Once upon a time, long ago, there was a very small child named Erik Kristopher Myers who had yet to turn into an insufferably precocious snot who lied to his friends and classmates about owning a portable carbon freezing chamber, and dating a child-molesting Carrie Fisher. Before that, I was just as precocious, but wide-eyed, impressionable, and — let’s just get right down to it — four years old. My descent into douchebaggery was waiting around the corner, but it was a corner I’d yet to turn.
I lived in an apartment complex in Hagerstown called Oak Ridge. This was before the area turned into a destination point for shoppers looking to burn money at the mega-sized outlet mall where once a forest bloomed. Hagerstown was still wild back then: a steadily-growing, Comfort Food metropolis that existed as islands in an emerald sea of farmland. Things have changed during the past forty years, and Burger Chef is now long gone, along with Rax, Orange Bowl, and so many flavors I can still taste when spring rolls over the world like a tidal wave of pollen and nostalgia.
Oak Ridge Apartments is now just another complex, fenced in by houses that currently reside in the woods where I hid from orcs, plotted love letters to the third-grader with whom I was passionately in Like, and where the older kids once traumatized me with a prank so cruel and vicious that I think I’m still suffering from PTSD to this very day. Back then, it was wilder, larger, and more magical. And just across the way, beyond a natural staircase made of thick roots criss-crossing as they broke free of the earth, lived John, who’s name I am choosing to temporarily forget. At least until I finish writing, send the article along for publication, and drain this second bottle of wine.
I don’t know what happened to John. He faded from my life as I grew older and began living the full-time schedule of a professional elementary school student. By the time I moved to Baltimore in the summer of 1986, I was ten years old, and I don’t think I’d seen him in even in passing for several months, which is a decade in Kid Years. But when I was in preschool, and my afternoons were free and unencumbered by homework, forced art classes, and cross country teams for which I had been signed up by my mother, there was John’s House. It was another universe, and the place in which these essays were born.
John lived with his grandmother; I don’t know what happened to, or with, his birth mother. I may have met her once as she stopped by, but the memory is fleeting. He was about thirteen years old, which made him an adult in my eyes. For some reason or another, John’s grandmother had agreed to watch me after school, but it was John who took responsibility for me. Maybe he saw me as the little brother he never had. Maybe a lot of things. John was my friend, my playground protector, and my role model. He was also my guide into the deep, rich history of comic books.
His was the master bedroom, and it looked like a store. There were toys, books, records, an Atari system, and, yes, comics. You’re probably conjuring up an image of some spoiled kid’s pad, with crap everywhere, largely neglected due to all the new crap that kept rolling in thanks to a doting grandmother. Abandoned Child Syndrome. An orphan minus the fatality, made fat on material sweets. That wasn’t John. My surrogate brother was what I’d later know as a Collector. Maybe Grandma — whose name has long since vanished into the mists of memory — did in fact compensate on some level for a familial setup I can now, as an adult, only make assumptions about; but John wasn’t spoiled, and his things were treasured.
Most importantly, his treasures were shared treasures. He’d bring me over every day, and we’d go back to his room, which was shaded and dark, but lit in a way I can only describe now as “Christmas.” Then he’d open those strange and wondrous longboxes, and pull batches of comics he’d allow me to read on the floor as he lay beside me, telling me who was who, what their relationships were, and backstories in the long sagas of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and Daredevil. Occasionally he’d stop to flip the record once the first half of the STAR WARS soundtrack had ended; then he’d return to tell me about the Phoneix Saga, or how the Hulk had originally been grey until Stan Lee decided that green looked better on newsprint. Then we’d go to the dining room, where Grandma would make us dinner, and the conversations continued. John had what I would call a generous soul: he’d spend his allowance buying new comics, and get one for me every time. He spoke to me in a way that my father never did, despite having the same name. He genuinely cared about me. I sometimes wonder what became of him, because just looking around the room where I’m sitting and typing this story now, I see so much of him here.
If I’m getting to a point, it’s long in coming, and for that I apologize. Suffice it to say, Spidey became my hero of choice. John gave me both the current books of the era — THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and PETER PARKER, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN — as well as a third title in simultaneous release, MARVEL TALES. The latter was a series that reprinted, in chronological order, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN in order of original release. Keep in mind that this was a hair’s length into the 1980’s, and Spidey was still below the drinking age in terms of his overall existence. As such, we weren’t that far out from 1962, so it was possible to follow all three books and — with the help of a very informed, older friend, and one who had an enormous collection of comics at a time when few people preserved them in such a fashion — it wasn’t the same challenge to consume the character’s history quickly, as it is today.
