“I can tell you about how I got started in comics, why I killed Gwen, exactly how that happened, why Stan did know about it and anything you’d like to have answered,” comic book veteran Gerry Conway told the assembled crowd to open his Comic-Con International spotlight panel. Over the next hour, the writing legend shared the behind-the-scenes stories of his lengthy career, including the death and near return of Gwen Stacy.
From there, Conway dove right into the details behind the creation of Conway’s biggest accidental success, The Punisher. “The Punisher was a character that we created for Spider-Man as a sort of secondary villain,” Conway said. “Initially the Punisher was supposed to be a one-shot villain. In the process of designing the costume with John, I had this notion of a little skull on the chest, like The Phantom perhaps. John took it and made a really iconic skull on the chest motif with the belt buckle and all that cool stuff.
“Pretty much from the very beginning he became a fan icon and we ended up wanting to do more stories for him.”
Of course, beyond The Punisher, Conway is famous for being the man who wrote one of the comic book industry’s most famous deaths. He was happy to explain the thought process that led up to “The Night Gwen Stacy Died.”
“When I first came onto ‘Amazing Spider-Man,’ I was about 19 years old and John Romita was the artist on the book and had been for about six years. John was the old pro that we looked to for guidance and John wanted to kill off a major character to create some interest,” Conway said. “John’s first thought was ‘Let’s kill off Aunt May,’ and my reaction to that was, ‘Aunt May has been dying for ten years and her dying would probably not be that much of a surprise.'”
Conway, who saw an opportunity to pair Peter up with Mary Jane Watson, which he saw as a better match, suggested that Gwen be killed off instead.
“And there was no real serious debate about it,” Conway recalled. “You have to remember that Gwen had been Peter’s girlfriend for about five or six years, but the book had been out for about ten, so it wasn’t like [killing] Lois Lane, who had been there all the time.
“While Gwen was his official girlfriend, for those of us who had followed the character from the very start, she didn’t feel like she was that integral to the character. … But to people who had been reading the book for the last five years, she was Lois Lane.”
Conway described the reaction to the book as having a big dumpster of excrement hit Marvel, which is when responsibility for the death was placed squarely on Conway’s shoulders.
“Stan did not say ‘No’ to this. He was fine with it,” Conway said. “But Stan did get a lot of heat at conventions and college campuses, and as a result of that, he started claiming that it had happened when he had been out of the office.”
Conway also explained how the infamous “snap” sound effect appeared in the panel of Gwen’s death.
“It’s a funny story … The way we worked at that time in comics was that the writer would write a plot, and the artist would take it,” Conway said. “When I looked at the artwork as Gil [Kane] had drawn it, it had this arch of the body flipping as Spider-Man catches her in the web. From an aerodynamic point of view, that is exactly what would have happened, that she would have swung in that direction. I guess Gil had drawn it in such a way that it seemed pretty obvious to me that Gwen’s neck was being broken by the catch, so I just added the sound effect.”
Conway explained that this level of realism was an extension of the philosophy that Stan Lee had originated, though he admitted that the writers of his generation may have taken it further than “The Man” intended.
“Stan had wanted to introduce comics to the real world. He wanted us to feel that this could happen,” Conway said. “My feeling at that time, being a kid and living in New York, things were very dangerous and the world was kind of dark. We were in the middle of the Vietnam War, and people were shooting each other. We had a President who was about to resign. All of this nonsense. I had a kind of cynical feeling about heroes, and I think most people did. My notion at that time was that even with the best intentions, even with the greatest sense of responsibility, even with the greatest power, a hero does not necessarily succeed and in fact sometimes the very attempt to do so can be destructive. I mean, that was kind of the story of what was going on in Vietnam.
“For us it was the logical next step for us to make it this darker world,” Conway continued. “I say ‘darker world,’ but there was still this trend of optimism and hope in these books. Even when Spider-Man is faced with catching the guy who killed the woman he loves and has the opportunity to take his revenge on him, he does not do so. He says, ‘I’m not going to be like you.’ That is an incredibly hopeful thing.”
