Feel that buzzing in the back of your head? Your spoiler-sense is tingling! Read no further unless you’ve either (a) already seen Amazing Spider-Man 2, (b) are enough of a geek to have predicted the obvious thing that was going to happen to one of the leads in the movie, or (c) don’t care about being spoilered.
Then let’s talk about one of the most morbid, nitpicky, and longstanding debates in comics history. A debate that’s somehow raged for more than 40 years. A debate that’s reignited due to the climactic death in Amazing Spider-Man 2. The question at hand: Did Gwen Stacy die of whiplash?
Our story of geek arguments and behind-the-scenes backstabbing begins in 1972. Spider-Man creators had invented the blonde and sweet Gwen in late 1965 as a new love interest for Peter Parker, one to rival wild redhead Mary Jane Watson. For nearly 100 issues, Pete and Gwen had an on-again, off-again relationship, sparking countless fanboy fights about which Spidey girlfriend was the hottest.
One person who was definitely not on #TeamGwen was writer Gerry Conway. When he was given control of Amazing Spider-Man in 1972, he became dead-set on getting rid of Gwen. His reasoning had as much to do with anger at his boss, Stan Lee, as it did with distaste for the character. Here’s a searing Conway quote from Sean Howe’s epic history of Marvel, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story:
“Only a damaged person would end up with a damaged guy like Peter Parker. And Gwen Stacy was perfect! It was basically Stan fulfilling Stan’s own fantasy. Stan married a woman who was pretty much a babe — Joan Lee [Stan’s wife] was a very attractive blond who was obviously Stan’s ideal female. And I think Gwen was simply Stan replicating his wife… And that’s where his blind spot was.”
That line of disgruntled reasoning led him to a conclusion, he said: “So killing Gwen was a totally logical if not inevitable choice.”
And thus, the world got one of the darkest stories in comics history: “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” which ran in Amazing Spider-Man #121 and #122, in the summer of 1973. But not only was the titular death dark — it was also profoundly confusing.
In a fight atop a major New York bridge (That’s a whole other debate: The text says it’s the George Washington Bridge, but the pencils clearly show it as the Brooklyn Bridge) the Green Goblin’s flying apparatus hits Gwen, knocking her into freefall. Spidey fires a web down to catch her. The web snags her leg and Peter screams “Did it!” But that panel contains two sound effects: a “SWIK!” where the web meets Gwen’s calf and a much smaller, easy-to-miss “SNAP!” near her hair. Here’s where our — and Spidey’s — confusions begin.
When he pulls her up, Peter finds that she’s dead, and whispers “I saved you … ” to her corpse. Goblin flies over and shouts, “ Romantic idiot! She was dead before your webbing reached her! A fall from that height would kill anyone — before they struck the ground!” After the fight, Spider-Man makes the following ambiguous statement to a cop: “She’s dead — and Spider-Man killed her.”
Readers were left scratching their heads. What happened? Was the Green Goblin right about the fall killing her, thus absolving Peter of responsibility? Or did that “SNAP!” mean her neck broke when the web stopped her in midair — a gruesomely ironic end that puts some blame on Peter? Was there an alternative explanation (perhaps it was the impact from the Goblin’s glider)? Fans had no idea, and were immediately thrown into a tizzy, inundating Marvel with letters of outrage and confusion.
A few months later, Marvel published an editorial in the letters page for Amazing Spider-Man in an effort to settle the debate: “[i]t saddens us to have to say that the whiplash effect she underwent when Spidey’s webbing stopped her so suddenly was, in fact, what killed her.” Case closed, right?
Not so fast. Fans smelled a rat. If that was the original intent, then why wasn’t it made clear in the comic? Why include Goblin’s statement about the fall killing her?
Readers were right to be suspicious. Behind the scenes, there was even more confusion about the intended cause of death — confusion that has never been totally resolved. Lee claims he never approved the decision to kill off his beloved Gwen in any form and gave an interview years later where he expressed unease with the neck-snapping explanation: “To me, that’s a little too — I don’t think we have to know her neck snapped, you know what I mean?”
Marvel’s been equivocal in the subsequent years. Allegedly (though I’ve never found an example), some reprints of the comic took out the “SNAP!” sound effect. A 1987 edition of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe said, “the shock of the fall itself had already killed her.” In Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s beautiful 1994 graphic novel Marvels, the protagonist — a photographer — sees Gwen’s fall from a distance while holding his camera, and at the crucial moment, a “SNAP” sound effect appears … leaving it elegantly ambiguous whether that refers to her neck, or the camera’s shutter. A 1999 introduction to a collected edition of “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” refused to come down on one side or another, and added a whole new bit of real-life confusion: “No one seemed to know who added the telltale ‘snap’ sound effect in that critical panel.”
It’s not exactly true that no one knew who added the “SNAP!” But the story behind it is really weird.
As of 1973, Marvel was still using the so-called “Marvel Method” of comics creation: The writer would tell the artist what the general plot was, then the artist would draw the whole comic without any text, then the writer would add in dialogue and sound effects. Somewhere in that process, the neck-snap sort of magically appeared, it seems.
