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The Night Billy Buddy Died: Dr. Horrible’s Tragicomic Inversion of Spider-Man

Kevin M. Brettauer

The accidental death of Penny, the girl Billy Buddy aka Dr. Horrible loves, has parallels to the deaths of several comic book deaths, though none so much as the death of Spider-Man's girlfriend Gwen.

“Memory is a selection of images. Some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father, I was ten years old.”

-- Eve Batiste, Eve’s Bayou

“I’m going to destroy you slowly—and when you start begging for me to end it—I’m going to remind you of one thing—YOU KILLED THE WOMAN I LOVE—AND FOR THAT, YOU’RE GOING TO DIE!”

-- Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man #121

Dr. Horrible: “You idiot!”

Captain Hammer: “Dr. Horrible! I should have known you were behind this!”

Dr. Horrible: “You almost killed her!”

Captain Hammer: “I remember it differently!”

Beyond their origins, finding the single most iconic moment in the lifetime of a superhero is a task even seasoned comic book scholars would find daunting. For instance, Batman has the death of Jason Todd, his defeat at the hands of Bane, his victory over Simon Hurt and many more to choose from. Superman’s death and return, his All-Star adventure, his initial confrontation with General Zod and his final pre-Crisis tale are all contenders. Captain America’s recovery by the Avengers, his assassination by Crossbones and the Red Skull, his failure to prevent a Nixon-like president from committing suicide, and several others are all probable candidates for that slot.

But when it comes to Spider-Man… well, that’s a whole different, much easier story.

Spider-Man has always been an Everyman: struggling to pay the bills, watching over his infirm aunt, haunted by his own past mistakes. And, like a true Everyman, he is constantly haunted by the ghosts of those whose deaths he couldn’t prevent: his uncle, Benjamin Parker. Police officers George Stacy and Jean DeWolff. Former antagonists Ezekiel Sims, Jackson Brice, Anton Rodriguez, Morlun, Angelo Fortunato and Vladimir Kravinoff. Friends and allies like Madame Web, Ned Leeds, Marla Jameson, Mattie Franklin.

None of those deaths, none of his adventures, none of his quiet moments could ever match Peter Parker’s ultimate, most iconic loss: the death of his girlfriend Gwen Stacy at the hands of his arch-nemesis Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin. Norman died shortly thereafter, of course, but has come back time and time again. Gwen, like Uncle Ben, has always been teased to return: a clone, maybe, or an alternate universe counterpart. But like Uncle Ben, Gwen Stacy has never truly returned.

Not only has the moment become significant for the character on a number of levels, but the Marvel Universe as a whole seems to have changed as a result. Writer Karl Kesel’s 1998 Fantastic Four annual even played on this idea in a very meta way, transporting The Thing to Earth-1961, a world where the Marvel heroes aged realistically over time, with the divergent point being the night Gwen Stacy died, which was, of course, the last time anyone saw Spider-Man.

This, then, is the crux of writer/director Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog: an examination of the tale of the Everyman hero Spider-Man through a slightly different lens, but with a tight focus on the passing of Gwen Stacy. Using Peter Parker’s scientific genius as a starting point, Whedon (who has long expressed a desire to write a Spider-Man comic, having already penned Marvel’s Astonishing X-Men and Runaways), gleefully and almost maniacally incorporates so much of Peter’s personality and history into the villainous Billy Buddy, the erstwhile Doctor Horrible, that it’s a wonder this isn’t a more widely-discussed topic. Billy and Peter share the same awkward loneliness and hunger for human connection, causing Billy to seek membership in the prestigious Evil League of Evil. Of course, this mimics Spider-Man’s early desire to join the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, long before becoming a member of the latter team and still being denied a full-level Avengers paycheck. Billy’s roommate, Moist, is a D-level supervillain, instantly reminding Spider-Man fans of Peter’s days of rooming with Harry Osborn, Norman’s son and the second Green Goblin, who was very much his father’s opposite. Not as smart, cunning, or confident as Norman, Harry could have easily become much more like Moist if not for the Goblin legacy.

Like Peter Parker and his costumed alter-ego, Billy and Dr. Horrible seem to have built their current lives out of some kind of grief-based origin. Peter’s adventures are motivated by Ben’s wisdom: “With great power, there must also come great responsibility.” Peter sees what a colossal wreck his world is and does as much as he can to salvage it as a solo hero...

Dear reader:

Joss Whedon’s importance in contemporary pop culture can hardly be overstated, but there has never been a book providing a comprehensive survey and analysis of his career as a whole -- until now. Published to coincide with Whedon’s blockbuster movie The Avengers, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters (May 2012) covers every aspect of his work, through insightful essays and in-depth interviews with key figures in the ‘Whedonverse’. This article, along with previously unpublished material, can be read in its entirety in this book.

Place your order for Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters, published with Titan Books, here.

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