In the near 80 years of superhero comics, there are surprisingly few character deaths that stand out, mainly because comics keep bringing characters back to life. Hell, Marvel’s Jean Grey has died and come back so many times that it is a running gag in the X-Men books at this point. When it comes down to it, there are really three comic book deaths that stand out, and two of them come from the same character, Spider-Man.
The first, of course, is the death of Uncle Ben, arguably the most important death in comics – without it, there would be no Spider-Man. The second, and possibly more important death is Spider-Man’s first love, Gwen Stacy. Gwen Stacy, the teenaged girl famous for her short skirts and gogo boots died in the middle of a battle between Spider-Man and Green Goblin on the (maybe) George Washington Bridge, and common sense would tell you that her death was caused by the villain of the story, that nefarious Green Goblin, but if it were that clear cut, this article wouldn’t exist, would it.
To this day, comic fans can’t agree on who killed Gwen Stacy, with a fair amount of evidence pointing the finger at everyone’s favorite webhead.
Let’s start with the events that transpired. For quite a while, Peter Parker aka Spider-Man had been living with a sword dangling over his head. His greatest enemy, Green Goblin was also Norman Osborn, the father of Peter’s best friend Harry. Not only that, but old Gobby knew that Peter was Spider-Man. Lucky for Pete, Norman suffered amnesia during a battle with Spidey, making him forget that Pete was Spider-Man and that he was Green Goblin. Still, Pete knew that sooner or later, Norman Osborn was going to regain his memory. Matter of fact, Norman regained his memories on a few occasions, but some rather lazy writing kept making Norman forget again.
It was stress that brought it all back for the third and final time. Norman’s business was in a bad way and he was having money troubles. Adding to it, his son Harry overdosed on cocaine and almost died. As his son recuperated, Norman suffered a nervous breakdown and regained his Green Goblin memories.
As the Goblin, Norman went about messing with his favorite toy, Spider-Man. He snagged Spidey’s love, Gwen Stacy and brought her to the (maybe) George Washington Bridge for the big battle. As the two men battled, Goblin tossed Stacy off the bridge. Without a moment to spare, Spider-Man webs Gwen’s leg, stopping her from falling into the ocean below. For a moment, Spidey is sure he’s saved but as he reaches his love, he sees that Gwen is, in fact, dead.
Spider-Man and Goblin would pick up their fight at a warehouse, and Peter is straight up destroying Norman, but he stops himself from killing his greatest foe. In that moment of mercy, Goblin remote controls his Goblin Glider to impale Spider-Man. Spidey’s spider senses give him the heads up and Peter dodges the glider, which ends up impaling Goblin, ending his life.
I think you can see why this was such a huge deal in the comics. It was only recently that Marvel and DC started to test just how far they could go under the Comics Code Authority, and something like this, the on page death of not one but two very important characters hadn’t happened in a long time, if ever before (if you come at me with Gwen’s dad, Captain Stacy, the guy appeared in six issues before he died. I wouldn’t call him an important character). From the moment AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 121 hit the stands, readers began to discuss the events, and one argument was louder than any other – who killed Gwen?
We know the events, but now we need to look at the moments in detail…
The first is more of a fun thing – you may have noticed that when I’ve said where all this took place, I put a “(maybe)” in front of the name of the bridge. This is because the art by the great Gil Kane and the words by the endlessly talented Gerry Conway disagree on this point. Kane drew the battle at the Brooklyn Bridge, but the text from Conway as we see in the word balloons, clearly claims our titans are at the George Washington Bridge. This alone would be, for the prosecuting attorney, a real nightmare. I mean, if your witnesses can’t agree on what bridge this all happened at, how can you get a jury to convict the killer?! To muddy the bridge waters even more, reprints and further mentions of the death of Gwen Stacy would say that it was the Brooklyn Bridge, but some other comics, like THE PULSE #4 would say that it was the George Washington Bridge. Reprints become a big part of the problem as well, but we’ll get there in time.