At a 2013 San Diego Comic-Con panel, Conway said he hadn’t consciously intended the neck-snap — but when artist Gil Kane gave him the artwork, he thought Kane “had drawn it in such a way that it seemed pretty obvious to me that Gwen’s neck was being broken by the catch, so I just added the sound effect.” In another interview, Conway said he added the “SNAP!” out of “pure artistic impulse.” “I’m not sure why I added that sound effect, or what I meant to accomplish,” he recalled. “[M]y subconscious mind made a choice that meant so much more than my conscious mind ever intended.” When the interviewer asked point blank whether Conway thinks Gwen died from the fall or from whiplash, he replied, “Could be! Honestly, I don’t know.” (I can’t find any record of Kane giving a statement on the matter, and he died in 2000.)
So perhaps there was no original intent. Conway wanted Gwen to die, but apparently never made a firm initial decision about whether her death should be entirely the Goblin’s fault or Spidey’s fault.
That original sin of ambiguity has led to decades of fan arguments. Just to get a taste of those battles, check out these three message-board threads about Gwen’s cause of death. That first one, when you print it out as a PDF, runs more than 60 pages, and contains gems of fury like these:
“Anyone who has EVER read the issue knows she died when her neck snapped. IT’S RIGHT THERE ON THE PAGE!” – algertman
“I always thought that Spider-Man’s webbing was a little elastic (kinda like bungee rope). So she would’ve slowed down like gradually, and I don’t think that the falling speed would be that great anyway.” – ocelotrevs
“Nope, I hold firmly to the severe physical trauma due to getting slammed by the Goblin’s glider. I agree with Venom that at most any possible neck snappage is a secondary or teritary factor in her death. Conway’s leaden writing provides more than one option than just a neck snap. And obviously a fall by itself won’t kill someone who’s not even conscious (thus utterly eliminating the possibiltity of dying of fright).” – Totoro Man
“If you jump off a building you will accelerate at a constant rate. This constant rate is gravitational acceleration and it is not great enough to kill you. Ask any skydiver. You will accelerate until your weight balances the air resistance. At this point the forces on your body are balanced and you fall at ‘terminal velocity’ which is about 100 or 200 miles per hour depending on the positioning and size of your body. No matter how high the building you can not fall faster than this.” – ata5d
Oh, and if you’re titillated by acceleration and gravity, you’ll love this lecture given by a physicist about the physics of the fall (he thinks her neck must have snapped). And of course, this is just a sample of stuff available on the Internet. One can only imagine the quantity of bile spewed in the privacy of comics shops and conventions.
Only in the past decade or so has the debate been addressed within various Spider-Man stories. Gradually, the canonical explanation has become that her neck snapped — or, at the very least, guilt-prone Peter thinks that’s what happened.
For example, in a 2003 issue of Peter Parker: Spider-Man, Pete calls Gwen’s death “my fault,” recalling that his “webbing was never designed to stop anyone but me from falling. And the resultant jarring snapped her neck.” In a 2006 comic, Iron Man muses that “If [Peter]’d been properly trained, maybe he could have broken her fall without breaking her neck.”
But on a happier note, the whole incident taught Peter Parker an important lesson about physics and anatomy! In a few comics published in the past decade, Spidey has saved falling friends by making extra-sure to minimize whiplash.
To wit: In Mark Millar’s Marvel Knights Spider-Man #12 (published in 2005), Green Goblin tries to re-create Gwen’s bridge death with Mary Jane, but — ever the scientist — Peter knows how to avoid his prior error. “The SINGLE STRAND is what snapped Gwen’s neck. Just not enough support,” he thinks. “Just make it work this time. Hit every major joint.” Mary Jane is safely pulled up like a marionette, all of her joints stabilized and therefore unable to snap. In last month’s Superior Spider-Man #31, Peter snags a falling lady and thinks, “Practiced this a thousand times. Where to latch on to someone… how much counter-force to use reeling them in.”
So, what of this weekend’s big-screen depiction of Gwen’s death? The filmmakers more or less dodged the question. While falling (inside a clock tower, not off of a bridge), Peter fires a web and snags her, but gets her too late, and her back and head hit the floor. If he’d fired sooner, would the whiplash have killed her? We’ll never know, and producer Matt Tolmach said that’s by design: “It’s not about the forensic details of that fall at all. I would say that there’s a tragic inevitability once you get into the clock tower… The cause of death here is love, commitment, personal choice.” In an interview with ScreenCrush, director Marc Webb said about the scene, “Originally, she didn’t hit the ground. She just bounced and her neck was supposed to break. But, what was interesting was people, when they watched that, the web represents salvation to people. They did not understand or believe or were not willing to accept that she had died — which is how it was done in the comics. So, we had to add a moment where there’s an impact wound. And then people understood what it meant.”
Tolmach’s bit about personal choice nails why people have obsessed over Gwen’s neck for more than 40 years. Conway’s lack of conscious personal choice is what put the wheels of debate in motion. But more importantly, we can all relate to Peter’s anguish over his impossible personal choice.
There’s a classic philosophical thought experiment called the “trolley problem.” In it, you imagine a trolley coming toward a group of trapped people. You know you can save them, but only by flipping a switch that redirects the trolley to another track … where other people are trapped and will surely die. (There are variations on the trolley problem, but you get the general gist.) Do you flip the switch?
In other words, Gwen Stacy’s death taps into a primal moral question: Catastrophe is inevitable, but would you rather have it happen due to your actions, or your inaction? Does it matter? If so, why? Decide quickly, Spider-Fan, because Gwen’s in freefall.