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Saturday, February 28, 2015 

John Romita Sr. reflects on the decision to off Gwen Stacy

CBR interviewed John Romita Sr. about his past career, right down the credit he takes for influencing the decision to make Gwen Stacy a sacrifice. One of his arguments here is odd:
I would be remiss if I didn't bring up one of the biggest events in the history of Marvel Comics, which you were involved with, the Death of Gwen Stacy.

Yes, I'm the murderer. [Laughs]

The reason I take the credit for it was we were told to kill Aunt May. Gerry Conway and I got together for our plot session -- we used to get together at his apartment -- and he said, how are we going to kill Aunt May? I said, if you kill Aunt May, you're not going to do a damn bit of good to the strip. It'll lose one of Peter Parker's hangups. He won't have to worry about Aunt May anymore. He won't be treated like a child anymore. If we want to make any kind of stir in the monthly line, we have to kill somebody important. That means we need to kill Mary Jane or Gwen Stacy.

The reason I told we should kill Gwen Stacy was Mary Jane was an airheaded comedy character at the time. She was there to jazz the place up. She was not his girlfriend. His girlfriend was Gwen Stacy. I said, I learned from Milton Caniff. Milton Caniff every three or four years killed an important character. I remember as a young boy hearing adults saying that did you see that Raven Sherman has been killed in "Terry and the Pirates?" I said to myself, oh my god, grownups are talking about "Terry and the Pirates?" They worried about Raven Sherman. Raven Sherman was Pat Ryan's girlfriend in "Terry and the Pirates." I was an avid reader of "Terry and the Pirates." It hurt me, but I didn't expect it to hurt grownups. That stayed with me. I told Gerry Conway that story and I said, if you want to kill somebody, kill somebody important or leave it alone. He said it was a good idea. He was all for it because I convinced him, that would get attention. I submit that after forty years, I think it's still getting attention. [Laughs] I think I was right.
More importantly, if they had to kill a character, do it with rationale, and don't make it sensationalistic. But what's this about Peter not being treated like a child any longer? Strange, and I thought it was all about growing up! That's certainly what came to be in the 80s, and then in the 90s, they began the grueling process of backtracking.

He's not entirely right about Mary Jane being a comedic character up to that point: at the time Harry Osborn became addicted to drugs in 1971, she was becoming alienated from him. Then, Romita goes to say the following of Stan Lee's whereabouts:
Very definitely. But one reason is because she wasn't brought back, which isn't true of many characters who are killed off.

Stan was out of the country when we did that. He accused us of doing it behind his back and he wanted us to bring her back. Roy Thomas and I and everybody else in the company said, "We can't do that. It would be an embarrassing silliness to bring her back." We talked him into it, but he was very upset. After that, they used to kill people off routinely and it was never the same effect the second and third and fourth time.
Here, he relays a different story than what Conway gave. I thought Lee was still in the area when the decision was made, and he gave his okay, close or from a distance. It was after he met with a negative reception at a college convention that he regretted the story. But Romita is right about what came later: the following decade, you had an increasing number of characters both major and minor being killed off, initially with respect, and then throughly without, and fates worse than death became a serious embarrassment.

Not mentioned is the compromise reached, conceiving a clone for Gwen by the professor Miles Warren, revealed as the Jackal in 1975. That must be how they managed to calm negative reactions.

It's rarely mentioned, but Gwen's death had a precedent: Lady Dorma's death in Sub-Mariner #37 from May 1971, on their wedding day, at the hands of an evil queen named Llyra, who wanted Namor for herself. It may have been in a 3rd tier's book, but that doesn't mean it's not important. Towards the end, Romita says:
You killed her, but she's immortal.

I take great pride in that. When people say, "Did you really want to kill Gwen Stacy?" I say, "She was one of my favorite characters." She was a Ditko character, remember. I created Mary Jane but Gwen Stacy was my favorite character and I did that knowing that that's how I could get people's attention.
What's maddening is that Joe Quesada and J. Michael Straczynski did their Sins Past retcon knowing that's how they could get people's attention, for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes it's better not to go to extremes for the sake of getting people to notice, because that suggests they're only worried about sales dropping, and that wasn't exactly happening back then.

Romita says Gwen was one of his favorite characters. But does killing her off prove it? It's probably yes and no. If he did with respect, without resorting to the kind of shock tactics prevalent today, then yes, that could ensure he did appreciate her as a character. But at the same time, one could argue it doesn't make sense to say a specific character is a favorite and then kill them off. There are other choices, and killing a character isn't the only option if they think current characterization isn't satisfying.

I can respect their choice with Gwen based on how they did it in good taste without resorting to vile shock tactics. But it's regrettable how it ultimately led to some of the worst steps ever seen in superhero comics by the 1990s, and a shame - but not very surprising - CBR wouldn't even ask what Romita thought of later imitations.

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Killing off Gwen was a bad idea that led to the downfall of Spider-Man comics save Roger Stern and Todd McFarlane.

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