Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Why Amazing Spider-Man 121 is the single most important comic in my life.
I've bought and sold (and re-bought) many classic comics in my time. But no matter what, I've always kept my very fine copy of Amazing Spider-Man 121 lovingly protected in mylar. I have to, it's the single most important comic that I've read in my entire life!
I think a lot of comic readers in the baby boom generation would rank this issue very highly as well. You have to picture me in this time and place. It's 1973. I've been reading comics for about 4 years. I was a huge Spider-Man fan, reading his present (in Amazing) and past adventures (in Marvel Tales). I even had a mail subscription to ASM. It would arrive in our mailbox, in a brown wrapper, folded in half. Not the thing you'd put in mylar (my present copy was purchased later), but a comic you'd slide out of the wrapper and start reading as soon as you could.
Some comics are so eventful, I remember the time and place where I read them. In this case, I had gotten out of school early to go to the dentist. My father brought me home on a sunny afternoon (in Alaska) and I read this issue with great excitement.
You could tell ASM #121 was going to be a turning point. Despite the cover, I never expected anyone to really die. Certainly not Gwen Stacy--her father, Captain Stacy, had died a few years earlier. I did know that Norman Osborn would return as the Green Goblin. Osborn was always a ticking time bomb ready to go off. Whenever he recovered his memories and insanity took him over, something big always happened.
By the time, I got to the end of the story, I couldn't believe what I had just read. Sweet, beautiful, loving Gwen Stacy--the love of Peter Parker's life--was dead? No way. That kind of thing just didn't happen in superhero comics. And what really got me, even at 12 years old, was the above panel where Gwen Stacy perished. The sound effect SWIK! registered that her death was even more sick and twisted. Spider-Man killed his own girlfriend by snagging her the wrong way with his web-line. The SWIK! and SNAP! and head bobbing that Gil Kane drew left no doubt in mind. Peter Parker had royally screwed up.
Was Norman Osborn responsible for Gwen Stacy's death as well? Of course. He had kidnapped Gwen and knocked her off the George Washington Bridge.
The beautiful and twisted thing about this story is that we as readers have witnessed the truth in a way no other character in the story has. Spider-Man doesn't realize what he's done. Neither does Osborn. Nor any other character in the Marvel Universe.
I still could not quite believe Gwen was dead, even with the full splash page at the very end of the story. It took the following issue to really confirm that fact. Nothing seemed the same after this moment. I could believe that other Marvel characters might die as a result. It was such a remarkable moment that Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross chose to mark the end of an era in MARVELS.
Fans of this story and Gerry Conway's classic Amazing Spider-Man will want to listen to his podcast interview with John Siuntres on Word Balloon. Conway talks in detail about how Amazing Spider-Man #121 was created, from the initial story idea by John Romita to Gil Kane's contribution in the neck-snapping panel above. Conway also discusses his return to comics and the Last Days of Animal Man. I love how Siuntres interviews comics professionals--he asks the questions I would ask if I were sitting down with them. Nuff said.
Update: Comments from my old MovableType site: