Innocence Mistake?

(Soundtrack: Magnapop)

Okay–so Straczynski has gone and implied–apparently in a flashback sequence narrated by MJ–that Gwen Stacy once had sex with Norman Osborne, y’now, back before he killed herMatt Rossi has also posted a few thoughts on this subject, and I’ve been keeping up with some of the reader-response (like this and this), but of course I’m not going to buy the issue…

Where to begin? The biggest problem–and it’s one that others have mentioned–is the way this affects MJ’s characterization… Concealing her knowledge of Peter’s dual ID is one thing, but bottling this up just makes her seem like a person who gets off on keeping secrets! But forget about that–I don’t have any clue what they’ve been doing with Mary Jane Watson lately, and I’m sure they’re not writing her the way they did in Gerry Conway’s heyday (or Roger Stern’s…or Tom DeFalco’s…), so I have nothing to contribute on this subject.

But let’s get back to Gwen. One of the things I hated about Spider-Man: Blue is the way it casts Gwen as merely a symbol of innocence/purity/what-have-you… This problem, a recurrent one in Spider-historiography, has become genuinely pathological in post-Marvels Marvel as a whole, and in super-hero comics in general these days, from what I’ve seen… Yes my friends, nostalgia is the disease, not the cure!

Neurotic obsession with the unrecoverable past has been at the thematic core of many, many great works of art over the years–but only when this emotion (which all of us can understand!) is carefully scrutinized, certainly not when it is merely exhibited, and especially not when it provides the occasion for creators and readers alike to make exhibitions of themselves.

We’re back in “lost innocence of the Silver Age” territory here, and Gwen Stacy’s grave is probably the most prominent landmark in this wasteland of impotent yearning… Kurt Busiek is the ultimate high priest of this necrophiliac religion, and Marvels is its Holy Book. But no matter what Busiek, or ADD, or Seth, or Doc Nebula tell you, the Silver Age at Marvel was not some “green world” of inspired adventure untouched by (corporate?) sin. Think about the books for a second! They’re filled with alienated teens, monsters, wholesale destruction, and very hip self-knowing, and conversational narration/editorial content. This was never “storytime for baby”, it was dialogic melodrama! And perhaps the greatest thrill of all was that, no matter how many years passed, or how few academic credits Peter Parker seemed to amass, the story was eternally ongoing. When I started reading these stories in the mid-eighties, the Marvel Universe was a going concern. Everything that had ever happened in the comics was on the record in the various Gruenwald/Sanderson projects, and there was no sense of a chasm between the books that were on the stands and the issues in the bins. That’s how I wound up getting so absorbed in the whole thing! I wanted it all, because it all seemed relevant.

But something went wrong somewhere. Maybe it’s because the people who took over the authorial reins were too young, when they started reading the early Marvels, to recognize the real sophistication that characterizes Lee’s negotiations with the readers. They just loved the pretty pictures, which they eventually came to worship as Henri Rousseau-style naif masterworks, little realizing that it’s their own youthful naivete that they long for back there in the past.

And that brings us back to Gwen Stacy, who has suffered far more grievously, in the years since her death, from the machinations of the twelve-year old boys who cried when she fell, than she ever did at the hands of the Green Goblin. Until now, that is. Yes, my friends, those boys and her killer have now joined hands to wreak the most childish revenge ever perpetrated upon an immature symbol of “purity”. It’s the old cynicism/idealism tag-team. If you spy a crack in your Idol, cover it up with shit!

Kevin Smith must be delighted.

I agree that the “myth of Gwen Stacy’s purity” had to be dispelled. But not this way. Not by forcing her into bed with a gross old psychopath and shrieking “ick!” The most galling thing about all this is that Gerry Conway had already negotiated a magnificent armistice with the problem of nostalgic obsession in 1975–and it just didn’t take! I’ve written a fair amount about this–how Conway actually outdid Hitchcock in maturity, if not artistry, by reworking Vertigo into a romantic comedy–here and here, among other places…and I’ll do more of it soon! For now, let’s just say that when an Object of Desire loses her iconicity, you don’t throw her off of a bridge (or a bell tower) and then work on curing yourself of your lingering obsession by retroactively imputing a “dirty” sexual past to her! Moreover, if you do take that route, and you happen to be living in a world in which cloning is possible, you’d better bring her back right away and let her get on with her life! And that’s what Conway did–he thwarted Parker’s desire to destroy the fading symbol of purity (the better to preserve it for his own alternately worshipful and sacreligious pleasure) and forced him to watch that symbol walk away to begin a life on her own terms, in a storyline that has nothing to do with Peter Parker and his problems.