And if anybody was hopeful, it was Conway himself. The writer told the audience how his career in comics began with a day trip and a lot of persistence.
“What was neat about growing up in the ’60s in New York was that Marvel and DC were very accessible back then. DC had a weekly tour during the summer for any kid who wanted to show up and take the tour,” Conway said. “There came to be this kind of revolving door of a handful of writers and artists, who later became writers and artists, who would go on this tour. Len Wein, myself, Marv Wolfman, an artist named Steve Mitchell used to go on this. After the first couple of weeks, we sort of drifted away from the tour group and found our way to different editors’ offices and started asking if we could draw comics or write comics for them. And they were very nice to us and didn’t throw us out.”
Conway did this for about a year at DC, continuing to go on his own even once they ended the summer tours for the school year. After school, he would go to the office and pester the editors for something to do.
“I was fifteen years old and didn’t have any idea that this was not what you do,” Conway said. “After about a year of that, one of the editors by the name of Murray Boltinoff became convinced that I was actually working there, because he kept seeing me.”
Boltinoff gave Conway a small project to write. Two months and fifteen drafts later, Conway had written a three page story for DC Comics.
“At the end of the day, he asked me what my page rate was, which was the rate that you’d be paid for writing the story. I was like, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never sold a story before,’ and the man almost passed out in shock because he would have never taken a risk on somebody new. That’s how I sold my first story!”
Conway sold his writing regularly to DC after that, working mainly on on the supernatural mystery title, “House of Secrets.”
“Phantom Stranger was actually the first semi-super hero character I ever got to write. I’d been writing for DC Comics mystery titles, which were kind of like little suspenseful supernatural titles,” Conway said. “The editor of “House of Secrets” was a guy named Joe Orlando who had brought back Phantom Stranger as another variation of the supernatural mystery books. … Joe’s notion was, ‘Let’s turn it into a solo character and make something out of that,’ and he gave me my first shot at writing a feature length, 15-16 page story. I got the opportunity to work with one of the truly great artists in comics, Jim Aparo.”
Having cemented himself as a comics pro, Conway eventually set his eyes toward Marvel. After writing some samples, he went to work for the publisher after graduating high school, which eventually led to him taking over “Amazing Spider-Man” from Stan Lee. Eleven issues later, Gwen Stacy was dead.
“I don’t have any regrets. I think it was the right thing to do. I think that Mary Jane is a much better foil for than Gwen is,” Conway said, noting that even the film version of Gwen Stacy is more like Mary Jane than the original character. “Gwen in the comics, and I’ll defend this till my dying day, was much more interesting after she was killed than she ever was as a character.
“Part of that was that Spider-Man, for Stan, was kind of a wish-fulfillment. He was the kind of dirty kid who nobody liked, as was I, as were all of us in this room, and his goal in life was to achieve certain things,” Conway continued. “What I think made Stan’s arc on the comic kind of unsatisfying for me as a reader was, by the time I took the book over, Peter was doing great. Peter’s life was just great. He had this fabulous blonde as a girlfriend. He had a career as a photographer. He had graduated into college. He had a good buddy. Everything was going great for Peter because that was also true for Stan. Stan had married the woman of his dreams back in the ’50s, and Stan’s wife, Joan, looked a lot like Gwen Stacy. They had a wonderful relationship. There was no stress in it. It was just perfect, so he didn’t really have anything to really draw on once he had created that.
“For me, getting Mary Jane in there was — as a writer, I wanted to have her in there because I felt those two people would really connect and bounce off of each other in interesting ways. Yes, Stan did blame me. That was a defensive move on his part. He didn’t really know that things were going to explode like that. None of us did. I felt very traumatized, because I was a kid. I was like 19 years old, 20 years old, when this happened. For many years, I couldn’t go to conventions. I didn’t read letters from fans ’cause they were just filled with anger and hate and you get kind of impressionable about that kind of stuff.”
The negative reaction caused Stan Lee to ask Conway to bring Gwen back from the dead, which resulted in a temporary psuedo-revival in the form of a clone. That story, however, served to prove that such a revival would never work.
