For the fourth installment of my series exploring the variety of romantic archetypes we find in literature (illustrating the variety of romantic experiences we find in life) using only Spider-Man comics, I’m considering the first great love of Peter Parker’s life – Gwen Stacy. To write this, I went back and read the entirety of Gwen’s time with Peter, beginning with her first appearance in The Amazing Spider-Man #31 (from December 1965) through issue #120 (from May 1973). Over the years, Gwen has taken on a hallowed significance in Peter’s life as his great, irreplaceable lost love. But in reading these comics I realized she – and her relationship with Peter – illustrated something far more universal and far more interesting. Gwen and Peter perfectly present our first love with all the awkward, emotional, angsty, and idealized moments that come with it.
What follows is not the piece I expected to write. I believed writing about Gwen Stacy would lead me to the trope of being haunted by lost loves. However, in reading all these comics, I learned there are two very different approaches to Gwen and her connection with Peter. The far more popular of the two has always been the tragedy and trauma surrounding her death. Gwen was infamously killed at the hands of the Green Goblin. Having learned Spider-Man’s secret identity the Goblin kidnaps her and, in one of comics’ most iconic scenes, tosses Gwen off the top of the Brooklyn Bridge. Peter manages to catch her with his webline but, the angle of the web combined with the jarring way in which it stopped her fall, breaks Gwen’s neck. The responsibility and guilt Peter feels for Gwen’s death hangs like a pall over the rest of his life, haunting all of his other romantic experiences.
But Gwen’s death is not what this post is about. What I found far more interesting as I read was the second approach to Gwen and Peter, namely the actual nature of their relationship. Much has been said of how Gwen affected Peter’s life after her death but comparatively far less is ever said about their actual time together. It is in examining this we find a perfect rendition of the “first love” of our teenage years.
As I read the eighty-nine comics that served as the foundation for this post, I kept thinking of how much their relationship reminds me of Romeo and Juliet. Culture holds Juliet and her lover boy as the quintessential romantic example of star-crossed lovers but, when you get around to reading the play, they’re kind of annoying. They are two whiny teens who fall in “love” immediately and then complain about how their family doesn’t get them and how no one has ever felt what they feel until the both get SO ANGSTY it literally results in their deaths. Not only would I never want a relationship like that, there’s absolutely nothing romantic about it! Despite everyone sort of knowing this, the iconic (and inaccurate) framing of their “love” remains.
Now, what Peter and Gwen share isn’t quite so angst-ridden or melodramatic…but it’s close. And can there be better words to describe our first true love than “angst-ridden” and “melodramatic”? Because we’re usually teenagers and always inexperienced. What do we know of the world? What do we know of love and relationships? What do we know of our own heart? But if I travelled back in time and asked my nineteen-year-old self those questions as he was feeling the first blossom of love, Past Michael would’ve replied, “Everything worth knowing and everything worth feeling!” He…he was something. And this is exactly what we see with Peter and Gwen.
Despite their iconic couple status, they don’t get together right away in the comics. Gwen’s introduced in issue #31 and, while they go out a few times, they don’t officially start dating as a couple until issue #66. In the lead up to this, there’s lots of pining. Like SO MUCH PINING. Gwen has a thing for Peter…but he’s always rushing off to be Spider-Man so she thinks he’s cold, standoffish, and arrogant. Peter starts dating Mary Jane…but he can’t get Gwen out of his mind, even though she wants nothing to do with him now. There’s lots of one-upping going on between Gwen and MJ, too. I wasn’t prepared for these stories to feel so soap opera-y! But I think that fits. Everything is so dramatic with our first brushes with love. I often think back on how world-ending so many of my romantic (or lack of romance) problems seemed in high school and college. Now? Ha, those same issues wouldn’t even be a blip on my emotional radar.
