There are certain moments in comic books that you always remember. These are the moments that stay will you long after you have closed the comic and re-sealed it back into its polybag. They are key parts of the shared universe, and important pieces of its history. They might be visually iconic, or have a piece of memorable dialogue, or, in this case, a tiny little sound effect.
Death in comic books has essentially lost all meaning. Or, at the very least, it is now so commonplace that it fails to retain any sort of emotional impact. But that wasn’t always the case, and there was a time when death, permanent and cold, was rare. This story is arguably the most memorable of them all.
Tale of the Tape
Amazing Spider-Man #121
Written by Gerry Conway
Pencils by Gil Kane
Inks by John Romita Jr. and Tony Mortellaro
Cover by John Romita Jr.
Coloured by Dave Hunt
Lettered by Artie Simek
44th ed. Overstreet Guide puts a 9.2 at $550
Available on Marvel Digital Unlimited
For such a momentous issue it actually has quite a slow build. It begins with Peter and his friends visiting a bedridden Harry Osborn, who is comatose due to a LSD overdose. The first pages nicely set up that Harry has been having drug troubles, that Peter and Gwen haven’t seen much of each other lately, and that Norman Osborn has amnesia regarding his Green Goblin persona. However, Osborn does still hate Peter and wants him to stay away from Harry (blaming the drug use on him).
Eventually the stress of seeing Harry in such a state causes Norman hallucinate and his memory returns with the full knowledge of Spider-Man’s secret identity. Osborn kidnaps Gwen and forces a showdown at the George Washington Bridge. The remainder of the issue is heart pounding, and heart-breaking, action.
Peter and the Goblin have a vicious fight that culminates in the Goblin tossing an unconscious Gwen Stacey off the bridge. Spider-Man races to save Gwen and manages to catch her leg with webbing before she hits the water. Right beside Gwen’s head in tiny letters is a single sound effect: snap. Peter soon discovers the awful truth; Gwen is dead. The Goblin taunts him to note that a fall from that height would kill anyone before they hit the water (not exactly true), but the reality is undeniable as Spider-Man has directly caused Gwen’s death. It is true that the water would have killed her on impact, but that tiny sound effect carries such power and the reader feels Spider-Man’s anguish and helplessness.
Gwen’s death was one of the first main character deaths that had real impact and really changed the Spider-Man universe. This led to the shift in Spider-Man’s romantic interests and laid the foundation for Mary Jane to become Peter’s wife. The rage that Peter feels carries over into the next issue which is equally momentous and features the death of Norman Osborn (which lasted a while).
In re-reading the issue I’m surprised that Gerry Conway included the extra touch of Peter having a bad cold. The sickness means that Spider-Man isn’t operating at 100% and finds it difficult to concentrate, aim his web shooters, and fight at full strength. This seems like an unnecessary crutch and leads the reader to wonder if Gwen’s outcome would have been different if Peter had only been healthy. With such a level of emotion and brutal confrontation between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin serving as the main thrust of the story the cold just seem a bit tacked on.
Amazing Spider-Man #121-#122 have often been packaged in trade paperback form with the Death of Captain Stacy story from ASM #88-#92, highlighting the family’s tragic nature. They are definitely worth the read.
Readers today may have become jaded by the overabundance of death in comic books, but if you want to read a story where death matters and has real emotional impact you should definitely check it out.