“I think, to our credit, and I’ll credit Roy a lot of this as the editor, we didn’t. We brought back a version of her, but it wasn’t her. It was very clearly not her, and she never came back in the books. I think she may be the only major character in comics who has ever been killed off and never come back.”
While Gwen Stacy today stands virtually alone in the list of characters that haven’t walked back through the revolving door of death, Conway explained that, at the time, there was never any question about dead characters staying dead.
“Back in 1973, we hadn’t done it often enough. We hadn’t killed off enough major characters to really know, but it generally was considered at the time that when you killed somebody off they stayed dead.
“The idea of bringing Gwen back just seemed so wrong because there had been such emotional consequences for Peter as a result of that. It would have cheapened his despair and grief and felt like a cheat,” the writer continued. “Now, 40 years later, it’s not whether you come back, it’s how soon you come back. If they can keep you dead for a whole year, you’ve been really dead.”
But while it seems that no death is permanent in comics today, Conway believes Gwen will remain one of Marvel’s rare true deaths.
“Honestly, she’s been dead for so long that I think it would be really difficult.”
The issue of temporary death in comics led to Conway sharing his thoughts on the contradicting philosophies that drive the industry.
“I would say that part of the problem that we have in comics is kind of pushing and pulling between two completely opposing needs. On the one hand, the heroes in comic books are archetypal figures and in their most fundamental state they are perfect. And when I say perfect, it’s not like they are without blemish or flaw or whatever; it’s that they fit a particular need. Peter Parker, a high school nerd, who gains power and abilities that make him transcend himself is an archetype. … As soon as Peter Parker starts to grow up and change, he’s no longer Peter Pan, right? That’s why you don’t care what happens to Peter Pan if he ever leaves the island or anything else. What’s important about Peter Pan is that he didn’t change. Peter Parker can’t grow up, and in fact, you’ll notice that his most iconic state is still him as a high schooler. Yeah, in the movies they’re going to bump him up to college, but ideally he stays in high school.
“However, you have the opposing need, which is that we, as readers, want to see change. We want to see our characters grow. We want to see them develop. We want to hear what happens to them next. But you can’t actually get both. You can’t have the iconic, never-changing ideal that attracted you in the first place, ’cause that’s the other thing.
“You are not going to pick up a book about a 35-year-old guy who has web-shooters and flies around Manhattan and who is married and has three kids and everything is great. That’s of no interest,” Conway continued. “I mean, it might be interesting. I imagine there are writers who could make that really interesting, but from the impulsive need that that character responds to, the high school nerd, alienated, gets powers, shows everybody that he is the cool kid — that’s a static figure. That’s in opposition to our need for change. That’s where all the struggle in comics comes from, creatively.”
Moving back to his own career, Conway explained why he originally left Marvel and what happened when he came back.
“In the early ’70s, there were really only three or four of us who were writing for the company. There was Roy Thomas, myself, Gary Friedrich … and then later Marv Wolfman, and Len Wein came in. Chris Claremont came in. So it’s this period of expansion, from 1970 to 1974, where we went from about ten or eleven titles a month to fifty titles a month.
“I had been groomed, or felt like I was being groomed, as like the number two guy after Roy, and then if Roy moved on I was going to be moved up into Roy’s position. Then, as it turned out, when Roy did leave, they went in a different direction and brought in Marv and Len to split the company’s editorial needs. And I took my marbles and went home,” Conway said, imitating a whining child.
Conway went back to DC, where he worked for a year before Stan Lee enticed him back to the House of Ideas with an editorial job. However, the return was short lived, with Conway comparing the experience to the movie “Bridge on the River Kwai.”
“I went back, and it was not a pleasant experience for anybody. I’d been away for a year, they had all moved on in their own ways and I was not going to fit back into that, so ultimately, I came back to DC. I spent a very happy ten years working at DC and then came back again to Marvel near the end of my time in writing comics. From there, I ended up with a career in writing film and television.”
