Let's examine one of the only comic book deaths which has, save for clones, alternate universes, and whatnots, stayed permanent. It may also be the most important comic book death ever. Gwen Stacy might not be as famous as her successor, Mary Jane Watson, but you ask the average person who she is, they'll say, "Oh, I know her! She died, right?" That's pretty impressive for a character who's been dead since the 60's. Mention Carlie Cooper to non-comic readers and you get blank stares.
|You have no idea who this is. I envy you.|
The night Gwen Stacy died occurred in... "The Night Gwen Stacy Died." The title's a bit on-the-nose, innit? That's a bit like calling Romeo and Juliet:
|Well, at least people would have known it was a parody.|
The decision to kill Gwen was made by John Romita, Sr. and Gerry Conway (the writers), and Roy Thomas (the editor). Simply put, they didn't know what to do with her. Gwen and Peter were an item, even though MJ was already triangling their love. Stan Lee himself apparently believed that Gwen and Peter were on their way to marrying.
|JR Sr's nightmares, and the dreams of P/G shippers.|
To be fair, Peter was still a teen, so it's a valid concern. But a breakup would have been unrealistic for these lovebirds, so they decided to kill her while Stan was away. Stan Lee claims he knew nothing about this, but sources contradict him. Personally, I think Stan wasn't involved. Given that Stan adores talking about how he came up with things, why would this be the one time he doesn't? Stan, it's been about 40 years. There's no hard feelings.
Buildup (In the Comics)
The Green Goblin was seemingly defeated once and for all, having lost his memories of being the Goblin in a fight with Spider-Man. Thing is, in fiction, amnesia wears off at the worst moment, so it didn't take. His son, Harry, did a little too much LDS, much to the chagrin of Norman and the Comics Code Authority. The stress in his life made his memories return, and he became the Goblin again. He kidnapped Gwen, setting precedent for MJ, and left a pumpkin bomb on her purse as a message.
|Pictured: an alternative.|
If you've seen the movies, it's like the scene where Mary Jane gets dangled off a bridge. Except Gwen dies. She doesn't drown, though; Spidey shoots her web to save her, and merely pulls up her dead body. Allegedly, even now, Spidey doesn't know if the Goblin snapped her neck, if the shock of the fall killed her, or if his web caused her whiplash. It's one of the biggest unsolved comic mysteries. Except it was totally solved. The panel features a "snap" effect next to Gwen. However, some reprints remove it.
Fans in denial theorized that it was the shock of the fall that caused Gwen's death, due to the Goblin saying "...a fall from that height would kill anyone, before they struck the ground." I must note how that explanation is very slightly completely stupid. There's a saying: "It's not the fall that kills you." That's true. If you fall fast enough, you may black out, but it's the landing that kills you. 'Cause splat.
|And now you've learned a thing today.|
"It saddens us to say that the whiplash effect she underwent when Spidey's webbing stopped her so suddenly was, in fact, what killed her. In short, it was impossible for Peter to save her. He couldn't have swung down in time; the action he did take resulted in her death; if he had done nothing, she still would certainly have perished."
That's really dark. This'll cheer us up!
|"I iz gud at writings!"|
Impact and Aftermath
Gwen's death was something new to the world of comic books. It wasn't a noble sacrifice, it wasn't some nobody being offed; it was a main character dying senselessly. This led to Spidey's life getting darker, and was the point that most people note as the end of the Silver Age.
It's interesting to note that even adaptations that don't use Gwen Stacy still use the bridge scene. Mary Jane was thrown off a bridge in Ultimate Spider-Man #25, the 2002 Spider-Man film, and almost in the 90's cartoon. That's like doing an adaptation of X-Men without Jean Grey, but still doing the Dark Phoenix Saga with Rogue.
|If this happens, I want full credit.|
Gwen still shows up in spin-offs. Sometimes, she gets a happy ending. Interestingly, they're currently talking about whether or not they'll kill her off in the sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man. And seeing as how set photos show Emma Stone wearing the outfit Gwen wore when she was died....