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An Hubristic Quiz and a Modest Proposal


Here’s a great quiz, via Julie Neidlinger (I’m guessing Jonathan Edwards wasn’t one of the possilities…)

“We reject the false doctrine that the church could have permission to hand over the form
of its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the
prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.”
You are Karl Barth!
You like your freedom, and are pretty stubborn against authority! You don’t
care much for other people’s opinions either. You can come up with your own fun, and
often enough you have too much fun. You are pretty popular because you let people have their
way, even when you have things figured out better than them.

What theologian are you?

A creation of Henderson

One Damned Thing After Another:
Death’s Refrain and Narrative Stasis in Amazing Spider-Man

In his editorial capacity at Marvel Comics in the 1960’s, Stan Lee built a sense of “continuity” into the serial publications he scripted and helped to plot, barraging readers of the various series with exhaustive references (and footnotes) to the protagonists’ previous adventures (not to mention events occurring in other titles published by the company). The injection of “total recall” into these basically static—or, at least, anti-teleological—narratives (the characters don’t really age, and evil is never in danger of being eradicated) had unexpected side-effects. Inevitably, as each monthly issue established a new plateau of “presentness”—suspended above an increasingly protean body of temporally unclassifiable “past” experiences—inconsistencies arose, and narrative logic became muddled. This problem did not escape those readers who contributed to the letters pages, and the most persuasive instances of this epistolary exegesis bled back (at least implicitly, and sometimes explicitly) into the ongoing narrative.

This encounter played itself out to great effect in Amazing Spider-Man, wherein Peter Parker, a shy adolescent, becomes the eponymous protagonist when the freak combination of a radioactive spider-bite and the murder of his uncle Ben force him to embrace the motto: “with great power comes great responsibility”. From the beginning, Parker’s task is to endure the rigors of his predicament—he is not in any sense a “hero”, on a quest for a sublime object. Parker’s encounter with the sublime—the death of a loved-one—inaugurates the series, setting him on the road to nowhere; and echoes of this foundational moment would recur often in the issues that followed, particularly when “plot arcs” threatened to flatten out into linear progression. Death in Amazing Spider-Man functions as a “sublime reset-button”, continually recalling the character back to his anguished roots.

Daniel Tiffany has argued that Ezra Pound’s most important contribution to poetics is his theory of the “sublime aspect of the Image, [which] derives from its irrepressible “substance”; indeed, the negative practice of Imagism serves not to eliminate but to preserve the “life” of the crypt: its elegiac feeling, its eroticism, its fatality…” This paper will contend that, in the “Gwen Stacy Clone Saga”, writer Gerry Conway’s use of a Poundean “corpse-image” (generated mainly by the sense of loss expressed by readers in the letters of comment) amplifies “death’s refrain” in Amazing Spider-Man, thus shouting down the misguided call (by these very same readers) for some hint of “progress” in the narrative.

Parker’s first serious girlfriend had been killed in issue #121, and this editorial decision itself had been motivated, in large part, by the perception that Peter and Gwen’s relationship had been through so many ups and downs that it either had to progress (to marriage) or die. Killing Gwen effectively restored the status quo, which was all the more important at this time, because a new writer (Gerry Conway) had taken over the reins of the series, and–in keeping with the traditions of the medium—he was eager to “begin again” from first principles.

However, this plan was thwarted by the readers, many of whom refused to accept this development. It was one thing to kill off an elderly relative in the first issue of the series (and then to invoke his image every few months or so—with the help of any one of a number of antagonists capable of inducing hallucinatory guilt-fantasies), but it was quite another to eliminate a long-time (and beloved) member of the cast.

Meanwhile, in the pages of the comic proper, Peter’s relationship with another member of the cast (Mary-Jane Watson, who had benefited greatly from Conway’s more nuanced handling) had begun to deepen. All of this comes to a shuddering halt the moment that Peter comes face to face with “the living clone of Gwen Stacy”—the product of a madman’s necrophiliac revenge-fantasy. This second Gwen does not know she is a clone–her memories extend only to some indeterminate moment in the long, indeterminate Marvel-past—and she expects their relationship to go on as it always has. This introduces a fascinating conflict between two versions of narrative stasis in Amazing Spider-Man: Gwen’s (in which she plays the role of “the long-suffering girlfriend”–alternately loving and inscrutable, and often both at once) and Peter’s (in which he is an existentialist figure, consumed by guilt over death(s) that he may or may not have been able to prevent)… By bringing Gwen back, ostensibly to provide the readers (who had been too shocked by her death to say goodbye to the character the first time) a chance to mourn her properly, and then allowing her to walk out of the pages of the series forever (on her own power!), Conway masterfully purifies the “Spider-Man concept” of its’ narrative excrescences whilst intensifying the “logic of loss” at its’ core a thousand-fold.

Good night friends!
Dave

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2 comments

  1. That sounds very interesting. Now what really interests me (as you may have noticed since I keep bringing it up) is the fact that Peter does end up getting married. I think this may have happened after the point at which you stopped reading comics, and you seem to be focusing on death specifically in this paper, so I don’t suppose you’ll be dealing with that. Plus that particular bit of development seems to have come primarily from a desire to deny the “narrative stasis” you’re talking about.

    Steven

  2. Steven,

    I think you’re absolutely right! And it’s not a coincidence that–soon after Peter & MJ got married–the Gwen Stacy clone returned (in the bizarre Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #8)… It’s Gerry Conway’s desperate attempt to cut the Gordian knot he had tied so well in 1975, and I don’t think it worked very well… when I was reading those comics in the late eighties, I interpreted the Watson-Parker relationship as a precarious walk on the tightrope between memory and merger… I haven’t read almost anything since 1991–but, if the Paul Jenkins stuff I’ve seen is at all typical, it seems to me that Gwen’s death-scene is alive and well…

    Dave

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