Friday, June 17, 2011

The Day the Music Died: Amazing Spider-Man #121

Amazing Spider-Man #121 (June 1973)
"The Night Gwen Stacy Died"
Gerry Conway-Gil Kane/John Romita/Tony Mortellaro

Doug: Today begins our third year of publication. You might have noticed that we've yet to review some pretty major Bronze Age stories, maybe the most key among them the two-part gem we're now undertaking. Karen will tell you that this story has come up several times in conversation and that I've always been a bit skittish about reviewing it. I don't know -- it just seems like the pinnacle, the crux of this entire epoch. Maybe I've been afraid that we won't do it justice. Maybe I'm also afraid that it won't live up to my memories, but knowing how important it is, I'll be hesitant to be truthfully critical. Whatever, we're here now. And I'm pretty excited about it.

Doug: I want to begin with the cover above. What a great cover! I think first off that the yellow background really makes it pop. And John Romita's rendering of the headshots of the Spider-Man cast are all just perfect.
Not only are they great portraits, but each image conveys the personality of the character. JJJ's bluster, Aunt May's worry, Flash Thompson's smugness -- it's all there. For static images, there's a lot of dynamism. And the image of Spider-Man conveys speed, power, and urgency. The design of the entire cover is perfect.

Karen: Without a doubt, Romita is one of the best at composing a dramatic cover. This one has stuck in my head ever since I first saw it. Plus, the actual threat that someone on the cover was going to die was very alarming to me as a child. This was still in the days before death had become a revolving door, of course.

Doug: If you've not already seen them, we previously reviewed the Hulk 2-parter from Amazing Spider-Man #'s 119-120.
As we open this issue, Peter's just returned from Canada, and has arrived at the Osborn condominium at the urging of Gwen Stacy. Eavesdropping, Peter picks up on a conversation between the Osborn family doctor, Gwen, and Mary Jane Watson. In the days before privileged information, the doctor tells it like it is: Harry's dropped LSD and has been given a counter-acting sedative. Pete rushes to the roof to change out of the Spidey suit,and hurries back down to ground level. Entering the building, he's abruptly halted by a firm hand on his arm -- the hand of an enraged Norman Osborn. Osborn is under heavy duress, sweating profusely, and tells Pete in no uncertain terms that he is not welcome in the Osborn home.

Karen: I've always thought that it was a fantastic idea to make Osborn the Goblin. It puts that extra weight on Peter in every fight with him, as he doesn't want to hurt his best friend's father, and he was always wondering when Osborn would snap and come after him again.

Doug: Isn't it interesting that Ditko felt so strongly about the Goblin being an unknown that he left the strip? Of course, a) the more I've read about Ditko the man, the less surprised I am and b) has there ever been a stronger debut than Romita's output in ASM #'s 39-40?

Doug: Memories of the battles fought recently between Spidey and the Green Goblin come flooding back to Peter (see our reviews of
ASM #'s 96, 97, and 98, as well as our look at Spectacular Spider-Man #2), and his own fears sweep over him. He gathers Gwen and MJ and they quickly hurry out. Gwen feels sorry for Harry and wonders where it all went wrong. Mary Jane is just quiet. As they leave, Norman Osborn slips further into his mania. On the phone with a financial adviser, he's told that his portfolio has taken a 13% hit; suddenly Harry stumbles into the room in a stupor, eventually collapsing. Norman Osborn's world has crumbled around him in the space of mere hours.

Karen: I liked the kids' reactions. Gwen wonders how someone like Harry, who's always gotten whatever he wanted, could turn to drugs. Of course, the one thing he's never been able to get is the love and respect of his father. I thought Mary Jane's uncharacteristic silence was almost a foreshadowing of the more serious girl we'd soon see after Gwen's departure.

Doug: We next cut to the friendly skies of Manhattan, as we catch up to Spidey a few hours later, webbing his way across town to the Daily Bugle. It would have been a shame to waste those good pics of the Hulk brouhaha, and Pete is as usual strapped for cash. However, we're let in on a little secret -- Pete caught a bug while in Canada, and his head's beginning to feel full and his wind's cut down. An amiable conversation with Robbie Robertson and a minor dust-up with J. Jonah Jameson follow, and Pete hits the streets to head for a warm bed and some rest. We've remarked in earlier reviews that part of the allure of Spider-Man is the soap opera aspect of the magazine. While we've had brief glimpses of Spider-Man on a few panels so far, we've basically gone through the first 8 pages without any typical super-hero slugfests, etc. And I don't know about you, but I've been riveted to this book.

