Gwen Stacey Hullabaloo:
J. Michael Straczynski Speaks
was the summer in which Marvel Comics and writer J. Michael
Straczynski (also creator and architect of Babylon 5) promised
to really stir things up for Spider-Man by bringing back Gwen
Stacey...or were they? Certainly, a cover image previewed
at conventions made it seem like it.
the answer turned out to be that Gwen had had a daughter
(and a son), nearly identical to her mother, with an accelerated
growth that had aged her to adulthood in the time between
birth and the present day of the Marvel Universe -- how
long has that been in real time? You've got me.
that wasn't quite what got fandom talking about Amazing
Spider-Man. It was the revelation of the father of the twins
just a couple of weeks ago. It hit me like a punch in the
gut, but I still recommended the book, knowing people would
be upset -- hopefully, in a good way.
came complaints in the comic book shop, with a few people
threatening to cancel their subscriptions. They spilled
over to our
forums. And on moviepoopshoot.com,
writer Scott Tipton posted an open letter to Straczynski
expressing, for whatever it's worth, his displeasure.
I contacted JMS, to ask him just what he was thinking. You
may be surprised. You may be angered. But you've got to
admit, he didn't write this storyline lightly -- nor will
he be going away leaving Peter Parker in a great mess for
some other writer to clean up.
Planet: Judging from internet reaction
to the latest storyline in Amazing Spider-Man, you’ve
alienated almost as many fans as you brought onboard in
the first place. Did you know you’d be causing such
an uproar? How do you respond to fans so angry they claim
they’re dropping the book?
Michael Straczynski: I don't buy the premise behind
the question. The thing about the internet is that you have
to be careful not to confuse volume with numbers.
There are some folks who are very visibly and audibly perturbed
at the storyline, and they are all over the place registering
their annoyance. You see the same people -- sometimes under
the same names, sometimes under alternate names -- posting
the same messages on different systems. If 6 people leave
30 messages apiece in different places, it seems like there's
something big going on...but there isn't.
Over on the Marvel newsgroup, you've got maybe about ten
to twelve people who are bugged at the story and continuing
the discussion. Ditto for the comicboards.com forum, and
most of the others. And again, there's a lot of overlap.
This out of a readership of well over a hundred thousand
And for every bugged reader, two or three more come out
of the closet -- most publicly, a few privately -- to say
that no, they like what's being done. The problem,
of course, is that you will always hear more from those
who don't like something than from those who do. That's
as cold certain a fact as you can ever find, and any person
with a background in public opinion measurement will tell
you that. So I really don't put a lot of stock in it, and
I think your assumption isn't supported by the numbers.
Three people shouting in a room of thirty makes for a loud
room...but again you have to separate volume from numbers.
What's significant, perhaps more significant, are the sheer
number of people who have come back to the title, drawn
in by the Sins Past storyline. A lot of folks have
said publicly, and privately (more the former than the latter,
which is good) that they'd kind of lost interest over the
years because nothing was really being done with the characters,
nothing was changing, and they were glad to see somebody
actually doing something with the characters that
showed them in a new light. Retailers are increasing their
be fooled...she looks like her mother.
And for good or bad, for the first time in a long time,
people are talking about the title and arguing
about it...and that's a positive thing.
Storytelling means you have to take chances. Look over at
the competitors...what was done with Jason Todd, or Hal
Jordan over the years, or others there and at Marvel...if
you don't shake things up once in a while, the book stagnates.
Yeah, you could do a book just for the core fans,
for people who don't want to see any changes at all...but
you'd be selling maybe fifteen thousand books a month, and
it would go out of print instantly. If you don't take chances
and try things, you're just telling the same story over
and over...yeah, the costumes change, but it's all just
And you can't make just safe changes because a)
it's not a change, and b) there's no such thing. Lots of
people who said they didn't like the Gwen aspect said they'd
prefer it if it had happened to MJ...and the MJ fans arose
with torches and pitchforks to put down THAT idea. It becomes
a matter of whose oxen are being gored.
And I will say that some of the criticism is, iteself, in
my opinion, out of line in terms of the rage directed not
against me but against Gwen. Do a Google search
for Gwen's first name and the words slut, whore and tramp.