While reading through the whole Peter-Mary Jane-Gwen love triangle, I tried my darndest but I couldn’t tell why Peter drops Mary Jane for Gwen. Peter, a shy and bookish kid who was bullied and excluded in high school, who still has trouble maintaining relationships as he keeps sneaking off for web-spinning in college, all of a sudden has a girl like Mary Jane Watson – the epicenter of their circle’s social life – after him and he seems to hardly care. In fact, we see no reason for Peter to prefer Gwen. The only difference between Gwen and MJ is a) she ignores him at first and then b) she goes out with his friends Flash and then Harry. All of a sudden Peter’s all over her. It doesn’t say great things about Peter as a character but it feels authentically steeped in teenage drama and competition.
To be fair, in Gwen’s earliest appearances they do present her as being exceptionally intelligent. She seems every bit Peter’s equal when it comes to science. This could’ve been a strong, logical foundation for their relationship but sadly, as the story progresses, this is all but dropped from her character. All we see is Gwen and MJ trying to out flirt and out dance and out party the other for Peter’s affection.
Once Gwen and Peter officially become a couple, their relationship isn’t often developed in any positive way. For all their time together, we don’t see a lot of happy couple moments – and it’s not just because they keep cutting away from the love stuff for the Spidey stuff. We do see some tender moments and some heartfelt declarations of love. But we also see a lot of Gwen struggling to understand Peter’s distance and his disappearances. We see her crying because she feels Peter’s being insincere and because, after she loses her father, Peter is physically and emotionally rarely there for her. She is largely left to grieve alone. And Peter spends a lot of time being SUPER ANGSTY and lamenting how nothing ever goes right for him and how Spider-Man ruins everything and how he can never have a normal life. So there is lots of drama for, comparatively, very little happy (and/or healthy) time together as a couple. Which, for two nineteen-year-olds in the midst of their “first great love,” sounds about right.
Peter is terrible at communicating and Gwen forgives a lot of behavior she shouldn’t, neglecting her own needs for her beau. But they don’t know any better! When we’ve never been in a real relationship before, we don’t know how to act. We don’t know how to properly care for another. We don’t know how to balance our needs with the needs of our partner. All this is learned (hopefully) as we move from one relationship to another and as we find partners we can grow with over time. But that first one? All we can do is make it up as we go, modelling our actions mostly on what we see in the real-life relationships around us and in examples from pop culture. The latter in particular often lends itself to drama and unhealthy models.
Peter is so jealous and insecure in their relationship. Which, yeah, he’s a kid who’s never been in a relationship before. But, like Romeo and Juliet, it’s still hard to read at times. For Gwen’s part, Peter disappears on her all the time and often doesn’t even give a reason for his mysterious absence. Still, she apologizes to Peter for being “silly” or an “emotional girl” when he blusters at her asking where he was or why he disappeared for the zillionth time.
But when Flash Thompson returns from fighting in Vietnam, he’s noticeably different. Being an observant and caring friend, Gwen is worried about Flash. But when she suggests they check in on him before dinner when Peter picks her up for a date, he gets all angsty. He obsesses about it all night! He’s in his head as he gets her and as they are talking to Flash and even after they leave. He thinks about it at the movies and while they are at dinner until he finally asks her why she is so worried about Flash. All Peter can fathom is she loves Flash and wants to be with him.
Gwen has to explain it, directly to his face, that the war and/or coming home seems to have affected Flash and she’s worried about him as they are friends and friends should worry about and care for each other. This shouldn’t need explaining! But Peter could only see “his girl” and her “connection” to Flash. He couldn’t see the truth in front of him nor a friend in need past his own insecurities. Gwen, who always takes him back regardless of his lame (and frankly insulting) excuses and non-excuses for his absences. Gwen, who told him he was all she had after the death of her father. Gwen, who in the wake of her father’s death went to live with her remaining family in London yet moved back to New York just to be with Peter. This is who he’s questioning?? Go soak your head, Peter!
So the depth and complexity we’ll see later with Peter’s relationships with the Black Cat and with Mary Jane are completely absent from his relationship with Gwen. He declares his love for her and/or the fact that he’s going to lose her in angsty isolation far, far, faaaaar more often than we ever see them communicate with each other. But this is true to who they are. Everything is so intense with our first love. Everything means the world. When we are wrapped in the flush of love for the very first time, we experience so many emotions. But then, as years pass, we see – while that partner will always be important – it wasn’t all we once thought it was. How could it be? We can only feel so much when we’re young, inexperienced, still learning who we are.
