Spider-Gwen stars in the second story but who’s the guy on the cover with her, holding the glowing test tube? Geppetto?
On Earth-21205, Spider-Gwen from Earth-65 pursues a Goblin through the sewers. Or so it seems. Actually, she is trying to stop the Goblin from attacking Verna and her hounds. (Verna is one of the Inheritors along with her sisters Patty and Maxine. Just kidding. Not about the Inheritors part. There’s Morlun, Bora, Brix, Daemos, Jennix, Karn and…Verna. What? Did the editor let his kid pick a name?) It turns out that the Goblin is Peter Parker. Gwen removes her mask to reveal herself as Gwen Stacy. “It isn’t possible,” says Goblin-Peter, dissolving into tears, “you’re dead, I killed you.” Yes, on this Earth, Spider-Man again failed to save Gwen Stacy but, in this case, he intentionally killed the Green Goblin. Blaming himself for both deaths, he decided, “The only one left to kill was Spider-Man” and took the Goblin persona. Gwen tells him she understands, that “In my reality, I was responsible for your death.” She tells Peter that she can “offer you a way back to the man you were supposed to be.” She shows him her teleportation device and explains about the “multiple realities” and the danger to Spider-People. “I was chosen to find you, Peter, because of our history,” she says. Then Verna and her hounds attack with an explosion.
Verna’s “hounds” are enslaved versions of the Rhino and the Scorpion. Verna orders them to “fetch” the spiders. Gwen is unconscious from the blast and Peter fears she is dead again. But she wakes up and restores his faith in himself and his abilities. As Gwen passes out, Peter dons his Goblin mask and attacks the hounds with bombs. But Verna (who has a ridiculous dress with décolletage down to her navel and a silly hairstyle that makes her look like a Centauri from Babylon 5, which I doubt is an intentional tribute to J. Michael Straczynski) grabs the Goblin off his glider and slashes him in the chest and across his face with her extra-long fingernails. (She’s supposed to be scary but she’s about the silliest-looking villain since the Walrus. And, really…Verna?)
Verna holds Peter up close and taunts him. “I eat spiders like you for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” she says. Peter detonates a bomb between the two of them that mortally wounds him but, apparently, doesn’t affect Verna, beyond…what? Sending her about 10 feet away? It’s hard to tell exactly what happens except that Verna is now far enough away for Gwen to cradle Peter in her arms and for Peter to have a nice death scene. “I thought I could save you,” Gwen says. Peter brushes away her tear with his finger. “You did,” he says, and dies. Only then does Verna reappear. “He’s dead. You’re next,” Gwen says to her, then uses her teleportation device to run away. (So, maybe Verna isn’t quite “next.”) Verna approaches Peter’s body. Though his face is horribly gashed, Peter is smiling. “I don’t see that you’ve got anything to smile about,” she says to the corpse. “Pity, though. All that life lost. Waste of a perfectly good meal.”
There has been a bit of a hubbub about this story because Gerry Conway is back writing Gwen Stacy. You may recall that Gerry is the author of the Death of Gwen storyline back in Amazing Spider-Man #121, June 1973 and Amazing Spider-Man #122, July 1973, which was recently acclaimed as the best Marvel story of the last 75 years, which it is not (it’s good but it’s not even close) but there you have it.
It’s impossible to read this story, with its flashbacks to ASM #121 (and a particularly gruesome close-up of Gwen’s neck breaking with a large “Snap” sound effect on page 3 panel 5) and not wonder if Gerry is channeling himself when he has Peter break into tears, muttering “I killed you.” Except I’m pretty sure he’s not. From everything I’ve ever read, Gerry never thought much of Gwen as a character and is still proud of the decision to kill her. So, it’s a little bit strange to have Gerry tell a Spider-Gwen story. He does a nice job in only ten pages, telling the story of Spidey-Goblin with his despair following Gwen’s death and his redemption by protecting an alternate universe Gwen. (Maybe this is where Gerry is channeling himself through Peter? No, no, enough of that stuff. Don’t get carried away.) This shorthand story works well because the original story is so iconic, now even known to moviegoers. It’s a bit of a funhouse mirror effect to have Gerry write this story while referencing the iconic story which he also happened to write but all of this is just a sidelight. What about the story itself?
Well, the idea that Spidey would become the Goblin is an intriguing one and the heroic death that results from the second chance to save the life of the person he failed to save before is satisfying. But Verna is a ridiculous antagonist and the whole thing is a bit abrupt. As effective as the story may be, you can’t help but be aware that the Goblin character was created specifically for this story, to serve this particular function. Not that that hasn’t been done hundreds of times before but this time it seems so obvious. Spider-Gwen, who should feel similarly vulnerable, is not in danger because we already know (MILD SPOILER) she’s getting her own series. Since the story focuses down on just three characters (the hounds don’t count as they’re an extension of Verna) with one (MILD SPOILER) getting her own series and one being, well, Verna, it’s pretty clear that any big change is going to affect character #3. The fact that this story works as well as it does is mostly a credit to the power of the story from over forty years ago.
The inevitable focus on Gerry Conway unfortunately takes away from the strong artwork by Steven Sanders. His faces are a bit too cartoony for my taste but his work is full of emotion. The flashback sequence of Gwen’s death is harsh and unflinching. And Peter’s cartoony face makes the slash marks and blood all the more unnerving.
Finally, a word about Spider-Gwen. I was and am a Gwen Stacy fan that still thinks her death was a mistake. Because Gwen still has her fans all these years later, it makes sense for Marvel to cultivate them by bringing her back. After all, even Bucky has returned these days. But how can you mess with “the greatest story of Marvel’s 75 years?” Well, one way is to establish the death of Gwen as a cornerstone of almost every Spider-reality, then flip one reality on its head and have Gwen be the Spidey who couldn’t save Peter Parker. It’s silly but it’s ingenious. I look forward to what they do with the character.
This one is hard to pin down. The story is not much but it resonates with so much Spidey history. The Goblin. Gwen Stacy. The Goblin saving Gwen Stacy. Gwen Stacy saving Spider-Man. Gerry Conway doing the scripting. And, well, Verna? And there is the problem. Should a story be judged on its own merits or on the history it is a part of? If I come at this new, I get a nice morality play about redemption with one character falling far too quickly to an embarrassingly bad villain, with a convenient moment for a death scene. How do you reconcile these two views? I do it by copping out and going right down the middle. Three webs.