Or, How an audiobook narrator redeemed his misspent youth reading comic books by getting to the bottom of the greatest comic book mystery of all time: Who killed Spider-Man’s girlfriend?
Ever heard of Gwen Stacy? Anyone? Maybe not you audiobook fans, but I’m betting every comic book fan out there knows just who I’m talking about. For those of you who are unaware, Gwen Stacy was Spider-Man’s girlfriend throughout the 1960s and early ‘70s, yet inexplicably, in 1973, a new creative team killed off the character, sending shock waves through the comics-reading world — an act akin to killing offLois Lane in the pages of SUPERMAN. What were these people thinking…?! Well, ten…Keep Reading
Ever heard of Gwen Stacy? Anyone? Maybe not you audiobook fans, but I’m betting every comic book fan out there knows just who I’m talking about. For those of you who are unaware, Gwen Stacy was Spider-Man’s girlfriend throughout the 1960s and early ‘70s, yet inexplicably, in 1973, a new creative team killed off the character, sending shock waves through the comics-reading world — an act akin to killing offLois Lane in the pages of SUPERMAN. What were these people thinking…?! Well, ten years ago, in 1998, long before I became an audiobook narrator and was instead making my living writing for the comic book press, I decided to get to the bottom of this in an article that would clear up a few persistent rumors about Gwen’s demise, as well as commemorate its 25th anniversary. The result was an issue of COMICS BUYERS GUIDE that generated more positive fan mail than any previous issue.
Why do I bring this up here, now? Because ten years after writing it, Comics Buyers Guide has just reprinted my favorite article of all time, “Who Killed Gwen Stacy?” You can read it by clicking here. (It’s a PDF, and might take a little while to load.) The CBG editors have also included a sampling of the fan response they received at the time, in addition to printing a newly-written update from yours truly, sharing a few memories from the intervening decade.
After dipping my toes once again into that pool of comics journalism, I’m flooded with great memories of what went into creating that piece, so I thought I’d share a few of them here. For those of you who read this blog solely for tidbits about audiobooks, my apologies, but my roots as a comic book geek are going to be showing here, a little.
The project started in early 1998 when I looked at the calendar and realized the 25th anniversary of Gwen Stacy’s death was rapidly approaching. Given the several-month lead-time most magazines required to plan an article of this kind, I knew I needed to pitch my story idea to someone, and fast. As it turns out I only had to make one phone call — on a ten-minute break from a Shakespeare gig I was doing that day — to John Jackson Miller, CBG’s editor at the time.
At first, John wasn’t that thrilled, given that what I’d been describing was essentially a “Wow, can you believe it’s been twenty-five years since this happened…?” kind of thing. “We’d need to make it more relevant,” John pointed out. “Is there anything else about the story that you could talk about?” Well, at that point a spark went off: I remembered attending a panel discussion at a San Diego Comic-Con several years before, where artist John Romita, who penciled Gwen’s demise in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #121, said that the “SNAP” that appeared beside Gwen’s neck in the actual panel of her death wasn’t in the original script; that in fact, he had no idea where that fatal sound effect had come from.
(The sad truth is that Spider-Man, in trying to save his girlfriend from a plunge off the top of the George Washington Bridge, inadvertently snapped her neck by halting her fall with his webbing. Gory but true. Click here to see the comic book page showing Gwen’s fall after Spidey’s nemesis, the Green Goblin, tosses her off the bridge. Also note the small “SNAP!” near her head in the second-to-last panel.)
Romita claimed he wasn’t ordinarily a conspiracy theorist, but something about this struck him as odd. Who created that sound effect, he wondered, and why? Perhaps more importantly, how did that “SNAP” get put into the issue after the script had been written?
Well, after I volunteered to get to the bottom of these things, CBG’s editor John Miller got a little eager. He said that he wasn’t sure how much space he could devote to it (the issue that this article was supposed to appear in had already been planned and he would likely have to wedge it in somehow) “but it sounds good, so we’ll make it work,” he said. And that was all I needed to hear.
