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Comics 411: Most Relevant Spider-Man Deaths

December 1, 2021 | Posted by Steve Gustafson
Spider-Man Death of Gwen Stacy

Welcome back! I’m Steve Gustafson and if you enjoy discussing anything comic book related, you’ve come to the right place. Each week we cover something in the industry and I always enjoy your input in the comment section below.

Previously on…

Last time we discussed Must Read Comic Books During the Holidays  Here’s what some of you had to say:

“Positively” Jake Fury” “The Authority
Morrison’s Batman run.
JSA by Geoff Johns
Immortal Hulk:”

Spacecowboy: “The Long Halloween”

Some awesome comments last time! Go and check out the rest, if you can. Thanks for the input and keep it coming!

This week we discuss…

The Most Relevant Spider-Man Deaths

“With great power must also come great responsibility.”

That sums up Spider-Man. Whenever a new writer takes over the reins of any Spidey series, it should be the guiding principle. Peter Parker learned one of life’s hardest lessons and became the hero he is today because of it. Over the years, Spider-Man has faced impossible odds and overcome them almost every time. The times he couldn’t prevent tragedy were rare but made an impact. Family, friends, supervillains, innocent bystanders; all have been lost but who stands out as the one who made the biggest impact?

First, this was a little twisted to write because while Spider-Man has had some pretty heavy deaths…most have come back at some point, lessening the impact. So I’m going with the most relevant…at the time…or else this would be a very short list.

Let’s start with the most obvious. Uncle Ben. The death of Peter’s Uncle Ben is an iconic moment; not just in Spider-Man but in comic books in general. It’s been portrayed over and over in the series and across just about every other media. While some tweaks have been made, the core remains the same: a shady promoter stiffs Parker out of some money. Peter, as Spider-Man, refuses to help when said promoter is robbed, saying that he only looks out for himself. Peter comes home to find that his beloved Uncle Ben has been killed. Seeking revenge, Parker hunts down Ben’s killer and confronts the murderer only to learn that he is the same thief who robbed the promoter. The one Peter didn’t stop, which would have saved Uncle Ben’s life. When it comes to deaths, this one is tough to beat.

We’ve covered Kraven’s Last Hunt in the past but it’s still one that sticks out in my memory most. Maybe because it blew my mind when I first read it. Kraven hunts down Spider-Man, defeats him, and seemingly shoots him dead. Kraven buries him, and donning a copy of Spider-Man’s costume, seeks to prove himself superior at his adversary’s former activities. After two weeks, Spider-Man revives from the effects of the tranquilizer dart Kraven shot him with, and digs his way out of the grave. When Spider-Man confronts Kraven, the hunter does not fight back, considering himself the victor, having defeated Vermin, a foe Spider-Man needed help from Captain America to beat. Kraven releases Vermin, who Spider-Man goes after, and Kraven goes to his home, reminiscing about his past and the peace he now feels, and commits suicide with a rifle. He leaves a confession of his burying and impersonating Spider-Man for the police to find, complete with photographic proof. Heavy stuff today, even more so in 1987. Writer J. M. DeMatteis explained that the story was intended to explore Spider-Man’s character and how others perceive him saying, “What [Kraven] plans to do is kill Spider-Man and then take his place – prove that he can be a better Spider-Man than Spider-Man. What he becomes, of course, is not Spider-Man, but what he perceives Spider-Man to be. In a sense, what Kraven becomes is something akin to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight character. […] One of the things about Peter Parker, with Spider-Man, is that he doesn’t just put on a mask and become “the Spider-Man.” He doesn’t become transformed into this dark creature of the night. No matter what costume he has, no matter what he does, Peter Parker is always a very human, passionate, caring guy. Kraven doesn’t know that. And that is the major difference here.” A defining moment for Spidey, Kraven, and the reader.

Yes, Kraven returned but as a stand alone story, this stands out.

