Remembrance of Comics Past: Amazing Spider-Man #121

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With Easter weekend upon us, I’m thinking back to a time in my life when I sacrificed my comic book collection – sort of – in the spirit of Lent. Naturally, this grand spiritual gesture had to coincide with the opportunity for me to acquire and read, what many consider to be one of the greatest – if not THE greatest – issue of Amazing Spider-Man of all time in ASM #121.

For those of you who are not up-to-speed on your Catholic Dogma, Lent is a 40-day period that kicks off every year on Ash Wednesday and lasts until Easter. In the Gospel according to my parents, this was the time of year for all of us to make a sacrifice in honor of Jesus getting nailed to a cross and dying for our sins. For most kids, this sacrifice usually involved “giving something up” whether it be candy or soda. Adults would give things up like coffee or alcohol – small vices.

When I was in 8th grade, with pressure from my mom – I decided to give up comic books. For 40-days in March/April, I wouldn’t buy or read any comic books. I was allowed to go into stores that sold comic books, since without that, I probably would have annoyed the hell out of my parents hanging out in their living room every weekend, but it was under the guise of “look but don’t touch.” Quite honestly, even without the extra incentive of owning an issue as influential of ASM #121, giving up comic books was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life.

In the midst of this great sacrifice, one of the local comic book stores had a copy of ASM #121 on sale. You don’t even need to be a Spider-Man fan to instantly recognize this issue just by its very famous yellow cover, featuring pictured-framed panels of all of the people who Spider-Man knew and cared about. The issue promoted that it was a “turning point” in the life of Spider-Man, and that someone close to him was going to die. And I’m sure a casual observer, or even an ardent Spider-Man fan picked up that issue in the 70s and scoffed at the idea that it would REALLY be that important. They probably thought it was just a marketing ploy and that even if they delivered on their promise to kill off a recurring character, it would have been a low-stakes choice – like a Robbie Robertson or Flash Thompson. Or just maybe, after flirting with her death since the inception of the series, elderly Aunt May would finally get pneumonia and kick the bucket.

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But that wasn’t the case. Marvel really did go through with something monumental. If you’re reading this post, it’s not plausible you already don’t know what the big reveal of this issue is, but for the .01 percent of readers who don’t – the issue marks the death of Spider-Man’s long-time sweetheart, Gwen Stacy. She is abducted by Spidey’s nemesis, the Green Goblin, and during battle, she is tossed off a bridge. Spider-Man attempts to rescue her using his webbing, but in one of the most debated panels of all-time, there’s a “snap” when Spidey’s web wraps around Gwen’s leg. Yes, just to really mess up the character who is defined by the death of his loved ones do to his own decisiveness, Gwen’s neck presumably snaps when Spider-Man’s webbing snags her. You can’t get any more tragic than that unless you’re a Montague or a Capulet.

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Most comic book collectors and historians refer to ASM #121 as the end of the industry’s “Silver Age,” making way for the “Bronze Age” of comics which featured darker, grittier themes. Prior to this issue, no superhero’s girlfriend have ever died quite like this. Could you imagine Lex Luthor killing Lois Lane? Or Doctor Doom killing the Invisible Woman?

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For Spider-Man collectors, this issue is part of the series’ Holy Grail. While it’s not quite as valuable as an ASM #1 or ASM #3, its relevance and cultural impact are on the same level. Many consider this issue, as well as its companion, ASM #122, the death of the Green Goblin, to be the greatest story in the history of Spider-Man comics. You won’t get an argument from me. Until Marvel carelessly resurrected the Goblin years later, no storyline defined a superhero quite like ASM #121-122 did for Spider-Man. These were events that Spider-Man had to deal with in almost every single issue that followed. Even on the eve of his nuptials to Mary Jane, Spider-Man had to stare down the ghost of Gwen Stacy.

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I had to have this issue. It didn’t matter that it was Lent and that I had given up comic books. To find an affordable copy of this comic book in one of my regular stores was something I had dreams about. To be able to stare at this issue right across the counter and not walk out with it, was a kind of torture I wasn’t ready to deal with.

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The problem was, I didn’t have enough money on me to buy – and yes, even if I did, I was still trying to honor my sacrifice. But I was also a clever kid, and I knew there had to be a loophole. And then I figured it out – while I was not allowed to buy or read any comic books, there was nothing said about RECEIVING a comic book. So now I needed to figure out a way to get someone in my family to buy me the damn thing.

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It so happened in the midst of all of this, I was set to receive my Holy Confirmation – yet another big deal for those of us who were raised Catholic. My older brother, who was a huge baseball card collector, received a valuable card for this milestone. So I thought it was only fitting that I receive ASM #121. You have to think that one of the most influential comic books of all-time was on the same level of a super-valuable Tom Seaver baseball card, right?

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The only hitch in my plan was while I had convinced myself I found a loophole in my Lent arrangement, I still had to convince my parents. I was scheduled to be confirmed a few weeks before the official Easter holiday. Which means I was set to receive this comic book before my sacrifice was scheduled to end. Additionally, my mom saw right through my negotiation – if I was so hot for this comic book, how was I going to be able to receive such a thing and just sit on it, without opening it and reading it? And she had a point there.

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But I guess I made a convincing enough argument, despite the fact that this comic book was now essentially being given to me with gritted teeth. I remember opening up the box the day of my Confirmation and my mom still sighing that she thought this whole thing ruined the spirit of Lent – that I had made this sacrifice to be a better Catholic and here I was, on the day of one of my holy sacraments, and all I can think about was a comic book.  And again, she had a point.

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Still, I was true to my word. Though I had a brief flirtation with breaking my vow the Good Friday before Easter that year, again trying to argue that there was a loophole – that Lent should have ended on the day Jesus died, not the day he supposedly rose from the dead. But my own Catholic guilt persuaded me from opening up that bag and cracking open that comic book two days early. When I eventually did get to open it without breaking any rules on Easter Sunday morning, the comic book was as good as I expected it to be. Even though I grew up as a reader in an era well after Gwen Stacy was a pivotal character, just as someone who respected the history of the series, I understood its importance. And it was the first issue I came to own, where I really felt I graduated to the upper echelon of collecting. While I still had hundreds of issues before I would be at the point I am today, only needing six issues to complete the entire run of ASM, owning a chunk of history at such a young age, in many ways, set me up to be the collector I eventually evolved into. Additionally, I never sacrificed comic books in the name of faith again. So I guess I had learned my lesson about how much I was willing to give up.

All images from Amazing Spider-Man #121: Gerry Conway, Gil Kane, John Romita Sr. & Tony Mortellaro. Cover by Romita Sr.

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