When Spidey’s webbing grabs the falling Gwen, the panel shows two sound effects – a large bright red “SWIK!” at the point of contact between the webbing and the gogo boots, and a small, dull orange “SNAP!” right next to Gwen’s neck. It is easy to miss the “SNAP!” and in theory many people have missed it over the years, but we’ll get back to that in a second.
As Spidey realizes that his love is dead, Goblin flies overhead yelling out “Romantic idiot! She was dead before your webbing reached her! A fall from that height would kill anyone — before they struck the ground!” Still, when Spider-Man handed Gwen’s lifeless body to a police officer he says, “She’s dead — and Spider-Man killed her.”
Now, Peter was always the kind of guy to take on the guilt of anything that went wrong, so his blaming himself for Gwen’s death isn’t all that shocking, but we need to look at further evidence. For one, there’s the “SNAP!” which is a bad sign. Then there’s the letters and response in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #125.
In the letters column for issue 125, editor Roy Thomas gave the unofficial official story saying “it saddens us to have to say that the whiplash effect she underwent when Spidey’s webbing stopped her so suddenly was, in fact, what killed her. In short, it was impossible for Peter to save her. He couldn’t have swung down in time; the action he did take resulted in her death; if he had done nothing, she still would certainly have perished. There was no way out.”
In effect, Thomas is making it clear that Gwen would have died no matter what, but it was the broken neck that did her in. Spider-Man, faced with his own Kobayashi Maru, made a choice and would be forced to live with it forever.
Then more comics came out, and the answer got real confusing. In the 1987 edition of THE OFFICIAL HANDBOOK OF THE MARVEL UNIVERSE, Gwen’s death is attributed to the fall, not to Spider-Man’s webbing. This is confirmed in a few other comics, most notably, the classic miniseries MARVELS which has a scene with a forensic scientist claiming that the shock of being thrown off the bridge caused Gwen’s heart to stop. Oh, and the reprints. There’s been so much arguing about reprints.
These days, most anyone who has read AMAZING SPIDER-MAN issues 121 and 122 aka THE NIGHT GWEN STACY DIED has read it through a reprint and some claim that the “SNAP!” does not appear in the version they read. I personally can’t find a version without the “SNAP!” but the comic has been reprinted so many times, I also can’t ignore the claims. I can say that in the print version I have, the “SNAP!” is there, and just for safety, I purchased the issue on Comixology where the “SNAP!” is present, though it is now in white instead of dull orange.
It seems to me that where a person stands on the death of Gwen Stacy and Spider-Man’s role in it lies with what they want from their hero. While one of the major draws of Spider-Man, especially in the 60s, 70s and 80s, is his everyman style: Peter was a teen/adult who dealt with real teen and adult problems. He worried about rent and had to sew his suit together all the time. He constantly let his friends and family down by letting his life as Spider-Man take priority. One thing that really matters is that Spider-Man doesn’t kill, not even accidentally. This isn’t a Superman or Batman thing where people can look back at the early days of comics and point to moment where Supes leaves a guy hanging on the wheel of a flying plane (he really did that) or Bats carries a gun; by the time Stan Lee and Steve Ditko brought Spider-Man to readers, heroes weren’t killing people anymore. The idea that Spider-Man makes mistakes was fine, but that his mistakes would cost someone their life is, for a group of fans, impossible. While those fans may hold onto their beliefs, physics has a harsh lesson for them…
Personally, I believe that the webbing is what killed Gwen Stacy, but there was really no way for Spider-Man to save her. If he didn’t web Gwen’s leg, she would have hit the water like a sack of potatoes hitting concrete from fifty stories up, and if that didn’t kill her the poor girl would have been pulled under the ocean and lost forever. Here, for you to make your own decision, is the death of Gwen Stacy, taken from the Comixology version of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 121
Wherever you fall on the Gwen Stacy death, we can all agree that her eventual “return” in the form of a seemingly endless series of clones was a terrible decision on the part of Marvel.
*All Photos: Marvel Comics