Forty-two years later, I still haven’t gotten over the death of Gwen Stacy.
Gwen Stacy died in Amazing Spider-Man #122, cover dated July 1973. In 1973 comics were dated 2 or 3 months in advance, so that issue hit the newsstands sometime in April or May 1973. The event actually spans issues #121 and #122, but it’s in the first few pages of #122 that we see she is really dead. I was eight years old and not reading superhero comics yet, other than the issues of Adventure Comics (with Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes) in the barbershop. As a matter of fact, I first read Spider-Man #121 & #122 thirty or so years later when they were reprinted as a trade paperback.
Yet this “death” still affected me back then.
The death of Gwen Stacy was a major event for comics in 1973. This was before death had become a temporary condition for nearly every major character in nearly every comic book. Killing a recurring character and “showing us the body” (however bloodless and antiseptic) wasn’t done back then. Sure, plenty of villains fell off cliffs, disappeared in explosions, or washed out to sea, but they always had a good story about how they didn’t really die when they showed up to terrorize again.
Gwen died. Peter held her in his arms. There was a funeral. Spider-Man was even a “person of interest” in her death.
The fan reaction was large enough that it affected the stories in Spider-man comics for the next few years. This was the mid-70s with no email or huge conventions: the only way fans could react was with pen, paper, envelope and stamp.
My first solid memory of buying comics is Amazing Spider-Man #136, which was on the newsstand about 14 months later. I remember riding my Ross Apollo 3-speed to Phillips Stationers in Midland Park to buy myself comics with money my Nana gave me for a good end-of-year report card.
Phillips had the kind of newsstand that existed from some time in the early twentieth century right up until the early nineties. Newspapers were arranged in stacks in front the register as you entered: The New York Times, The Daily News, The Record, The Star-Ledger, The New York Post, the Ridgewood News, and probably a few more I don’t remember. The smell of cigars, smoked and unsmoked, hung in the air.
At the first corner of the rightmost aisle was a spinner rack with Disney and Archie comics— the kid’s stuff as far as this nine-year-old was concerned. I would only buy this when I was flush with money from a birthday or other holiday. The barber shop had Archie Digests each month anyway, so I could just tell my Mom I needed a haircut if I wanted to see them. (Yes, I did that.) Further down the aisle was a wall-mounted magazine case with superhero comics. As I flipped through the comics deciding where to place my hard-earned twenty-five cents each, a steady stream of people entered for cigarettes, newspapers, and lottery tickets,
I distinctly remember buying Spidey #136. I think I may have picked up Fantastic Four #150, Mighty Marvel Western #34, Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth #21, and G.I. Combat #173 that week also. I had at least two dollars from that report card, so it should have been a big haul.
Amazing Spider-Man #136 had a full page recap of the death of Gwen Stacy.
This was my introduction to comics’ extended plot lines. The comics I had seen had before stories that lasted one, maybe two issues. When those stories ended, everything was back to normal: Lois still didn’t know Clark was Superman. Commissioner Gordon still didn’t know Bruce Wayne was Batman. Captain America still had his mighty shield. You still really didn’t like Bruce Banner when he was angry.
But this was a recap from a comic that was 14 issues ago! More than a year! To nine-year-old Eric (well, Ricky: but that’s another story) that may as well have been the nineteenth century! And Peter (Spider-Man) was still recovering from the loss.
This page was my gateway drug to comic collecting. I immediately wanted the whole story…which meant having all of them.
Going into Midland Park meant descending the long hills of either Vreeland or Erie Avenues, and coming home meant climbing one of them in the other direction, something that my nine-year-old legs couldn’t quite manage yet. Thus began what became a weekly tradition: walking up my bike up Erie Ave while reading all of my comics before I was even halfway home.
Which was fine. I need to read them each three or four hundred more times before they were fully memorized anyway.
Phillips Stationers was just over a mile from my house. I had to cross 2 major roads, as well as ride down a third busy road to get to “downtown” Midland Park. I did this at the tender age of nine.
My parents let me ride my bicycle a little over 2 miles round trip, at the age of 9, to buy books with my own money. Imagine this happening now, or even 10 years ago when today’s crop of “safe space” craving college kids were 9 years old.
Spider-Man #136 had the recap of “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” and introduced the new Green Goblin, Harry Osborn, the son of the original Green Goblin. This might sound familiar if you’ve seen any of the last five Spider-Man movies. The book was better. Trust me.
It also continued what had been an entire year of Peter mourning Gwen. This continued through the return of Gwen via a clone that Peter pretty much saw through right away. Yes, a clone. Not quite “one ring to rule them all” but not quite as sad as midi-chlorians either.
As I stood on Erie Ave and read about Gwen’s death I learned about loss. Peter Parker was hurt by Gwen’s death, and still he went on. (I hadn’t read the “origin story” where he lost his uncle yet.) Up to that point (and for many years after) I had lead a charmed life and hadn’t dealt with loss. This lesson, however abstract, taught me something.
There were many bicycle rides to get comic books and regular books after than one. I still associate cycling with reading even now.
Riding a bicycle two miles round trip to buy comics isn’t quite the pinnacle of character-building, but it’s emblematic of what an excess of caution has removed from growing up. Kids used to have to entertain themselves from time to time, and that meant things going wrong too. I actually got a flat tire once. I think a nine year old boy getting a flat while riding his bicycle to the store alone would be a Huffington Post story about parental neglect now.
But that’s a rant for another time.