Monday, April 5, 2010

Marvel Unbound - Spider-Man: Death of the Stacys

There are just two characters left in the Marvel Universe whose death you don’t mess with: Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy. (Bucky Barnes used to be in that group until Ed Brubaker’s masterful resurrection and reintegration of the character on the pages of Captain America.) I know the story of how Gwen Stacy died, but had not actually read the two-issue arc that took her from Peter Parker and secured her place in the Spider-Man mythos until now.

Outside of Peter’s blood relatives (i.e., Uncle Ben and Aunt May), the Stacys has to be the family most devastated by their relationship with Peter, losing both a father and a daughter because of their involvement with the Webslinger. The Spider-Man: Death of the Stacys Premier Hardcover presents chronologically Amazing Spider-Man issues #88-92, and issues #121-122. The first five issues contain the death of Gwen’s father, Police Captain George Stacy, the last two issues the death of Gwen.

The setu
p for Captain Stacy’s end is wonderfully subtle as the opening three-issues unfold effortlessly. Spidey’s multiple battles with Doctor Octopus are interspersed with glimpses into Peter’s relationship with both Captain Stacy and Gwen. After Captain Stacy’s honorable death indirectly at the hands of Doc Ock, we watch Gwen and Peter deal with the loss and witness Gwen misplace blame for her father’s death with Spider-Man.

As nuanced as this story is, it also struck me how similar the Gwen/Peter/Spider-Man dynamic is to the Harry Osborn/Peter/Spider-Man dynamic in the 2002 Spider-Man movie: the holding of Spider-Man responsible for the death of Captain Stacy/Norman Osborn by their offspring Gwen/Harry, who is in a relationship/close friends with Peter. That is not to diminish storytelling of either body of work; if anything it’s a testament to how time-honored the comic book’s premise is, and how well-translated that was by the movie’s screenwriters.

The story is continued on the pages of the next couple of issues (also collected here) with a political corruption plotline that paints Gwen into a weak, naïve position in its attempts to illustrate just how distraught
Gwen is over her belief that Spider-Man killed her father. Even J. Jonah Jameson has more dynamic character growth over these couple of issues than the easily manipulated Gwen. I get why you continue the story (how could you ignore it?!), but the handling of Gwen feels clumsy at best.

Where the story of Captain Stacy is spread over five issues and given room to breathe, the story of Gwen’s death and its immediate aftermath are a study in concise narration, with not a single panel or word wasted. The weight heaped on issues #121 and #122 is staggering. These two 1973 issues have shaped Peter Parker’s world, the Marvel Universe, and comics as a medium.

Gerry Conway’s storytelling is economical, moving the story swiftly but with impact from beginning to end. On these 40 or so pages we witness the madman’s reemergence in Norman Osborn, the raw anguish in Spider-Man, and the beginning of the evolution of Mary Jane Watson from party girl to more mature young adult.

As stunning as “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” is, “The Green Goblin’s Last Stand” is every bit as shocking in its portrayal of Peter’s reaction to Gwen’s death. Spider-Man brutally attacks the Green Goblin, exacting a vengeance on his archnemesis usually reserved for the likes of Punisher. Every ounce of pain is squeezed from Peter over three pages of a vicious fight, ending in the same inadvertent death-by-his-own-hand that the Green Goblin experienced in Spider-Man movie. (Of course, Norman’s death in the Marvel Universe didn’t quite stick the way Gwen’s did.)

There are some misses in the lettering – words omitted, etc. – but I’m not sure if that’s a problem with the reprinting process, the original comics, or as it was intended. The art, on the other hand, is faultless. The use of montages throughout these seven issues by Gil Kane and John Romita, Sr. are pitch-perfect. While they are used enough to be noticed over the course of these books, they fit flawlessly with the tone of both the stories and era they are representative of, and colors pop off the page.

There is no sentimentality over the death of Gwen on Conway’s part. His introduction from 2007 is fairly coarse. He takes credit, by way of penning Gwen’s death, for emboldening Jim Starlin to kill Captain Marvel and Chris Claremont to create Dark Phoenix. He comes right out and admits he never liked Gwen, found her boring, and really just wanted to write about Mary Jane. It sets a terrible tone for the collection, and I would have much rather seen this as an afterword. I think Marvel editor Ralph Macchio’s 1999 essay “I Remember Gwen,” presented here as one of two afterwords, would have been much more fitting as the introduction of the collection. The other afterword is by artist Romita, Sr., along with his original character design for Captain Stacy.

Reprints of the Todd McFarlane covers of Marvel Tales Featuring Classic Spider-Man from the late ’90s that presented the Captain Stacy arc, the double-sized Gwen Stacy epic Marvel Tales reprint, and the cover art from the various previous collected editions round out the extras.

I understand the implications of Gwen’s death and have read stories supplementing these events long before I read Spider-Man: Death of the Stacys Premier Hardcover. A few years ago I was dazzled by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross' Marvels and was moved by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Spider-Man: Blue earlier this year, both of which deal directly with the tragedy in part or as a whole. But it’s something else entirely to read the actual event as it unfolded across the pages of Amazing Spider-Man nearly 40 years ago.

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