The local comic book store for me growing up, was an almost literal hole-in-the-wall called Altered States and was too far away for me to get to by myself. This severely limited my comic book reading, as I would seldom be able to obtain the next issue in a story arc and thus would be left hanging indefinitely. I therefore stopped reading comics, having read too many interesting (or plain confusing) middle-of-an-arc issues that never got resolved.
One of these stories has haunted me since reading it; it fully captured my imagination, excited me, and left me with such a lasting impression that even now, seventeen years later, I want to know. I guess to a certain extent, I need to know-to have closure to a story and narrative that has lurked in the back of my memory since childhood. I imagined all manner of ways the story could end, but resolved myself to not knowing.
Today, I am going to re-read this story and its finale and finally see how the story ends.
But first, I’m going to write a primer from memory, to describe the scenes that grabbed me and what I remember of the plot and action of the story; to commit to digital paper the bits and pieces of the story that are still lurking in the corners of my mind. We’ll see how they shape up.
So: Spider-Man: Planet of the Symbiotes.
In the beginning, there was Venom.
This one eats brains…instead of trying to win a date with Tad Hamilton.
As a kid, Venom was one of my favourite characters. The idea of an inky alien creature that granted all the powers of Spider-Man but fueled by aggression and violence, that knew Peter Parker’s identity and that sought to destroy him personally as well as in battle was incredibly engaging. The two characters interact wonderfully, with Venom testing and challenging Spidey in ways he normally isn’t, and Spidey proving time and time again that ingenuity and superior intelligence trump brute strength and pettiness every time. Venom is the more powerful super hero, but Eddie Brock (the hard luck reporter who merged with Venom) is weaker than Peter Parker. When done right, it’s a fantastic dynamic (one explored very well by the cartoon, but also in the game Maximum Carnage, which granted a longstanding childhood dream of getting to play as Venom.)
As a result, I was always excited to stumble upon a comic book that dealt with these two characters and so in 1995, one of my very infrequent trips to the comic book store (it was too far away to reach except by bumming a ride from my Mom, until I got better at biking, but by then I was going there for Magic the Gathering instead) yielded this story: Planet of the Symbiotes, starring Spider-Man, Venom, and (sigh) The Scarlet Spider.
Wasssssssuppppp??!! He’s about as relevant as that catchphrase, now.
This was during the that bizarre time when Marvel’s editors decided that the Clone Saga ought to be more than just a story about Peter Parker’s clone Ben Reilly; instead, they wanted to swap Ben in as Spidey and transition Peter out. They knew they couldn’t rush this, so they gave the Scarlet Spider his own series for a bit, building him up as a hero in his own right before letting him take on the mantle. The reasoning for this, I’d imagine, was similar to the train wreck of One More Day: to clear the slate on Spider-Man, ditching a lot of the messy backstory and baggage, such as marriage to pave the way for new direction and new relationships, etc. Even though I hated the idea of swapping in a new (albeit kinda the same, since he’s a clone) Spider-Man at the time, it still makes more sense to me than the bizarre “deal with the devil” retconning of One More Day. In any case, at this point, Scarlet Spider was just another neat Marvel character running around and (god forgive me) I thought he was really cool. The costume was striking, particularly the external web shooters. I was even okay with the blue, sleeveless hoodie (I repeat, blue, sleeveless, hoodie.) because it was the 90’s and fashion was legally dead.
More important to me, however, was the Spider-Man and Venom team-up as well as a further exploration into the nature of the Symbiotes. To this point, the most we’d gotten was Carnage, Venom’s twisted offspring, which was a wicked cool character visually and (though he became a bit of a joke) allowed us insight into Venom itself, but not its race. The promise of a full invasion was hella exciting. Like the first time someone suggested that there could be multiple Mandalorians and mocked up a video of an army of Boba Fetts: one Venom, awesome. Lots of Venoms, even more awesome. Here’s what I remember of the story:
I picked up mid-stream (at issue 4 of 5), with the invasion having already begun. There is a frame from this that I obsessed over as a kid, because I didn’t quite understand what was happening in it, wherein a newscaster delivers the fact that Symbiotes have taken over heroes across the country, including SYMBIOTE CAPTAIN AMERICA and, I think, symbiote Wolverine (though that may be my memory combining later images of symbiote Wolverine from the Web of Darkness video game). The image of Captain America as a symbiote was awesome and I remember getting really excited about the potential for seeing lots of Symbioted up heroes and how awesome they could be as enemies. Then the Symbiotes invaded the studio and there’s this frame of the newscaster being infected and his toupee is flying off his head (in one of the stranger tropes of the 90’s that essentially dictated that every reporter has a hairpiece.) I understood the toupee thing, but I had no conception of toupee glue and as such was fascinated by the small square of glue stretching up to the rug as it flies off his head. I was fixated in the way only the young and the curious can be and still vividly remember that one frame, because of the time my young mind spent working through it. It is one of maybe two images from a comic that I retain from youth. (The other was an awesome issue of GI Joe wherein Snake-Eyes infiltrated a Cobra facility and thought he heard enemies hiding beneath the floor and thus stabbed his sword through the ground into an enemy ninja’s hand. The concept of a sword piercing one’s hand stuck with me.) The irony of this, of course, is that this one frame in one of the more minor moments in the book, but one that obviously had a major effect. I hope I get a chance to tell the illustrator someday that his one random panel struck such an odd chord with me.
