COMICS: John Reviews “Spider-Man: The Death of the Stacys” by Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr. and Gil Kane

Several months ago I realized that, while I have some single issues from the mid-to-late 1990s, I didn’t actually own any collections of Spider-Man stories. With such a prominent character and such a full, rich library of stories, where would I start?  What is the quintessential Spider-Man story?  It’s easier with some of the less prominent characters (Iron Man = Demon in a Bottle, X-Men = The Dark Phoenix Saga, etc.)  but Spider-Man is a bit trickier to nail down.  I decided to get the basis for the first Spider-Man movie, The Death of the Stacys, even though some serious liberties were taken with the story for the sake of wider audience appeal. 

The night Gwen Stacy died

The night Gwen Stacy died

Remember the Spider-Man movie, when the Green Goblin threw Mary Jane off the George Washington Bridge and Spidey swung down to save her in a dramatic, superheroic gesture?  Well, it happened a bit differently in the comics.  It was Spider-Man’s first love, Gwen Stacy, that was thrown, and try as Spidey might, he couldn’t save her in time.  Her death sent him into a trauma-induced rage, and the ensuing final battle with Green Goblin was all the more emotionally-charged for it.  Peter Parker learned two important lessons that fateful day: His lifestyle will always put those he loves the most in terrible danger, and bloody vengeance will never bring back the one he loved.

Spider-Man fails to save his love, Gwen Stacy.

Spider-Man fails to save his love, Gwen Stacy.

But that’s not all that comes in this collection, Spider-Fans:  We’re also treated to Spider-Man’s first brush with death in the Stacy family: The death of Captain George Stacy, Gwen’s father.  While not quite as history-making as Gwen’s, the death of Captain Stacy was still terribly painful for Spider-Man.  Not only did he lose one of his only sympathetic paternal figures (the Captain had filled a void left by Uncle Ben’s untimely death,) but his culpability in Capt. Stacy’s death drove a wedge between Peter and Gwen that never fully healed.  Both of these stories were far more dramatic and powerful than the usual comic fare, and still resonate with readers today.

The death of Captain George Stacy

The death of Captain George Stacy

I’m not normally a fan of most pre-1986 superhero comics dialogue – It all seems a bit too focused on explaining what any reader can plainly see is happening in the panels, as if it were originally written for prose or radio.  Thankfully, these two stories are less guilty of this level of superfluous exposition their contemporaries. Some of the subject matter is rather groundbreaking, and the death of Captain Stacy is particularly prophetic.  I’m not sure if other heroes had had to face the harsh reality of collateral damage before, but they certainly have since.  Poor Captain Stacy died saving an innocent bystander from being crushed to death by rubble, which was falling because of Spider-Man’s rooftop battle with Doctor Octopus.  The idea that heroes cause as many problems as they solve has been explored in further detail over the past few decades, but it is tackled with dignity and taste here.

In fact, dignity and taste are crucial elements in the scenes depicting the third death in this book, that of Norman “The Green Goblin” Osborn.  Where other creators would make Osborn’s death an operatic or brutally violent and gore-filled fare, Conway and Kane play the scene with just the right level of reservation.  Spider-Man learns a lesson that so many 1990s superheroes should have, that killing a loved one’s murderer won’t do anything to ease the pain of loss. As he says, “I thought seeing the Goblin die would make me feel better about Gwen.  Instead, it just makes me feel empty, washed out, and maybe just a little bit more alone.”  Try finding that level of remorse in a present-day comic (without the hero calling the waaambulance!)

The art is fairly typical for the era, which is no strike against it by any means.  The transfer from the original art boards to this new hardcover collection has its advantages and disadvantages, though, since I’m fairly sure the paper stock was improved without the art being recolored (which tends to make colors look worse than they did in the old days.)  Regardless, the paper is very high quality and the reproduction is extremely clear and clean.  John Romita Sr. may be the most iconic artist on Spider-Man, having nearly as much impact on the character as co-creator Steve Ditko.  It’s a shame we didn’t have today’s production technology back then.

With the exception of the origin story, you probably won’t find a more important or iconic Spider-Man tale than The Death of The Stacys, which helps to define Spider-Man by putting him through the crucible of experiencing not one, not two, but three major tragedies.  If you like story of the movie, this should be the first Spider-Man comic you pick up.

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One Response

  1. […] full supporting cast. Gwen (Leopard Girl) had a love interest named Peter (who often needed rescued instead of the other way around) and Uncle Ben … er … Dr. Hans Kreitzer, the kindly old man who offers advice and […]

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