While perhaps still better known for his comic writing, Conway has built himself a career in Hollywood, of which he is very appreciative.
“I was very fortunate. That’s point one. I’d always wanted to write film, even when I was writing comics I saw the two as very similar genres. That film and comics were both a visual media that told stories visually.
“When I moved out to California, about a year or so after Roy [Thomas] had, we had this notion that maybe we would work together on some projects. Roy had had a connection with Ed Pressman, who was the producer of the Conan films and had been associated with the first Conan film as a result. He felt that because of that connection, he had a certain amount of credibility and he didn’t want to write anything by himself, so he brought me in to work with him.”
And while super-heroes dominate the silver screen today, at the time, Conway’s career as a comic book writer was actuall a black mark on his resume. “Back when I had started to write films, I had to overcome my background as a comic writer. Today, that is an E-Ticket to get a full ride. We had to overcome this whole notion that as comic book writers, we wouldn’t be good film writers.”
Conway and Thomas did eventually get a few films produced, and wrote others which were envr made, including an “X-Men” film that never saw the silver screen. Eventually, though, their partnership broke-up and Conway became involved with writing television crime drama. Ironically, Conway had “overcome” his comic book career so well that, when the super-hero boom in Hollywood began, he was only thought of as a crime procedural writer.
Going back to the original clone storyline, Conway was asked if he had always intended for Miles Warren to be The Jackal. Conway compared the story to the reveal of Norman Osborn as the Green Goblin.
“One of my favorite storylines had been the Crime Master/Green Goblin storylines in the early days of the Spider-Man books, and I always felt it was kind of a cheat that when it was finally revealed who the Green Goblin was, it was somebody who we’d only met like four issues before. Here was the guy who had supposedly knew Spider-Man for a long, long time and it turned out to be this guy, Norman Osborn, who had only been introduced four issues before the big reveal. I felt like if we’re going to do a big reveal with a new story where there’s this mysterious figure who has been manipulating things behind the scenes, I wanted to set up somebody who had at least been around in Peter’s past. The only character that I felt tied into that was Professor Warren, who I think had appeared in one or two stories back in the first decade of the Spider-Man book.”
“Well, as I said, Stan wanted to bring back Gwen Stacy. None of us wanted to bring back the real Gwen Stacy, and I said, ‘How about if I bring her back as a clone and then can I get rid of her right away?’ Stan said, ‘Sure,’ and that’s the direction we took. Then, as I was working on it, I realized it would be kind of fun if we end up with Peter having to fight himself as a clone.”
“My intention was we were going to do a story where Spider-Man fights himself and then it’s over. And then, I think Archie Goodwin did the follow-up story where he asks the question, ‘How do we know which one it was who died?’ He felt he answered it, but these things are never answered. That’s the beauty of comics; you can always go back and pull a thread.”
Of course, not every Spider-Man story Conway wrote was about death and the impact of grief on the character. Conway is also responsible for some of the sillier of the Spider-Man stories, such as the time Doctor Octopus nearly married Aunt May.
“My goal as a Spider-Man writer was always to write the stories I wanted to read when I was reading the book,” he said. “There had been this implication that there was this other side to Doctor Octopus, that he wasn’t just a monster, that he had this gentlemanly quality. I think Stan had done a story where he had come to visit Aunt May’s house for some reason and I thought, ‘What if that developed into a relationship?’ Again, it was me trying to have some fun with the mythos and to do the kind of things that I thought I would enjoy reading when I was fourteen or fifteen years old.
“That’s another thing I want to point out. The readership that I was writing for and all of us were sort of conceptualizing for at the time is very different from from the readership that we have today in comics. Back then, we would consciously write for kids between the ages of 13 and 18. Now, we’re writing for adults.
