Gerry Conway had to talk John Romita out of killing the wrong girl.
The debates that led up to the comics-shaking 1973 death of Gwen Stacy in the pages of “The Amazing Spider-Man” featured artist Romita, in an effort to shake up the status quo, pitching Aunt May as the victim.
“Which I didn’t really see,” Conway told interviewer Blair Butler in an Emerald City Comicon “Secret Origins” session Friday, “because Aunt May was already, like, on her deathbed. It was sort of the running gag — ‘Oh, she’s dying again.’ If she died, it would’ve been sad, but it wouldn’t have been tragic.”
The “Secret Origins” panels are a set of webcast interviews from an ECCC set featuring major comics creators. Friday featured Conway, Chris Claremont, Chris Roberson, Simon Bisley and Coop.
The longtime comics scripter, now 60, was just a teenager when he got his break writing a Ka-Zar story for Marvel’s “Astonishing Tales” and then steady gigs writing “Daredevil,” “Thor” and “Fantastic Four.”
Conway inherited Spider-Man before age 20, and along with Romita recognized a need to reinvigorate the title. A preference for redheads might have influenced his dramatic choice, he told Butler: Stan Lee had left the writing of Marvel Comics to others by that point, but he’d introduced the energetic Mary Jane Watson to the mix.
Conway called her “my idealized female,” and saw a way to fit her into the crazy life of Peter Parker.
“I really defy anybody to come up with anything memorable that Gwen Stacy ever did other than die,” he said.
The ambiguous way in which Gwen Stacy died — hurled from a bridge by the Green Goblin, but then saved from the plummet by a strand of Spider-Man’s web that might also have snapped her neck — led to acres of heated fan mail, and a public claim by Lee that he’d known nothing about it. Conway has rebutted that claim many times down the years.
Gwen Stacy’s death became a benchmark — a death with meaning, one of the few in comics that couldn’t be reversed.
“I think there are things that should remain stable, because they give you a ground floor to build on,” Conway said. “But in 1973, all I wanted to do was get out of the way of the tomatoes that were being thrown.”
It was far from Conway’s last grand contribution to comics. The Punisher emerged as a second-tier villain, but one Conway felt he could massage into someone darkly sympathetic.
“As I was writing him, I realized he could tread that line — he could be somebody that was both a dark figure and possibility on the side of justice at the same time.”
There was an end-of-the-world sense to the work going on in comics in the early 1970s, Conway said. Job insecurity led creators to throw everything at the wall.
“We thought we were working in a dying business. We thought the business was gonna be gone in three or four years. We were just glad to be doing what we had wanted to do when we were kids. The idea that these stories would have life outside of the individual issues was just not in our heads.”
Conway migrated between Marvel and DC Comics later in his career, creating Firestorm, Power Girl, Vixen, Vibe, Killer Croc and Batman’s second Robin, Jason Todd.
“There was a sense at DC in particular that Marvel were these upstarts, coming along and doing these bad comics,” he said of the company’s managers. “… They hated each other at that level. It was unspeakable.”
Conway exported his adventurous sensibility to films as writer (with longtime comics partner Roy Thomas) of Ralph Bakshi’s animated feature “Fire and Ice” and Richard Fleischer’s “Conan the Destroyer.” That early movie work proved a mixed bag. Bakshi cut the epic “Fire and Ice” down to 88 minutes, “leaving out all the parts that explain the story,” and Conway and Thomas’s seven drafts of the Conan script were eventually tossed, although they did get story credit.
“(Fleischer) didn’t want to work that hard, because our script was kind of hard to shoot.”
Still, Conway’s become a presence in film and particularly television since then, on a raft of shows including “Diagnosis: Murder,” “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys,” “Baywatch Nights” and the drama mainstay “Law & Order.”
Butler, a writer-producer and host of G4’s “Attack of the Show,” quizzed Conway on the work-for-hire model that Marvel employed – which later led giants like Jack Kirby to take the company to court – versus creator-owned work that can be riskier but hold greater payoffs for the writer and artist. Conway noted that many Marvel staffers left for DC in part because the company offered equity in new characters; Firestorm was born under such an agreement. But for the various Punisher movies that have spun off of his Marvel character, Conway’s received “a great deal of nothing.”
Since Conway’s start, comics creators have become cannier in how they deal with the Big Two.
“I think that’s partly why the two main companies, for the last 20 years, haven’t created anything new,” he said. “Because people aren’t stupid.”