Best Spider-Man Story Ever: The Night Gwen Stacy Died

Posted by SMReviews Team 12 July 2012


This is probably not a controversial choice, nor an unexpected one. And there's a hell of a reason for that. We've decided that the best Spider-Man story of all time is...

1. The Night Gwen Stacy Died (Amazing Spider-Man #121-122)

Creative Team: Gerry Conway (Writer), Gil Kane (Artist), John Romita, Tony Mortellard (Inkers), Artie Simek (Letterer), David Hunt (Colorist)

What Happened:  The story begins quickly with Spider-Man coming home from Canada, and finding out that Harry has OD'd on LSD (A light comedic story this ain't). Peter tries to visit Harry, but Norman orders him, Gwen, and MJ out. Meanwhile everything's crumbling around Norman's life, and Peter realizes he has the flu, and Jonah kicks him out when he returns with pictures of the Hulk, in a really funny scene. Norman snaps, and remembers that he's the Green Goblin, while Spider-Man's so sick that he enters his house through the window, even though he knows Gwen's probably inside. What he finds sends him on a desperate search as his spider sense leads him to the Brooklyn Bridge.

Why It's In The Top 50: Mister Mets is awestruck by the quality of the story.
I doubt anyone's surprised by this story's presence on my list, or even appearing as Number 1. It's simply one of the best comic book stories ever, and I think it's slightly unfair that with this one story twenty year old Gerry Conway wrote something better than anything a lot of great writers (Stan Lee, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, etc) had ever written in their lifetimes (in my opinion of course.)

This is the Psycho of comic books, in that I don't think there's ever been anything more thrilling in the medium, even if you know how everything's going to end. Spider-Man has his best battles against the Green Goblin in both chapters of this issue, (although they may just be elevated by the quality of the rest of the issue.) There's so many brilliant scenes, like Gwen wondering what's wrong in Harry's life, while the Green Goblin's at the window, and of course, perhaps the most famous death in comic books. And there's still a controversy over what was responsible for the death, all because of a single sound effect that Gerry Conway didn't even realize that he left into the script. 
And of course there's still the second issue, which more than maintains the quality of the first. You get to see a traumatized, pissed off Spider-Man getting shot at by a cop, while his partner yells "Shoot to Wound, blast it! Shoot to wound!," a really angry and inhuman looking Peter Parker, ably drawn by Gil Kane, Peter choosing between revenge and helping a friend (he doesn't pick the friend), Spider-Man VS. J. Jonah Jameson, an excellent battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin, the best death scene of any villain, the set up to Harry Osborn becoming the second Green Goblin, and the set up to Peter's relationship to Mary Jane. 
It's weird just how good this story is. I knew about what happened in it before I read it, but there's so much to appreciate. Even after thirty years, this story has remained timeless by not mentioning outdated science, or other stories (the preceding, and following stories had a subplot with Aunt May living in Doctor Octopus's house, which didn't have the best payoff, but that's mercifully ignored here). I don't know if it's even possible to write a Spider-Man story, although I hope the writers of the future try.
What the pros say: Gerry Conway mentioned the story a few times in an interview about his Spider-Man run in Write Now! #14.
Danny Fingeroth: What are you proudest of that you've done in your Spider-Man runs? 
Gerry Conway: Raising the bar for everyone who came after me with the Death of Gwen Stacy. 
Danny Fingeroth: If you could meet Spider-Man, what would you like to ask or tell him? 
Gerry Conway: Sorry about that.
What others say: It's #1 on complex.com's list of the best Spider-Man stories, #1 on IGN's list, #2 on Wizard's 1998 list, and #3 on CBR's list.

JR Fettinger argued that it didn't belong in a top ten. Gwen Stacy is considered an example of the "Women in Refrigerators" trope. The death of Gwen Stacy is literally the end of an era, as many consider it the conclusion of the Silver Age.