“This was a notion that Stan had. Stan was put in an odd position because he moved up from being an editor/writer to being the publisher of Marvel Comics in 1970-71, and as a result of that, his priorities towards how to find revenues for the company changed,” Conway said. “He was approached by, I think it was Hasbro, or it might have been Tonka Toys or something, who said, ‘Listen, we found that what really works for toy characters, in addition to the figures, is if they had a lot of cool stuff with them. Could you maybe give each of your characters a cool car?’ And so Stan said, ‘Sure!’ He didn’t have to do it. He told me, ‘You know, Spider-Man needs to have a car.’ And I’m like, ‘You do realize that Spider-Man swings on a web between buildings and the car would really slow him down doing that?’ and he said, ‘I don’t’ care what you do with it, just do it.’ So we played it for laughs and we sank it in, I think, the same issue.”
However, even though Conway had left the car at the bottom of the Hudson River, it wouldn’t be the last time he would encounter the Spider-Mobile. More than twenty years later in a Toys-R-Us, Conway’s young daughter asked to ride one of the coin operated riding devices at the store. Conway looked at the children’s ride to see a plastic Spider-Man in the driver’s seat of a miniature Spider-Mobile. “Even the dumbest ideas can still manifest themselves years later.”
Along with silly cars, it was noted that Conway had a knack for creating fun one-shot villains to face-off with the web-slinger. Asked if he knew which villains would stand the test of time when he made them, Conway replied, “There are certain villains that you know are going to have some gravitas and last you for a while, and then there are others that are just silly. I embrace silly, and anybody that reads my ‘Firestorm’ know that silly is my mantra on that title. I like those kinds of one-off characters. But it’s also a question about how the reader responds to them. If a book does really well and you get mail that says ‘I want to see more of The Grizzly,’ then Grizzly’s coming back. If a character doesn’t come back, that’s an indication that we have another Mindworm on our hands.”
Conway noted that Marvel while didn’t offer royalties for The Punisher, they did offer him royalties for Mindworm.
“Actually, what’s nice is that DC, and I think Marvel, too, do provide some royalties to writers and artists for the creation they’ve initiated since about the mid-’70s. DC has a program that they call their Equity Participation Program. I don’t know what Marvel’s program is, if they have one. The problem is DC asks you to do is that you have to seek that participation. They don’t just automatically give it to you. So, in my case, I’ve directly created a 100 or 150 characters over the years for DC, and going through it is going to be a lot of fun trying to figure out where each of these characters started.
“Other writers and artists don’t even know that that’s the case. That they can do that. People in my generation who left the business may not be aware of it,” Conway continued. “Potentially, they could earn a lot of money. So if you know any artists or writers of my generation who don’t know that, you should tell them.”
Recalling his long career in comics, Conway answered questions about the many great artists he worked with over the years.
“Gil [Kane] was an awesome artist and a great gentleman. He wasn’t the strongest person at following your notes. As I said, I asked for the Brooklyn Bridge, and he gave me the George Washington Bridge. But he was really terrific at making the scenes dynamic and putting passion into the art. In fact, there is a terrific art book that IDW just came out with that shows you his original art for Spider-Man #121. I really recommend anyone who has $75 to go buy it.”
Conway also told the audience about his brief interactions with Spider-Man’s original artist, Steve Ditko.
“At the time that I worked with him, he was a gentle, friendly sort of guy in a withdrawn sort of way. He did remind me a lot of The Question, though. He had that kind of black and white view of life and he did not suffer fools gladly. If he agreed with you, yes, fine. If he didn’t, he would just shut you off.
“Among the artists that I worked with, Gene Colan was phenomenal, Ross Andru was phenomenal, John Buscema, I actually got to work with Jack Kirby on a couple of projects, Steve Ditko, I mean I was very fortunate. I got to work with most of the icons from that era. I was very fortunate that I got to work with almost every major artist of my generation and the preceding generation. I think probably the one artist I would have liked to have worked with that I didn’t work with was Joe Kubert.”
Finally, Conway was asked if he had any more Spider-Man stories he would like to write.
“I don’t know if I have any stories specifically. I mean, I would love to revisit the character at some point,” Conway said. “I love Vulture. I always like Vulture. Any time you can get a bald guy as a villain. … Vin Diesel would make a terrific Vulture.”