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Friday, August 02, 2013 

Did Gwen Stacy really have to be killed off to pair Peter Parker with Mary Jane Watson?

Gerry Conway went to the SDCC, where he spoke with CBR about his past career, and how Gwen Stacy's death was thought up at the time, and while I'm not saying it was a bad story - for its time, it was done far better than what came nearly 2 decades later - it did make me wonder if it really had to be done so they could pair Peter Parker up with Mary Jane Watson. Conway said about the senior Romita:
"When I first came onto 'Amazing Spider-Man,' I was about 19 years old and John Romita was the artist on the book and had been for about six years. John was the old pro that we looked to for guidance and John wanted to kill off a major character to create some interest," Conway said. "John's first thought was 'Let's kill off Aunt May,' and my reaction to that was, 'Aunt May has been dying for ten years and her dying would probably not be that much of a surprise.'"

Conway, who saw an opportunity to pair Peter up with Mary Jane Watson, which he saw as a better match, suggested that Gwen be killed off instead.

"And there was no real serious debate about it," Conway recalled. "You have to remember that Gwen had been Peter's girlfriend for about five or six years, but the book had been out for about ten, so it wasn't like [killing] Lois Lane, who had been there all the time.

"While Gwen was his official girlfriend, for those of us who had followed the character from the very start, she didn't feel like she was that integral to the character. ... But to people who had been reading the book for the last five years, she was Lois Lane."
Back in the day, I realize that Romita's intentions may not have been as reprehensible as those of successive writers and artists. But for all I know, sales of comics at the time were still a lot better than the levels they've sunk to today, so even for the time, I can't help but wonder if Romita's idea was a sales strategy that wasn't even needed.

And if Gwen wasn't "integral" to Spidey, was it so hard to try and make her more so? Of course not, and if Conway couldn't think of a way, he could have sought help from other contributors who could give him some ideas for how to do so.

I admit it wasn't right of Stan to chicken out and not admit at conventions where he got negative reactions that he'd approved of Gwen's demise when Conway and Romita first turned to him about it. But I still don't get why they thought killing off Gwen was the sole option they could take before pairing Peter with Mary Jane, nor why natural deaths never crossed their minds as an ideal way to discontinue a cast member. I think Lou Gehrig's Disease was known at the time, and if they wanted to bring realism into comics, they could have tried devising a storyline about a character dying from incurable illness.
"For us it was the logical next step for us to make it this darker world," Conway continued. "I say 'darker world,' but there was still this trend of optimism and hope in these books. Even when Spider-Man is faced with catching the guy who killed the woman he loves and has the opportunity to take his revenge on him, he does not do so. He says, 'I'm not going to be like you.' That is an incredibly hopeful thing."
There's just one little thing: how and why would he be like the foul stench that murdered his girlfriend if it's a guilty criminal - the very same man who committed the crime to start with - whom he'd be killing, and not an innocent person? Only if he intentionally killed an innocent in cold blood would he be like the Green Goblin. If Peter shouldn't kill the Goblin, it's because he'd want to bring Norman Osborn to justice and let the world know this wolf in sheep's clothing businessman who'd even ripped off at least one of his employees in the past was moonlighting as a thief and worse, using his inventions for the cause of bad. I think there's a reasonable argument that can be made from all this - that if the hero's not going to kill a bad guy, it's because of a sense of justice and not iffy moralism.

Interesting that he reminds how during the Bronze Age, optimism was still held in high regard, because look at the scene today, where many writers and editors - especially the latter - disregard it almost altogether as some worthless relic of a bygone era. And maybe this is where a disappointment turns up: Conway doesn't say anything about how far the mighty have fallen, to the point where optimism and escapism have been written off as crap by a whole generation that never had much respect for them to start with.

Conway went on to say about the 1973 story:
"I don't have any regrets. I think it was the right thing to do. I think that Mary Jane is a much better foil for [Peter] than Gwen is," Conway said, noting that even the film version of Gwen Stacy is more like Mary Jane than the original character. "Gwen in the comics, and I'll defend this till my dying day, was much more interesting after she was killed than she ever was as a character.
I'm not saying Mary Jane wasn't a better foil for Peter than Gwen, and again, nor am I saying the death of Gwen was a bad story; for its time it was well done, but was killing her literally the right thing to do? Was it impossible for any writer, let alone Conway himself, to make her more interesting? Of course not. One of the best challenges of writing a series with a cast of regulars and recurring is to try and give the various cast members some purpose, even if it's doesn't elevate them to superstar status. He couldn't have done that?
The negative reaction caused Stan Lee to ask Conway to bring Gwen back from the dead, which resulted in a temporary psuedo-revival in the form of a clone. That story, however, served to prove that such a revival would never work.

