(Not So) Good Grief!
(Soundtrack: Garrison Starr Eighteen Over Me)
For whatever reason, Peter & Gwen’s relationship just wasn’t working out. The series’ collective unconscious–represented by the lettercolistas and the editorial staff–understood this perfectly. Who knows how this would have been handled in a more traditional soap opera–but in a superhero story, where emotions/thoughts that cannot be expressed within a social framework inevitably bubble up as colourful hero/villain skirmishes, Gwen’s death by violence at the hands of the Green Goblin seems inevitable. And it served Peter’s needs very well. Issue #121 left the young hero poised to embark upon a lifetime of very purposeful mourning. He could cherish the memory of “the only girl [he] ever truly loved”–without having to bother himself with the unsatisfactory details of their relationship…
Uncle Ben dies that Spider-Man may live; Gwen dies in order to relieve him of the burden of dating. The Amazing Spider-Man, up until #122, had been a massive sequential bildungsroman–very much in the “what does not kill me makes me stronger”/”romance of personal integration” school of storytelling. “Spider-Man” is the protagonist–and the narrative fosters that character’s growth at all times.
The Jackal is absolutely right to blame Peter for Gwen’s death–and by resurrecting her, he declares war not only on Spider-Man, but on The Amazing Spider-Man itself! In issue #139 Peter expresses a bewildered satisfaction with his progress since his beloved’s death…and also realizes that he hates himself for taking everything in stride so philosophically (going so far as to wish for “something really lousy to happen”) Is it any coincidence that this is the same issue in which the Jackal (who had first appeared in #129-130 as just another guy in a suit bent upon taking over the city’s underworld)now returns as a man whose only goal appears to be the destruction of Spider-Man? This is why I love John Ostrander’s idea that the Jackal is Peter Parker. He comes to fulfill Peter’s darkest fantasy. And to force him to acknowledge that, in this world, “people can need each other–and still know that they shouldn’t have each other” (ASM #149)–and it’s not because they die either. It’s because each of us lives in different worlds. And they’re almost impossible to align. That’s why Gwen had to be brought back, and given a chance to live her own life, as a protagonist in her own right, in the world beyond the penultimate page of ASM #149.
What does all of this have to do with Mary Jane? Well, I’m going to have to save most of that for later, but here’s one thing I do know: her walk with Peter through the campus grounds, in ASM #141, is a really key scene. He projects Gwen’s face onto the landscape, moping, as always, about his rough luck and his development as a Hamlet-style hero; but she counters with this interpretation of his behaviour and recent events: “You’re the tensest person I’ve ever met Pete. I think that’s what makes you so loveable. You always look like you’re going to fall apart–like a Charlie Brown who’s just had the football jerked away from him.” Her assessment is apt, and we begin to see the narrative from her perspective, not his. If the final scene of ASM #122 is a prelude to intersubjectivity, then this is the real thing! And it’s no surprise that the linear development of the protagonist that had been going on since Amazing Fantasy #15 comes to a staggering halt right there… And after this, all bets are off for the remainder of Conway’s run–supporting characters follow their own arcs, regardless of the needs of the storyline, living characters beg dead ones to enact their revenge, and the erstwhile protagonist splits into two–it’s like a bizarro version of Hitchcock’s Vertigo!
Good Afternoon Friends!