The city is in a zombie-film-esque state of emergency, with destruction and empty streets; the Scarlet Spider has lost his hoodie (which perhaps is the source of his power, like Mr. Butlertron’s magical soothing red cardigan?)
…I would still watch this. Wesley.
And so, refusing to be hoodie-less Scarlet steals a hoodie, tears off the sleeves, and uses a sharpie to add his spider logo to it. This was my first real exposure to the Scarlet Spider and I still can’t look at his costume without my brain quietly reshaping the logo to be hand drawn with a sharpie (I also, at one point, considered buying a blue hoodie and drawing the logo on it. I was cool like that.) From there, he meets up with Spidey and Venom, who realize they need to shut down a Stargate-esque thing that is allowing the Symbiotes to invade Earth. I don’t remember much beyond that aside from the final frame, where the heroes arrive to find an army of Symbiotes guarding the portal (also, the Symbiotes without hosts look silly.). “Oh, damn!” I thought, “This is going to be crazy!”
It would basically be like turning off Kill Bill Vol. 1 right here.
…and that’s all I got. I re-read that issue several times and imagined a few possible finales but eventually moved on. Pre-Internet, it was hard to keep tabs on characters; I got most of my understanding of the direction Spidey, Scarlet, and Venom were going through Wizard Magazine (about comics) and ToyFare which was my mainline infusion of the history of comics, cartoons, super heroes, and cult films and to which I can attribute the majority of my understanding of all of the above (it was one of the wittiest, best researched magazines I’ve ever read, for a long time. The key writers went on to create Robot Chicken. It was my first point of contact for Evil Dead, Battlestar Galactica, and most of the Marvel Universe beyond the X-Men and Spider-Man. I still re-read back issues whenever I’m home and still find myself laughing out loud). Through Wizard, I learned of the weird direction Venom took (they kinda forgot who Eddie Brock was, had him defending an underground city for a while, then he died…now he’s a whole different story). I saw bits and pieces of the transition of Scarlet Spider into Spider-Man (I read a couple issues of it…Peter, believing himself to be the clone, retired but still present in the book) and even managed to catch the death of Ben Reilly (when flagging sales reminded Marvel that their clone thing was dumb) which allowed the ‘he was a clone all along!’ moment that signaled Peter’s return to his own damn series.
“Wow, that was crazy. I sure hope nothing like this ever happens again. Especially not a deal with the Devil that erases countless years’ worth of character development!”
Now it’s much easier to pull up a wiki or a review to find out what’s going on with a favourite character; the information is available and out there and as such it’s harder to have a hanging question like how these heroes beat the Symbiotes…which is kind of a shame, to some extent. Without the limited access I had as a kid, wouldn’t have this neat connection to this one random story. Which catches us up to today.
A little while ago, I was in a used bookstore and found the complete Clone Epic (as they dubbed it) across five thick volumes. I didn’t want the whole story, but it occurred to me I might be able to find the Planet of the Symbiotes story in one of them, and sure enough, flipping through one I found my newscaster with his glue-tab. It’s been sitting on my shelf ever since and I’ve been waiting for time to read it and write this.
So now, without further ado, on to Planet of the Symbiotes!
Glue-tabs and all.
PLANET OF THE SYMBIOTES:
Okay, so here’s the main issue with the five part story: much like Knightfall it is played out over several series. The difference here is that the same writer is on all of them, so there’s some continuity there, but there is also some flat-out awful illustration as the 90’s was often so good at. Also, because the story boils down to a character study in Venom, we get the same “I must protect innocent bystanders, but at what cost?!” speech about ten times. It wears thin quickly.
As it turns out, I ended up with the best issue of the bunch in my young hands; the illustration is solid, the story makes sense, and there are a number of awesome moments. It feels very much like Dawn of the Dead, which is of course a huge win. At one point (where Scarlet gets his new hoodie) they are exploring an abandoned mall, everyone having barricaded themselves into their homes and the mood is actually very creepy. It’s a lot of fun and includes some great panels, such as one where a symbiote is quietly sneaking onto a mannequin in the background. They don’t make a big deal out of it, but it feels like a great little homage to zombie films of the like.
Also, the ending is far more epic than I remember; the Stargate (Actually called a Stargate, lol) is arrived at, but the symbiotes aren’t the biggest problem: Carnage has escaped and begun eating symbiotes and thus arrives, 40 feet tall and attacks our heroes. Epic.