"I think, to our credit, and I'll credit Roy a lot of this as the editor, we didn't. We brought back a version of her, but it wasn't her. It was very clearly not her, and she never came back in the books. I think she may be the only major character in comics who has ever been killed off and never come back."

While Gwen Stacy today stands virtually alone in the list of characters that haven't walked back through the revolving door of death, Conway explained that, at the time, there was never any question about dead characters staying dead.

"Back in 1973, we hadn't done it often enough. We hadn't killed off enough major characters to really know, but it generally was considered at the time that when you killed somebody off they stayed dead.

"The idea of bringing Gwen back just seemed so wrong because there had been such emotional consequences for Peter as a result of that. It would have cheapened his despair and grief and felt like a cheat," the writer continued. "Now, 40 years later, it's not whether you come back, it's how soon you come back. If they can keep you dead for a whole year, you've been really dead."

But while it seems that no death is permanent in comics today, Conway believes Gwen will remain one of Marvel's rare true deaths.
Reading this, I can't help but wonder what he thinks of J. Michael Stracynski's sleazy little tale in Sins Past "revealing" and retconning that Gwen slept with Norman Osborn in a way that cheapened her death more than resurrecting her ever would? That implied the Goblin was just taking out his anger on the easiest of targets? Yes, of course anybody who knows the 1973 story can tell you it was Norman's idea of the perfect revenge on Spider-Man, since he knew his identity and it came back to him in one of his mental breakdown moments. Some will even argue that it's not like the worst writers today can ruin the best writing of yesterday, and in a way, they're right. But it's still no excuse for soiling better handled ideas of yesteryear, and making perverted mockeries out of them, because there'll always be someone out there, tragically, who thinks that's a masterpiece. So, what does Conway think of JMS and Joe Quesada for that?

The irony is that, while Gwen isn't alone as a major character who's still dead - I'm sure her father and Ned Leeds count as well - she's remained that way recently out of a most insulting bias: Quesada had Harry Osborn brought back illogically because a man is apparently worthy of what some women are denied. This was once unfortunately the case with Elasti-Girl from DC's Doom Patrol as well: she remained dead while the male members of the same team were revived. I have no issue with Robotman coming back - his name should explain everything - but when Niles Caulder is allowed this luxury, surely something is wrong.

Conway also spoke of his time writing films and TV, and said:
...while super-heroes dominate the silver screen today, at the time, Conway's career as a comic book writer was actuall a black mark on his resume. "Back when I had started to write films, I had to overcome my background as a comic writer. Today, that is an E-Ticket to get a full ride. We had to overcome this whole notion that as comic book writers, we wouldn't be good film writers."
I'm not so sure the situation's changed even today, if the Green Lantern movie's failure says something. At least 2 people involved in that catastrophe - Marc Guggenheim and Geoff Johns - are comics writers as much as film contributors, and they failed the material. When you influence the movie in such a way that makes it impossible for the filmmakers to maintain creative freedom any more than many comics writers today, it does no favors for comics writers proper who want to break into movies. Even Scott Lobdell once tried - and failed - to break into screenwriting.

Conway also said about Miles Warren, whom he turned into the Jackal:
"One of my favorite storylines had been the Crime Master/Green Goblin storylines in the early days of the Spider-Man books, and I always felt it was kind of a cheat that when it was finally revealed who the Green Goblin was, it was somebody who we'd only met like four issues before. Here was the guy who had supposedly knew Spider-Man for a long, long time and it turned out to be this guy, Norman Osborn, who had only been introduced four issues before the big reveal. I felt like if we're going to do a big reveal with a new story where there's this mysterious figure who has been manipulating things behind the scenes, I wanted to set up somebody who had at least been around in Peter's past. The only character that I felt tied into that was Professor Warren, who I think had appeared in one or two stories back in the first decade of the Spider-Man book."
I'll be fair here and say that, if Warren was far from being an established character and only made a handful of appearances in all the time he'd been around, then turning him into a crook probably wouldn't be as revolting as the obsession today with turning much more established characters who've made more numerous appearances into villains and worse, in the most contrived ways possible. Nevertheless, Conway's idea is still a very risky one, and I don't see why he's critical of a very plausible idea Stan had: introduce a new character who can turn out to be the villain. Besides, when the Green Goblin first debuted, his whole idea was to try and pull schemes that would make the underworld respect him as the supervillain who'd defeated Spider-Man, seen by the other villains appearing in the series as a thorn in their side. So I don't see why Conway thinks it was a "cheat". He also said about royalties for creations:
Conway noted that Marvel while didn't offer royalties for The Punisher, they did offer him royalties for Mindworm.