Karen: That was the beauty of ASM -it was more about Pete and the people in his life than fights. Once you actually cared about this guy, and spent time wondering how he would get enough money to pay the rent or get Aunt May's medicine, then you really rooted for him when he donned those red and blue tights and went to work. I have to say, the sick Spidey motif was one that Stan developed and Gerry used here again. It's pretty much perfect for the character - on top of all his other problems, he's got to jump into action feeling lousy!
Who can't relate to that?

Doug: Well said! As Osborn gets Harry back into bed, his mind races with thoughts of trouble. Suddenly he has an hallucination of Spider-Man leaping to attack him! Osborn cries out, and realizes that he's dreaming. Scrambling out of the building, he stumbles into the city and, in what I guess you could call a "controlled wander", winds up at one of his properties... the properties that he's held throughout the city to contain his Goblin's lairs! The next we see, the Green Goblin is alight on a glider, and calling for the death of the one he hates most: Spider-Man!

Karen: There were some great visuals. I especially liked the Spider-Man phantom; there was such a subtle coloring to the figure, it looked perfect. The large panel of Osborn flipping out was also effective.

Doug: The next cut is to Harry's and Peter's apartment, where Gwen waits for Peter to return from the Bugle. As she worries about Harry, in the background the Goblin speeds toward the window.
I'll declare, no one depicted this scene better than did Alex Ross in Marvels #4... see for yourself -- I think it's just terrifying. As Peter arrives, in his Spidey duds (the sickness now pounding in his head), he finds only Gwen's handbag and a pumpkin bomb. Fear washes over him and he bursts back through the window on a hunt.

Karen: Gwen is just such a sweet-heart, which makes what is to come all the more painful. The panel where Spidey sees the handbag and goblin bomb is absolutely perfect in tone. You can see that panel and know that a cold chill just ran through him. Heck, it ran through me.

Doug: As Spidey swings frantically through the city, his Spider-sense eventually leads him toward the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge. There, atop one of the pylons, is the Goblin with an unconscious Gwendy. Did you get the sense right away that this fight was going to be different? I guess when I first read it, and I'm almost positive that I didn't know it was going to be Gwen who perished, I thought this would ultimately end in the demise of the Green Goblin.

Karen: I don't think I had any idea that she would die; that just didn't happen back then!

Doug: Our two combatants go at each other with no holds barred. How many times have we seen Spider-Man hold back from the full power of his Spider-strength? Not here. He connects a blow that sends the Goblin toppling off his glider and toward the river; it's only the remote control function of the glider that saves Osborn.

Karen: Another terrific page where you feel the sheer power of Spidey's punch as the Goblin goes flying.

Doug: Once righted, Osborn speeds toward the top of the pylon, where Spidey has reached Gwen. Readying to gather her and swing away, Spider-Man is stunned as the Goblin splits them and in the process bumps Gwen over the edge.
Her limp body plummets like a missile as Spider-Man scrambles to the side and launches a webline after her. The line finally catches her, attaching itself to her right leg. At that same fateful instant, a "snap" is heard from the young beauty's neck. Spidey hauls Gwendy to him, and is shocked when he cradles her that there is no response. Not willing to admit it, he tries to revive her. As the Goblin flies near to taunt him, Spider-Man screams that the Goblin has killed the woman he loves, and for that -- he will die!

Karen: I found it odd that we don't really see Gwen's face until after Spidey hauls her up on his line. Spidey says something about her looking like she's in a state of shock and then boom! over the edge she goes. I almost wonder (now) if she was already dead? That doesn't seem to have been the plan but it just seems odd that she looks so lifeless to begin with. Also sad that there were no last words between Pete and Gwen.

Doug: So what did you think of the inclusion of the "snap" on Gwen's neck? I've always thought it odd that the sound effect was included in this scene. Why is it there? Are we to somehow blame Peter for Gwen's death?
It's obvious that, despite what the Goblin said about the height of the fall killing her, she doesn't die until the minute the webline attaches to her leg. Would the scene have been as effective without it?

Karen: That little snap! has been the source of much controversy over the years. Did Spidey actually kill Gwen? That seems to be the implication. Of course, if she'd hit the water, she would have died too. I don't buy the Goblin's comment that a fall from that height would kill someone before they hit the water. I did a little research on this question about the snap, and in the letter column of issue 125, Roy Thomas has this to say about it:

"First, for the many of you who wrote and complained that the fall alone could not have killed Gwen if she were unconscious (and therefore unable to be scared to death, the usual explanation for a person dying before hitting the ground), 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."

