Marvels #4 (April 1994)
"The Day She Died"
Kurt Busiek-Alex Ross
Karen: This final issue of Marvels deals with what many see as the transition point from the Silver Age of Marvel to the Bronze Age -the death of Spider-Man's girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. With it, we also have the death of innocence in comics and the death of Phil Sheldon's faith in the heroes, or perhaps his faith in the world in general. I found this last issue in many ways a difficult read, as I sort of internalized Phil's struggle, having now pretty well disconnected from new comics, yet still yearning for the comics of my youth. I'm positive I was over-thinking things!
Doug: Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross certainly chose several incidents and developments, in addition to the featured tale, to demarcate the Silver Age from the Bronze Age. Seeing it all in one place really does show the reader (and long-time fan, as so many of us are) how time had led to an expansive new Marvel Universe. I don't recall having the same feelings toward Phil Sheldon the first several times I read this mini-series that I've had this time. I don't know that I'd say I bear the guy (character...) any animosity, but he's certainly way more flawed to me now than I've ever perceived him in the past. I think we've both questioned his reliability as a husband and parent, although there's no doubt about his financial provision. But here, he walks a creepy obsessive line in a few regards that's a bit uncomfortable to me.
Karen: This story opens with Phil achieving his long-sought after success with the publication of his book, Marvels, but he still seems to have an emptiness to him. He's bitter over the way the rest of the world treats the heroes, ungrateful for their sacrifices, and he grows fixated on trying to do something about it. When Spider-Man is implicated in the death of police Captain George Stacy, he decides to work to clear the web-slinger's name. Phil takes this up as a personal crusade of sorts, partly in counter-point to J. Jonah Jameson's senseless vendetta. He speaks to various people who were at the crime scene, including Dr. Octopus, but what really pulls him in deeply is getting to know Capt. Stacy's daughter, Gwen. He sees in her a beautiful, innocent young woman, full of life, and has an epiphany of sorts: it didn't matter if people believed in the Marvels or not -- they weren't here for that. They were here to save people like Gwen. As a reader, you can see where this is going.
Doug: I loved some of the visuals in this book. Even though there was no action, the scene where Sheldon and his new assistant visit Luke Cage is well done. The scene you mention with Phil visiting Octavius in prison is great -- what a smirk the good doctor wears! And late in the book the way Ross portrays Phil's in-home darkroom is excellent. If you've ever been in one (and I come from a family of printers), it's spot-on.
Karen: After all these years, the book is still brilliant to look at. I did enjoy that scene with Dr. Octopus a great deal - it was just chilling. Shortly after this, we are taken back to that fateful battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin from Amazing Spider-Man #121, and that horrible fall. Phil sees it from a vantage point almost level with the pillars supporting the bridge. He knows, instantly, that Gwen is dead. He can't comprehend it -- how could the hero not save her? Of course, that's likely how most of us reading that issue felt as well. Again, Phil stands in for the longtime comic fan. Things had changed. Things were changing. The earlier encounter with Luke Cage, Hero For Hire, was another indicator - the world we knew was becoming different, more complicated.
Doug: And that's where I was going with my initial comments at the top. From the Kree-Skrull War to Daredevil shacking up with Natasha in San Francisco, there were so many specific vignettes that when taken together showed how the comfort of the Silver Age had given way to new, different, and sometimes uncomfortable circumstances in the Bronze Age.
Doug: So Richard Starkings and the boys at Comicraft lettered in the fateful "snap" when Spider-Man's webline reached Gwen's legs, the recoil breaking her neck. I had forgotten that a few pages later Sheldon remarks that he can still hear the "flat snap" across the water. He contrasts what he knows to be true with accounts that it had been the fall that killed Gwen Stacy. Just as Gwen had symbolized innocence in that Spider-Man tale from over 40 years ago, she stands in that role here in Marvels.
Karen: Yes, I noticed that too, that damn snap has always made me feel queasy. It's been said by many that Gwen's been far more important in her death than she ever was in her comics life, and certainly the implications of her death informed the decade that came after.
Doug: But what did you make of Phil's visit to see Gwen? I guess if Ross hadn't drawn her to look just as beautiful as Jazzy Johnny Romita ever had, maybe I wouldn't make anything of it. But Sheldon kept going back to see her. Yeah, he was wanting to get her to exonerate Spider-Man in the death of her father. But the scene when they walk through the Atlantean vessels was just a little odd to me. And in the days after Gwen's death, I couldn't decide if Phil was obsessed with Spider-Man's failure -- did that burst his personal Marvels balloon? -- or if he was overly distraught with her death.
Karen: A middle-aged man, obsessing on a beautiful young woman...well, it happens all the time. A little disturbing but I do think there was that layer to it. Loss of innocence, loss of youth, longing for the past, his own personal success -there was a lot tied up with Gwen in Phil's mind. Phil tries to continue work on his next book with his assistant, Marcia, but his heart isn't in it. As he's going over photos with her, he sees Hawkeye and the Hulk fighting Zzzax on TV (from Incredible Hulk #166), and he snaps. He's done. He can't do it any more; he's 'too close' to it all. But he tells Marcia to carry on -- she can use everything to make the documentary she discussed. He's ready to retire. Phil steps outside and beckons the young paperboy over and tells Marcia to get a picture of him and his wife with a nice, normal kid. Little Danny Ketch.
Doug: Danny Ketch. The 1990s Ghost Rider. Yes, a nod to bring this historical love letter to the then-present, but to me now, it just leaves me flat. Is Danny Ketch even still in the MU?
Karen: Certainly in 2015 Danny Ketch doesn't seem all that relevant, does he? Taken as one long piece, I enjoyed Marvels a great deal, although it did make me feel that living in that universe would probably not be such a wonderful experience! Phil's questioning -- why are the Marvels here? -- his quasi-religious take on them, would surely be one shared by many people. It's interesting that this is not addressed in comics. Of course, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby went the other route, with people giving the heroes a hard time right from the beginning. People were motivated by fear rather than love or awe. So Phil is an oddball. But I feel he also fills in for us readers who came in either in the Silver or early Bronze ages and have a longing for those days. He has developed an obsession with the heroes and misses the days, during the WWII, years, when they seemed perfect and were idolized. I can understand this, to some degree. I suppose I don't want cartoon cutouts but I also don't enjoy the extreme moral ambiguity I've found in a lot of recent books I've happened to pick up. But in any case, Alex Ross' art is phenomenal throughout the series. It never wavers and brings not only realism but the right amount of fantasy -sequences in this issue with Namor's Atlantean army is pure Ray Harryhausen Saturday-matinee stuff -the art just transports you.
Doug: If super-heroes were real in today's reality-TV, tabloids-dishing-constantly-on-celebrities sort of culture in which we here in America find ourselves mired, they would be at the top of the food chain in terms of public notice. I don't know if the media would brand any of them as bad guys... shoot, not even the bad guys themselves! Who today doesn't love a good villain? And yes -- Alex Ross's art sucks the reader right into the story. He was the perfect choice to tell this story, and Kurt Busiek for the most part transferred the four-color stories of his (and our's) youth to this wonderful reimagining. In reflection, maybe Phil Sheldon was the perfect protagonist. As he'd felt as a younger man that he couldn't measure up to the Marvels, could never be the perfect man, in the end that's how he truly was. So what Busiek and Ross crafted was a main character with those wonderful feet of clay, manufactured by the one and only House of Ideas.