Monday, 8 August 2011

An Objective Look At The Night Gwen Stacy Died

Few would argue that The Amazing Spider-Man #122 is one of the greatest Spider-Man stories ever told, perhaps even one of the greatest comic book stories ever told. Boasting both the deaths of Spider-Man's first love and his greatest enemy, the conclusion of 'The Night Gwen Stacy Died' has gone down in history as one of the most significant comic book stories of all time, heralded by many as the end of the Silver Age of comic books.

I first read the story a number of years ago, very shortly after I began collecting comic books. As you might expect, it blew my four year old self away, despite the fact that I only read the conclusion of the two-parter. However, since then I have only read the story perhaps once or twice, and while I have remained happy to call it one of my favourite stories of all time, that opinion has begun to feel increasingly less well informed. To this end, earlier this evening I re-read the issue - with the first part of the storyline once again absent (to my great shame, I do not own a colour copy of the issue)

One thing that immediately struck me about the issue was how close it was to the 'Turning Point' episode of the 90's Spider-Man: Animated Series, to this day one of my favorites from an excellent series. Despite there being a number of key plot differences, the fight between the Goblin and Spider-Man on the bridge is hugely similar and I actually found myself imagining the dialogue using the characters voice actors from the show. Not a particularly interesting point, but an interesting aside nonetheless.

Of course this brings me onto my main (and perhaps only) quibble about this issue - the dialogue. Of course hokey dialogue is a product of the era that this story was written in, but at several points I found it to be really overblown and a little too wordy.

Where the issue really shines is in its sincerity. This is a Spider-Man driven to almost unfathomable grief, followed by rage caused by the death of a loved one, at this point something never really seen before in a generally light hearted series. Yes, the dialogue is sometimes clunky but it always rings true and heightens the emotional impact of the issue. It is refreshing to read a comic where death actually means something, as opposed to being a cheap plot device that will generally be undone in a matter of months.

Conway also excels in his use of the supporting cast, many of whom shine despite very limited page space. Mary-Jane appears very briefly, but in the space of just a handful of panels shows a glimpse of the multi-layered character that she eventually became, a far cry from the vacuous party girl created by Stan Lee years before. The likes of Robbie, Jameson and Harry are all given time in the spotlight too, with each other their renditions being pitch perfect, however limited they are in length. Harry's anguished appearance is a particularly poignant look at the tragedy of his friendship with Peter, and an excellent precursor for his villainous turn later in the series.

Which brings me neatly onto the true villain of the story - Harry's father Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin. While many would see this, the story originally intended to be his swansong as his finest hour, I would disagree. While an effective choice of villain, in truth the Goblin is portrayed as fairly one-dimensional here, with little of the depth to his relationship with Peter glimpsed in later stories. His presence as an antagonist is welcome though, and his death a powerful moment, if not quite as effective as Gwen's earlier on.

While I have left him till last, that is no reflection on the quality of Gil Kane's artwork. He is often overlooked, perhaps rightly so, in favour of more prolific Spider-Man artists, but this issue is a near enough perfect artistic performance. His fights are brutally brilliant, but perhaps even more effective are the emotional scenes, where Kane showcases his impressive range of facial expressions. He perhaps does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Romita and Ditko, but this is probably one of the most artistically excellent issues of Spider-Man ever produced.

It is difficult to give this issue a grade, partly as it would seem churlish to give such a classic issue less than an A+. What I would say though, is that even decades on the story still bears a significant emotional weight, and stands as one of the most important, if not best Spider-Man stories of all time. A true classic.