Gwen Stacy is a fascinating specimen when it comes to comic book characters. She's a civilian, she's been dead for ages, and she wasn't ever a centric character but people still can't get enough of her. One thing that initially attracted me personally to Gwen was that she was almost like a time-capsule in that she's forever stuck in 60's mod fashion. Gwen Stacy has such an iconic look to her that stripes, blond hair, bangs, a headband, go-go boots, and skirt equal Gwen Stacy to me. Now, you could argue that's a superficial affection I have for her and that Gwen Stacy the character fails to be anything more than a Mary-Sue figure in the Spider-man franchise. After-all, Gwen's more recent appearances are usually splash pages of sweet nothings with Gwen and Peter frolicking through New York all ending with Gwen lying limp in his arms as he cries out in agony. This is something I can't abide, I don't like any characters because they're "hot" or "have cool powers", I need substance and so I deduced the only way I could get a firm grasp on Gwen was to read every issue she'd ever been in before she died. Now that I have, I find Gwen to actually be infinitely more fascinating, complex, and conflicted than she's ever been given credit for, rather than ogling her death or relating everything back to Peter I realize she underwent a rather unlikely and surprising transition throughout her run on Amazing Spider-man. Beneath is what I found in pursuit of Ms. Stacy.....
- The Signature Gwen Stacy Look- That iconic hair I was speaking of? It wasn't a fixture at all in Gwen's initial appearance. Though she's usually depicted as angelic and saintly, Gwen actually had a more devil-like, vixen finesse early on. She had no bangs, and her hair was parted with clips on either side above her forehead that almost looked
- Petey and Gwen: Where Sparks Flew - Along with her devilish appearance, Gwen was also quite a force of nature back in the day. We're accustomed to seeing Gwen vulnerable and mostly agreeable but initially she was sassy and brazen even in her pursuit of Peter. Being that she hung around Flash and Harry, Gwen was rather used to attention from men and is depicted as having crowds of suitors fawning over her only to be rejected by the persnickety Gwen. The only man who didn't appear to proposition or ogle her was Peter Parker which immediately won her respect. Unfortunately, Peter barely notices Gwen initially and all her attempts at catching his attention are met with unintentionally chilly reception. She asks for pen during lab class and Peter barely turned his head to give it to her which Gwen found rude and disrespectful. The test tube he's working with explodes thanks to a prank Harry and Flash play on him which results in Peter getting into trouble with their professor. Gwen, in an effort to make amends, influences Harry to take Peter out for a soda to make up for it. Awh, so sweet but when Gwen tries to catch Peter's attention later on in the lab and he seemingly ignored her and ran off, Gwen then becomes deeply resentful. "The unmitigated nerve of him! Nobody gives Gwen Stacy the brush off that way! You, young man, are going to regret that, I promise!" says Gwen as he left. Emma Frost, eat your heart out! For the next few issues Gwen sweeps in only to snipe at Peter Parker for being a "snob" while having thought bubbles where her admissions of attraction to him become more and more frequent. As tension builds and builds, they finally reach an explosive confrontation....
Peter: Hi Gwen, we're both heading for the same class. Mind if I join you?
Gwen: What are you doing, Mr. Parker? Slumming? Usually you're too stuck up to say hello to anyone!
Peter: Well, at least I'm not a temperamental female who drools over a fella one day then acts like an icicle to him the next!
Gwen: Even if you are E.S.U's newest science scholarship whiz-kid, nobody talks to me that way....
Peter: C'mon, Gwen, simmer down! Let's bury the hatchet, huh?
Gwen: You think you can say what you want to me and then --- THWAK
Oh yes. Gwen tried to slap Peter right across the face. Can ya believe it?
Flash sees Peter and Gwen in the heat of the moment and breaks it up, thinking Peter was manhandling Gwen. He challenges Peter to a fist fight but Gwen intervenes and then Flash backs down. Frankly, though I don't know I would've slapped him, referring to Gwen simply as a "temperamental female" whom he refers to as "drooling over" him does kind of make Peter out to be a bit of a douche. He follows it up also by telling Gwen that if she damaged his profile all the girls at E.S.U will be disappointed. I don't blame Petey though because with Stan Lee running things and it being the 60's and all, a little sexism is par for the course.
I do however enjoy Gwen Stacy's inner conflict about the whole situation. She's witty, sharp, assertive, and charismatic which wins many people over instantly yet secretly she longs to find something more substantial which she sees in Peter Parker. The only condition, however, is that she forfeit her overwhelming pride and win him over with genuineness and vulnerability which forces her to constantly be outside of her comfort zone around him. It's refreshingly un-damsel like of Gwen to have to leap this hurdle though, as a matter in fact, most of their interaction earlier doesn't involve Spidey saving her or anything of the sort, she's more a fixture in Peter's life. Why this side of her has never be explored again eludes me.
