Comic Book / The Night Gwen Stacy Died

"I'm going to get you, Goblin! I'm going to destroy you slowly... and when you start begging me to end it— I'm going to remind you of one thing. You KILLED the woman I loved! And for that you're going to die!"

An iconic storyline in Marvel Comics' The Amazing Spider-Man series, spanning issues #121-122 (June-July, 1973). The Night Gwen Stacy Died, as the title implies, is famous for killing off Spider-Man's girlfriend Gwen Stacy. It was written by Gerry Conway, and drawn by Gil Kane.

The year was 1973. For ten years, Spider-Man had been one of Marvel's most popular characters. The patterns of Peter Parker's life were pretty well established. He attended Empire State University, fought creeps like Doc Ock, the Lizard, Kraven the Hunter, Mysterio, and the Green Goblin, made money by selling pictures of himself in action to The Daily Bugle and its cantankerous publisher J. Jonah Jameson, and was deeply in love with Gwen Stacy.

For the most part, superheroics had been a game to Parker. The closest he'd personally come to dying was pinned down under a ton of machinery in Doctor Octopus' lair, and he nearly always came out on top in the end. Tragedy had struck when Gwen's father (a retired police captain) died while he was fighting a battle, but that was written as a Heroic Sacrifice after he was revealed to have found out Peter's secret identity in 1970. It would be his secret identity being exposed again that would set into motion another series of tragic events. The Green Goblin managed to stalk Spider-Man (whose spider-sense had been numbed) and discover that his greatest foe note  was no older than 19 or 20. He successfully captured Parker and in his arrogance revealed his identity as Norman Osborn, the father of Peter's college classmate (and future roommate) Harry. Taking advantage of Osborn's inability to shut up, Spidey eventually broke free of his restraints and battled the Goblin. During the fight, an accident induced Laser-Guided Amnesia in Osborn, making him forget that he'd ever been the Green Goblin. Peter thought that he'd seen the last of the Goblin, until Amnesiac Dissonance caught up with Osborn and he started remembering in short spurts that he was the Green Goblin. The second time this happened, it resulted in the also famous storyline The Goblin Returns, which challenged The Comics Code Authority's guidelines on portraying drug use.

After this little relapse, things didn't go so well for Osborn. Harry's drug use had taken its toll on his relationship with Mary Jane Watson, and she broke up with him. Devastated, he had a little relapse of his own, overdosing on LSD. Norman's business wasn't doing so hot either, and the coupled stress of his shattered home life and business life drove him back into insanity. He took up the Goblin mantle again and kidnapped Gwen Stacy, knowing that Spider-Man would surely follow. Just to make sure Spider-Man knew it was him, he left one of his pumpkin bombs sitting on Gwen's purse. Spider-Man tracked the Goblin and an unconscious Gwen down to the George Washington Bridge (although just about any bridge in New York has been used in flashbacks or other continuities). The Goblin gave Spider-Man a Sadistic Choice: surrender or Gwen died. Spider-Man and the Goblin began to fight, and in the midst of the battle, the Goblin threw Gwen off the bridge. Acting quickly, Spider-Man shot a webline to save her, only to find her dead when he brought her up.

The editors decided that the Goblin could not go unpunished for this, and so he died in the next issue, impaled by his own glider. Spider-Man's world had become considerably darker. He would be haunted by the uncertainty of what had actually killed Gwen. Had the Goblin already killed her, or had Peter Parker killed the woman he loved with his webline? This is hotly debated in the real world, as snagging Gwen's leg with a webline would result in severe whiplash and certainly snap her neck, which a 'snap' sound effect seemed to indicate.

More controversy exists around the reason the story was written. Stan Lee (who had left the book by then) claims he knew nothing about it, although other sources contradict him. Word of God seems to be that the editors thought that Gwen made Spider-Man too happy, and having him be married to her (as would have inevitably happened) would age him too much.

The event was adapted into a No Budget fan film called The Green Goblin's Last Stand, and was apparently the story that David Cronenberg wanted to tell when he was being considered for the director of the original movie during its decades-long period of Development Hell. It was also more loosely adapted into official Marvel movies: Spider-Man, which used the "throw the hero's girlfriend off a bridge" scenario as part of the climactic battle (although she's Mary Jane and she survives), and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which actually killed the cinematic version of Gwen Stacy off (although Harry Osborn is the one to do the deed).

