Spider-Man: The Death of Captain StacyA column article, Classic Comics Cavalcade by: Jason Sacks
We all know all about the death of Gwen Stacy. It was one of the most traumatic and important events in the history of Marvel Comics. More has been written about the death of Peter’s beautiful blonde girlfriend than has been written almost any other event in Marvel history, and for good reason. The death of Gwen Stacy was a traumatic event for both Peter Parker and his many fans. It's been often said that Gwen's death took away the innocence of the Marvel Universe, bringing real trauma into a formerly innocent world.
That analysis is true as far as it goes, but the Stacy family had to deal with another tragic death several years before the Green Goblin snapped Gwen’s neck. That death occurred when Gwen's father, Captain George Stacy, was killed as the result of a battle that Spider-Man had with Doctor Octopus.
New York Police Captain George Stacy was an interesting character, and an ideal extension of Peter Parker's supporting cast. Rail-thin, tall and white-haired, Capt. Stacy smoked a pipe and walked with a cane due to reasons never explained. George was apparently a widower who loved his only child very deeply – and, in fact, his death would be the indirect cause of one of the most controversial moments in Spider-Man history.
George Stacy was an interesting character in John Romita-era Spider-Man lore for a few reasons. The most obvious reason Capt. Stacy was important was because he was the father of the girl that Peter loved. He was also important because he was a bit of a father figure to Peter Parker. George genuinely liked Peter, and two characters had a wonderful emotional connection. Perhaps one reason that George liked Peter so much was because he was a damn good cop with extremely good detective skills. George's skills were so good that Peter suspected that George knew his secret identity. As we’ll see, Peter’s fears were well-founded, but also were in trustworthy hands.
The situation with his secret identity put our young hero in a really complicated position. Peter was keeping his big secret from both Gwen and George, but George seemed to know Peter's secret. The fact that the older man had never spoken of his knowledge – not to mention his obvious affection for Peter -implied that implied a kind of tacit acceptance. So what does that imply about Peter's relationship with Gwen? During that era Peter seriously was considering telling Gwen the truth about his double life, but as we shall see, that option would soon become unavailable for Peter.
It's typical of the great stories that Stan Lee delivered for Marvel in that Lee could turn a conventional situation on its side in order to give the situation power in the world of Marvel super-heroes. Men have always had secrets in fiction, often secrets that would interfere with their most precious human relationships. But few writers would think of turning that secret into a crucial story point, a story point that would cause much pain and stress for the most popular character in his comics line.
The real genius of Stan's writing is that he was able to contrast the excitement of a super-hero battle with that internal turmoil in order to create a compelling storyline. Rarely was that more true in the era I'll be writing about in this article.
The story of the death of Captain Stacy begins in Amazing Spider-Man #88. Doctor Octopus has escaped from prison and has taken a plane hostage at JFK Airport in New York. Peter swings out to the airport and, in one of their most desperate battles, Peter is barely able to defeat Doc Ock. However, he loses track of the villain as the plane explodes on the tarmac. It’s typical of the issues in this story arc that Peter fights desperately against the stronger Doctor Octopus. Doc Ock is no weakling in these stories, and every time the pair confronts each other, Peter has to summon all his strength to defeat his nemesis. Not only does this make the stories more intense, but it makes the violence of Captain Stacy’s ultimate fate seem more appropriate.
Capt. Stacy appears in a few scenes in ASM #88 in the airport terminal coordinating the police action with the federal government. Somewhat prophetically, the final panel of the issue ends with Peter thinking "One nagging thought still keeps plaguing me – Can I be sure that Doc Ock is dead?" The next issue blurb seems to answer that question as it proclaims Next: To Live Again
As you might imagine, Doc Ock didn't die in the explosion (whew, I was worried!) which is immediately clear when we discover that Amazing Spider-Man #89 is titled "Doc Ock Lives." But Peter's fixation with the villain knows no bounds; he's obsessed with stopping the madman: "So far, so good! I made it to the roof unseen! If only the rest of the job could be so easy! But easy or not, I can't back down! If Doc Ock lives, no one will be safe until I find him – and even then, finding him is only the beginning! I'll have to defeat the deadliest killer I've ever faced! And if I fail, there'll be no second chance."