Karen: So it appears that yes, in trying to save Gwen, Spidey did in fact cause her death, but a death that was inevitable. I guess the bigger question is: Did Peter realize that his actions caused her neck to break? Was there some idea to play around with the guilt he'd feel in later issues? I don't think much came of it, but it's still an aspect of the story that disturbs to this day.


Roygbiv666 said...

Regarding the neck snap, I think in various reprints that sound effect was often taken out. Hmm.

Yeah, the idea of dying from fright is lame.

david_b said...

Jeez, Doug, Karen..: Starting your illustrious third year with a bang (or rather a 'snap'..), aren't we..?

Dare I say, it was "the faint little 'snap' heard 'round the World." One large plank in the platform we knew as the beloved Silver Age just desolved into dust.

Despite my humble attempts here, I'll never be able to adequately sum up the rippling resonance of this issue across the landscape of Comicdom.

I'm hunting down a VF copy of this issue now, having bought my ish 122 back in '73 in a 'three-for-50cent' package at a local Shopko store. I only started collecting with ish 125, so I KNEW 121 and 122 were BIG issues, judging by all the reader mail. I was gobsmacked when I found, since there were little if any comic stores for back issues anywhere in rural Wisconsin.

While 122's cover is more memorable (IMHO), this was THE ISSUE. Actually, in collecting the previous dozen or so issues running up to 121, I thought Romita's cover art was so-so at best. But, yes, once you see 121, that all changed.

As for the comments on the issues focusing on Peter's group of friends, I totally agree that the tone and pacing, the very dramatic fabric leading up to 121's climax was subtle, yet expertly done. A showdown was staged, under our noses, one of which decisively marked the end of what we knew as those 'funny books' your Dad would let you buy in the dimestore.

If Peter's world didn't sweep you in before, it sucked you in now. I'd be hard-pressed to come up with another Bronze Age emotional knock-out punch as this, other than Reed and Sue's separation. My parents divorced when I was but a wee lad, so that was oddly theraputic in it's own way. But similarly, emotions were slowly grinded through these pages, as if looking through a prism, you suddenly saw everyone of the supporting characters in a different, deeper light.

THAT would rank as one of the finest, endearing hallmarks of our beloved Bronze Age.

Anonymous said...

Still shuddered. Nearly 40 years later, and I still shuddered.


Rich said...

Ditko has said pretty clearly that his leaving the strip was nothing to do with the Goblin's identity.

Edo Bosnar said...

Great review. I first read this when it was reprinted in Marvel Tales a few years later (1978?). I think I knew it was Gwen that died because she was mentioned as deceased in one of the ongoing Spidey titles at the time, but I still remember being quite moved by the story. It really resonated then, and it holds up well to this day.
As to whether Spidey actually killed her with his desparate web shot, I guess Roy's note settles the matter. However, I know back then when I re-read the story a few times, I thought the way she was lying there motionless meant that she was already dead...

vancouver mark said...

This was, by pure fluke of timing, the first Spider-Man issue I ever bought, waaaay back in grade seven.

Quite an first impression.

Anonymous said...

Wow...Mark, I can make almost the exact same comment - fluke/first/ but I was in 6th grade. And yes, a first impression that really jump started my interest in comics.


William said...

I have a love/hate relationship with this story. I hate the fact that they killed Gwen Stacy, but I love the way that it propelled Spider-Man to a new level of excellence. Love it or hate it, Spider-Man #121 is arguably one of the most, if not the most important comic book ever. It changed comics more than any single event I can think of. Before this story, comic books were exciting, but predictable. After this story, you got the sense that anything could happen, and that nothing was set in stone. To put it in context, It was basically the equivalent of Lois Lane being killed by Lex Luthor, while Superman could do nothing to stop it. A notion that was inconceivable at the time.

As for the question of the "SNAP" heard 'round the world... From what I've read, I believe they fully intended to go with the idea that the 'shock' of the fall killed Gwen, but letterer Artie Simek mistakenly put the the SNAP in there and nobody caught it. Since the book was already printed and you can't un-ring a bell Roy Thomas had to explain it later as you mentioned.

But even without the SNAP, there would still be plenty for Peter to feel guilty about. Just the fact that he is Spider-Man makes him partly responsible for Gwen's death. Not just for the obvious reason that GG kidnaped Gwen because she was Peter's girlfriend, but for the fact that he knew that Norman Osborn was a dangerous, super powered, psychopath, and he chose not to do anything about it. He could have turned him in to the the authorities years before, but he chose not to, and he (and Gwen) paid the price.