It’s natural Peter doesn’t share as fully or connect as complexly with Gwen as he will with the Black Cat or Mary Jane. He didn’t know how to yet. Nor did he know himself in a way where he could. He was still learning, as we all have to. And if we’re honest with ourselves when we look back, our own first loves had plenty of cringe-worthy moments and poor choices, too.
One of the most significant indicators of how much growing Peter still had to do in regard to relationships and security in who he was is seen with his secret identity. Peter chose to unmask with the Black Cat and bring her fully into his life. Mary Jane told Peter she’s known he was Spider-Man for a long time, showing how well she knew him and how observant she was of his life and choices. Yet Peter never seriously considers telling Gwen he was Spider-Man.
This is SO IMPORTANT in showing how our first loves operate. As teenagers, we’re not yet ready – or, arguably, able – to give the whole of ourselves to another. So it’s natural Peter can’t see a way to ever tell Gwen the truth about his life. It is staggering to see, in The Amazing Spider-Man #100, Peter is considering proposing to Gwen! He can’t share all of himself with her yet he thinks they are ready for marriage! Ahh, the blind certainty of youth.
Peter won’t consider telling Gwen he’s Spider-Man because he believes she can’t handle it. If this is true, if she couldn’t handle him being Spider-Man, then it shows how mismatched a couple they are. What sort of relationship can last when your partner can’t cope with the truth of who you are? This also shows how little Peter trusts Gwen, that he couldn’t fathom sharing his greatest secret with her. What sort of relationship can last when you don’t trust your partner with your secrets? But Peter doesn’t see ANY of this. Of course he wouldn’t! He’s a teenager in love for the first time! He can’t see the problems just as he can’t imagine life with anyone else.
Since he wants to marry Gwen and since he thinks she can’t ever handle him being Spider-Man, Peter drinks an untested serum he developed to rid himself of his spider powers forever. So…rather than tell Gwen the truth, he seeks to forever deny and/or destroy a foundational part of his identity to become who he thinks he has to be to be with her. It’s so unhealthy and so anchored in fear, anxiety, and immaturity. Learning to really trust another and to fully reveal ourselves to the one we love the most is one of the scariest things we can do. It takes a unique sort of courage. When we’re young, we often lack that courage. We often struggle to see its importance, too. We’d rather change than trust someone with stewardship of our whole being out of the fear they may reject us.
While I don’t know if it was meant to be intentionally symbolic or just a great twist ending for the 100th issue, the serum Peter drinks doesn’t kill his powers. Instead it mutates him, giving him six arms. Regardless of intent, the symbolic nature works brilliantly – in denying the truth of ourselves, in trying to kill or hide from or reject part of who we are to “fit” with who we think we have to be for a relationship to work, we create a monster. We twist and mutate ourselves to the point where we’re no longer recognizable to ourselves or others. Sadly often in relationships, especially when we’re young, this seems not just preferable to the fear of rejection but a noble act of sacrifice in love. But it’s not noble and it’s certainly not love.
However, I don’t want to create the impression that Peter and Gwen’s relationship was all bad. It’s not. There are SO MANY cringy moments. And there are SO MANY mistakes. And it illustrates there are SO MANY areas in their lives, their sense of self, and in their understanding of relationships where they need serious growth. But that was all of us with our first love. First crushes and first dates and first kisses and first parent meetings and first fights and first apologies – especially the first first of all of those – are always awkward. They can be thrilling, exciting, and magical…but they’re awkward, too. We don’t know what we’re doing. We’re young. But that’s part of the fun! And we grow :).
