The Death of Gwen Stacy (a Personal Continuity)

Like a lot of kids who grew up in the 70s, I read comics. Quite often I had no idea from where they had come or how I came to possess them, but they always seemed to be there. Being the youngest of six, a lot of them were hand-me-downs. I honestly can’t picture any of my sisters reading The Incredible Hulk, Werewolf by Night, or Giant-Size Man-Thing, however, so I must have pestered my mom to buy them for me in the checkout line at Stop & Shop or via the mysterious grab bags that local grocer Merty Bligh put together.

Those grab bags were a very mixed bag indeed. They generally featured two Marvel or DC comics, an odd Charlton and Gold Key title, and inevitably the dreaded Harvey publication. The cost? Thirty-five cents or three grab bags for a dollar. They were the predecessor of the modern blind-box, and came wrapped in nondescript brown paper. There was no continuity in these bundles, so following a specific title was near impossible. Such infuriating, uncontrollable randomness lead me to appreciate anthologies and stand alone titles like DC’s House of Mystery, or Marvel’s Team-Up books. Once, when the cashier at Bligh’s gave me back too much change for a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread, I was given an 80 Page Giant as a reward for returning the money. Life changing moment, right there.

When I think back about the comics I read when I was very young I invariably remember getting them at the newsstand, but upon checking the street dates (thank you, internet), it turns out that some of those comics were published far before I was old enough to read. My next door neighbor and childhood best friend, Tommy Morley, also read comics and (like me) he had a small collection of back issues that were slightly too old for him to have picked up brand new, too. So, while I’m unsure of the precise circumstances surrounding it, it could have been forty years ago that The Amazing Spider-Man #122 found it’s way into my life. It bore a street date of July 1973, but I couldn’t have gotten around to reading it until at least August 1975 (the same month I received the first appearance of Moon Knight), so it was very likely 38 years ago this month that Gwen Stacy died in my own, personal continuity.

In this day and age where heroes, villains and supporting cast routinely die only to be resurrected a few years (or a few issues) later, it’s easy to take the death of Gwen Stacy for granted. But back then it was a very big deal. I know from personal experience that there are a lot of guys in their mid forties who first learned about mortality via that comic. I had never known anyone who died at that point in my life, and I had a lot of questions for my parents about it. I had also never paid much attention to the creative teams that wrote, drew, inked or colored the comics I read up until then. I did, however, commit Gerry Conway‘s name to memory. Even at that young age I understood that it had been he, not Spider-Man or the Green Goblin, that killed Gwen Stacy.

It’s perhaps fitting then, that August should also mark the occasion that The Death of Gwen Stacy should re-enter my life. While investigating a completely unrelated matter, I found myself on Ebay last week. A private collector had listed a large assortment of color guide proofs and digital production proof sheets and among them was one of the all-time best Amazing Spider-Man pages. Anyone who collects original comic book art knows that almost all of the key pages from the great comics have found their way into private collections and only ever re-enter the marketplace when a collector dies. It’s impossible to look for specific pages because they’re long gone. And if you inquire about a specific page you’ll generally stir up more interest that will make it much harder for you (or at least much more expensive) should that page ever surface.

Page 5 of issue #122 of The Amazing Spider-Man is a half-splash that captures the grief of a superhero–powerless to prevent the death of a loved one and engulfed by guilt for his role in it. A montage of the supporting cast plays in his head as the narration pronounces the death of a main character. It’s actually difficult not to get a little choked up by it now as I write this. John Romita and Gil Kane were true masters of the form and there are few pages more important in the history of the medium. This event signaled the end of the Silver Age of comics. The page (pictured at left) isn’t the original pencil and ink artwork from 1973, but for less than ten percent of what the original comic book routinely fetches, I won the digital proof sheet created by Marvel and remastered from the original pages for their series of omnibus reprint collections. It features the digitally perfected black and white art on paper stock with a mylar overlay of the lettering.

High quality digital printing is relatively new, so this this type of production art is fairly recent, but already almost obsolete. Previously, bound editions were little more than newsprint collections with art shot directly from the published books. The old proof sheets were generally just xerox copies and they looked terrible, guaranteeing that nobody would collect them. Production art (including original hand-painted color proofs) has historically been overlooked by collectors and undervalued in the hobby, with much of it even being discarded by the editorial staff or art department after being approved for print.

These new, digital match-prints are a whole other thing. They often go back to the original art files or photographic records and painstakingly clean up the images to grant the greatest integrity to the original art work, which is often in pretty bad shape from poor storage before entering the collectibles market. The original film is often in the condition of public library microfiche: worn, possibly blurry and covered in scratches, so the effort that goes into the clean-up is often extraordinary because the match-prints are pristine and gorgeous. And most importantly for collectors, these production proofs, like the original hand-drawn pages, are unique: there is only one final proof. Publishers never hold onto this stuff, making it in many ways more rare than original pencils or blue-line sheets. Now, with production budgets even more limited than before, most digital remastering jobs are approved via pdf, so match-prints are rarely produced. That makes pieces like this one artifacts of era-specific comic history; they are an anecdote in the overall legend.

Just as digital is only now finding its footing alongside analog in the fine art world, many comic art collectors are just now becoming aware of these genuine treasures. In the last few years, pre-digital-era color proofs have skyrocketed in value with the realization that they are original paintings that just happen to have been rendered over photocopies of the original, inked art pages. With key moments from comic book history few and far between, these pieces provide a second bite at the apple for collectors who can’t afford the tens of thousands (to hundreds of thousands) of dollars that original John Romita and Gil Kane pages inevitably command–especially from Gerry Conway‘s tenure as writer under editor Roy Thomas. The price gap between color proofs and pencil pages is rapidly narrowing, and so, in time, will the price gap between analog and unique digital production art. I have to imagine that the popularity of a digitally produced series like Saga will really move the needle in the demand and escalated pricing of digital proof pages. At least as long as such pages are produced, since Saga is definitely a product of the pdf approval era. Will today’s readers feel in forty years as I do now about Spider-Man, Daredevil, Teen Titans or Watchmen? I hope so.

As I remember now how the Death of Gwen Stacy affected me in my youth, there is a poignant mix of nostalgia for adolescent grief and pride of acquisition that reminds me why the true art of this medium is its unique blend of visuals and story. Comics are figurative and narrative art at the very nexus of their being. The two forms are indivisible and more satisfying for it.

‘Nuff said.