“The Night Gwen Stacy Died” is probably the best regarded Spider-Man story ever. It’s a defining point in comic book history, arguably marking either the end of the Silver Age or the beginning of the subsequent bronze age, depending on how you look at it.
A review of in Fantaco’s 1982 Spider-Man Chronicles suggested that she was the virgin sacrifice that allowed Gerry Conway to kill off Norman Osborn. And that’s sort of how she came to be viewed: the ultimate innocent. In Marvels, protagonist Phil Sheldon, a reporter for the Daily Bugle, made this explicit, as he said of the superheroes: “They weren’t here to win the approval of the petty and small-minded. They were here to save the innocent. To save people like Gwen.”
In “Sins Past” writer J. Michael Straczysnki retconned how Gwen had come to be seen, revealing that she was murdered because she had an affair and two children with Spider-Man’s greatest enemy: the Green Goblin’s alter-ego, middle-aged industrialist Norman Osborn. It was also revealed that Mary Jane had always known about this. The twins: Gabriel and Sarah Stacy, experienced a sort of accelerated aging, so they had the appearance and minds of young adults, even if chronologically, they had to be a few years younger than the likes of Billy Conners.
The story was so controversial that many expected One More Day to somehow retcon it away. It’s often ranked as one of the worst Spider-Man stories ever. One guy has an extensive blog post “Redeeming Gwendy” about why he thinks it’s so awful.
I don’t particularly mind the revelations about Gwen, MJ or Norman. It might even have been a slight improvement from the generic girlfriend Gwen had become. As a (former) supporting character, she’s allowed to mess up and/ or have bad things happen to her in ways that it can’t with Peter Parker. It’s the same reason Flash can lose his legs, or be an alcoholic, Harry can overdose on LSD, and even MJ can take up smoking. The suggestion in Sins Past that Peter and Gwen didn’t actually have sex is an example. It bothered some readers, but I can actually buy that part of the story, as I would imagine that giving birth to twins would reduce a young woman’s interest in sleeping with another guy.
I’d give the arc a B grade. Mike Deodato’s art is fantastic, the villains are intriguing and JMS handles the quiet moments and the emotion rather well. It ends abruptly, but the second issue in particular was exceptional.
There’s still a serious flaw in the careless handling of flashbacks, especially considering how significant the revelations were. The best explanation for Gwen’s behavior came from fan J.R. Fetinger AKA Madgoblin, rather than from the writer. To sum it up, there was a brief period in the Lee/ Romita Amazing Spider-Man comics when Gwen Stacy thought Peter had tried to assault her elderly father. At around the same time, Norman Osborn risked his life to save hers from the Kingpin.
There were some questions about whether it was realistic for a young woman like Gwen to have a one night stand with a powerful middle-aged millionaire. It happens sometimes. It’s not an impossibility.
If Peter were the father of Gwen Stacy’s children…
JMS said that his original plan was to reveal that the mystery twins were actually the children of Peter Parker, before that was vetoed by editorial. As a result, there have been questions about who was to blame for it, a discussion I find it odd to participate in, as I did ultimately like the story.
Joe Quesada is to “blame” for Sins Past if he allowed JMS to make Gabriel and Sarah Stacy Peter’s children when the story was in its infancy, and then reversed the decision at the last moment, when it was too late to simply go forward with a different story. If JMS had plenty of lead time and still decided to go ahead with the story of Gwen’s children, he’s to blame. If JMS neglected to tell Joe Quesada until the last minute that he would be introducing Peter Parker’s adult children in a storyline, then he’s still to blame.
Readers who preferred Straczynski’s original plan asked what what the response to that story could be, and I imagined a few possibilities. On a slow news day, CNN runs the “Spider‑Man’s a deadbeat dad” story. Peter Parker seems older, when he becomes the father of two kids who look like adults. Writers run out of ideas involving Peter’s miraculously aged children (as there are many ideas the editors at Marvel wouldn’t want the writers to explore) who are soon ignored, which further confuses readers, who don’t like it when major developments are dropped.
Some have wanted a retcon revealing that Gwen was raped. That would have resulted in new problems, especially for a series such as Amazing Spider-Man, which has a younger audience (the material is PG-13 at worse.) Aside from the obvious trauma for the victim, rape, as a crime—especially in a fictional setting—raises difficult questions about gender equality and sexuality. And it gets more messed up when one of the most famous Spider-Man stories is suddenly about a woman murdered by her rapist, due to a decision she made about children conceived during the rape.
While Marvel was setting up One More Day, they were also laying the seeds for the Secret Invasion crossover, which revealed that the Skrulls, a race of shape-shfting aliens, had been covertly scheming on Earth. A tie-in to that probably would have been the best way to retcon Sins Past, as it could be revealed that the Stacy twins were a Skrull plot or something. The event had not been referenced in any of Spider-Man’s encounters with Norman Osborn, so at the time, so it could have been revealed a some kind of hoax in a pre-Brand New Day deck-cleaning.
Sins Past and Brand New Day
Marvel’s ultimate plans for One More Day and Brand New Day might have gotten in the way of any Sins Past retcon, as they now had a reason for Norman Osborn to have killed Gwen Stacy that had nothing to do with him knowing Spider-Man’s identity. That was important when Norman Osborn appeared in the book, still hating Spidey, but for the first time in decades, unaware of who was behind the mask.
At this point, it may be too late to put the genie back in the bottle. Sins Past has been referenced in other stories, and Gwen’s children have reappeared. At some point in the future, the Spider-Man movie franchise may be relaunched with Gwen Stacy as Norman Osborn’s girlfriend.
There weren’t many conceivable ways for OMD to retcon Sins Past. It would also have required a detour from that story’s goal of undoing the marriage and unmasking. The story that was ultimately published dealt largely with the marriage, and tried to square the circle by keeping the stories from Amazing Spider-Man # 293-545 intact as much as possible, while changing the marital status of two characters. Whether this was successful was much debated elsewhere.
JMS’s Recommended Retcon
JMS had slightly different plans for One More Day, and he thought there was a way to retcon Sins Past as well. He wanted One More Day to change Spider-Man’s past in a way that prevented Norman from seducing Gwen. Going by message board posts, many readers would have been satisfied with this solution, although if your objection to Sins Past was that it ruined Gwen’s character, JMS’s proposed retcon wouldn’t have addressed that at all. It wouldn’t have changed what’s at the core of many objections to Sins Past: what the storyline said about the characters.
Gwen Stacy would still be the type of girl who might get seduced and knocked up by a friend’s dad, and then keep that information from a guy she loves. Mary Jane would still be able to keep this secret from her significant other. If Gwen and Norman had children, those kids would grow at an artificially fast rate. All this would remain canon. You’d need another type of retcon to fix Sins Past, as you’d need something that explains her motivations or reveals somehow that it didn’t happen.
I recall the majority of complaints about Sins Past being about what it did to Gwen’s character, rather than the situation Gwen was placed in, although I’m sure a handful were bothered by the latter. Plus, wiping out two living beings from existence is very morally dubious.
But it would have resurrected Gwen Stacy. And it wasn’t the first time the creative team of Amazing Spider-Man seriously considered that option.