Which is just a long-winded way of arguing that, as a storyteller/narrator-of-your-own-life, you don’t “de-idealize/de-objectify” a character (or a real-life person) by making her (or him) an Object of Derision, a negative cypher fornicating with the Devil (unless you do this in order to make a real point–and here I’m thinking of the moral lesson taught by Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”); you have to make the leap into her/his subjective position.

Good Night Friends!



  1. Like I said over at the Howlers, I don’t have a lot invested in Spider-Man or Gwen nowadays. For me, it’s more an issue of what other writers on the character have established… I’ve read enough Spider-Man stories to know Gwen started out as a sharp, smart girl, someone to give Peter a real run for his money, so to speak. I guess she kind of turned clingy in later stories (I’m no Spider-Man scholar) but I don’t ever remember anything that would hint at this kind of thing. The panels I’ve seen now of Gwen saying she was going to tell Peter and he and she would raise Norman’s kids… it makes me wonder if she had cranial trauma of some kind. “Oh, Peter, I got pregnant by your best friend’s father, would you raise the kids with me?”

    Granted, Pete being Pete, he might have gone for it. It still seems… and Mary Jane sitting on this secret after Gwen’s death and for years and years after? Even without the logistics of it all, which seem pretty sketch, it just seems to put both MJ and Gwen in a harsh, uncompromising light that’s not flattering for either of them and I have a hard time understanding why either of them would do it.

    Gwen’s no incarnation of purity for me: if they’d told me she had an affair with Flash Thompson, I would probably have thought it was dumb, but not quite this dumb. My objection isn’t besmirching the perfect icon of virginity, I’ve seen enough of her from the old Romita issues of ASM to know that the idea of Gwen as the bastion of perfection is a silly and absurd story. But this seems to be swinging too far the other way for me: it robs the story of the random element and seems to be saying that bad things don’t happen to good people, that Gwen died because she cheated on Peter, that there was a reason for her death beyond Norman Osborn being an evil man who wanted to kill someone just to hurt someone else. Instead, we get a strange moral: Gwen died because she screwed around. She was bad, and so she died.

    It robs the story in my eyes of some of its relevance. It becomes just another slasher film, like “Friday the 13th” where the girls who have sex die: giving Norman a personal reason to kill Gwen just cheapens everyone involved. It robs Norman of his madness, implies that Gwen died out of her own mistake in confronting Osborn and telling him about the children in addition to her mistake in having sex with him in the first place, and makes Peter seem sort of like a sap.

    –Matt Rossi

  2. Even if we were to suppose that the reason for this was to de-idealize Gwen in Peter’s mind so that he can finally get past it (which, let’s face it, is a stupid thing to suppose about a man who’s been married so long anyway), this whole thing still reads less like a mature take on the past and more like an immature person’s idea of what a mature take would be.

    Stupid, and with any luck, impermantent. I’ll trust the dynamism of the Marvel Universe metanarrative to sort this one out.

    -Dan Jacobson

  3. Just poking around for the first time in a while and came across this subject, for which I have two comments:

    I never understood why Kurt took that route with the character towards the end of Marvels, having found her portrayal there lying somewhere between that of a magical fairy princess and someone who’s beautiful but brain damaged. I’d passingly wondered if it wasn’t some passive aggressive shot at the character, Kurt having decided that she was only important to us because she was important to Peter?

    As for Marvel going wrong – and, I won’t even pretend I’ve gone anywhere near the TCJ messageboards and this topic, but I can speak as someone who stuck with it from the late 60s well into the 90s – it was in my view a gradual event during the 1980s (as declining sales were met with more of a willingness to give unprecedented re-creative freedoms to some writers and artists – especially if they could do both) before plunging headlong into the abyss as the end of the 80s and start of the 90s saw the rise of the “hot” artist speculation that made characters less than a secondary concern in the eyes of the market.

    If I wasn’t stealing a few minutes to write this I might have been able to edit the above into two or three proper sentences.

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