For better or for worse, some characters are defined by a singular moment. Batman is defined by the murder of his parents. Peter Parker is defined by the irresponsibility that led to the death of his uncle. And Jason Biggs is defined by his intimate dealings with baked goods in American Pie. These defining moments are both memorable and compelling for their iconic impact. But sometimes these moments can weight down a character and limit their development. This is what happened to Gwen Stacy.
For decades now, Gwen Stacy has been defined by her death. Even after her history was obscenely twisted by an affair with Norman Osborn, her death remains the most notable aspect of her character. Her personality, motivations, and potential were all shackled by this moment. That’s why a new world with a new path feels so jarring. That’s what the events of Spider-Verse offered when it introduced Spider-Gwen.
In this world, Gwen Stacy was no longer the girl who died or got knocked up by Norman Osborn. She was the one who got bit by the spider and became a new incarnation of Spider-Man. For a character that’s been around since the disco era, it’s a novelty that shouldn’t feel like one on paper. She’s a cute, pretty blonde who gets Spider-Powers. If she didn’t have any history and tried to come out in an era of female Thors and Kamala Khans, she probably wouldn’t make the cut. But she does have that history and Spider-Gwen #1 shows that this history helps make this new path special.
The context of Spider-Man’s history is what gives Gwen’s status as Spider-Woman weight in the story. There are familiar names all around her from Ben Grimm to Foggy Nelson. Some of these characters are very different. Some aren’t different at all. Kingpin is still a criminal mastermind, Vulture is still a C-list villain, and J. Jonah Jameson is still a cantankerous blow-hard. It’s a world that feels like Spider-Man. But through the eyes of Gwen Stacy, it takes on a bold new meaning.
In many respects, Gwen Stacy’s struggles are very similar to a young Peter Parker. She’s trying to do the right thing and be a hero. However, everyone else in the world thinks she’s a villain. At one point, her own father was Spider-Woman’s harshest critic. And in a world where people J. Jonah Jameson seriously, that’s saying something. Her defining moment to this point was her revealing her identity to her father and saving him. While that moment made her a hero in the same way catching his uncle’s killer made him a hero, it also complicated her life in ways befitting of any Spider-Man story.
Gwen Stacy is really at rock bottom in terms of her reputation as a superhero. In some ways, she has it even worse than Peter Parker. At least Peter Parker didn’t get blamed for the death of his uncle. Since J. Jonah Jameson loves to outdo himself in any universe, he’s made it so Spider-Woman is the reason for Peter Parker’s death in this world. And since her father is still a captain with the NYPD, she doesn’t even have a home to go to. Even on his worst days, Peter could count on a nice home-cooked meal from his Aunt May. Gwen doesn’t have that luxury.
Most of the story revolves around Gwen coming to grips with all the forces that are working against her. But in the tradition of all the Spider-Men and Spider-Women that came before her, she doesn’t let that stop her from being responsible. In fact, she conveys more responsibility than Peter Parker did as a teenager in some ways. She doesn’t blame anyone else for her situation. She doesn’t get overly bitter. She doesn’t even whine about it. She just takes it all in until she sees an opportunity to make Spider-Woman a hero again. And she hasn’t even thrown her costume in a garbage can yet. Compared to Peter Parker and Miles Morales, she’s way ahead of schedule.
The strength of this story is built around Gwen Stacy trying to re-establish herself in a world that is trying desperately to reject her. It’s a world that’s conveyed through her eyes and from her perspective. It feels very personal while capturing all the right elements that make Spider-Man stories great. But beyond this strength, there isn’t much in terms of bonuses.
There are other parts of the story that tie into Gwen’s, but they’re only marginally developed. There’s nothing about this version of Vulture that anyone is going to find novel or intriguing. The same can be said for Kingpin and J. Jonah Jameson. That’s not to say there aren’t other stories worth following. The band Gwen belongs to, the Mary Janes, are one of the more novel aspects of her world. Their story does continue, but not by much. They’re basically the equivalent of Youtube celebrities now. And that can only last as long as the next cat video.
There was a lot to love about Gwen Stacy before she ever got spider-powers. Spider-Gwen #1 reveals a world has a very different Gwen Stacy, but she still has all the same characteristics that make her so lovable. She’s still that sweet girl next door that boys are afraid to talk to since her father is a cop. She just happens to have spider-powers in this world and she’s had the same rotten luck as Peter Parker in terms of using them responsibility. But considering how she ended up dead in Peter’s world, it still counts as an upgrade.