They have some really cute moments together, too, even in their awkwardness. In issue #68, Peter and Gwen go to visit Aunt May, who’s been in bed because her “fragile state” can’t handle all the stress and shock she’d been under. It was so cute to see them do this as a couple :). Do you remember that? The first time you had a significant other to bring to family functions with you? All of a sudden there’s someone sitting by you at family gatherings and you’re introducing them and you’re seeing how the familial dynamic feels with them in the mix. It’s always fun (and sometimes nerve-wracking XD) to see how a new partner fits within your social circle. But it feels so special, so exciting, so grown up the first time you have someone to do that with.
It wasn’t one sided either. Gwen’s father, the retired police captain George Stacy, becomes both a father figure and friend to Peter as well as an advocate for Spidey. While J. Jonah Jameson and all the cops seem to think he’s a criminal, Captain Stacy always stands up for Spider-Man. It creates an interesting dynamic and initially Peter becomes closer to Captain Stacy even before he really starts hanging out with Gwen one-on-one. So Gwen begins to become part of Peter’s family just as Peter begins to become part of hers.
As I mention above, their relationship will end in tragedy. But reading all of these comics for the first time I’ve realized it’s a whole other sort of tragedy that Gwen is only really remembered for dying. In 1999, comic author Gail Simone coined the term fridging. This describes a plot device where a woman/women are harmed for the sole purpose of motivating the male hero to act. The term comes from a list Simone compiled of the disproportionate number of “superheroines who have been either depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator,” referring to Green Lantern #54 (1994) where Kyle Gardner’s girlfriend Alex DeWitt is literally cut up and put in his fridge to propel him into battle with the villain, Major Force. For my entire life, this was how I saw Gwen Stacy. While I didn’t know the term as a kid, she was fridged and forever haunted Peter Parker and shaped his actions and influenced all future relationships. Her death and its effect on Peter are constantly reexamined in the comics. She’s been cloned a zillion times, forcing Peter to deal with her death again and again. Even Spider-Gwen took on the name Ghost Spider because she’s learned Gwen Stacys are destined to almost always die all across the multiverse to push Peter Parkers into action. How messed up is that? But having actually read all the comics where Gwen was alive and with Peter, I found something far more special in her character.
In reality, their relationship was cute and exciting and angst-ridden and awkwardly over the top in all the ways our first loves where. In that way, Peter and Gwen are a testament to our entry into the world of love and romance. Even if Gwen never came in contact with the Green Goblin, she’d still have been indelibly stamped on Peter’s life. We all carry our first loves with us – the memories, the thrills, the scars, and the lessons. Even though those loves (or most of them at least!) didn’t last, they still helped shape us, in big and little ways, into who we are today. Writing this post has forever changed the way I see Gwen Stacy. She’ll never again be “the girl who died” or “the one who haunts Peter’s life.” Now, for me, Gwen and her relationship with Peter personifies all the awkward promise, thrills, and mistakes of that magical moment when we take our first steps on the lifelong journey of romantic love.
Want more of my li’l series exploring romantic archetypes using Spider-Man comics? Well you’re in luck! Check out:
Spider-Man and the Black Cat: Flirting with Perfection to see how the Black Cat represents those people we know may be wrong for us and/or we know it won’t work out with in the long run…but we’re drawn to them all the same and we seemingly can’t stop flirting with or the pursuing them no matter how hard we try :).
Spider-Man and Mary Jane: Soul Mates? (Y/N/Maybe) for an examination of Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship, with a focus on the question of Soul Mates as well as the classic romantic tropes of the will-they-won’t-they and best-friends-first relationships.
Spider-Man and the Spider Family: A Look At What Might Have Been… to contemplate the “What if…?” people we think of when we consider our romantic “what might have been”s care of the alternate reality series The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows.
 I should note, in researching this piece I stopped just short of the heartbreaking two-part tale “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” in The Amazing Spider-Man #121-122 (from June and July of 1973). Why didn’t I read these? Well, after one hell of an emotional roller coaster ride in my youth featuring saving money and back issue sales and not really knowing what I was buying, I made a vow never to read The Amazing Spider-Man #121 until I could find and buy my own physical copy. If you’d like to know more about that story, you can read it here.