Jean DeWolff was a tough, unrelenting police captain for the NYPD, following in her father’s footsteps. She gets to know Spider-Man and becomes one of his defenders and allies, sticking up for him when others question his motives. Jean is killed by her lover, Stan Carter, aka Sin-Eater, and after her death, Spidey discovers that she had kept a collection of Spider-Man news clippings (a photo of him with the Black Cat was cut to remove the Black Cat from the image). The implication is that her feelings towards him were warmer than she generally indicated, leaving Spider-Man even more crestfallen. At the time of its original publication (1985-86), “The Death of Jean DeWolff” was considered to be a groundbreaking comic book story. Peter David commented that “we flew in the face of standard comic book tradition by giving a character, not a noble death in battle at the climax of the story, but an inglorious death, in her sleep, at the beginning.” 

Comics Bulletin called the story an exploration of “moral relativism amongst superheroes, the flaws of the criminal justice system, and the feelings of rage and desire for vengeance”. It opened the door to another layer in Parker and had him confront emotions he hadn’t battled before. A gritty story that still holds up today. In fact, I’m a little surprised that more or less Marvel has let this story stay as is outside a Jean clone a little while back. 

If Norman Osborn had stayed dead, he’d definitely have cast a bigger shadow over Spider-Man. Father of Peter’s best friend Harry, Osborn was also the villainous Green Goblin. It was a great dynamic and classic rivalry that included another death that I’m about to mention. During the, at the time, final confrontation between Spider-Man and Green Goblin, Peter and Osborn go all out in rage. Defeated, Osborn unleashes his remote control goblin glider, seeking to impale Spider-Man. At the last moment, Spider-Man’s spider sense helps Parker dive out of the way, with Goblin being impaled by his own weapon. If it was left alone, it would be a perfect example of the constant struggle Parker goes through and the sacrifice he has to make.

But Norman comes back. Just like Harry Osborn. Another death that was portrayed with weight at the time. He blames Spider-Man for his dad’s death and when he discovers his best friend, Peter, is Spider-Man, he snaps, taking on the role of the Green Goblin. Harry eventually gets help and seems to be healed, leading a “normal” life. But this is comics so that wasn’t meant to last. The Green Goblin persona emerges once again and Harry is set on killing Spider-Man. Having set a trap, Osborn has a moment of clarity, realizing innocent people would be killed, namely his son and Mary Jane. He rescues them and dies from the effects of the Green Goblin serum. Like his father’s, this death would haunt Peter for years. But thanks to “One More Day”, it wasn’t meant to stick.

If there is one death that can give Uncle Ben’s a run for the money it has to be Gwen Stacy’s. At the time. Maybe more than MJ, Gwen was Peter’s soulmate. Just when it looked like Peter was going to have a period of happiness and balance, the Green Goblin came and destroyed that peace. The Green Goblin kidnaps Gwen and lures Spider-Man to a tower. They clash and the Goblin hurls Stacy off the bridge, seeking to save her, Spider-Man shoots a web strand at her legs and catches her. As he pulls her up, he thinks she is safe but he quickly realizes she is dead. Unsure whether the whiplash from her sudden stop broke her neck or if the Goblin had broken it previously, he blames himself for her death. A note on the letters page of The Amazing Spider-Man #125 states: “It saddens us to say that the whiplash effect she underwent when Spidey’s webbing stopped her so suddenly was, in fact, what killed her.”

The death of Gwen Stacy shocked the American comic book community. At the time, it was unthinkable to kill off such an important and popular character. Not only that, the hero failed on such a grand scale, being the one to cause the death. Her death radically changed Spider-Man and the story is considered, by many, as a marker of the end of the Silver Age of Comic Books, and the beginning of the darker, grittier Bronze Age. 
Of course they couldn’t let that stay and Gwen has come back in different forms. 

Who did I miss? Marla Jameson? George Stacy? The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man?

That’s all the time I have. See you next week!