If there are two memories that are clearest in my mind, it’s the day John gave me copies of the first two issues of G.I. JOE, informing me that the second had been under-printed and would become a collector’s item (it did); and the day I learned about the death of Spider-Man’s one true love, the fabled Gwen Stacy.
I’m not sure what I had just (sort of) read — I was still four or five, remember, and John walked me through the stories as I studied the pictures — but something prompted me to ask why she wasn’t in the comics anymore, and so John told me. He had, as I said, a generous soul, and with that came extreme sensitivity and introspection. He didn’t hyperactively prattle off the gruesome details the way the average thirteen year-old might: he related the events gently, quietly, intensely, and in a way that suggested it had actually happened to a real person. John’s love of comics might have had a deeper, more personal meaning for him than most, but either way, when he told me about the night that the Green Goblin kidnapped Spider-Man’s girlfriend and forced the hero to accidentally kill her, he wasn’t telling me the story; he was breaking it to me. Then he took me to the dining room, gave me AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 121 and 122 (or perhaps reprints), and made me an apple jelly sandwich as I read the two-part story in horror. I’ll never forget seeing the Goblin swoop down to knock Gwen from the parapet, and Spidey webbing her by the leg, stopping the fall midway down; and shouting to John from the next room, saying: Look, you’re wrong, you read it wrong, he caught her! and watching John solemnly point to the almost ambiguous sound effect beside Gwen’s head as Spidey halts her descent: SNAP!
The effect of this story on pre-carbonite Erik was, to put it mildly, profound. I was young, and I was impressionable, and I loved superheroes. I didn’t understand the finer points of Peter Parker’s financial woes, or his guilt over Uncle Ben’s death, or any of the ongoing melodrama that forms the character’s makeup. What I did understand is that Spidey always showed up, and he always saved the day. He made a mistake back in AMAZING FANTASY #15, but he’d never make it again. Being Spider-Man was frustrating and often thankless, but he always did the right thing. If I fell off one of the towering buildings in the downtown part of Hagerstown that was, to me, a cityscape exploding out of the woodland fields and rolling hills of my western Maryland home, Spidey would swoop in and catch me. That’s what he did. And I couldn’t rationalize what I was seeing.
John had done many things for me: he had shown me kindness, and he had taken me under his wing as an eager disciple. He had taught me to love the evolving Marvel history that was quickly laying the groundwork for what is now our twenty-first century Pop Culture mythology. He taught me to take these stories seriously. And now, on this afternoon nearly four decades ago, he had given me what I still consider my first experience grappling with the concept of death.
I’m sure I wasn’t alone. Writer Gerry Conway was the target of hate mail immediately after AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #121 went to press in 1973, and he’ll always be The Guy Who Killed Spider-Man’s Girlfriend. Many fans and lore masters consider this event to be the end of the Silver Age of comics, and the beginning of the Bronze. The truth is a bit more complicated than that, as no single event completely changes the overall way in which stories are told, be it in Funnybooks, novels, or film. The shift toward socially-relevant content was evident from the earliest Marvel stories, which dealt with Dead Uncles at a time when DC was publishing continuity-free tales about the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh, and Superman adopting a Jimmy Olsen who happened to be a Grown Ass Man.
If there was a specific when one era began to become the next, I’d point to the three-part Spider-Man epic which are now referred to as “The Drug Issues,” in which Harry Osborn began popping pills; Stan Lee thumbed his nose at the draconian Comics Code Authority and made headlines for it, and for the story. DC later wised up, and Woke writers like Denny O’Neil began writing the heavy-handed adventures of the mismatched Green Lantern and Green Arrow in what can best be described as Left-leaning Chick Tracts. But AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #121 is what most consider the mic drop, because you could talk about racism, or have Speedy shooting heroin, but you didn’t kill the hero’s girlfriend, and you DIDN’T have him do it to her himself.
John Semper Jr. mined Spidey’s soap opera saga for his largely faithful mid-90s animated series, but looking to avoid Kindertrauma, he renamed Gwen Stacy “Felicia Hardy,” and had her resulting storyline play out in a more G-rated version of the traditional Black Cat adventures in which she wanted to rub up against Peter’s leg, provided he left the mask on. The fateful encounter with the Green Goblin atop The Bridge With No Name* occurs instead with Mary Jane, though she isn’t dropped over the side and saved from impact by way of a broken neck — she falls through one of The Spot’s portals, conjured here by the Goblin, who stole the technology. Likewise, we get the events of the following issue (seen again during the climax of SPIDER-MAN), where the Goblin impales himself on his own glider whilst trying to skewer Spider-Man from behind; once again, Semper turns the “death” into a trip through yet another portal (via a notably spike-free glider) as The Spot’s inter-dimensional doohickey shits the bed. Both characters are lost in time rather than worm food.