Notice how well Lee conveys the importance of the moment, ratcheting up the intensity of the story just through the proper use of melodramatic dialogue. It makes sense that a college-age kid would think in such grandiose terms, and it's made more dramatic because the grandiosity is based in fact. The monologue also effectively sets up the high stakes of the events, providing a sense of foreboding that will lead to both this issue's suspenseful cliffhanger and the dramatic events of the following issue. Artist John Romita also does a masterful job of conveying Peter’s emotions. This is a very difficult technique considering that Spider-Man wears a full-face mask, but Romita effectively pulls it off.
Finally Peter finds Doc Ock, and it turns out the villain would be hard to miss. "It's him! But – he's starting to wreck the city's main power plant!" And Doc Ock confirms that he's waiting for Spider-Man to attack him: "It is certain to attract the attention of Spider-Man! And, when he appears on the scene – I will finally destroy him!"
What follows is ten pages of pure operatic Marvel super-hero action, as Spider-Man and Doc Ock clash frantically on a rooftop. In the final few pages of the sequence, Peter gets trapped under a water tower, which he is finally able to lift after marshaling great strength -- an echo of the famous scene in ASM #33 in which he lifts an enormous piece of machinery that he's trapped under. But for all his effort, Peter is still viciously attacked by the villain, getting tossed off the roof by Doctor Octopus in a spectacular full-page cliffhanger as the issue comes to a close, the next issue blurb proclaiming Next Issue: And Death Does Come!!.
In ASM # 90, titled "And Death Does Come!! " Peter manages to break through a window on the high-rise office building and escapes detection by Doc Ock's mechanical arms through the slimmest of margins. "He's hesitating – he's confused! He doesn't know – how close he is!" Finally the arms retract: "it's over – for now!"
Peter's beaten, exhausted. He wanders away from the battle and changes into his street clothes, only to run into Captain Stacy, who's also walking around the crime scene. Peter collapses in his exhaustion into Capt. Stacy's arms, and the good Captain brings Peter him to his house.
In a wonderful scene, Peter wakes to find Gwen hovering over him as George walks in the bedroom. This brief moment shows just how happy Gwen's home life was, and how much joy Peter was finding in his new surrogate family. When literally bruised and beaten to within an inch of his life, Peter was taken in by his girlfriend and her father.
And Stan Lee, being the great scripter he was, couldn't resist the opportunity to bring in more soap opera elements into the scene as George says, "I hate to be a spoil-sport, Gwen – But I think he'll be perfectly okay, after this! I've never known anyone with such amazing powers of recuperation!"
This triggers an interesting interior monologue from our hero: "The way he said that! As though he suspects a lot more than he's telling! I've always wondered just how much he knows about – my secret! They just don't come any sharper than that old gent! And yet – he's never actually accused me of being Spider-Man! He's probably just waiting – till he has more proof!"
Unfortunately, Peter, we'll soon find out the truth of what George Stacy knows.
Stopping at home, Peter creates a secret weapon to battle his nemesis before heading out once more to find Doc Ock, an invention that will have fateful consequences. Quickly hero and villain find each other in a high-rise brick-and-mortar apartment house and their intense war begins once again. Doc Ock seems to initially have the advantage as he pins Spider-Man against a wall and pummels the hero with his mechanical arms. But Peter has a secret weapon that will allow him to finally win; as Doc Ock screams: "You tricked me! It – it wasn't ordinary webbing! It was a chemical fluid – like a jamming device between my brain impulses -- and my arms! They're swinging blindly! I've lost control! They're attacking – each other!"
The arms swing out violently. His own mechanical arms pin Doc Ock - but in the great struggle, the arms also smash and destroy the building’s chimney. Fragments from the chimney rain down on the street like missiles. A toddler is briefly standing under some tumbling bricks – but George Stacy, a true hero, is there to save the boy: "Look out, son! Look out! Please, God – Let me not be too late!" Like the champion he is, Captain Stacy shoves the boy out of the way of the falling bricks. But the horrific moment has terrible consequences. The next panel shows Captain Stacy's body smothered by the bricks.