Related Stories: Harry Osborn's breakdown and encounter with Peter Parker led to him becoming the new Green Goblin in Amazing Spider-Man #136-137. Gwen's death inspired the next "Big Bad" in the Spider-Man comics: The Jackal in Amazing Spider-Man #129-131, 140-149. Marvels #4 featured a different perspective of this storyline.

Scene Analysis:

Here's why the first page is so fantastic. A story in which a supporting character will die opens with another supporting character in mortal danger. There's a lot going on, but it's conveyed well. Mary Jane and Gwen are by Harry's bedside. Spider-Man is watching from outside, which symbolizes how the secret identity has separated him from his friends.

It's astounding to think of this from the perspective of a reader who doesn't know anything heading into the story, and has to guess about who's going to die and who the villain's going to be. It's a hell of a start.
I think this page is fantastic storytelling as a weakened Spidey's expectations are dashed in a horrible way. There's something almost poignant about his recklessness entering from the window, as if everything would have still changed, had Osborn not had his crack-up.
For good reason, these two pages may just be the most famous sequence from any Spider-Man comic. I like how Kane uses the vertical panel to convey the size of the fall. The little "Snap!" may just be the most famous sound effect in comics, teasing the possibility that Gwen probably died because of how Spider-Man saved her.
And then there's his slow and horrific discovery that he had failed to save the woman he loved. And the Green Goblin just gloats, further cementing this as one of the nastiest deeds of any comic book supervillain.

I wanted to single out the crazed look in Peter's eyes in the middle of the page. You could believe that this is a guy whose girlfriend was just murdered.
Everything comes to a head in one of Spider-Man's defining moments, as the conflict of the story stands revealed. It isn't between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin, as much as it is between Spider-Man and sheer rage.

The character was pushed harder than ever before, and you can make the argument that no writer, artist or editor can ever push him this hard again. But it was incredible to see it happen this once. The result was the best Spider-Man story ever.

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At this point, there probably wasn't any suspense about which stories will make the list. The only question was which story was at the top, and which was merely second-best.

2. Kraven's Last Hunt (Web of Spider-Man #31-32, Amazing Spider-Man #39-40, Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man #131-132)

Creative Team: JM Dematteis (Writer), Mike Zeck (Artist)

What Happened: Feeling complacent about his life, long time Spider-man villain, Sergei Kravinoff devises a scheme to prove himself superior to Spider-Man once and for all and regain his pride. Through his psychological machinations, he convinces himself in order to do this he must become the Spider. After a battle with his adversary, Kraven tranquilizes Spider-Man and burrys him alive in a casket. He then assumes Spider-Man's identity and hunts down, defeats, and captures the creature know as Vermin, thus redeeming himself. Meanwhile our hero struggles with his own identity, his fears of death, and loosing the ones he loves. At the same time, Mary Jane is left wondering what happened to her newlywed husband, while having to fend for herself.

Why It's In The Top 50: Jesse praises the story for its psychological depth.

I feel like this is an epic and truely dark tale about fear. There are many elements of fear in this that each character has to face head on. Their paranoia becomes almost a bigger challenge than the object of fear itself. It seems that every major super hero has had to overcome death at some point and this is Spidey's moment of triumph.
To put it bluntly, its a shocking tale of desperation, about a mad man and his last ditch effort to put an end to his obsession with being the alpha supreme. To go out in full glory.
The story means a lot to me in terms of defining Peter Parker and Kraven, explaining their motivations, how they view themselves, and so many other deep psychological issues.
So does Mister Mets.
There are a lot of reasons that this story's compelling. As a huge fan of the Lizard, I'm honestly disappointed that the Lizard's never had a story this good. Even before it was cool, I thought that is this were ever adapted into the movies, the Lizard should have Vermin's role. I still think this, post- Amazing Spider-Man
Mary Jane has possibly her strongest moments, as a newlywed searching for her missing husband, and having absolutely no one to turn to.This story perfectly shows Spider-Man at his angriest, most traumatized, and still willing to do what is right.And I'm not sure if any Spider-Man villain's ever had a story as compelling as Kraven does here.
What the pros say: In a Round-table discussion for Write Now! #14, Dematteis explains his focus on the villains.
With a character as multilayered as Peter Parker, it seemed natural (at least to me) to go to for as many psychologically-driven stories as possible. I like to peel back the layers of a character, question the basic assumptions we all take for granted. Try to figure out why he does what he does. Find out what life circumstances, what stresses and traumas, pushed him to become the man he is.

