Tuesday, February 5, 2008

SM:FBFW ASM 121-122, Part Two

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 121-122

Part One: Eric and Gwen: A Love Story

Part Two: The Necessity of Death (and Life) in Fiction

In Part One, I tried to establish the mind-set with which I first encountered the fact of Gwen's death and my own prejudices regarding it. It apparently caused some people some confusion when, at the end, I said “Gwen should not be dead.” I did not mean this as “Marvel should reverse the decision,” nor did I really mean “They should never have killed her.” The basic meaning of that sentence is that there is a part of me that still feels the tragedy of Gwen's death and still wants it to be untrue. I feel that more strongly at some times than others, but my goal with the last part was to simply explain that I don't approach this story or subject objectively, and I don't pretend to.

When one stops to consider Amazing Spider-Man 121 itself, one finds a well-written, well-drawn comic, especially for the time. Gil Kane is back on pencils, but John Romita and Tony Mortellaro's inking serve his pencils far better than Frank Giacoia's did, especially in Giacoia's later work. These issues have Kane's dramatic layouts and facial expressions combined with Romita's clean lines. Conway handles each character's thoughts, feelings, dialogue, and interactions with delicacy and skill. Everything in the issue leads up to the dramatic shock ending, and it doesn't seem out-of-character at all when Spider-Man promises to murder the Green Goblin slowly, pledging that the Goblin will beg for mercy by the end. I don't have anything negative to say about the issue in that context.

I do have serious questions and reservations, however, about the decision to kill Gwen. In fact, I have serious questions and reservations about the death of any character in a shared universe. Again, I think I have to reveal some prejudices and such before I go on. I'm an author, myself. I've written three novels. The first two are, I think, virtually unpublishable. They were helpful exercises in diligence, patience, and storytelling, but they're relatively run-of-the-mill werewolf stories that I think would have trouble getting noticed in the current sea of horror fiction. The third might just be publishable, but it desperately needs a rewrite. In fact, I should probably be working on the rewrite now, instead of devoting pages and pages to two issues of Amazing Spider-Man.

Here's what I learned about characters and death in my writing: Sometimes, characters have to die. The end. Seriously, I know as well as anyone that people die in the real world, and they don't always die for good reasons. I think that fiction, however, should provide a little more meaning to lives than the real world often does. For example, at any moment, you're at X percent risk of death from any number of things. The need for realism in fiction does not extend so far as to require an author to have a D20 next to his desk. “Roll a death save of 2 every five pages.” No thanks.

Many fictional deaths are planned. Many are necessary, and for various and sundry reasons. Murder mysteries, for example, wouldn't work very well without death. If you're writing a war story, people should probably die. There's meaning and verisimilitude to that in the context of the story, obviously. In my first two novels, I was writing about monsters that basically want to eat people every chance they get. If the monsters never killed anyone, they wouldn't be very scary. At the same time, I needed my main characters to survive until the end of the novel.

Other fictional deaths are not planned, but that doesn't make them less necessary. I had a story where one character was essentially going to banish another from their society, to blackmail her in to leaving forever. My plan was for the blackmailee to take it and leave. Instead, she realizes that she has a gun, they're out in the middle of nowhere, and that she's not going down without a fight. She pulls out a gun and shoots the would-be blackmailer in the face, killing her. My jaw was on my chest as I wrote that scene, so surprising it was to me.

However, the necessity of occasional character death does not trump the more important need of a story: well-written, well-rounded characters. So, the question that needs to be asked in the end is this: Does the quality of the story of the character's death (and the quality of resulting fallout stories) outweigh the quality of the stories that could be told later with that character?

In Gwen's case, the answer is a guarded “no.” No, her death, as well-written as it was, is not as good as the stories that could have been told with her. The “no” answer given here is not an absolute, however. I think that, in the long run, to move Spider-Man's story along, maybe Gwen would have to die. However, Amazing Spider-Man 121 was not the time because neither the authors nor the story were ready for the responsibility of her death. This needs serious consideration... next time.

To Be Continued



Jared said...

It's interesting that you mention that the stories that come from a character's death should have greater potential than the ones written while a character is alive, which suggests to me you think there are new angles they could have taken Gwen, but never did. What did/do you have in mind?

I can see Spider-Man saving Gwen by using his webbing to slingshot himself down faster than she falls, spinning a web-net so she lands safely, and then propelling himself back up to really lay into Osborn with everything he's got, leaving him a battered, bloodied, mess by the time it's all over.

As Peter swings away with Gwen, Osborn attacks them one more time, in a final kamikaze attack that ends up getting him killed. While trying to impale Gwen with the Glider, Spidey smashes it, damaging its flight controls and sending it off course...right through Norman Osborn's black heart.

Later, a battered and exhausted Peter and Gwen have a very long talk, where Peter explains what really happened to her father, and how George Stacy had asked him to protect Gwen. After everything she's been through, and how Peter saved her, Gwen realizes that the death of her father was the fault of Doctor Octopus, not of Spider-Man, and she forgives him.

Not everything would be sunshine and roses, though-Harry Osborn would continue his downwards spiral, and Professor Warren would continue to be just as insanely obsessed with Gwen, plotting to destroy Peter Parker by attacking his personal life as the Jackal-and then becoming the enemy of Spider-Man after the webbed one intervenes.

Eric Teall said...

I'm pretty sure that Part Three will get into some of those ideas. In the end, my major complaint simply becomes that they killed Gwen too soon. Instead of stringing the relationship along for thirty, forty-odd issues like they did, they should have gone ahead with things... and then killed her.

This goes hand-in-hand with a key complaint of mine: Marvel refuses to let Peter age or mature. It's actually really funny (and sad) when one thinks about how Spider-Man has lived through as many years of Marvel time as he has, and still he's the same person that he was at Gwen's death.

In short: If Marvel were willing to allow Peter to mature and grow, they could have advanced his relationship with Gwen in a believable way, and THEN killed her. Instead, we got forty issues of "Does she love me, Flash Thompson, or her British relatives? Oh, the humanity!" etc.