Spider-Man Rex: A Greek Tragedy (The Night Gwen Stacy Died)
Spider-Man, as a character, is no stranger to tragedy. From the first, famous moment where his Uncle Ben is killed by a criminal Peter Parker could have stopped, Spider-Man has always been defined by his failures rather than his successes.
In large part, these large scale failures are one of the reasons Spider-Man has always appealed to us nerdy folk, in particular while growing up, because Spidey loses. He does his best, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out and this humanizes a super hero and brings them down to earth, to our level. This is as true of the small scale (brilliantly summed up by Peter failing to deliver a pizza on time because he was saving the day in Sam Raimi’s incredible Spider-Man 2) as the large scale. It’s the human fallibility that really resonates and Peter’s reaction to his failures that makes him truly heroic. He inspires us to work past our failings (be they nerd related, growing up, or just being) and to continue to strive for the best.
While this all originates with Uncle Ben’s death, this theme echoes throughout the Spider-Man mythology, with Peter constantly struggling with the danger to those closest to him because of his super hero status (I distinctly remember this being a running theme in the awesome 90’s cartoon). Many of these failings come from Spidey’s tragic flaw, which in this case is hubris; now for those of you lucky enough not to be saddled with a classics degree (calm down, ladies, I’ve only got a minor) hubris is roughly the Ancient Greek term for pride, most often associated with coming before the fall.
Spider-Man’s hubris is, in fact, the constant flaw that defines the character; ironic given his awkward teenage insecurities. But before we get too deep into all that, here’s a quick primer on Spider-Man. For those unfamiliar with Spidey’s history, when nerdy Peter Parker (aka The Reader, just like everyone wants to be Bella in Twilight, or Harry in Harry Potter-until Neville becomes cool) gets bitten by a radioactive spider, he gains heightened strength (spiders are strong), the ability to crawl up walls (cuz spiders can do that), spider-sense (um, sure!), and builds web shooter arm bands (see the earlier nerd comment. Except he’s a bankably smart nerd). Then he fights crime, right?
Instead Peter becomes a wrestler!
One day, after wrestling the hell out of some people, Peter stands by and watches as his employer (a shady promoter who had just stiffed him on his winnings) get robbed. While Peter could easily have stopped the thief, instead he shrugs and mutters “Not my problem.” Much to the chagrin of the promoter (Oooooh, I hate come-uppance!)
Later that night, Peter finds that said criminal has killed his Uncle Ben (in another robbery, this guy was basically Dillinger) and Peter could have stopped him. Now happily, his Uncle had a prophetic saying that he repeated enough that Peter (along with just about every comic book fan of all time) remembered it and made it his mantra:
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
Kinda makes you wish this was posted somewhere on Wall Street, doesn’t it?
Which brings us up to speed, pretty much. Spidey vows to use his powers for good and proceeds to save the day 90% of the time.
But it’s the 10% we’re after today.
Spider-Man, as an alter ego of Peter Parker is, in a sense, Peter perfected. Like how Morpheus describes your avatar in The Matrix, Spider-Man is the witty, confident, capable avatar of Peter’s hopes and dreams. He nabs the bad guy, gets the girl, and action is his reward. Look out, here comes the Spider-Man. But here’s the rub; because Spider-Man is so confident and quick with the one-liners, his failures are magnified by his actions leading up to them. In a lot of ways, Spidey’s failings are like Romeo and Juliet: it’s a comedy until people start dying.
Julie Taymor presents: Spider-Man Romeo and Juliet. Losing millions of dollars at a theatre near you this summer!
There have been a bunch of deaths in Spider-Man’s run, but they all pale by comparison to the death of a character named Gwen Stacy. If you’re a product of the 90’s like me (and once viewed ‘rad,’ as a perfectly good way to describe something tubular. How whack was that noise?) you probably only know Gwen as ‘that random blonde girl who TOTALLY moved in on Spidey’ in Spider-Man 3 (unless you’re one of the lucky few who managed to block that travesty from memory, in which case I hope you’re having fun at memory-blocking-Disneyland!)