Looking back, I think the single thing I did best was to shine that same kind of light on the Spider-villains. I did some stories with Kraven, the Vulture, Mysterio, Electro, and especially Harry Osborn that I'm very proud of. I never saw any of them as "bad guys." In my mind, they were trying to do the best in difficult circumstances: they just made horrendous choices along the way. We live in a world where people are forever trying to demonize "the other," "the enemy," "the evildoers." Which means that, more than ever, we need stories that examine even the worst human behavior with compassion.
What others say: Spiderfan.org voted it the third best Spider-Man story ever. CBR users recently declared that it was the best Spider-Man story ever. It was #6 on IGN's list. Wizard Magazine has said on separate occasions that Spider-Man VS. Wolverine was a dark Spider-Man story done right, and Kraven's Last Hunt was indicative (in a bad way) of the grim n' gritty comics on the 80's, and 90's.Kerry Wilkinson of spiderfan.org gives it a 3/5. Henrique Ferriera of the same website gave the book a 5/5. There's a final positive review at the Ninth Art website. JR Fettinger AKA Madgoblin thinks Kraven was lame and that the final battle with Vermin was unsatisfying.

Related Stories: Vermin was introduced in JM Dematteis and Mike Zeck's Captain America #252 as a monster created by Baron Zemo. His battle with Spider-Man and Cap, referenced in KLH, occurred in Marvel Team-Up #128 by JM Dematteis and Artist Kerry Gammill. JM Dematteis and Mike Zeck later worked on a sequel one-shot to Kraven's Last Hunt called "Soul of the Hunter." Vermin was one of the villains of JM Dematteis and Sal Buscema's run on Spectacular Spider-Man, appearing in "The Child Within" storyline (Issues 178-184) and "the Death of Vermin (Issues 194-196)" which also included the return of Baron Zemo.

Numerous villains would seek revenge for what happened to Kraven, notably Calypso in Todd Mcfarlane's "Torment" saga (Spider-Man #1-5), Kraven's two sons: the Grim Hunter and Al Kraven, and his daughter in the Kraven's First Hunt storyline in Amazing Spider-Man #565-567. A plot to resurrect Kraven was the basis for the Gauntlet mega-arc, which culminated in the Grim Hunt storyline in Amazing Spider-Man #630-633.

Scene Analysis:

There's tremendous and effective irony in these two pages. Mary Jane is looking for Peter, and gets attacked. And she starts smiling, because she knows something they don't know, as she thinks her husband has appeared to save her. Instead, Kraven shows up, disguised as Spider-Man. And MJ realizes that her husband is in even bigger trouble.

It's also a very one-sided fight scene, which reveals a lot about Kraven's character, his brutal efficiency and how he tried to incorporate the mannerisms of a spider. Mike Zeck deserves a lot of credit for his ability to convey that the man in the Spider-Man suit is a different man than the wall-crawler we all know and love.

A criticism of the story is that Dematteis robbed the reader of the traditional rematch between the superhero and his enemy. But a conventional ending would not have worked here. Kraven really thinks he won, and you understand his skewed position, even if the conclusion of the story makes it clear which of them is the better man.
And here's another example of Spidey when he's pissed off. He tries his best to explain the situation to Vermin, though the response is similar to that of a mad dog.

While this story elevated Kraven to the top-tier of Spider-Man's enemies, it also brought Vermin into the rogues gallery, with an interesting hook: the villain who disgusts Spider-Man. It's interesting to compare the subtle differences between Zeck's take on an out of control Spider-Man with the disguised Kraven from the earlier scene.

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