"Actually, what's nice is that DC, and I think Marvel, too, do provide some royalties to writers and artists for the creation they've initiated since about the mid-'70s. DC has a program that they call their Equity Participation Program. I don't know what Marvel's program is, if they have one. The problem is DC asks you to do is that you have to seek that participation. They don't just automatically give it to you. So, in my case, I've directly created a 100 or 150 characters over the years for DC, and going through it is going to be a lot of fun trying to figure out where each of these characters started.

"Other writers and artists don't even know that that's the case. That they can do that. People in my generation who left the business may not be aware of it," Conway continued. "Potentially, they could earn a lot of money. So if you know any artists or writers of my generation who don't know that, you should tell them."
I'm afraid he may be a little bit behind, as recent events suggest. When Paul Levitz was a senior publisher for DC, one good thing he did was help other writers get specific royalties on their creations and their use. But after he left, the whole project ground to a halt, thanks to current lords at DC who've got no interest in respecting past writers. Chuck Dixon has been denied royalties and had much of his creations obscured for reasons they won't even explain, and he's not the only one.

Having said that, I don't think the current approach to royalties is the right one. I think it should be altered along with the pamphlet format to something more along the lines of earning bonuses for how well a book sells. That kind of approach can work.

In the end, if there's something I'm disappointed Conway didn't bring up, it's how galling the medium's become, with even his past stories being subject to abuse. I know his left-wing politics are a sad case, but it's similarly sad when he won't even be sufficiently critical of the sorry state comics are in today. I also wish he'd address how deaths in comics, which was handled well enough in the 70s, has now gone out of control, becoming one of the very few things the people in charge can think of for drawing attention to comics.

And in answer to my own query at the beginning: I'm not saying his story at the time was bad, unlike his politics today, but did Gwen really, truly have to be killed off so Spidey could be with Mary Jane? I think the answer is no, and there were alternatives. It's only a matter of how tastefully Gwen's demise was handled that counts. Back then, it was done well, also since they didn't go miles out of their way to depict it in the bloody, shock value manner all too common today. And unlike today's editorially mandated deaths, it did have meaning. Now, when deaths by killing have become superfluous, the problem's become a case of death cheapening the comics.

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I'm honestly surprised Marvel hasn't resurrected her. Not that I'd want them to given that her death is an important part of the Spider-Man mythos, but I can see them doing that as a blatant publicity stunt to tie in with the movies.

Or Slott will have Caroline Trainer/Lady Octopus (I think that was her name; correct me if I'm wrong, though) in her body to add insult to injury.

I'm surprised Gwen hasn't come back, either, especially as she is becoming really popular in other Spider-Man media (the semi-recent Spectacular Spider-Man animated series and the more recent remake movies). Furthermore, 10 years ago, who knew Bucky would ever be revived, when that was a big Marvel no-no? Apparently not. So, we'll see with Gwen.

It always amazed me, at least in the 70's, how after Stan Lee left a flagship title to a 19-year-old. Not to knock on Conway, but could that happen easily today? Isn't that how Paul Levitz and Jim Shooter got their first big breaks in comics? Times change, but I'd rather have that kind of legit inexperience vs. some overrated hack writer who has no business writing title X or Y. (You know who I mean.)

His leftist politics aside, which are really depressing to consider, I enjoyed the link and the implied generation comic gap, and how everything has gotten worse than during his heyday. Especially about the optimism and escapism, as those are gone, gone, gone from today's comics, as you said, Avi. At least, Conway's past writing -- maybe not the person he is, these days, as his demonizing of Card is unpleasant -- is a nice reminder of "no, comics weren't all bad, even when it started to become serious."

And close enough, Carl.

Indeed, Moth, I don't think a 19-year old would get that kind of a job today. And you are correct in saying that both Jim Shooter and Paul Levitz got their start, when they were quite young. Shooter was 14 (!) when he started submitting scripts for Legion of Superheroes. Levitz was 16 when he started for DC.

It seemed like a lot of them back then started young. Nowadays, you'd have to be some overrated hack writer obsessed with gore and violence and political correctness in order to get a long-term writing gig. I'm sure if writers like Conway, Levitz and Shooter were teenagers today, they'd be rejected. I can see a Quesada/Alonso and a Didio/Johns saying "Get lost, kid. Your writing is too simplistic for our readership.

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