But in truth, Gwen was Spidey’s first girlfriend, not Mary Jane Watson, whom kids of the 90’s will remember from the cartoon, and movie goers will remember from the films. Gwen and MJ were around at the same time and originally created a bit of a Betty/Veronica style love triangle for Peter, with Gwen (the smart, responsible, daughter of the Chief of Police) juxtaposed against MJ (the hip, fun, artsy party girl, who is secretly a bit damaged). Now, keep in mind, a lot of this was during the 70’s, where the lingering desire to be hip made MJ the much more attractive persona. Gwen was sweet, MJ was fun. Stan Lee and his writers team threw the reader a curve ball by introducing MJ (seeming to set her up as Peter’s love interest) and then having him get together with Gwen. This was not to last (Gerry Conway, the writer of this incredible story, admits that he found MJ a fully fleshed-out, deep female character in a comic world of dully, sweet, pretty girls) and her death defined the Spider-Man mythology forever. In a world of ret-cons and remarkably short-sighted character revivals and abuse (Gwen was sadly not saved the indignity of a ‘secretly this was happening!’ storyline), stories that actually define a character and permanently change their trajectory are few and far between, but The Death of Gwen Stacey does just that: it’s a Greek tragedy starring Spider-Man and his hubris facing off against his greatest foe, The Green Goblin, and facing the greatest failure of his career. It’s also one of the best written stories I’ve ever read, combining an understanding of character, story, and writercraft that rivals any in the field.
Like many comic collections, The Death of Gwen Stacy has some weird hold overs from the issues prior: Spidey has just got back from fighting the Hulk in Montreal…
And consequently Spidey has caught a cold “because (he) isn’t used to those below zero temperatures” in Canada (I kid you not) and thus is feeling a bit under the weather, when he finds out that his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco from the movie) has taken LSD again and is dying (there’s a hard line anti-drug message running throughout that reminds us of the concerns of the day. Future readers will likely say the same of our obsession with terrorism and national security). Harry’s father is the villain Norman Osborn, aka The Green Goblin (Willem “Boondocks Saints” Dafoe) who has forgotten he is The Green Goblin due to suspense building amnesia (the best kind!). Now this all collides when the stress of his son’s condition and the collapse of his evil business causes Norman to…(drumroll) magically remember he’s the Green Goblin! Which is a big problem for Peter since Green Goblin is the only person who knows Spidey’s secret identity.
This is a showdown readers had been waiting for, but the teased death on the cover of the issue suggests that either Norman, Harry, or maybe even Spidey’s Aunt May will be the one to bite it…instead, the Goblin goes looking for Peter and finds Gwen. Here’s where things get good.
Spidey quickly realizes where Goblin has Gwen (the George Washington Bridge) and goes to save her. Even though he’s sick and a little off his game, he’s very nonchalant about the whole thing; it’s super hero business as usual, to the point that he basically has a checklist he’s following:
Finding Gwen alive is a good start, Spidey trades a couple blows and quips with the Goblin (though he can feel he’s weakened), but then Goblin does a fly-by and knocks Gwen off the bridge, as she falls, Spidey fires off his web and catches her long before she hits the ground. Below are the pages in question, I would absolutely recommend taking a moment to read them:
These are to my mind, the perfect Spider-Man pages. Spidey does everything he can to save her and acts like he did, right up until the moment he realizes she’s dead. And even then, the small, sad “I saved you…” is one of the best lines I’ve ever read in a comic. A huge part of Greek tragedy is the anagnorisis, or moment of realization, where the character’s flaw (in Spidey, Oedipus, Agamemnon, and Achilles, hubris) is laid bare and the hero is forced to confront themselves. What really gets me about this is that Spidey is joking about being charming and talented right up until this revelation; this is how death works, I think. There’s that moment, particularly amongst us comedian folk, where we’ve been going about our lives, making jokes etc, unaware of the phone call that’s coming with news that someone has died. They are already gone, but we are unaware, and when word reaches us, immediately we regret our jovial actions committed in ignorance. It was impossible for us to know, but we feel that regret nevertheless. That moment, for me, is captured in this scene. It’s as beautiful, relatable, and human a moment as I’ve ever seen or read and frankly, makes me forget for a moment that the purveyor of said moment is a man in red and blue tights dressed like a spider.
And then there’s the snap.
This is one of the most hotly debated frames of comic history, because the interpretation of this simple, four letter word changes everything.
Spoiler alert, time travelling comic book readers of the 1970’s!!!
Here’s the question (not ‘to be, or not to be,’ contrary to popular opinion):
Was Gwen still alive when Spidey caught her? (The Goblin claims the shock of the fall killed her) Or, did Spider-Man snap her neck by stopping her momentum so abruptly? Ultimately, the result is the same: Gwen wouldn’t have survived the fall and Spidey couldn’t have reached her any other way, but the question is an important one for Peter.