- Gwendy's Shows Some Heart - You know, I liked "Blue" when I read it, of course I'm partial to anything Tim Sale, but if you recall there was a scene where Gwen rides on a motorcycle with Peter. He comes roaring in the parking lot, she's totally turned on by him, wind blowing through her hair as they drive off. Well guess what? Never happened. At least not that way and I'm very disappointed it was depicted this way as I am very disappointed Gwen sleeps with Peter later on in that series on the basis that he "protected" her. It's a poor characterization of Gwen, she was always far more attracted to the fact that he was unlike the men around her who frequently resorted to overcompensating through things like fast cars to get attention. She's the daughter of a cop, Gwen's seen machismo left and right all her life and though she could occasionally be slightly vain, I can't imagine Gwen being so superficial. Peter did in fact buy a motorcycle though and he did in fact drive it right up to Gwen, Flash, and Harry in a parking lot on campus and while Harry and Flash were impressed, Gwen was disappointed. She was disappointed because she knew it was just Peter's attempt at a gaining the acceptance of other people, she was disappointed because it seem disingenuous to her and believed Peter was wonderful as is. That's so much more profound and un-cliche than what "Blue" would depict later on.
- Relationship with Mary Jane - Gwen and Mary Jane were frequently depicted as friends with a playful rivalry between the two of them and while that's somewhat true, it didn't come until far later on. As a matter in fact, as soon as Mary Jane came into the picture Gwen skedaddled for a while only to find that she began to miss the man, awkward misunderstandings and all. How does Gwen resolve this? Peeved by Peter's sudden disinterest in her as well as his running around with notorious "party girl" Mary Jane, she decides to invite both him and Mary Jane to Flash's party as he is military-bound. As Peter considers, he invites Gwen out for a soda & some English lit review but without a second thought she rejects him, telling him Mary Jane should suffice as a lit tutor seeing as how she'll be too busy setting up the party for Flash. Oh Gwen, you minx! Gotta love her approach though, where most women simply sit on the sidelines and get catty, Gwen practically invites confrontation but with the polished nature of a chick who just doesn't care. Later that night, as she's being picked up, Gwen's a part of one of my favorite exchanges ever in any comic....
Gwen: Ah, my two gallant knight on their speeding steed.
Harry: Gwen!! If...If I'd known you'd look like that I'd have gotten here sooner!
Gwen: What did you expect me to look like? Yogi Bear?
Peter: If you think it's too chilly we can put the top up?
Gwen: Bite your tongue, impetuous one! We night night people thrive on moon burns!
Whoa! Gotta love the theatricality of 60's Marvel, better diction and such gusto! As Peter says in the next panel, Gwen sends him "into orbit" whenever he looks at her at this point. Pretty spectacular, I say, though she's looking to be attention grabbing I rather enjoy Gwen Stacy's confidence here especially since it's so beautifully layered over the vulnerability we've seen earlier. This is Gwen's overcompensation, her pride beaming, it's fantastic because she truly has a fighting spirit about her, a real sass. Where ever did that go in later depictions?
Though she's likely hurt and offended by Peter's bond to MJ, Gwen very casually eludes to the possibility she may interested in Flash or Harry the next few times she sees Peter. Though it would come off a little trampy on any other girl, Gwen plays it quite cleverly and sardonically. I especially like an exchange between Gwen and Peter where she accepts a ride on his motorcycle where Peter asks if Gwen finds Flash attractive to which she responds "How many blushing blondes would find a hip, handsome footballl hero totally repulsive?" it's hilarious because Gwen is far from blushing and the fact that she disingenuously and almost jokingly pigeonholes herself into a stereotype shows a level of self-awareness a superhero girlfriend wouldn't have shown at that time.
Funnily enough, her rivalry with Mary Jane caused Gwen to change her hairstyle as well to the one we know and love now.....
Of course this spawns a friendship between Mary Jane and Gwen that involves the occasional catty remark here and there. Still, the camaraderie between the two is another thing I find particularly endearing about Gwen and her arc, to be magnanimous enough to forge a friendship between herself and MJ after so much rivalry was a far better resolution than simply going down the generic catfight route. Of course, this usually is the source of much fanfiction involving threeways but what can ya do? I suspect Gwendy would never go for it myself, far too territorial.
