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.