Peter swings down from the roof, desperately hoping against hope: "He saved the boy – but – the falling stones – they – they caught him! He's – got to be alive" Desperate flinging bricks away from his mentor’s body, Peter carries the man to the roof: "There's a doctor in the next building! This is the fastest way! If I can get you there – in time"
But there is nowhere near enough time, and with his final words, George Stacy reveals his secret: "No, my boy – it's helpless! I beg you – stop! Let me down! You must! I have to – talk – to you – and there's so little -- time! It – it's Gwen! After I'm – gone – there'll be no one to look after her – no one, Peter – except – you! Be good to her – son! Be good – to her! She loves you – so very – much!" And with that, George Stacy drops away.
Peter holds his mentor close as he mutters, "You know who I am! You must have always known! But – you never told! You never gave me away! Why must it happen? Why? Why? First I lost Uncle Ben – those long years ago! And now – the second best friend – I've ever had! Rest easy, sir, rest easy – I'll love Gwen—and cherish her – as long as I live! But, what if she ever learns – that you died – because of – me?"
The worst event that could happen to Peter has happened again. Captain Stacy, who loved Peter like a son, has been killed as a result of Peter's own actions. If he had not created the device to block Doc Ock’s control of his arms, the battle might have happened differently. Peter had once had to deal with the loss of his parents when he was a child, and the loss of his beloved Uncle when he was in high school. Now another father figure was also dead. This had to be a terrible body blow for Peter. And for Gwen, well, the events were perhaps even more devastating.
Of course, as happens much of the time, the death of Gwen's father only deepened the shadow that the hero cast over her life. Immediately after her father was killed, Gwen blamed Spider-Man for the death – which is, of course, accurate in some ways. "I was a fool, Pete." Gwen rants to her boyfriend. "I see it now. I didn't realize how old my dad was – and how trusting. I didn't try to warn him against Spider-Man – while there was still time. Spider-Man! Spider-Man! I'll hate him – forever! Whether he meant to or not – he killed my father! He killed my father!"
What a position for Peter to be caught in. He loved George Stacy and felt the loss of the man who could have been his father-in-law. But at the same time, Peter could never tell the woman he loves about the guilt that he felt, or explain Spider-Man's role in the situation. It's a uniquely Marvel tragedy, the kind of thing that could only appear in a Stan Lee comic book.
In her grief, Gwen briefly falls under the influence of Sam Bullit, a candidate for District Attorney who runs under a law and order ticket and promises to bring Spider-Man to justice. "Since you're the daughter of the famous Capt. Stacy, your endorsement will mean a lot – even though your late father and I had different views on crime-fighting. Sam Bullit never had any time for liberals, or bleeding hearts, or big-talkin', long-haired do-gooders. Law and order, that's my ticket! That's what Sam Bullit stands for!"
Gwen replies to that rant, "I never heard my father speak that way. But maybe that's why – that's why –" Gwen is trying desperately to find a reason for her father's murder, searching for existential truth by ironically abandoning her father's philosophies and embracing their opposites. Anyone who's lost a parent would recognize themselves in Gwen's position. Parents provide grounding and an unending source of comfort in all aspects of life. When a parent is suddenly gone, it's as if the Earth has opened up under one's feet. What once was solid ground is suddenly a giant chasm. And you find yourself doing anything you can do in order to find solid ground.
Bullit turns out to be a homicidal racist, an evil man whose excesses are exposed by Robby Robertson backed by J. Jonah Jameson in a wonderful moment of smart characterization. But the damage to Gwen's psyche took longer to heal. It was soon after her father's murder that the infamous events of "Sins Past" allegedly happened, a story that taints the great names of Stan Lee and John Romita by mentioning.
The Death of Captain Stacy may be less famous than the death of his daughter, but the comics are no less great than those that featured Gwen's death. These comics show Stan Lee at the height of his scripting powers, as he effortlessly spun many different webs in order to make his stories compelling. This storyline was one of his very finest efforts.