Writing for the comic book press wasn’t normally what you’d call investigative journalism, but in this case it sure felt like it. Armed with a mystery and a pen, I set out to solve the case.
For the most part, doing the interviews with the men who worked on that fateful issue was a treat. Roy Thomas, Stan Lee, John Romita… legendary names from my youth that I was now getting to chat with. An awesome feeling. Gerry Conway was the last of the five men I spoke to, and even though I kept thinking I should be put off by the fact I was speaking with the man who had killed my favorite character, he was nevertheless so nice, so engaging, and so fascinating an interview that I had a lovely time on the phone with him.
Alas, I wish I could say the same of Gil Kane, the issue’s artist. Man, what a pain in my ass he was. Without a doubt, the single worst interview of my entire career. Not only would he simply not say anything print-worthy about the topic of Gwen’s death, not even after much inventive prodding and coaxing, but he then went on a 45-minute harangue about what was wrong with the comic book industry today, a blistering and bitter tirade that I was, alas, too polite to interrupt. If you’ve read the article, you’ll notice how little there is in his section of the story, little more than an inch of space. That was the sum total of everything he said in the hour-long interview that was printable, literally. In print, I never went into how unhelpful he was, merely out of respect for all the great artwork he’d given the industry over the years. Unfortunately, I found little to respect about him that day.
I spent two or three days transcribing all the tape I’d made in these phone interviews, and trust me, that was moving at a brisk clip. But I was exhaustive. Not only was this a topic dear to my heart, it was my feeling that, if I was successful, then a key piece of comic book history would be cleared up — an event that had been hiding in the shadows for more than two decades, but that would forever after be exposed to the scrutiny of daylight. It may sound a bit serious considering I was writing about funny books, but I was conscious of the fact that if I was going to leave any kind of historical legacy, I wanted it to be completely factual, copiously researched, and impeccably presented.
And on that high-falutin’ note, I set off to write the piece.
It came out in one sustained burst. I can’t recall spending more than a few hours on the initial draft, then I pored over it for the next day or two at random intervals, waiting for it to get cold in my mind so I could be unemotional in my edits. Although I hadn’t intended to write the piece in the style of a detective’s quest, I saw at first glance that that’s the only way it COULD be written. That decision made, I just ran with it.
Also, as I sat down, I made one quick decision for some artistic flair: I opened the piece with a fictional headline from THE DAILY BUGLE, the newspaper Peter Parker (Spider-Man’s alter ego) worked for. A brief spark of inspiration, I liked how it seemed to connect the reader to the world Spider-Man inhabited, and would therefore help me explain the event’s impact, on the lives of Spider-Man and his readers. Looking at it, I had little expectation it would survive into the final print version. But I wonder if this bit of creative expression wound up being the catalyst that decided the shape the issue would take…
Before I knew it, I was receiving daily phone calls from CBG editor John Miller, telling me that since reading my draft, the staff was really getting excited. The overall plan for the issue had changed dramatically, given that many of the issue’s regular contributors were deciding to devote their columns to Gwen as well. The coolest part of this retooling, however, was the fact that they had made new plans for the cover. It would be all white, with only four words, in huge 72-point black letters: WHO KILLED GWEN STACY? I was totally speechless. After thinking this article would run as a backup and go largely unnoticed, I had instead just been given my first cover feature!
I was thrilled when the article came out. CBG quickly e-mailed their congratulations, and began forwarding me some of the responses they were receiving. I knew I had a hit on my hands when John Miller began calling to ask me if I had any more issue-altering ideas for articles, pieces they could build entire issues around. I just shook my head — Gwen seemed a one-of-a-kind event.
Months went by, and I kept getting great feedback from the piece. Once, I was at acclaimed artist Alex Ross’s house in Chicago, doing “A Day In The Life Of” article for WIZARD MAGAZINE, and the subject got around to Gwen Stacy, whom Alex had treated so lovingly in the pages of MARVELS. He started talking about this great article he’d read about her recently in CBG. I smiled and mentioned that had been mine. “Nice,” he said, nodding in that understated way he has, and again, I was thrilled.
