By Richard Guion
I've bought and sold and re-purchased many classic comics, but I've always kept my very fine copy of Amazing Spider-Man #121 lovingly protected in mylar. It's the single most important comic that I've read in my entire life! This issue was published in 1973 and it was the culmination of long running storylines started by Stan Lee and John Romita. To really discuss the impact of this issue, I have to point out various milestones in Spider-Man’s history that primed loyal readers for this epic event.
In the early 1970s, Marvel did a great job at catching up new readers through reprint titles such as Marvel Tales (featuring Spider-Man) and Marvel’s Greatest Comics (featuring the Fantastic Four). Issue #29 of Marvel Tales (published in 1971) featured a humdinger of two parter (reprinted from ASM #39-40), where the Green Goblin not only revealed his identity as Norman Osborne...he also discovered the identity of Peter Parker as Spider-Man!
I was floored.
This sort of thing never happened in DC Comics, which I grew up reading in my pre-teen years. How many times had Lex Luthor and Superman clashed, with that criminal mastermind being blind to Clark Kent? By the end of the issue, Spider-Man had somehow hypnotized Osborne into forgetting he was the Goblin...and he returned to taking care of his son, Harry.
Poor Harry Osborne -- all he ever wanted was to be loved by his father, who berated him when Norman was insane. Like Harry, I had a father with a double personality as well. My Dad was an alcoholic. His job at Exxon had moved us to Anchorage, Alaska while the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was being constructed. Alaska isn’t the best place for an alcoholic to live, especially an executive with an expense account and a job that requires socializing. When he was sober, my Dad was a quiet, kind, and thoughtful man who liked to read, play golf and watch TV. When my Dad was drinking, any kind of chaos could occur, but the worst kind were the screaming fights between him and my Mother. Every weekday night we nervously waited to see which one would come home. Would the quiet guy join us for dinner? Or would the intoxicated fellow show up before or after midnight? These emotions were mirrored by Peter Parker whenever he encountered Norman Osborne after the events of ASM #40.
The world of comics and science fiction were a great escape from the problems of my parents. Marvel and DC Comics became my substitute family. And Spider-Man was my favorite character because Peter Parker seemed more relatable than any other super-hero. He had ongoing issues; his life was an ongoing soap opera where momentous events happened. Issue #90 of Amazing Spider-Man featured one such event where Gwen Stacy’s father, Captain Stacy, died saving a child threatened by the clash between Spidey and Doctor Octopus. His last words to Spider-Man were the revelation that he knew Spidey was Peter Parker...and a request to look after Gwen.
Amazing Spider-Man #96 in 1971 featured the next Big Event. The Green Goblin returned as the drug crisis hit the Marvel universe. This issue was a milestone not only for the return of the Green Goblin, but for featuring the negative effects of drug abuse. Stan Lee famously defied the Comics Code Authority, which refused to put its stamp of approval on the cover for three issues. Spidey saves a dude from jumping to his death while high. Harry Osborne starts popping pills after freaking out over Mary Jane’s attraction to Peter. Norman Osborne flips out after seeing a Broadway musical alongside Peter and remembers their earlier encounters. By the end of this three part tale, Spider-Man once again uses the guilt that Osborne feels over Harry’s drug abuse to switch back his personality into “Normal Norman” mode.
Featuring anti-drug stories in these ASM issues but also later in Green Lantern / Green Arrow were huge milestones. With my father’s situation and several other family members affected by alcoholism, I could relate. I could only wish for the fast resolutions these stories provided, where addicts got rehabilitated over a few panels. There was no easy end to the problems in my family, it was an ongoing crisis.
Fast forward three years.
It is 1974 and I am the biggest Spider-Man fan ever, reading Amazing Spider-Man, Giant-Size Spider-Man, Marvel Tales, Marvel Team-Up, etc. I even had a mail subscription to ASM. It would arrive in our mailbox, in a brown wrapper, folded in half. Not the thing you'd put in mylar (my present copy was purchased later), but a comic you'd slide out of the wrapper and start reading as soon as you could.
I remember the time and place where I read ASM 121. I had gotten out of school early to go to the dentist. My father, very sober that day, brought me home on a sunny afternoon. After getting the mail, I read ASM 121 with great excitement while the novocaine was wearing off. The dramatic cover of ASM 121 declared it to be a “Turning Point," featuring the death of a supporting cast member. Gwen Stacy was the furthest likely candidate from my mind. She was Peter’s love -- the one he would marry. He made a promise to Captain Stacy as he died, for crying out loud! Gwen was sacred; Marvel wouldn’t touch her anymore than DC Comics would kill off Lois Lane. No way. That wasn’t going to happen. I was betting on Ned Leeds buying the farm.
