By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
Who the heck is Gwen Stacy?
That is likely to be a question a lot of movie-goers will be asking as they watch The Amazing Spider-Man, premiering this week. For the answer, we have to go back to the early years of Spider-romance, even before the Wall-Crawler’s most famous girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson.
Emma Stone stars as Gwen Stacy in Columbia Pictures' The Amazing Spider-Man, also starring Andrew Garfield. Photo by JaimieTrueblood. Copyright 2012 Columbia Pictures Industries Inc.
For the record, Peter Parker’s first steady (after his debut in 1962) was Betty Brant, who had dropped out of high school to work as J. Jonah Jameson’s secretary at The Daily Bugle. He also enjoyed some mild flirtation with a chick named Liz Allan (occasionally “Allen”), who was technically the girlfriend of Flash Thompson, Midtown High’s football star and Parker’s personal bully.
But Parker’s social life really kicked into gear when he went to college, beginning with Amazing Spider-Man #31, at the end of 1965. Flash followed him to Empire State University on a football scholarship, and in his first class Parker met Harry Osborn (son of the Green Goblin), who later became his best friend. In that same issue he also met a cool blonde named Gwen Stacy, described (by Harry) as “the ex-beauty queen of Standard High, as if you couldn’t tell.” In a foreword to Marvel Masterworks Vol. 16, which reprinted the story, co-creator Stan Lee described her as “a dramatic new love interest, a girl destined to play a major role in Peter’s life, the stunning, star-crossed Gwen Stacy.”
Mind you, this was almost a year before Parker met Mary Jane, the niece of his next-door neighbor. Aunt May had been trying to set him up with MJ for years, but Parker had always dodged, thinking she was probably a dog. But Parker’s friends had seen her, and it was a running gag that everyone knew she was va-va-voom except Parker! That finally ended in Amazing Spider-Man #42, when Parker (and the readers) finally saw Mary Jane, and heard her famous (and accurate) line, “Face it, Tiger! You just hit the jackpot!”
Parker and Stacy didn’t hit it off at first, but eventually became an item. Stacy was brainy, beautiful, patient, loyal and also, like Parker, interested in science. She was the perfect girlfriend – too perfect, as it turned out.
In Les Daniels’ Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics, 1970s Spidey writer Gerry Conway said “Gwen was a bit of a stiff, actually.” Writers struggled mightily to make her more interesting. She left town, and came back. She loved Parker, but hated Spider-Man. Her father, a retired police captain who suspected Spidey’s secret identity, was introduced. But no matter what the writers did, readers liked Mary Jane better. Even when they deliberately sabotaged MJ’s looks by giving her a bad haircut!
In 1973, the Spider-writers gave up, and -- SPOILER ALERT! -- had the Green Goblin toss Gwen Stacy off the George Washington Bridge to her death. (This is why Spider-fans start chewing their nails every time a girl is on top of a bridge in a Spider-movie.) That left the field open for Mary Jane, who eventually married Peter Parker in 1987.
Of course, this is comics, which means back story is being modified – or ignored – all the time. In various media, Mary Jane (and sometimes Gwen and Harry) appear in Parker’s high school years – or even in junior high, like in the“Ultimate Spider-Man comic books, or the Young Adult novels starring Mary Jane. Currently the Parker-Watson marriage has been erased and forgotten (as well as a child the couple once had). And believe it or not, one 2004 story established that Stacy had sex – and twin children – with Norman “Green Goblin” Osborn before her death! Thankfully, that story has dropped into the memory hole as well. And in the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movie series, Gwen (Bryce Dallas Howard) appeared as a love interest after Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), reversing the original order.
The upshot is that in any given Spidey cartoon, movie, novel or even comic book, you will see variations of Peter Parker’s wide-ranging cast, popping up at different times and in different combinations than they did back in the swinging ‘60s.
But you, loyal readers, know the original Gwen Stacy story – whatever variation of it shows up in The Amazing Spider-Man.
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at firstname.lastname@example.org.