- Daddy's Girl - Gwen's mother died a long time ago apparently and as such she has only her father. Police Captain George Stacy, the classic over-protective father who's intertwined with many of Gwen and Peter's storylines for a time. He's initially stern and hard to win over, he also smacks himself and blames it on Peter which causes Gwen to kick him out of the household, suffice to say, he has the kind of personality only a daughter could appreciate. But in a way, it explains a lot about Gwen's initial demeanor as a tough-as-nails heartbreaker with an abundance of pride, she is inevitably closest to her father which causes her to embody some of his more prominent character traits. It also explains why Gwen keeps such douchey company with Flash and Harry, she's comfortable around men who've always got something to prove which makes them easy for her to sympathize with. Though, perhaps, the fact that her father is such an overbearing presence in her life is the reason why Gwen is attracted to Peter seeing as how he's not like George at all. Gentle, introverted, and mostly passive, Petey has the appearance of genuinely confident man to Gwen.
- He's Just Not That Into You - One of the most tragic things about Gwen Stacy was that she never knew Peter was Spider-man which left her constantly thinking he was ignoring her. Naturally when one is reading a Spider-man comic, it's only natural you sympathize with the title character but in a way and get frustrated with Gwen's lack of empathy. Though with my pursuit of more knowledge of Gwen, I began to feel an immense amount of sympathy for her character especially knowing how gregarious she started off. Here she is, all her defenses down after much effort and the person she's done it all for is always disappearing. Even more tragic is that Gwen never knew Peter was Spider-man, something I imagine Peter likely agonizes over given it caused so much pain and distress for Gwen causing her to be more and more neurotic. Gwen never used to break into tears but towards the end she appeared to burst into tears any given moment, Peter definitely sent her through the motions.
- She Hate Me - When George Stacy died he just so happened to die in Spider-man's arms, it all so very tragic as he tells Peter he knows he is Spider-man and that Gwen loves him. It would be such a majestic and sweet moment had it not been preceded by Spider-man and Doc Oc fighting in a battle which indirectly caused George Stacy's death as a result of falling debris. From then on, Gwen spirals into absolute, full on grieving-mode where she swears revenge on Spider-man in a tear-addled soliloquy right in front of Peter. Oh boy. Yup, imagine how mortifying that must've been. Even more mortifying? Gwen offers to help Sam Bullit in his campaign for DA solely because he's completely opposed to Spider-man. This caused a rift between Gwen and Peter that Gwen, naturally, could not understand at all and with the death of her father she was left orphaned and grieving. Poor, poor girl. Poor Petey too, some of the last months of Gwen's life were spent totally resenting his alter-ego. It's an interesting struggle but since then has there ever been any exploration into this? Hardly at all, it always just goes back to that night Gwen died which is a shame because there was so much to Gwen's story that that really was tragic beforehand. Including, the fact that she abruptly left for England afterward after and under such horrific circumstances too....
Gwen Stacy is amazing. So much more than I ever expected. She's a Queen Bee, totally composed and polished being at the center of attention and with the wit and sass to match it, far more feisty and assertive than I'd ever imagined. She's complex, struggling constantly to reconcile the odd relationship she has with Peter wherein she's frequently abandoned and/or misunderstood, made peripheral or excluded. The fact that a woman who started so strong and self-assured goes through such intense feelings of inadequacy is interesting to me. I see an unintentionally profound and interesting transition from start to finish here, a characterization that was perhaps never conceptualized but came to be and still remains (unfortunately) undiscovered yet no less compelling. Gwen is more than just Spider-man's dead girlfriend, she's a whirlwind of conviction, intense emotions, passion, unyielding finesse, brazenness, and beauty! She's neurotic, emotional, occasionally impulsive but all endearingly so!
After brushing up, I came to discover that though she doesn't get a bad wrap, she gets the wrong wrap. In the 3rd Spider-man movie, the animated series, the Mary-Jane series, and her most recent appearances in comics she's elevated to this level of sweetness that's just doesn't encompass the other dimensions of her character. We're so consumed by the fact that her death is the root of this angst, the end of the Silver Age, the first girlfriend of a superhero to perish and frankly if you look into who she was, I almost find that to be among the least interesting things. She had a real life and vitality to her, a certain character and presence that has more or less been completely forgotten or glossed over. I love that she was a mess, I love that she was arrogant, I love that she could take it too far sometimes and I'm really glad to have read about Gwen because now I feel there is genuine reason to like her that doesn't just pigeonhole her as an accessory to Peter Parker and strangely though, at the same time, it makes it easier to understand why Peter loved her so damn much....