Which brings me to the thing I find most disturbing about the "Death of Gwen Stacy" storyline. I felt it was just too much. Even Charlie Brown doesn't get as much grief as Peter Parker. He already felt totally responsible for the death of his own uncle AND Gwen's father, and now his one true love is killed right before his eyes and it's once again his fault. Come on! The guy probably would have gone ahead and just jumped off the bridge himself at this point.

Anonymous said...

Not to dwell on the technicalities, but the fact that Spidey broke her neck doesn't mean she wasn't already dead. Could have been an intentional 'we'll never know'.


Andy said...

"He already felt totally responsible for the death of his own uncle AND Gwen's father, and now his one true love is killed right before his eyes and it's once again his fault. Come on! The guy probably would have gone ahead and just jumped off the bridge himself at this point."

That echoes my feelings, too. For a character as deeply guilt-ridden as Peter Parker, losing his uncle, Mr. Stacy, and then Gwen would have simply DESTROYED him. Seems to me that at that point, the character would have realized that the whole "with great power comes great responsibility" line wasn't really working out for him or (more importantly) anyone else and he'd have hung it up for good.

I also have trouble with the writer's notion of killing Gwen because I felt like she was being punished for being a dull character, which is of course the fault of the writers to begin with because Gwen sure as hell wasn't boring when she first appeared. Because of that, Gwen's death to me isn't so much a powerful tragedy as it's indicative of incompetent writing.

david_b said...


You bring up a super point...:

"Because of that, Gwen's death to me isn't so much a powerful tragedy as it's indicative of incompetent writing."

Obviously her death had a far larger impact than her life, closing the door on the formula-matic 'happily-ever-after' stories.

I can only add that, under 'different management' that a similar situation (a seemingly dull character, creative team looking for shocking story ideas..), the writing wasn't up to the task, such as when Hany Pym's downturn turned out so negative and lousy, or the entire lingering Jean Grey/Phoenix saga.

Luckily, Starlin's 'Death of Captain Marvel' faired comparatively better.

Inkstained Wretch said...

I'm just digging that great Gil Kane art. I personally think of him as more of a DC guy, but obviously a lot of people know him best from this period. The image of Spidey punching the Goblin right into the reader's lap is just amazing.

So, I guess what I am trying to say is, I am looking forward to that Gil Kane Spotlight you guys are promising,

Doug said...

Great conversation, as always, and as expected.

For those of you who want more "straight from the horses' mouths" details on all things Green Goblin and Gwen Stacy, I'd encourage you to shell out $3 apiece for the digital editions (comes to you as a .pdf file that you can keep forever) of Back Issue! that dealt with our topic today. Here are two links:

The first link will take you to information on Harry as the Goblin and the Gwen-clone. The second link is to a roundtable with Gerry Conway and John Romita. Both magazines in total are worth the $3; I'd argue that even if you just want to read the two articles that it will be money well-spent.

Have fun!


Doug said...

Inkstained --

You won't have to wait long -- it's next week (can't recall the day off the top of my head). Thursday?


Karen said...

I want to defend Gerry Conway's comments about why Gwen was killed off. Certainly in the beginning of ASM, Gwen was a much more catty and fickle girl. But once Mary Jane appeared, those characteristics were transferred over to her, and Gwen became a very idealized girlfriend. Loving, devoted, gentle -she was perfect.

As such, she was not a very interesting character. There wasn't a lot of opportunity for conflict between her and Peter. Mary Jane was obviously the more appealing character to write, as her foibles would allow for a greater range of stories to be told.

They could have changed Gwen, made her more difficult or flighty, but then the readers would have cried out that she was out of character. There just seemed to be no where to go with that relationship. Her death actually contributed far more to the book -and comics as a whole- then she ever could have if they'd kept her around.


Redartz said...

I was always impressed with Conway's writing during this period. For several issues after the cataclysmic events of this story, Peter showed lingering affects and hostilities. Although I don't recall what issue it was, a scene stands out when Peter lashed out at Mary Jane for some comment; her pained expression still lingers. Anybody identify that issue?

Fred W. Hill said...

