1973 a good year to be Spider-Man's girlfriend, as perhaps the most shattering events of the 1970s occurred in a fateful pair of issues of Amazing Spider-Man. Many critics draw the dividing line between the optimistic Silver Age of Comics and the more pessimistic Bronze Age with this story.
Gwen Stacy was one of the most popular supporting characters in the Spider-Man mythos. Blonde, beautiful, possessing a vivacious personality and, most importantly, in love with Peter Parker, Gwen was much beloved by fans. But when writer Gerry Conway and co-plotter John Romita wanted to raise the stakes on a battle between Spider-Man and his greatest enemy, the Green Goblin, Gwen became an innocent collateral.
Amazing Spider-Man #121 (June 1973) features an unusual cover: it shows Spider-Man swinging from his web, spider-sense tingling, in front of portraits of nine of his supporting characters. On the cover, the hero ponders, "Someone close to me is about to die! Someone I cannot save! But who? Who?" Readers who believed this cover was more than traditional Marvel hype likely assumed that an aged character like Aunt May or J. Jonah Jameson would die. The events inside the comic must have shocked them. Flipping open the cover, the hype continued. Conway included a caption on the first page that built the suspense: "As for its title: that's something we'd like to conceal for a while, but we promise you this, pilgrim – it's not a title you'll soon forget."
The story opens with Spider-Man staring into his apartment window to see his best friend Harry Osborn, feverish from ingesting too much LSD. Friends Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson sit alongside Harry at his sickbed; as Peter doffs his costume to head into the apartment, he's confronted by a furious Norman Osborn, Harry's father. Norman blames Peter for Harry's drug overdose. Peter, meanwhile flashes back to the time when Harry donned the costume of the Green Goblin. Gwen and Mary Jane walk Peter away from Norman, whose own feverish brow gets even sweatier as he soon receives a phone call informing him that he's quickly losing his personal fortune. As the story proceeds, Norman finally has a psychotic break from all the stress he's feeling. In his own brownstone, Osborn sees a phantom Spider-Man. He runs from his home, screaming, eventually reaching a secret apartment that contains his villainous garb. Donning the familiar green and purple suit, Norman once again becomes the Green Goblin and he quickly kidnaps Gwen, leaving a pumpkin as his calling card.
Following his spider-sense, Peter tracks the Goblin to the George Washington Bridge, forcing the villain into a furious aerial battle in order to save the life of his girlfriend. Hero and villain grapple with increasing intensity above the imposing spires and cables of the Bridge, and after Peter lays a vicious blow on the Goblin, the villain flies back to the spires, where he shoves an unconscious Gwen from the bridge. In a long vertical panel readers see Gwen tumble towards the Hudson River below. Spider-Man shoots his webbing to catch Gwen – and just as he screams "did it!" we see a fateful sound effect: SWIK! Peter first exults with excitement for having saved Gwen, but his joy swiftly turns to horror as he realizes that the fall has killed Gwen. "I saved you, honey… don’t you see? I saved you." As the Goblin circles around to confront Spider-Man, the villain declares "a fall from that height would kill anyone—before they struck the ground." Holding Gwen in his arms, a tearful Peter Parker demands vengeance, as the issue's title is finally displayed on the final page: "The Night Gwen Stacy Died".
Amazing Spider-Man #122 (July 1973) then presents the most vicious battle that Spider-Man and the Green Goblin ever fought, an intense, at times nearly operatic battle between a cruel murderer and a grieving lover that shows both characters had been pushed to their absolute limits. Enraged beyond reason, Peter starts beating Norman to death until he forces himself to stop: "In another moment I might have killed him. I might have become like him – a – a murderer!" But as Peter forces himself to allow his anger to abate, the Goblin's glider, with a protruding spike on its front, flies free and makes a beeline directly for the Green Goblin's chest. As Conway poetically puts it: "So do the proud men die: crucified, not on a cross of gold – but on a stake of humble tin." The terrible tableau shocks Peter and he wanders away from the battle scene, finding his way back to his apartment where Mary Jane Watson is waiting for him. Peter and Mary Jane collapse in tears in each other's arms as the issue ends. Killing Gwen also left artist Romita in tears, one of only three times in his entire career that he cried while drawing a comic story.
Those two issues presented a vicious battle, the likes of which had seldom been seen at Marvel before, and the story had a galvanic effect on the fans. This storyline represented a turning point in Marvel history in the eyes of many commentators. Scholars and fans alike see Gwen's death as the end of an era of innocence in comics and the beginning of a darker and more conflicted era. As Peter Parker's first real girlfriend, Gwen occupied a special place in the heart of both comic readers and the hero; therefore, her death was an especially traumatic event for them. Reflecting the loss of trust in American institutions like the Presidency and the military in this era, the brutal killing of the innocent and joyful Gwen Stacy symbolized a turning point away from the joyful optimism of the 1960s towards a darker era in America. The cultural zeitgeist had turned from optimism to a more complex and fraught view of the world. Gwen's killing reflected that zeitgeist adroitly – albeit unintentionally.
The rationalization expressed in the subsequent letters column of Amazing Spider-Man #125 (October 1973) didn't satisfy readers. It did, however, provide the first comments on the story from Marvel, and it reflected a feeling of frustrating inertia for the character: "The relationship between Pete and Gwen had been through a lot of inconsequential ups and downs, and unless the two were to be married, there was nowhere else to take it. But marriage seemed wrong, too. Peter just wasn't ready. So Gerry, [editor-in-chief] Roy [Thomas] and Stan debated the question . . . All had reached the same inescapable conclusion. Gwen's death was simply fated to happen. Events had shaped themselves in such a way that their only logical resolution was tragedy. So don't blame Gerry. Don't blame Stan. Don't blame anyone. Only the inscrutable, inexorable workings on circumstance are culpable this time." But that rationalization satisfied nobody. Lee, who frequently did speaking tours of college campuses, was taken aback by the vehemence of fan reaction to Gwen's death, and took to claiming in his lectures that he didn't know that Gwen would be killed. Conway faced a strong backlash from the fans for the decision to kill Gwen. He couldn't even go to conventions for about ten years after the event (Johnson Spider-Man 137). The anger about Gwen Stacy's death would result in a controversial storyline within several years.
However, the decision to kill Gwen Stacy was taken in an almost casual way by Conway and Romita. The pair had simply decided to kill off one of the supporting characters as a way of keeping the series fresh and interesting, like often happened in Romita's favorite comic, Terry and the Pirates. When they were considering which character to kill, writer Gerry Conway and editor Roy Thomas considered that the seemingly logical choice was to kill the elderly Aunt May, who always seemed to be at death's door. But artist John Romita suggested a more radical choice: to kill one of the beautiful women in Peter Parker's life, either Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane Watson. Romita grew up a fan of the classic comic strip Terry and the Pirates, which commonly killed off female characters. Romita persuaded Conway that Gwen should die due to the shock value of the killing: "I thought if somebody had to die, it should be Gwen. I thought she was so important, [the readers] imagined she would never die." The decision to kill Gwen Stacy seemed the correct choice to Conway, who hated the character: "She was a nonentity, a pretty face. She brought nothing to the mix." Furthermore, the killing would open the door to setting up a relationship between Peter and Mary Jane, who Conway saw as a much more intriguing character. Together Conway and Romita persuaded Thomas to approve the death, and Publisher Stan Lee signed off on the story, though perhaps in an off-handed way that he subsequently forgot.
The death of Gwen Stacy signaled to fans that Marvel wasn't going to stand on its past glories. Indeed, Marvel was rising and advancing at the hands of an ever-increasing group of fans turned pro.