Monday, May 07, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Spider-Man, Part Two

(or "It's Called 'The Night Gwen Stacy Died'")

When we left our intrepid hero at the end of Part One, Spider-Man had settled into a comfortable routine that, like a rollercoaster, provided the illusion of wild movement without ever actually needing to leave its rails. Peter Parker had a job (that sometimes left him with plenty of free money, sometimes broke), a girlfriend in the form of Gwen Stacy (with an on-again/off-again relationship due to his secret life), an aunt (whose health sometimes worsened, sometimes improved), and friends in Mary Jane, Harry Osborn, and Flash Thompson (with whom he got along sometimes well, sometimes badly.) Those various relationships went up and down, but never really changed drastically.

Then Gerry Conway took over. Then came Amazing Spider-Man #121-122, which single-handedly redefined the way that Spider-Man, and possibly that comics as a whole, was going to work. Some even call it the story that ended the Silver Age. For those who may be unfamiliar with it...Norman Osborn, who has been cured of his tendency to dress up as the Green Goblin and commit crimes, suffers a relapse. He remembers Spider-Man's secret identity, and kidnaps Gwen Stacy to force a confrontation on top of a bridge. So far, pretty standard stuff for a Spidey comic. You can just hear the reader asking, "Uh-oh, how's Spidey going to get out of this one?" Spidey shows up, they fight, Gwen gets knocked off the bridge, and Spidey catches her with a web at the last second...and two pages before the end of the issue. Pretty standard stuff.

Except that when he reels her in, he finds that the web wasn't elastic enough. He'd stopped Gwen's fall, but she's dead anyway. The issue ends, alright. It ends with Spider-Man cradling his dead girlfriend's body and shouting at the Goblin, "You killed the woman I love--and for that, you're going to die!"

And in the next issue, that's exactly what happens. Sure, Peter doesn't do the deed himself. He's no murderer, and he recognizes that. But nonetheless, by the end of 'The Goblin's Last Stand', Norman Osborn is fatally impaled on his own goblin glider, dead on-panel so that there can be no last-minute rescue or cheat. (Except that there was, some twenty years later, but we'll save that for another long, angry day.) Two characters died, permanently and inescapably, and the storytelling engine of Spider-Man was changed forever.

Not just in the practical sense of "Who will be Peter's new girlfriend?" (MJ), and "Who will be Peter's new arch-foe?" (Harry). It changed because the notion of change became integral to the story of Spider-Man. For the first time since the heady early days of Lee and Ditko, permanent change became a part of the expectations of Spider-Man's audience, and people read the series not just to see what the story was, but what it would mean to the status quo of the series. "Life-changing" became a selling-point, a way to bind the audience more tightly to the book. After all, who would want to miss an issue when it could turn out to be the issue where Peter's life changed forever?

And so Conway continued to change things. Not much, by today's standards: Peter moving to a new apartment, finding feelings for Mary Jane, having to deal with Harry's nervous breakdown and decision to become the new Green Goblin...these were changes, but for every big event like this, you got a lot of stories that aspired to be nothing more than entertaining Spider-Man tales. (Or changes that seemed to promise big changes, but in the end returned to the status quo, like the infamous "marriage of Aunt May and Doctor Octopus." Sure, it fell through, but fans at the time had to wonder. After all, if they'd killed Gwen, surely they could do anything?)

But in these later stories, you can see the roots of modern "event-driven" comics. Comic book writers had always had to manage their desire for artistic fulfillment against the desire not to tamper with a working formula. But after the death of Gwen Stacy, they had a new factor to balance in: The desire for the readers to see change. This third factor tipped the balance against the "status quo", and has arguably resulted in some of the most problematic decisions in the comic book industry. (The infamous "Clone Saga" of the 1990s leaps to mind.)

And by deciding to make changes to his storytelling engine periodically, Conway had just opened another can of worms. Because it was during this period that Spider-Man pulled off a major comics coup--he'd gotten a second title. In part three, we'll look at that second title, and how different writers balanced the need to have a storytelling engine with the need to keep continuity with 'Amazing'.

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