I might get hate letters from the over-sixty crowd for saying this, but 50 years after he killed off Gwen Stacy in the legendary Amazing Spider-Man #121, plotter Gerry Conway does an incredible job course correcting it in What If…? Dark: Spider-Gwen #1, which is co-plotted and scripted by Jody Houser with art and colors from Ramon F. Bachs and Dee Cunniffe. Of course, this comic won’t have the historical value of “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”, which made superhero comics grow up for better or worse with the death of a key Amazing Spider-Man supporting character and also set a precedent for the “women in refrigerators” trope. But it’s a heartstrings-tearing look at loss and revenge through the characters of Gwen Stacy and Harry Osborn that definitely lives up to that “Dark” subtitle while offering a sliver of hope and heroism in the end. In many ways, it ends up being a classic Spider-Man comic, but with Gwen Stacy instead of Peter Parker picking up the mantle as she takes responsibility for a big mistake she made and defending New York as a masked hero.
A recurring theme throughout What If Dark: Spider-Gwen is the toll that secret identities take on interpersonal relationships beginning with Gwen realizing that she never really knew Peter Parker, and that Harry Osborn never knew him either as well as his father Norman Osborn. Conway, Houser, and Bachs channel pain and loss throughout this one-shot, and most panels of Gwen are her alone channeling her grief over Peter’s loss into revenge. Even though Mary Jane offers her comfort and companionship, Gwen doesn’t bond with her until the very end of the comic after her life has plunged even deeper into darkness. What If Dark: Spider-Gwen is an elegy to the isolated, lonely superhero constrained by turn of the century genre conventions and lacking the vibrant community around contemporary heroes like Miles Morales, Jaime Reyes, Kamala Khan, and even Superman when Brian Michael Bendis wrote him.
While Conway and Houser’s writing adds new psychological depth to the character of Gwen Stacy that wasn’t present in her original stories, Ramon F. Bachs and Cunniffe’s art capture the look and the feel of that transitional period between the Silver Age and Bronze Age of superhero comics. The original Green Goblin suit and the Osborns’ tire tread haircuts are intact, but there are plenty of shadows, dark warehouses, and guns. The heroes might still be wearing primary colors, but Dirty Harry and Death Wish were showing in the cinema so putting on a trench coat and extralegally shooting a criminal wasn’t out of the question although Gwen justifies her pointing her father’s service piece at the Green Goblin to be justice because it belonged to a former police officer. The confrontation between Gwen, Harry, and the Green Goblin has masks and costumes, but lacks the wordiness and pro-wrestling-style fight choreography of the excerpt from Amazing Spider-Man #121 that opens the book.
Bachs’ art does the heavy lifting in the big emotional climax with some gorgeous, nostalgia-tinged work from him and Dee Cunniffe demonstrating how much Gwen loved Peter and also acts as a nice homage to Jeph Loeb and the late Tim Sale’s lovely Spider-Man: Blue comic. It’s a gorgeous page with sparse narration from Houser that is immediately undercut by the barrel gun and a reminder of the Dark in What If? Dark. This page and the whole last act of the comic are a reminder that all wearers of the Spider-Man mantle come from tragedy and an inability to stop bad things from happening like Harry Osborn becoming the “New Goblin”, or the death of their friends, families, and lovers.
Despite the title, What If? Dark Spider-Gwen isn’t a piece of edgelord superheroics. It’s actually a comics legend getting to revisit one of his classic storylines and with the help of co-writer Houser and artists Bachs and Cunniffe, Gerry Conway gets to give Gwen Stacy agency and a robust character arc even if the inciting incident of the story (Spider-Man drowning) is a little flimsy.
Plot: Gerry Conway, Jody Houser Script: Jody Houser Art: Ramon F. Bachs
Colors: Dee Cunniffe Letters: Ariana Maher
Story: 7.9 Art: 8.3 Overall: 8.1 Recommendation: Buy
Marvel Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review