Happily, it is never resolved.
Even the writers can’t remember who added it or why, nor their intention. The result has created its own mythology and their (self admittedly fallible) memory matters less than the result. This is one of the great debatably vague moments in comics, that isn’t infuriatingly ambiguous (like the lack of promised answers about the Island in LOST, or a certain Battlestar Galactica character ‘resolution’ that basically amounted to the writers shrugging, taking their ball, and going home) as it doesn’t affect the outcome; instead it lets us engage the work with interpretation. Like a great work of literature. (Since we are in the comic realm, there have been multiple re-hashes of the moment and various explanation; but like all good mythology, none holds a candle to the original story).
Peter’s response is appropriate to an epic hero as he gives in to his anger and vows to slowly and deliberately kill Norman Osborn in retribution for killing “the only woman (he’ll) ever love” (don’t tell MJ). Once again, charming, friendly neighborhood Spider-Man vows to murder his enemy for revenge. Awesome. This is like watching Superman lose it and start punching heads off, or if Batman started carrying a gun. This is an interesting new take on the Great Power, Great Responsibility mantra, as it becomes a righteous fury rather than a call to mend and defend.
All kinds of epic.
The resulting fight is essentially Spider-Man wrecking the Goblin, ending in Osborn’s death by his own Goblin Glider (just like Dafoe in the film) and a grieving Peter being comforted by MJ. This first embrace of darkness will lead Spidey to all sorts of interesting places, most significantly the symbiote costume and Venom (most beloved super villain of my childhood -assuming Darth Vader is not a super villain). It marked the maturation of the character from comic clown to epic hero. This is a major turning point for the character and altered the tone and direction of the franchise to this day; the entire ending battle of Spider-Man is a Hollywood-ized version of this, with MJ standing in for Gwen and Spidey managing to save her. And the ghost of Gwen still lingers, particularly in the minds of people, like Sam Raimi, who grew up with her as Spidey’s girlfriend (hence her unnecessary presence in Spider-Man 3) and may well be the next generation of Spidey fan’s default love interest as she is going to be in The Amazing Spider-Man film reboot played by the incredible Emma Stone (who would actually make a pretty kick-ass Peter Parker, if you think about it).
But nothing Gwen has done, or will do, will ever matter as much as her death. It shocked readers, changed the direction of one of the most beloved and important super heroes of all time, and opened the door for other huge deaths at Marvel comics, most significantly Jean Grey in the Dark Phoenix Saga. Without it, we likely wouldn’t have our tone shift in Batman, or our nifty new movies. But most importantly, her death allowed the Spider-Man myth to perfectly align; by presenting us (and Peter) with the inherent hubris of his character, the cost of being a hero, and by reminding us that failure is not the end, merely an obstacle or a lesson. Spidey keeps going. Usually he saves the day, sometimes he fails; but he’s a hero, and that’s what heroes do.
And that’s what we should do.
Essential reading. There are a small number of works that elevate the form to literature (though increasingly more so, thanks to writers like this) and this is one of them. The art is powerful, the script incredible (a favourite example smacks of Dickens: “Like a man ridden by some demon hag, he races from his son’s room–runs out into a night moist with the hint of tomorrow’s rain.”) and the significance, as explored above, is legendary. Not to mention, it’s an awesome super hero story. It also has one of the best uses of comic convention I’ve ever seen, by withholding the title until the final panel and commenting on it: Opening page: “There are quite a few things we could say about this issue–but we won’t…As for its title: that’s something we’d like to conceal for a while. But we promise you this, pilgrim–it’s not a title you’ll soon forget!” Final page:
The Death of Captain Stacy: Talk about a one-two punch. Gwen’s father, Captain Stacy (played for a second and a half in Spider-Man 3 by James “Farmer Hoggett” Cromwell) was the equivalent of Comissioner Gordon in early Spider-Man stories. He disapproved of Spidey, which led Peter to consider hanging up the costume to be with Gwen. Then, Stacy dies a hero, helping Spidey save a bunch of people and in his dying breath tells Spidey he knows he’s Peter and tells him to take care of his daughter. This death rocked the Spidey universe and helped Gwen mature as a character, but also served as an incredible red herring when the decision to kill Gwen was made. Surely they wouldn’t kill both of them, right?
