
“The reason I said we should kill Gwen Stacy was Mary Jane was an airheaded comedy character at the time. She was there to jazz the place up. She was not his girlfriend. His girlfriend was Gwen Stacy.”
Conway mirrors this by saying:
“I think Gwen was simply Stan replicating his wife, just like Sue Storm was a replication of his wife. And that’s where his blind spot was. The amazing thing was that he created a character like Mary Jane Watson, who was probably the most interesting female character in comics, and he never used her to the extent that he could have. Instead of Peter Parker’s girlfriend, he made her Peter Parker’s best friend’s girlfriend. Which is so wrong, and so stupid, and such a waste. So killing Gwen was a totally logical if not inevitable choice.”
The relationship of Mary Jane and Peter Parker came into being because of Gwen. The issue after Gwen’s death, Peter is distraught. He goes home, and finds Mary Jane waiting for him, having just heard about Gwen. He lashes out at her, arguing that she wasn’t sad, she doesn’t know how to care about ‘straights like me and Gwen’. He tells her to leave, not wanting to spoil her fun. And with that, their relationship starts, with the clip of a door. She closes the door, and stays to comfort her friend.
On the second to last page of Spider-Man: Blue, it’s revealed that Mary Jane has heard the entire story. That she has just heard her husband pouring his heart out to the deceased Gwen. Instead of resorting to anger or despair, she turns to him and smiles, simply saying:
“Will you do me a favour, Peter? Say ‘Hello’ for me and – tell Gwen I miss her, too….”