When I bought that issue, in a little mini-mart in Salt Lake City, my collection of Amazing Spider-Man consisted of a ragged copy of issue 97 (Gobby's previous appearance, as well as the issue in which Gwen came back to Peter); and issues 111 and 120 (my dad had thrown out a few other issues I'd once had and I also had a few Marvel Tales Spidey reprints, but at this point my entire comics collection could still fit in one box with room to spare. I was 10 or 11, and, wow, such an emotional impact that had! Spidey was already my favorite comics character but with this story I was seriously hooked on Spider-Man. Years later, just reading over most of the entire arch of their entire relationship, I felt a much greater sense of sadness, silly as that may seem. Anyone else ever notice the eerily ominous cover to issue 61, with a Gwen and Captain Stacy tied to a chair with a heavy vat falling on them and Spidey swinging in to the rescue. Titled, "O, What a Tangled Web We Weave ...", Spidey saved them that time but ultimately they became causualties of Spidey's struggles.
Oh, and like Rich, I've also read that per Ditko, his leaving had nothing to do with the Goblin's identity but much to do with Martin Goodman making promises to Ditko regarding royalties or some such thing and not keeping his word. And his work on issue 37, his next to last, which he plotted, not only made clear that Osborne was not a good man but included a strong clue that Osborne was the Goblin -- that scene where Stromm is shot by someone from a perch no one could easily get to without flying. Perhaps that was a red herring Ditko placed in order to throw readers off, but unless he ever breaks down and tells all, which seems highly unlikely, we'll be left guessing. Stan likely had no idea what Ditko's true intentions were either -- assuming that Ditko didn't draw that scene on Lee's direct orders.
It's difficult to tell what direction Ditko might have taken Peter & Gwen's relationship if had stayed on a while longer, but he seemed to be increasingly emotionally isolating Peter from everyone but Aunt May, and how much of that echoed Ditko's own life?

david_b said...


Sidenote here.. I had the Marvel Tales 44 with the 'Tangled Web' reprint in '73. Simply one of the BEST, most memorable Marvel Tales covers ever. I gave most of my Marvel reprints away a few years back to my nephew, but just HAD to buy a NM copy of that issue last week for only $5.

GLORIOUS Romita cover art, timeless Spidey pose, much better than the original issue cover in my opinion.

Edo Bosnar said...

Maybe it has to do with the fact that I only first started reading comics seriously well after Gwen was gone, but I have to say I agree with Karen's point about her death ultimately being a good thing for the Spider-man series. Also, to me, Mary Jane always seemed a perfect 'fit' for Peter, and the series, just because it opened up many more possibilities for good storytelling (and yes, I fall into what is probably that odd-duck category of fans who thought their marriage was not necessarily a bad thing).

William said...

Just though I add that I have a friend who works at Marvel, and he told me a while back that when they were planning "Brand New Day", they were seriously considering "undoing" Gwen's death and bringing her back the same way they did Harry. The idea was ultimately nixed, but from what I understand it was definitely on the table as a definite option.

I wonder how that would have gone over?

But since they didn't do it, I guess we can replace the old saying "Only Bucky stays dead" with "Only Gwen Stacy stays dead."

William said...

Sorry, I used the word "definite" twice in the same sentence in that last post. I really need to learn to better edit myself better.

Fred W. Hill said...

I had to do a google search to glimpse at that Marvel Tales cover, David b, and I see what you mean about it being a better cover. Still, tho', IMO, it doesn't have that emotional impact of the original, at least from the perspective of knowing what would happen to George and Gwen Stacy during the next 60 issues. That vat, overwhelming the cover, just struck me as symbolic of their impending doom that Spidey couldn't stop. Of course, I can easily understand why they came up with an alternate cover when that story came up for a reprint.

pete doree said...

What strikes me about seeing these pages again after such a long time is, once again, how great Gil Kane was. It's easy to think of him as bodies flying in all directions, but it's the quiet panels that leap out here. Look at that last close up of Gwen & MJ over Harry's bed. Gwen's worried, but MJ? She's struggling with worry, thinking Harry's an asshole AND wondering if she's projecting the right emotion to Gwen & the doctor, or if they can see through her. All with just a few pen lines. THAT'S an artist.
Ditto with the last page in ish 122, where Pete tells MJ to get lost. That's such classic storytelling, with the sunken angle we see Pete at to the fierce pride on MJ's face in the last panel. Masterful.
Also I think if you look at the page where Gwen is knocked off the bridge, I reckon Gil made his own mind up and ignored whatever Gerry or Roy said: She's already dead. Why can't we see her face? In Gil's mind she's already dead.
I don't actually remember being that shocked when I first read that story all those years ago ( I think 'cos a friend had already blurted out the ending before I'd had a chance to read it! ), plus I never liked Gwen that much. But weirdly, I do remember when I read 'Marvels' feeling how nice it was to see Gwen again. Weird.

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