Some of these people, who claim she is an important character,
someone they care about, were the first ones to go right
to calling her a whore because she had sex. To call someone
-- ANYone -- a slut, a whore, or a tramp because she had
sex (apparently just the one time) shows some deep underlying
psychological issues that need to be addressed, which have
nothing to do with what's inside the book and a lot to do
with what's in the minds of those readers. As I said elsewhere,
I've heard about the madonna/whore complex, but I've never
seen it played out on this magnitude before.
It's a hot-button issue for some people who identified with
Peter, and who may have had their own issues with fidelity
or women before, and so it becomes very emotional for them,
I won't deny that. But I do strongly feel that the ones
who've been the most vocal are the least representative
of the majority of readers. Most readers pick up the book,
read it, and either like it or don't. Some readers post
a bit online. A smaller percentage still have every single
issue, cross-reference them every time a new book comes
out, and go online to talk for hours, and post hundreds
of messages, about a comic-book character. And even that
small subset is, as near as I can tell, more happy with
the storyline than not.
We all make mistakes...that's part of what's at the core
of Sins Past. The question is how we deal with
our mistakes -- as Gwen dealt honorably and strongly with
hers -- and how others deal with our mistakes -- as Peter
never stops caring for Gwen even though he knows what happened.
Isn't that a good message to send to people? That we can
own up to our mistakes and take responsibility and try to
make things better? That those we love can see our mistakes
and still care for us afterward?
I think those are valid points, and I think -- part through
anecdotal evidence in posts and emails, more objectively
through increases in orders and positive retailer response
-- that the majority of readers feel the same way.
Planet: What was Marvel’s response when you
first proposed this storyline?
after their father...
They thought it was a cool idea. They still do.
If anything, they're actually more happy with it now because
it's got people talking about and buying the book more than
Planet: Are you implying that Norman Osborn has
some sort of hypnotic power, or is his force of personality
just that strong that he could overcome the previously virginal
He has always been portrayed as a charismatic,
But look, can we get real here for a moment? Anybody out
there who hasn't known at least one young woman who -- in
or out of a relationship with somebody else -- hasn't made
a mistake and slept with an older, possibly charismatic
guy...raise your hand.
I suspect there are very few raised hands right now.
That's kind of the amusing thing, but also the shocking
thing, about some of the reactions. There were people trying
to come up with ways that these could be Gwen's kids, and
they were suggesting -- as probable, workable solutions
-- time travel, parallel dimensions, clones, a host of such
When it was suggested that she had them in the old fashioned
way, by having sex, they said "THAT'S IMPOSSIBLE!"
Alternate worlds and parallel dimensions and time travel
and cloning are possible...but the latter is not?
We handled the aging thing by indicating that the solution
Norman used to become the Goblin, which gave him an accellerated
healing factor, also affected his DNA, and in turn his children's
DNA, in ways consisted with accelerated biology.
When this came out, the same small group went online to
say that it would have been better if she had been raped
than seduced. Better for a young woman to be raped? In what
parallel universe does THAT rule exist?
A lot of this is about guys feeling guy-power threatened...the
girlfriend who chooses to have sex with another guy...the
woman who chooses to have sex rather than having a man impose
sex on her...the woman who, once having become "damaged
goods" (in the words of some posters) is now a whore,
a tramp, and a slut.
I specifically point to guys in this because I have not,
to date, seen one woman poster come out and say that what
Gwen did was unrealistic. Or use the kinds of terms that
the guys have used. Not one. I think that speaks volumes
to the situation.
(What gets me, incidentally, were the shockingly huge number
of posts -- most of it, though, again from the same bunch
of guys -- who said that the story was impossible because
you can't get pregnant the first time you have sex. I was
stunned to see that some people actually still believe this...which
helps to explain the ongoing problem with teen pregnancy.)
A lot of people who fell in love with Gwen -- and I'll admit
to being one of them -- did so when she first appeared back
in the 60s. But a lot of time has passed, and we're now
writing for a different audience in the 2000s. Some folks
want a character who doesn't change, about whom we can never
learn anything new, no surprises...someone frozen in amber
for all time in a state of perfection. For thirty years.
Nothing new about a character in three decades.
The dust is an inch thick at that point.
At risk of getting long-winded...and I think it's too late...let's
go back in time for a moment and return to the roots of
Spider-Man and Peter Parker that some of these fans are
talking about. What made Peter, and Spidey, popular, especially
to geeks like me, was that he was not a perfect person.
