An ANNIVERSARY COMMEMORATION of The Amazing Spider-Man #121 — a comic-book landmark…
By PETER BOSCH
Gwen Stacy died 50 years ago, on March 13, 1973, the day The Amazing Spider-Man #121 was released.
I loved Gwen. Or, to be more precise, I loved the love between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy.
Borrowing the words of Marvel editor Nick Lowe from the first issue of the 2020 miniseries, Gwen Stacy: “What really drew readers to Gwen was her decency, her compassion, her kindness and her ability to see beyond the surface of things and people. She brought so much joy to the book, characters and readers, and her tragic death made an indelible mark on all things Marvel.”
And, yet, when Peter and Gwen first met (in The Amazing Spider-Man #31, December 1965, which was also the first Harry Osborn appearance), their relationship started with humor for readers.
For the next several issues, it was mostly a back-and-forth, lighthearted “she likes him, now she doesn’t” interaction.
Stan Lee was the writer and Steve Ditko the plotter/artist on the title when Gwen was first introduced, and then John Romita took over the art with ASM #39 (Aug. 1966). Gwen’s haughty appearance and attitude that had been present under Ditko quickly softened and she became more youthful, attractive… and emotionally available. Of course, there was still a problem, and his name was Peter Parker. Early in the Romita run, Peter was trying to convince Betty Brant to move on for her own good (she hated Spider-Man). During this time, Gwen was basically eye-candy in the background.
Betty Brant made a return to New York (in ASM #41, Oct. 1966) and had a reunion with Peter, but both realized whatever feelings they had for each other in the past were gone… which freed him up for a new love interest. And just when you thought it was going to be Gwen, the dazzling Mary Jane Watson entered his life at the end of the next issue (ASM #42, Nov.1966). And Gwen, who was still running hot and cold toward him, suddenly realized when seeing MJ and Peter together a few issues later that Peter was a hot commodity:
Unbeknownst to Ms. Stacy, Peter really did like Gwen better. From ASM #45 (Feb. 1967), “It’s funny the way I keep thinking of Gwen, even though I’ve never really dated her. Mary Jane always seems to pop up between us.” Light flirtations continued between Peter and Gwen, but inside they were starting to feeling a lot more:
Their growing relationship remained a subplot to the main Spidey stories until ASM #57 (Feb. 1968) when it exploded to the forefront. Spider-Man had developed amnesia a few issues before and Gwen, worried sick about the disappearance of Peter, asked her father, ex-Police Captain George Stacy, to help locate him. Later, she went to police headquarters, and discovered Spider-Man there and flew into a tearful rage against him. Peter regained his memory later and accompanied Captain Stacy to his home (in ASM #59, Apr. 1968), where Gwen threw herself into his arms:
Romance at last. Or so it would be if anyone but Stan Lee were writing it, for further on in that same issue the Kingpin brainwashed Captain Stacy into joining his criminal activities. Later, Peter visited the Stacy home and told the Kingpin-controlled Captain Stacy that he is aware of what happened. Stacy tried to attack Peter, but Peter’s reflexes blocked the blow and he accidentally shoved Stacy to the floor — just as Gwen entered the room. (Luckily, several heartbreaking issues later, Captain Stacy returned to normal and told Gwen that Peter was not at fault.)
Peter’s relationship with Gwen was tumultuous, but never did he have someone who loved him so much. As she earlier told Aunt May, Gwen felt as weak as a kitten whenever she was with him. We would also see Gwen fight like a tigress against anyone who belittled him.
However, the greatest pain Gwen was ever to know was when her father gave his life to save a child from falling rubble during from a rooftop fight between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus in ASM #90 (Nov. 1970). Spider-Man tried taking him to medical help but it was too late and Captain Stacy’s last words were to the young man he knew was behind the mask:
Gwen blamed Spider-Man for her father’s death and turned to Peter to be there for her, but he was afraid of what would happen if she discovered he was the man she hated. Emotionally hurt, she accepted an offer to stay with relatives in England. Peter did fly to London after her (in ASM #95, Apr. 1971) but that old Peter Parker luck followed him and as soon as his plane landed it was announced there was a terrorists’ bomb on the steps next to it.
Changing to Spider-Man, he saved the passengers and then rescued a kidnapped American diplomat and his young son. Needless to say, Spider-Man got on the news. Peter dared not go to Gwen then because his being there at the same time as Spider-Man would be too much of a coincidence. He returned to New York without her ever knowing he had flown there to be with her. However, after several issues of being apart, she could not stand being away from him:
As we all know, the words at the end of that storyline about a “Happy Ending” did not last long. Following ASM #110 (July 1972), Stan Lee left the writing of the series to Gerry Conway and John Romita. With ASM #120 (May 1973), it went to Gerry Conway solo, which included the heartbreaking story (possibly the most famous in Spider-Man history) in The Amazing Spider-Man #121 (June 1973), “The Night Gwen Stacy Died.”
Whose decision was it for Gwen Stacy to die has been wondered about for some time, but the letter column for ASM #125 (Oct. 1973) stated, “We gotta be honest and admit that it wasn’t Gerry’s idea alone. … Gerry had been reading over the past few years’ issues and had come to the conclusion that something was wrong — or, more accurately, missing. The relationship between Pete and Gwen had been through a lot of inconsequential ups and downs, and unless the two were to be married, there was nowhere else to take it. But marriage seemed wrong, too. Peter just wasn’t ready. So Gerry, Roy, and Stan debated the question long and hard… and it turned out that all had reached the same inescapable conclusion. Gwen’s death was simply fated to happen.”
There was a What If? issue (#24, Dec. 1980) in which Peter did save her, but things still turned out bad for him and those he cared about. And number of other Gwens have popped up over the decades — some clones, some from other Earths — but the real Gwen was one of the few Marvel characters to stay dead. Until a few months ago.
In the November 2022 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 6 #10 (or, as Marvel said on the cover, #904 in legacy numbering), Peter was allowed by a celestial named Progenitor to have a few moments of closure with the real Gwen, still the young age she was when she died, and then she vanished into the ether. Speaking for this long-time Gwen Stacy fan, I am grateful he (and we) had that chance.
— AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #121 and the TOP 13 COVERS of MARCH 1973 — RANKED. Click here.
— How a Golden Age Comic Strip Helped Inspire the DEATH OF GWEN STACY. Click here.
PETER BOSCH’s first book, American TV Comic Books: 1940s-1980s – From the Small Screen to the Printed Page, has just been published by TwoMorrows. He has written articles and conducted celebrity interviews for various magazines and newspapers. Peter lives in Hollywood.