The Night Gwen Stacy Died provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Ambiguous Situation: Was Gwen already dead when the Goblin threw her off the bridge, or just unconscious? And even if she was alive when he threw her, was it "the shock of the fall" that killed her, or the whiplash from Spider-Man's webline catching her? There's contextual evidence pointing to both.
  • Amnesiac Dissonance: The last time it happens to Norman Osborn actually. After this, he never forgets who he was.
  • Artistic License Physics: The Green Goblin states that it was "the fall" that killed Gwen Stacy, which is impossible considering skydivers fall much farther than her and are just fine. In fact, it was the sudden stop at the end that killed her.
  • Backstab Backfire: Not played exactly straight, since Spidey didn't turn his back on the Goblin at the end. But the Goblin's attack did come from behind, courtesy of his remote-controlled glider.
  • Bittersweet Ending: While Gwen died, her killer was put down for the count (for a long while, anyway). While this hit Peter really hard, the last scene indicated that his friends and family are still there for him.
  • Breakout Villain: The Green Goblin became a contender for Arch-Enemy status after this story (though it did take until The Clone Saga - the second one, in The '90s - to actually happen).
  • Character Development: This storyline marks the beginning of Mary Jane's transition from shallow party girl, to valuable support and love interest for Peter.
  • Close on Title: The title doesn't appear until the last panel, in order to prevent readers from discovering too early which character would get killed off.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Spider-Man whacks the crap out of the Goblin, stopping just short of killing him. This is the beginning of what would become a common feature of Spider-Man stories in the future: genuinely pissing Spider-Man off is probably the single worst personal decision you can make in the Marvel Universe.
  • Damsel in Distress: Surprisingly averted. We never actually see Gwen get kidnapped (we see the Goblin hovering outside her window, but not the act), and after that she's either unconscious or dead.
  • Death Is Cheap: Osborn eventually came back as the mastermind of The Clone Saga, but Gwen is a perennial example (and one of the few remaining ones, at that) of a character who stays dead. Although she was cloned at one point, said clone later died in the prelude to Spider-Island. In 2014's Spider-Verse storyline, Spider-Gwen, an alternate universe Gwen Stacy who was bitten by the radioactive spider instead of Peter, joins the other alternate universe Spider-Mans in trying to escape the Inheritors. This incarnation is planned to get her own spinoff series set in her own universe. It wasn't until Dead No More: The Clone Conspiracy—which brought back nearly every dead Spider-Man character—that the mainstream version of Gwen Stacy would return.
  • Dropped Her Off a Bridge: As noted above, Gwen spends most of her final story unconscious before being dropped off a bridge.
  • Drugs Are Bad: LSD makes Harry a nervous schizophrenic wreck who becomes afraid to be alone, and begins wondering whether he even exists.
  • End of an Age: This story brought the end of The Silver Age of Comic Books as we know it. See Innocence Lost below.
  • Foreshadowing: There are a number of visual clues on the cover hinting that Gwen will be the one to die, not the least of which is the fact that the smaller Spider-Man is standing on her portrait. Also, close inspection of the position of his feet, shoulders and head indicate that he is not actually facing forward, but rather, looking at Gwen.
  • From Bad to Worse: Like you wouldn't believe. As if Spidey's life didn't suck enough now, this story's events were the direct cause of The Clone Saga (both of them), Harry becoming the next Green Goblin, contracts being put out on Spider-Man that Luke Cage and The Punisher tried to fulfill, and indirectly allowing for the Hobgoblin to exist. A later retcon in JMS' Spider-Man would go on to have Norman be revealed to have fathered children with Gwen Stacy while she was in Europe before her death. And it got worse from there—as revealed by Dead No More: The Clone Conspiracy, it turns out that Gwen was conscious for a few moments before her death, and learned that Peter Parker was Spider-Man. Given that she blamed Spider-Man for the death of her father, she died hating the man she loved.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The Goblin attempts to kill Spider-Man by impaling him with his hovercraft, but Spidey ducks to avoid it and it hits Osborn instead.
  • Hope Spot: It initially appears as though Peter saved Gwen. It's not until he sees her lifeless body that we realize that he failed.
  • If You Kill Him, You Will Be Just Like Him: What stops Spidey from offing Osborn in the end. Osborn ends up doing the job himself, in a failed Taking You with Me move.
  • I Let Gwen Stacy Die: Obviously.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Osborn's fate.
  • Innocence Lost: For comics as a whole. This was the first instance of a main character's on-screen death since The Golden Age of Comic Books, and is often marked as either the definitive end of The Silver Age of Comic Books and the start of The Bronze Age of Comic Books, or the effective Knight of Cerebus that would herald the next 12 years of a much more mature and darker Silver Age that would ultimately culminate with the publications of Watchmen and Crisis on Infinite Earths.