But amazingly, about six months later, I walked into my local comics shop and saw an issue of COMIC BOOK MARKETPLACE that claimed to have finally gotten to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Gwen Stacy’s death. I was stunned. “Didn’t we already do this article?” I thought.
I bought the issue (still have it, in fact). The article was actually a very lengthy piece about Spider-Man’s history that paid particular attention to an aspect I had already written about in my piece, that Gwen Stacy’s death was the end of an era, the death knell for comics’ collective innocence. But a sidebar went on to delve into the “mystery” of Gwen’s death.
They had the decency to at least mention my piece in CBG, but ultimately said that I had failed in my attempt to get to the bottom of things. They said a smoking gun existed, though, that I had apparently overlooked: a juicy nugget of truth that I had missed, but that would finally explain everything. (Yeah, they mentioned me by name. Not very classy, but what’re you gonna do?) Far from being insulted, however, I eagerly read the story to see what else they had unearthed. If there was more mystery surrounding Gwen’s death, I wanted to know about it!
Sadly, all there was to the piece was a reprinting of the letters column in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #125 where Marvel finally got around to addressing the overwhelming amount of hate mail they were receiving about Gwen’s death. Entitled “So NOW You Know Who to Blame,” the piece claimed the reason they killed Gwen was that there was nowhere else to take her in terms of her story arc, and that the decision was inevitable. The book’s creators didn’t kill Gwen Stacy: Gwen, by running out of interesting ways to stimulate or supplement Spider-Man’s life, killed Gwen Stacy. “Don’t blame anyone. Only the inscrutable, inexorable workings on circumstance are culpable this time,” quoth the Great Marvel Gods.
THIS was COMIC BOOK MARKETPLACE’s smoking gun…?
I was stunned when I read this. Not stunned that I’d missed any vital clue, but that the writer and editors at COMIC BOOK MARKETPLACE were so simple as to not understand what they were reading. I actually talked with Gerry Conway about that letters column when I interviewed him, and he admitted that it was a put-up job, a propped-up excuse to get people off their backs. He knew this, he said, because at the time he himself was handling the letters column, and had penned that very page. The only reason I didn’t bring it up in my article was that it was so obvious a put-up job it didn’t deserve mention.
Think about it. You’re a new writer on a wildly popular book, and you’ve just taken the monumental step of killing one of fandom’s favorite characters. You’re now a pariah in your own industry, and face the most vindictive anger ever pointed at a comic book professional. (There are even death threats, can you believe it?) Would you, under those circumstances, admit that you’d killed this character simply because you didn’t like her? Of course not. You’d come up with a defensively written editorial intended to acknowledge and placate the fans’ anger, and you’d move on. Geez, even the title…! “So NOW You Know Who To Blame”? Talk about passing the buck.
This was hardly a smoking gun, more a soggy excuse to cover ground that I had already covered. Again, I was pretty shocked that a writer looking to place Gwen’s demise in the proper historical perspective had such a poor grasp of historical perspective. Shocked as well that they hadn’t interviewed a single one of the issue’s creators to arrive at their conclusion. One phone call could’ve cleared all this up. (Oh, and you’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the writer by name. Not going to, either. Wish I’d received the same courtesy.)
Well, that’s about it. Being ripped off months later really wasn’t such a bad experience, actually. As Roy Thomas quoted from an unknown philosopher in the article: “Success has many fathers, [but] failure is an orphan.” It made me realize we had done something monumental, albeit in a really small scope. It was never going to change the world, but nevertheless the article I wrote managed to put to rest a number of questions that had been floating around, and I’m immensely proud to be associated with it. Suffice it to say my days spent researching Gwen’s passing were my most satisfying of the three years I spent in that industry, and if that’s the only lasting mark I leave upon that industry, I can live with that. And given that I keep getting emails about it, all these years later, I thought the time had finally come to chat more about it. Hey, after all, it’s been ten years since this happened, can you believe it…?
Thanks for listening. And thanks for your indulgence.