In all the time I’ve spent reading comic books, I don’t think there’s a single female character I’ve grown to love more than one Gwendolyn Maxine Stacy. I don’t think there’s a single version of her that I don’t enjoy. Recently, Gwen’s gotten a bit more of a spotlight on her thanks to the The Amazing Spider-Man movie franchise, which is great, however, the recreation of her iconic death from The Amazing Spider-Man #121 in the final entry in the film series has lead to some outrage and vitriol from newer fans of the character, who may have been unaware of her untimely demise. It’s understandable — she’s a beautiful, brilliant, determined young woman, who overcame the death of her father, and in the context of those films, goes on to be the Valedictorian of her High School, and plans to move to England to study at Oxford, only to have that all ripped away thanks to her association with Spider-Man. And in her original incarnation, she meets her end when Norman Osborn remembers that he is, in fact, the Green Goblin and that Peter Parker is, in fact, Spider-Man. What doesn’t necessarily add up is the belief from some fans that Gwen’s death’s only purpose was to give Peter something to mope about. Yes, in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Peter Parker has a five month period in which he does nothing but stare at pictures of Gwen and go and visit Gwen’s grave, and yes, the effects of Gwen’s death back in ASM #121 are still felt today, over forty years after the fact, but that’s only 25% of the aftereffects of it.
The first has a lot more to do with the progression of a woman’s story than that of a man’s, that woman of course being one Mary Jane Watson. In the foreword to the Death of the Stacys Hardcover, writer Gerry Conway, the man behind ASM #121, said this:
So when the chance came to bring Peter and Mary Jane together, to make them the couple I always thought they should be, I seized it.
See, I’ll be honest with you: I never much liked Gwen Stacy.
Oh sure, she was sweet — and she was beautiful. But that’s pretty much all you could say about her. Sweet, beautiful Gwen.
Sweet, beautiful, boring Gwen.
So much like so many other girlfriends of heroes in those bygone days…They were all, all sweet and beautiful and, dare I say it, boring.
But not Mary Jane Watson. Of all Stan’s female creations, Mary Jane had a unique personality — she had attitude; she was, in an old cliche, sassy.
Sassy and beautiful, with a hint of secret pain in her past… Plus, she was a redhead. I had a thing for redheads back in those days.
So for me, it was an easy call. Who did I want to write about? Gwen Stacy (sweet, beautiful and boring) or Mary Jane Watson (redheaded, sassy, secretly pained)?
Mary Jane won hands down. Which meant Gwen Stacy had to die.
Conway’s rationale for killing Gwen off has very little to do with Peter and very much to do with Mary Jane. With Gwen out of the picture, he was now free to do two things: 1) Explore Mary Jane’s character and give her actual depth and development without any looming love-triangle tension. At this point, MJ hadn’t really gone beyond “Vapid Party Girl” and Peter actually makes mention of this when she tries to console him after Gwen dies.
And yes, it sucks that for one woman to have character development in 1973, another had to die, and yes, it sucks that Gwen had to die for that love triangle to finally end, and yes, it sucks that Conway couldn’t think of another way around it but “Gwen has to die” but the fact of the matter is that Mary had been around for a while now, and without Gwen being out of the picture, in some way, shape or form, it’s safe to say that Mary would have never grown into the woman that fans see now. Conway was also now free to pair off Peter and MJ and establish the status quo as it was and has been for the past forty years.
The other direct effect of Gwen’s death is the establishing of Green Goblin, once and for all, as Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis. Amazing Spider-Man #122 is titled “The Green Goblin’s Last Stand”, and while that name is fitting, a better name would have been “Peter Parker Beats the Absolute Piss Out of Norman Osborn”. I’m completely serious. Spidey, in this order, gives Gwen’s body to the paramedics, goes to the Daily Bugle to ask for Robbie’s help finding Norman, tracks Norman down, and gives him a crash course in Hands 101. Gwen dying brought out a side in Peter no one had ever seen before, and the Green Goblin was the cause of it. After this, the Goblin was no longer on the same level of villainy as Doc Ock, or Sandman, or Vulture, or any of the wall-crawler’s other rogues. He inserted himself into a top tier of evil that very few villains at the time resided in. There’s a reason that any appearance by the Goblin, be it Norman or Harry, is a draw for fans and an alarm in-universe. He is now to Spider-Man what Lex Luthor is to Superman, what the Red Skull is to Captain America, and what the Joker is to Batman.
There’s one last element of all this, the indirect, unintentional effect. With Gwen Stacy’s death, the rules changed. The rules of who was safe in comics changed. No one picking up ASM #121 that day in 1973 could have possibly believed that Gwen would be the one to die. The opening pages don’t necessarily lend themselves to that fact either — judging by how the issue starts, you’re more likely to believe that Harry Osborn, Peter’s best friend and roommate would be the one to die. Gwen’s demise marks the beginning of the end of what is known as the Silver Age of comics, and though she is the third person in poor Peter’s life to die in a way connected to Spider-Man (the first two being Uncle Ben and Gwen’s own father, Cpt. George Stacy), she’s the first one to be almost entirely and directly Peter’s own fault, and by proxy, ends a sort of age of innocence for Peter Parker. Uncle Ben died defending his home from a robber, who Peter had failed to stop earlier in the day, Captain Stacy died protecting a child from a chimney that was falling as a result of a fight between Doctor Octopus and Spider-Man. Gwen died because of who Peter was. Norman learned Peter’s identity, kidnapped and drugged Gwen and took her to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge that fateful night. The entire reason Gwen is in any kind of danger is because of the fact that Peter is Spider-Man, which yes, plays into his grief and self-doubt but at the same time, plays into the world of comics as we know it today. If Marvel doesn’t pull the trigger on this, who’s to say that twenty years later, that DC doesn’t decide to publish “The Death of Superman”?