Sam Raimi knew better than to attempt a Green Goblin story — particularly if the film was going to climax with his death — without telling this iconic tale, and so the famous Bridge Scene is presented more or less intact, with Mary Jane once again standing/falling in for Gwen, and surviving the encounter. Introducing a girlfriend who dies at the end of a movie in which the Hero’s Call is signaled by the death of another loved one seemed a bridge** too far, but Gwen Stacy is subsequently introduced in SPIDER-MAN 3 for absolutely no good reason beyond her (presumed?) name value. Her appearance seems pointlesss given Osborn’s previous death, particularly when she could have been any of Peter’s other on-page love interests, and one with considerably less story baggage.***
In an essay that claims to be about THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, I’ve written very little about THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, and I assure you: I’m okay with that. I’ve already gone on at length about its predecessor, in which the character of Peter Parker is fundamentally misrepresented by his out-of-character selfishness, Emo makeover, and use of Bing.**** I have said all there is to say about a misguided attempt to remake the Sam Raimi SPIDER-MAN only a decade later, while simultaneously trying to model it after what was commercially popular at the time (THE DARK KNIGHT); THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 is likewise a misguided attempt to remake the Sam Raimi SPIDER-MAN 2 only a decade later, while simultaneously trying to model it after what was commercially popular at the time (THE AVENGERS). It’s the same stuff as the previous sequel: another villain created by Oscorp with only a peripheral connection to the protagonist’s story, existing solely to set up a Harry Osborn Green Goblin. I could talk about the insipid Hans Zimmerscore, containing Electro’s inner monologue (“They hate on me, they’re dead to me/And now they’re all my enemy!”); I could bang my head against the keyboard about how the story of Richard and Mary Parker is teased yet again, and goes just as nowhere as it did in the previous film; I could dissect the trailer and point out numerous clips in which different dialogue is used in scenes that feature in the film, but with a completely different context, as if multiple versions were shot; I could go on and on. So could anyone, really. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 is just that easy a target.
But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. We all know what we’re here to talk about. And I think the greatest criticism I can make of the way in which Marc Webb wastes the historic death of Gwen Stacy is to choose not to talk about it. The Talkbacks are yours — help yourselves.
It’s arguably the most famous story in comics; if it isn’t in the Number One slot, it should be. There have been stories that might be better, but none that affected a generation of readers the same way, some of whom were very small children who grew into teenagers, hoarding their allowance in order to buy that copy of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #121 that so affected them so much at so young an age. There are stories that move us, and those that make us cry. Gwen’s death might not cause me this jaded old cynic to shed a tear today at 43; but if there’s a lump in my throat, it’s because I’m remembering sitting at a dining room table in a Hagerstown apartment, eating an apple jelly sandwich made by the older brother I never had, and desperately needed soon after.
I think of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, and I think of how carelessly this iconic story was crammed into two hours of Nothing; I think of this iconic story, and I think of Gwen Stacy, hanging limp as Spidey hauls her up, congratulating himself on the successful save; I think of Gwen Stacy, and I think of apple jelly; and I think of apple jelly, and my mind goes to those who were important to us for a time, and how loss needn’t be limited to death alone.
When I saw THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, I remembered my friend, John. I wondered whether he thought of me, too, and remembered how a story once needed to be broken to a very gentle child, long ago; and how this future cinematic retelling might needed to have be en broken to him too, but for very different reasons.
Thank you, John. Good night.
*It all depends on which version you read. In AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #121, Spidey pursues the Goblin and the captured Gwen Stacy to an NYC location clearly identifiable as the Brooklyn Bridge. However, Spidey refers to it as the George Washington Bridge, and even makes a crack about Osborn choosing the spot due to his love of money — dollar bills are specifically cited, and we all know whose face adorns said currency. Reprints have corrected the bridge’s name, and omitted the incongruous joke, though the matter has been further muddied by various writers (and artists) referring to the incident by either location, in an attempt to clarify an issue they’re simply making worse.
***The character referred to “Gwen Stacy” in SPIDER-MAN 3 is a vapid model and threat to Peter’s main love interest. In other words, she’s Mary Jane Watson. Kirsten Dunst’s far more wholesome appearance (Rain Nipples notwithstanding) and across-the-board performance has always been more Gwen than MJ to begin with, and the fact that she and Bryce Dallas Howard — a natural redhead! — are playing opposite roles feels like an incredible missed opportunity.
****AUNT MAY: “Jesus, Peter, even I don’t use Bing!”
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)