Marvels: Only a brief note on this, as I’ll be covering it in a future post: this is the first graphic novel I ever read and hands down one of the best. Each page is painted by the legendary Alex Ross and tells the story of a regular guy trying to cope with the arrival of super heroes into the world. It runs from the Golden Age heroes of WWII right through to the current age and features Gwen heavily in it’s climax. It is one of the best takes on the mythology I’ve ever seen and the only Gwen story since her death that is worth your time.
The further adventures of Gwen Stacy: I mentioned indignities earlier. At one point, Spider-Man finds Gwen running around New York, which throws him for a loop, but hen he finds out that she’s a clone…90’s Spider-Man was allllllll about the clones. Remember this asshole?
That’s right: sleeveless spider-hoodie.
And then they really screwed the pooch.
See it turns out that Gwen had an affair with Norman Osborn, in complete violation of, and in opposition to, everything we ever knew about the character ever and had secret kids with him that grew at a super rate because of Goblin DNA and….ARRRGGGGHHH! This is the worst kind of cash-in and sadly all too common in modern comics. Best ignored forever (even the writer has expressed many regrets that it ever went to press and had essentially been told by his editors that he could scrub it out of continuity when they rebooted the series, but was then denied.). In the Ultimate Marvel Universe she also dies, but then her clone becomes Carnage. Nifty!
Hubris: A quick note on the other hubristic folk mentioned in the post: King Oedipus (or Oedipus Rex, dig?) declared boldly that he would save Thebes from plague by finding the murderer of the previous king, an unsolved crime identified as the root of the affliction. Oedipus does this without any knowledge of the murderer’s identity, but is convinced he can do it, because he already defeated the legendary scourge of Thebes the Sphinx by answering its riddle (“What’s the tricksy hobbiteses have in its pocketsies, eh, Precious?” pretty sure that was it.) He also killed an old man on the road once…oh, damn! That was the old king! And his father! Balls! When all is laid bare, Oedipus (who was warned this would happen) realizes his pride led him to a horrific discovery and thus takes out his eyes, while his Wife/Mom kills herself. Yeeeehaw.
Agamemnon, meanwhile, was the brother-in-law of Helen of Troy and led the assault on Troy. However, in order to launch said assault, he had to sacrifice his daughter to a pissed off god. Needless to say, his wife was less than pleased. Upon his triumphant return, Agamemnon ignored all the telltale warnings, convinced of his victory and safe homecoming…and then his wife and arch enemy dropped a net on him and hacked him to death with an axe. Fail.
And finally Achilles, whose pride led him to war (he was offered a long, anonymous life or a short glorious one…we don’t get the term ‘Achilles heel’ because he survived.) and caused his best friend/lover to get himself killed because Achilles was sulking over wounded pride. Double fail.
…and knowing is half the battle.
Spider-Man 2: One of my favourite films, Raimi’s first two Spidey films hit me just right. They spoke to where I was at the time and featured classic storytelling and Bruce Campbell as the snooty usher who is ultimately the only villain to defeat Spider-Man. Raimi had me somehow doubting that Peter would get the girl, had an incredibly sympathetic and interesting take on Doctor Octopus, and packed it with great scenes. Great stuff.
Spider-Man 3: Annnnnnnd here’s the trainwreck that followed. Partially Raimi’s fault for trying to inject too many old school characters (why were the Stacys even there?) while being forced by the studio to add Venom inexplicably played by Topher Grace. Raimi has admitted loathing Venom a number of times and it shows, the character going from being the uber awesome monster of the cartoon and comic to a kinda weak pseudo-Spider-Man. There’s also a huge dose of emo angst (the other films were angst too, but this one was angst on speed) including the ‘now I’m evil’ hair Peter adopts during his dance number. Also, it takes an awful lot for me to dislike a Bruce Campbell cameo, but they found a way. Boo-urns.
Spider-Man the Animated Series. There have been a lot of these, but the one nearest and dearest to my heart is the 90’s one. Complex, deep, and encompassing many comic plots (including a version of the death of Gwen Stacey featuring MJ being thrown off a bridge into a vortex where she (and subsequently the Green Goblin) get lost in space and time. It was really well done, for the time. The show can be terrible (like all things 90’s!) But also kinda magical. Also, this theme song is all kinds of wacky.