  • Kick the Dog: As if he hadn't already damned himself with causing Gwen's death, the Green Goblin rubbed salt on the wound by calling her a waste of space. You can probably guess how that ended.
  • Killed Off for Real: Gwen. She remains one of the few significant comic book characters who died and stayed dead. Originally the plan with Osborn as well; they eventually brought him back, but it took 23 years - an immense passage of time in comics.
  • Moral Myopia and Skewed Priorities: Spider-Man calls the Goblin out on this when he throws a hissy fit for Spider-Man wrecking his glider.
    Spider-Man: Mister, are we living in the same universe? You killed my woman, Goblin, and you're raging about a blasted bargain-basement toy?
  • My Greatest Failure: Some might say it is Spider-Man's second-greatest failure, after the death of Uncle Ben, but in an important way it can be seen as worse. In the words of Gerry Conway: "Uncle Ben died because Peter didn't use his power. Gwen dies as a consequence of Peter using his power."note 
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: If you go by that explanation. One of the cruelest examples of this trope ever.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Spider-Man gives one to the Goblin.
  • Not the Fall That Kills You: Subverted - Gwen either died of the whiplash or from shock.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Spidey is known for his constant wisecracking during fights. In this story, he doesn't make any jokes while fighting with the Goblin because he's murderously angry.
  • Purple Prose: The narration of Osborn's death.
    So do the proud men die: Crucified. Not on a cross of gold, but on a stake of humble tin.
  • Reality Ensues: Perhaps one of the cruelest examples in comic book history. In any normal Spidey story from the past, a quick webline would probably save anyone from a fall. Here? The sudden stop snaps Gwen's neck. Even if it didn't, the water below would have done the job.
  • Sadistic Choice: Partial trope namer, as the exact same scenario is where it was named.
    Green Goblin: It's quite simple, web-spinner. Your presence in this world has been a source of constant agony to me. I wish you to leave it permanently. Or else... Gwen Stacy dies!
  • Spoiler Title: No kidding. In fact, the staff took pains not to reveal it until the end of the issue.
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: The Goblin almost makes Spider-Man break his no-kill rule. After Spidey sees that Gwen is dead, he vows to kill Osborn. However, in their final fight, after nearly beating the Goblin to death, he feels disgusted by himself and backs off.
  • Tonight, Someone Dies: See the cover.
  • Unbuilt Trope: This is the one comic that started the entire Woman In Refrigerators trend, predating the Trope Namer by a good two decades. The motivations for it behind-the-scenes were identical to the general trope, using the girl's death to add to the hero's Angst and provide him something to feel badly about. But it stands apart from the countless later examples in two important ways:
    • At that time, where superhero comics were generally seen to lack consequences, a Wham Episode where the hero outright fails was quite new and unexpected and seen as a daring Reality Ensues. Unlike later examples such as Jason Todd or Sue Dibny, the story was promoted and presented as "just another Spider-Man adventure" and the finale felt like a Surprisingly Sudden Death to most readers. A one-time effect that is impossible to repeat or appreciate in retrospect especially after the dark age of comics.
    • Unlike other examples, Gwen's death had deep, meaningful consequences to Spider-Man's character and mythos, and Conway and later writers treated the death as Spider-Man's Shocking Defeat Legacy, inspiring him to be a better and more heroic character and elevating Gwen to respectfully become The Lost Lenore even as MJ became his Second Love. The trope it inspired is I Let Gwen Stacy Die and not "Dropped From A Bridge" for a reason.
  • Unstoppable Rage/Shut Up, Hannibal!: The Goblin's response to the Skewed Priorities example above, where he calls Gwen "a simpering, pointless girl who never did more than occupy space" pushes Spidey into one.
  • Vengeance Feels Empty: After the Goblin's skewered by his own Glider, Spidey admits that his death should have meant more.
    I thought seeing the Goblin die would make me feel better about Gwen. Instead, it just makes me feel empty...
  • Wham Episode: A comic book hero never failed so spectacularly before. This storyline is considered one of the signs of the shift from the Silver Age to Bronze Age. The death of a main supporting character (excluding those killed off at the beginning), let alone the love interest, was unheard of at the time.
  • What If?: What if #24 deals with what would happen if Spider-Man successfully managed to save Gwen Stacy during the comic. In it, Spider-Man reveals his identity to and marries Gwen Stacy, only to have the ceremony be interrupted by the police trying to arrest him due to J. Jonah Jameson learning his secret identity thanks to the Green Goblin.
  • You Are Not Alone: In the epilogue, Peter tells Mary Jane that she doesn't need to commiserate with him. She considers doing this, but ultimately refuses, effectively invoking this trope.