Love isn’t always happy endings.

Sometimes it’s only brief, but amazing. Spectacular even. You get tangled up in a web that shapes the rest of your life.

Some might consider the next choice for most iconic couples in comics unfair. That the relationship now is more defined by tragedy than the years of happiness (and that it falls within that horrible trope of women in refrigerators). Or even that there’s another relationship that is potentially more iconic. I can certainly sympathize with the latter, given that the second relationship is the one I grew up with myself when reading comics in the ’80s and ’90s, but I think the earlier love helped define the character in similar ways to his origin. I’m talking about Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy, and her death, in Amazing Spider-Man #121 & 122 from Gerry Conway, Gil Kane, John Romita, Tony Mortellaro, Andy Yanchus, and Artie Simek.

Building on the Harry’s on drugs storyline from two years earlier (ASM #96-98), Amazing Spider-Man #121 & 122 takes it to the next level as the pressures on Norman’s mental state causes him to break as his memory comes back to him. He blames Peter for his problems and decides to take it out on him first through his girlfriend, then beyond. It’s a dark, horrifying story that puts a new wrinkle on power and responsibility.

Gerry Conway’s early period writing Amazing Spider-Man, I always felt carried on the style set by Stan Lee very well. Some of the bombast and over-the-top vocabulary might have been toned down, and I think there was a more serious edge to it, but it feels like a natural progression. Building the tension here through narration and dialogue is done very well, especially in tandem with Kane’s art.

Gil Kane was one of the best to draw superheroes. Joined by fellow Spider-Man legend John Romita Sr. inking his linework, Tony Mortellaro providing backgrounds, and Andy Yanchus colours, this story looks phenomenal. It’s not just the dynamic action and hideous fall that are burned into our memories, but how much of the anger, rage, and delusion are etched on the faces of Kane’s characters. Both Norman Osborn and Peter Parker look like they’re going to kill people and that pretty much comes true. All with that fateful “SWIK!” and “SNAP!” that will haunt you in Artie Simek’s letters.

Spider-Man’s origin was rooted in tragedy. In particular, the death of his uncle through inaction. The death of Gwen Stacy is perhaps a lesson on reckless action, guilt through incidental action, and dangerous reaction when it comes to the end of the Green Goblin. It reinforces the idea that there are layers to Peter’s responsibility and maybe an indication that long-term love isn’t really possible for him. Certainly some subsequent writers and editors thought that when it came to his second love. While also revealing that Gwen was his “true love” in House of M.

Regardless of which camp you come down in, Amazing Spider-Man #121 & 122 from Conway, Kane, Romita, Mortellaro, Yanchus, and Simek remains one of the high water marks of superhero comics, even as it ends one of comics greatest couples. It shows just how much a character’s death can affect you and reminds you to cherish those around you while you can.

Amazing Spider-Man #121

CLASSIC COMIC COMPENDIUM: Amazing Spider-Man #121 & #122

Amazing Spider-Man #121 & 122
Writer: Gerry Conway
Penciller: Gil Kane
Inkers: John Romita Sr. & Tony Mortellaro
Colourist: Andy Yanchus
Letterer: Artie Simek
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Release Date: March 13 & April 10 1973
Also available collected in Amazing Spider-Man: The Death of Gwen Stacy, Amazing Spider-Man – Epic Collection #7: The Goblin’s Last Stand, and Marvel Masterworks: Amazing Spider-Man – Volume 13

Read past entries in the Classic Comic Compendium!