No wonder the ending haunted me this long. As a kid, Carnage was also one of my favourite enemies; he was scary (a serial killer whose symbiote merged with his blood, so he could only summon it by bleeding) and could turn his hands into weapons. Awesome. This ending was right up my alley back then even though the moment itself escaped my later memory.
So, my issue was as much campy fun as I’d hoped. The problem lay in the other issues; while this one pulls off a nice, Romero-esque alien invasion of Earth thing, the others wildly careen from Venom breaking up with his suit after fighting (I kid you not) “Neo-Luddites” who are using technology to destroy technology. Seriously. There’s an entire issues about this. Spidey talks about Luddites every few lines, “We’ve got to stop the Luddites!” Awful. And then Venom breaks up with his suit, after almost eating an evil Luddite’s brain, he asks, “Wait, is what we do my idea or your idea??” The suit (which looks ridiculous when not on Brock under this writer’s pen) goes out into the woods (presumably while the Charlie Brown theme plays) and cries.
In case you missed it, the bad-ass alien symbiote that almost killed Peter Parker and became a brain-eating super villain was lonely so it went and cried. Ugh.
So, emo symbiote summons other aliens to it by crying and they invade en masse. The next issue deals with Scarlet, Spidey, and a sonic gun wielding Eddie Brock (whose long, luscious hair is now short cropped and appropriate again) battle symbiotes at the Stargate only to get pulled into it themselves. Annnnnd here comes the awful.
They end up on a symbiote controlled planet, where the symbiotes are draining the native species of their life force (it should be noted that the aliens look exactly like the Aliens from the classic sci fi film franchise Aliens versus Predator…you know, before James Cameron and Ridley Scott fucked it up with those awful Alien films with that chick from Ghostbusters. Hacks.) So, they fight a bunch, the Venom symbiote has a weird “we need to talk” moment with Eddie Brock where they decide to team up for a bit in the Symbiote equivalent of “friends with benefits.” The symbiote then explains how its species are a) addicted to strong emotions in their hosts and b) drains them til they’re dead then moves on. BUT our very sensitive new friend wanted a forever friend (awwwwww…) so it merged with Peter Parker and then moved on to Eddie Brock. The other symbiotes made fun of it for this, so it was super happy to have new friends. But then they both broke up with it and it became sad. Seriously, it’s like George Lucas wrote this origin for Venom. Awful.
Right, so they get back to Earth and run around Romero style in the issue I read as a kid, ending with them ready to fight Carnage.
Then the artist shifts again (weak) and the fight with Carnage boils down to throwing a propane truck at him and running away. Venom realizes if he can make the symbiote cry enough and amplify it, they can cause all the symbiotes to go comatose. They do that (by merging on a molecular level, painful and ”””’permanent”””””* *until no longer necessary, like when Eddie SELLS THE VENOM SUIT in recent comic history), but it actually kills them all. It’s a lackluster issue, but there is a genuinely badass quality to the fact that Venom wiped out its entire species to save Earth. And then there’s a throwaway line from Mary Jane akin to, “Eh, everything’s back to normal!” Sigh.
So, all-in-all, the story that’s been haunting me did turn out to be a lot of fun still (which was a pleasant surprise, given how terrible the first three issues were) and I’m glad to be reminded of the 40 foot Carnage; so I’m left with kind of a strange experience. I fully expected my story to be kinda terrible and have a ‘that would have been so cool as a kid…’ moment, but instead I still found it a lot of fun. It reads like a cross between Terminator 2 (all the symbiotes in this one are sneaky and T-1000 esque) and Dawn of the Dead. With Spider-Man. Awesome. But the other stories are genuinely awful. They over-complicate and weaken the character of Venom immensely and while they certainly help move along the “he’s a hero now!” agenda, they weaken his time as a villain quite considerably. Like the Star Wars prequels, there’s stuff we just don’t want or need packed into those issues. There’s also the wildly inconsistant art, a lot of which is just generally awkward and ugly. There are He-Man action figure proportions to some scenes and the suit on its own looks kinda like a wacky-inflatable-arm-flailing-tube-man. And chiselled butts. Man, they like drawing Venom and Scarlet’s chiselled butts.
Nevertheless, I’m happy to have taken this little trip down memory lane; I had mis-remembered the Symbiote Wolverine (though Cap was still cool) and who knows, maybe in another 17 years I’ll re-read it again and see what’s what.
Incidentally, while reading an unrelated io9 article, I was reminded what Eric wore all season in True Blood…
You heard it here first. Eric Northman is a clone of Peter Parker.
Clone High: Mr. Butlertron is a robotic butler on the incredible cartoon Clone High. The episode being referenced involves Mr. B lending villainous Principal Scudworth his “soothing red cardigan” that helps him get closer to the students. It turns out to be magical. Like the show. I’ll be doing a post on this show in future, but I can almost guarantee it’s better than anything else you could be watching right now. Ever.
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.