This issue was exceedingly well executed by Gerry Conway and the art team of Gil Kane and John Romita. Romita inking Kane was a wonderful combination - you had the dynamism of Kane’s movement but the classic look of the characters due to Romita. The issue opens on a splash page of Harry Osborne writhing in bed after a drug relapse. The doctor says that Harry took LSD while severely depressed, resulting in a state of psychosis. Peter tries to lend moral support to his friend but is stopped in the hallway by Osborne, who is near his own nervous breakdown. Osborne forbids Peter, Mary Jane or Gwen from seeing his son. Soon afterward, Osborne is tormented by visions of Spider-Man and remembers all his past encounters. After running to yet another secret lab -- he apparently had dozens of them stashed around New York City -- Osborne becomes the Goblin, kidnaps Gwen Stacy and takes her to the George Washington Bridge.
By the time, I got to the end of the story, I couldn't believe what I had just read. Sweet, beautiful, loving Gwen Stacy--the love of Peter Parker's life--was dead? No way. That kind of thing just didn't happen in superhero comics. And what really got me, even at 12 years old, was the panel where Gwen perished. The sound effect SWIK! registered that her death was even more sick and twisted. Spider-Man killed his own girlfriend by snagging her the wrong way with his web-line. The SWIK! and SNAP! and head bobbing that Gil Kane drew left no doubt in mind. Peter Parker had royally screwed up.
Both Gerry Conway and John Romita have discussed the creation of this story in many interviews and podcasts, including a Kickstarter funded DVD interview titled Off The Record with Gerry Conway. Conway added the sound effect after seeing the way that Kane had drawn the action, just to add a little more pathos to Peter Parker’s life. The twisted thing is that we as readers have witnessed the truth in an objective manner. Spider-Man doesn't realize what he's done, even though the Goblin is certainly responsible as well. Peter Parker is an imperfect hero with the best of intentions. What makes a classic Marvel hero different from all the rest? Tragedy. Spider-Man suffered three of them in his career: Uncle Ben, Captain Stacy and now Gwen Stacy.
I still could not quite believe Gwen was dead, even with the full splash page at the very end of the story, which was also unique, the first time that I had seen the title on the last page, which was finally revealed as “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”. I stared at it for minutes while pain erupted in my mouth without the novacaine. I can remember the song playing on the radio: My Love by Paul McCartney. It seemed to fit this story perfectly -- an ode that McCartney wrote for his wife Linda, seemed to echo the feelings that Peter had for Gwen. Unlike Conway, who thought she was bland and boring, I liked Gwen Stacy. She wasn’t as hip as Mary Jane but she was cool in her own way. I was a sentimental kid and still am.
My Dad asked me if I was OK, sensing that something was wrong. I said I was fine. I had given up on trying to explain my emotional attachments to fictional characters years earlier. It was a strange preoccupation to my parents, who had lived through the Great Depression and World War 2. They couldn’t see that I only half occupied the real world and lived the other half in the Marvel & DC Universes out of a need for safety. Yet in this case my safe haven had been violated. My father accepted my answer and went to the fridge for his first drink of the day: beer. That made me nervous. Who knew where this night would lead for him, passed out on the chair or an expletive filled argument with my Mom?
I retreated to my room and re-read the story, just to understand what had really occurred. I didn’t have any friends at the time who could relate to either comics or alcoholism.
We didn’t have message boards or Twitter to spark instant reactions or share our experiences. Comic conventions weren’t a big deal in our area. The only way I knew that other fans were impacted was by the letters column, The Spider’s Web - but those reactions were printed four months later in ASM #125! One writer wanted Conway fired and another one applauded him for getting rid of Spidey’s girlfriend.
It took the police showing up in the following issue, Amazing Spider-Man #122, to really confirm that fact that Gwen was gone forever by carrying away the body. As Peter goes crazy with rage and guilt, he has one final confrontation with the Green Goblin which results in the death of Norman Osborne. Just as the cover of ASM 121 proclaimed, this was indeed a "Turning Point". Peter’s relationship with Harry Osborne and Mary Jane was forever transformed. Unlike other characters that died and returned (Aunt May, Harry Osborne, Norman Osborne), Gwen Stacy stayed dead because of the impact this story had on Peter Parker.
As the decades have passed, I learned that many other fans were blown away by Amazing Spider-Man #121. Some of those fans became creators, working at Marvel on Spider-Man, or even in other media. I read an interview with one of the writers on Buffy the Vampire Slayer that they were into Gerry Conway’s Marvel work, which would have had to include these issues. The Death of Gwen Stacy was such a remarkable event that Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross chose to mark the end of an era in the final issue of their mini-series, MARVELS - the moment when innocence ended in the Marvel Universe.