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Influential Comics, Part 1 - Amazing Spider-Man #121 - The Death of Gwen Stacy

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In the summer of 1973 I was only 8 years old.  I was excitedly approaching my 9th birthday and was spending my days doing what every kid living in suburbia did in the early 70's.  My days were spent in the park near our home where I played kickball and baseball, made weird contraptions with popsicle sticks and glue, wove intricately colored pot holders, went swimming, played with my dog, and hung out with my neighborhood friends.

My world was simple and uncomplicated then.  In the 70's it was easy for a kid to be ignorant of things going on in the adult world.  We didn't have the internet, there were only a handful of television stations and my mother and father ruled what was tuned in at any particular time.  Newspapers were the main source of news, and although I was already an advanced reader having long since abandoned picture books for novels, I wasn't ready for the adult seriousness of reading a newspaper.

Even so, while my understanding of the perils of life was only just developing, and what I knew I had largely learned from watching television, in those days if a problem were introduced in the beginning of a television program, it was usually resolved and all things returned to normal by the end. It happened in Star Trek. It happened in Batman.  Heck, it happened in Gilligan's Island.  Every problem was resolved and the world was set normal again.

And so it was one day that summer that my neighbor Augie handed me a comic book that forever shattered for me the concept that all problems have solutions and everything always returns to normal. It was one of the first comic books that I recognized immediately as something different.  I read it.  And then I read it again.  And then I read it again.

This particular comic starred my hero Spider-Man.  I had seen him many times on television in the animated series that aired between 1967-1970 and afterwards in repeats.  I was familiar with his origin story, all of the classic Spider-Man villains, and all of Peter Parker's friends.  At 8 years old I believed I was a Spider-Man expert.

But nothing had prepared me for this epic!  The dramatic tension grows throughout the book which was masterfully written by Gerry Conway with art by Gil Kane and inks by John Romita Sr.  In it, the Green Goblin (Spider-Man's arch-enemy) abducts Peter Parker's girlfriend Gwen Stacy.  During a confrontation on the George Washington Bridge, the Goblin pushes Gwen off the bridge, and despite Spider-Man's attempt at rescuing her from the fall by catching her with his web, Gwen is killed.

WHAT !!??!!  Spider-Man's girl friend was killed!?!  He couldn't save her!?!  How does that happen??

As if that wasn't enough drama, the final full page panel of that comic is something I will never forget...

It would be years before I finally got my hands on the follow-up story to read what happened next...

What an incredible story to start my comic reading life with!  I couldn't believe what I had read, and hadn't known how powerful comic book storytelling could be.  What an amazing concept it was to kill off a main character in a story, and in so dramatic a fashion!  How purely evil was the Green Goblin!  How would Peter Parker/Spider-Man ever bring back Gwen and stop the Goblin?  I was totally emotionally involved in this tale, and it was then that my comic book collecting days truly began.

Eventually, I learned that Gwen did come back - well, her clone did anyway.  The Green Goblin WAS killed, but not by Spidey.  His own goblin glider killed him, but even that wasn't permanent and Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin, returned to threaten Spider-Man again and again.

But Gwen, the true Gwen, did die.  For good.  No coming back.  The End.

A few years later my own father passed, and that belief in a world that solves its problems and sets things back to normal at days end would forever be lost.  The world today is no longer as simple as it was in the days before that summer.  The world is a much more complicated place.  We have the internet, cable television, and cell phones to keep us hyper-informed of even the most trivial news and non-news.  People, places, and jobs come and go, and the impermanence of life is the only constant.

My father's death was the first real death in my life, one I feel to this day.  But the abrupt shock, the sense of confusion, the loss and wonder?  The lesson that bad things happen and can't always be fixed?  I learned that from Gwen.



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