He screwed up, he got colds, he made a mistake and Ben died
because of his error...perfection was anathema to the Spidey
universe, and that's what made it so relevant to the rest
of us who aspired to perfection but could never achieve
Gwen was not a perfect person as Lee/Ditko (and later
Lee/Romita) portrayed her. She had an on-and-off relationship
with Peter, she was a flawed person...who became perfect
after her death in the minds of many fans. And in some ways,
she has become almost irrelevant to anyone outside Peter.
We have a real problem now with teen pregnancy, with people
being unable to talk to each other, with relationship difficulties...how
better to make the book relevant to a modern audience --
which was always the intent of ASM -- than to put
one of our characters in that situation? The few who have
a problem with the Gwen aspect tend to be over 40. That
is a diminishing audience. What about the next generation
coming in? Don't we owe them someone they can relate to
in ways other than nostalgia?
The subtext of Gwen's death -- which, incidentally, triggered
far more protests than this has -- was the death of innocence.
It was portrayed in really the only way it could at that
time, under the Comics Code. You could kill somebody off,
sure, but to show anything more intimate was taboo. Now
we can confront that metaphor a little more openly and honestly.
Whenever I write something, I bring kind of a social consciousness
to it...not in the sense of trying to write in morality,
because I don't have any morality to give or to teach...but
in the thematic sense. B5 was about choices, consequences
and responsibility. Supreme Power is about the
use, and abuse of power. The theme, for me, in Spidey is
the need for people to talk to each other, and
that we can accept more than those who love us think
we can accept.
When Peter came out of the metaphorical closet, he discovered
that Aunt May could handle his secret without dying. It
became a metaphor for a lot of people who are afraid to
tell their loved ones the secrets we all think they can't
handle. The situation with Gwen is much the same. The one
person we think could not be able to handle this -- not
the fans, not the editors, not the writer, but Peter --
is able to handle this information and accept that it happened,
and deal with what follows. Peter's character, as written,
never says about Gwen what some of the fans who claim to
be her fans say about her. He does not call her a whore,
or a tramp, or a slut. He loves her...and takes on the responsibility
of trying to save her kids because they are a piece of her,
the ONLY surviving pieces of her.
If you find a better definition of a hero, let me know.
Planet: With all this concern, was Gwen really
We never address that issue directly, and I don't plan to
do so here.
Planet: Why, over the years, has Norman not thrown
this one in Peter’s face?
Because as stated in part 5, they were initially considered
to be his contingency plan, to be used against Peter if
Norman should fall or die. It makes no sense to warn somebody
about a plan like that. Kind of undercuts the intent.
Planet: By giving Norman a specific grudge against
Gwen, are you lessening the impact of her death upon Peter?
they don't have their father's eyes...
No. Peter's loved one is dead. Does Norman having
one additional reason for murdering her make her any the
less dead? Does it make him grieve any the less? When he
absently turns to say something to her, does it make her
less gone from his life?
What it does do, in my admittedly subejective view,
is to give her death more meaning. As written before, he
could've picked anybody...Gwen, MJ, May...it was utterly
random. But if there was a secondary reason underlying it,
then it has more subtext, more meaning.
Planet: You’ve sort of redefined Peter’s
powers in your run; does this, then, do something to redefine
the sense of his heroism?
I kind of don't agree with the premise. His powers are the
same ones he's always had. I haven't added any new ones,
or taken away any of the old ones. The Ezekiel thread questioned
where some of them may have come from, but never in a definitive
In terms of his heroism, I don't think it redefines it so
much as adds another layer to it. As noted above, we see
that Peter loved her enough to accept something about the
woman he loved that others, apparently, could not. Something
that Gwen did think he could handle, because she
was ready to tell him, and would have, had she not met her
To me, when you learn that somebody has had sex once with
somebody, if you call that person a whore, a tramp or a
slut, that person is not a hero. That person is beneath
The person who can see past that to the person, who is determined
to do what he can in her memory, even though the information
is painful...THAT person is a hero.
Planet: Does this controversy make you prefer working
on your own creations, such as Rising Stars? (not-so-clever
backdoor plug for his imminent return to finish that series.)
Not at all. It's a great opportunity to do some
good, and I plan to continue doing so for as long as Marvel
will have me...and since they just extended my contract
until 2006, that should be for some time to come.
there you have it. We'll all still probably be arguing for
months to come...but hey, if we care enough to get upset,
he must be doing something right. Can I lower my hand now?
you want to continue this argument, hey, join