In the second part of our interview with comics legend Gerry Conway, we discuss the current state of Spider-Man, his brief time as Marvel editor-in-chief, and THAT moment where Gwen Stacey met her end. You can read the first part of the interview here.
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What’s your take on the current state of Spider-Man, and what Dan Slott is doing with it? Do you think it’s good for the character? (at the time of the interview, the Superior Spider-Man story arc was still ongoing, and Conway’s response was somewhat prophetic)
I’m only peripherally familiar with it, because I don’t really follow comics as deeply as I once did. But I think that it’s a cyclical thing, this is not a permanent change. It’s a good way to drum up some interest in the book, and then eventually, it’ll return it to the status of where it was before. But that’s because we live in this time where fans sort of drive the market, rather than the actual needs of the character driving the market or driving the stories. Look at it this way – when the major media takes a superhero and translates him into a property that’s going to be seen by millions and millions of people, if they do it well – cos they’ve done it badly – what they usually do is go to the version of the character that speaks to the widest and most passionate part of the potential audience.
When they do Batman, they focus in on Batman and Bruce Wayne the damaged soul: fighting a lonely battle, misunderstood, a creature of the night. When they did Spider-Man, in both incarnations, they went to Peter Parker: teenager, dealing with relationships. That’s because that’s who that character is. Now, why the comic books can’t do that character, is a question you might have to ask the creators.
I think it has to do with the fact that the tail is wagging the dog, which is that the readership –which is now a very, very small readership compared to the vast audience of a film version – is demanding things that are not necessarily good for the character as a character. And the publishers have to accede to that, otherwise they’re looking at even worse sales than before, because they’ve eliminated the possibility of a larger readership.
[alert-note] I’m actually really looking forward to the end of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, where I assume they’re going to throw Gwen off a bridge, because then everybody’s going to be really mad at Marc Webb! It’s going to be like the Red Wedding on Game of Thrones. People are going to be going out of their minds, and I think that’s great![ [/alert-note]
I read somewhere that you still get nasty responses from certain fans for killing Gwen Stacy off, even on Twitter. Is that true?
(laughs) Less so. People tease me now. It’s more like a friendly teasing. The people who tease me about it are my contemporaries, they’re just doing it because they’re trying to get a rise out of me. The real passion was for people for whom that character was a crucial part of their lives, and those people are all now in their 40s and 50s and 60s. Really, the people who knew Gwen Stacy when she was first around, the youngest of them would be in their 50s, the oldest of them is going to be in their 60s. Those are the people who care about her as a character.
I’m actually really looking forward to the end of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, where I assume they’re going to throw Gwen off a bridge, because then everybody’s going to be really mad at Marc Webb (laughs). And they’re all going to think it was his idea, he’s the one who’s gonna get all the crap! My daughter, she’s aware of the story and she’s aware of the history, because she’s, you know, aware of her dad and my background. Her whole connection to Gwen Stacy now is: Gwen Stacy is Emma Stone. Gwen Stacy is this really sweet, warm, wonderful young woman whom everybody loves. So when she goes off the bridge, my daughter’s gonna be horribly traumatised by that, even though she knows it’s gonna happen.
And of course, the vast audience of people who have no idea that this is coming are going to be even more horrified. It’s going to be like the Red Wedding on Game of Thrones. People are going to be going out of their minds, and I think that’s great! Because that is exactly the response that we had in 1972, 73. And that’s wonderful. I don’t get that response anymore, because most people who read the Gwen Stacy stories today are reading them as reprints, or are well aware that this is gonna happen. So they don’t have the same emotional shock or investment that they had back in the day. But the real trauma I experienced was when I was 20, 21 years old, and got beat up emotionally by fans who were horrified.
I have to confess – I’m only in my 30s, but I was at the Brooklyn Bridge recently, and I did get a little bit emotional when I was thinking about the story.
(laughs) Good for you! You must have found some way to become invested in the character, because you understood what impact it had on Peter’s life. I think that’s a valid reaction. We all know the story of Romeo and Juliet, but when it’s well told, I get emotionally involved in it. So I’m not saying that it isn’t possible to have an emotional response to it. I’m just saying you can’t be shocked. People who are gonna see the movie are gonna be shocked. As you know, no matter how many people have read those comics, they’re a small percentage to the number of people who’re gonna see that movie.
I wanted you ask about your very short stint as Marvel editor-in-chief back in 1976. You’ve described it as being a very “dysfunctional situation”. Can you tell us more about that experience? And did you end up realising that you were much happier writing than being in charge?
Yes, and yes. I guess what I would say is, this was nobody’s fault. There’s no blame here, other than the blame that accrues to any kind of institution that’s on auto pilot. For decades, from the 50s through the 60s and into the early 70s, Marvel was a very small company. They published 10-12 titles a month, there were both financial and contractual reasons why that was so. But the result of that was, they had one editor Stan Lee, an assistant Roy Thomas and a handful of writers and artists. I think before I came along, there was Stan, Roy, Mike Friedrich and Larry Lieber were sort of the third tier writers.
When I was came in in 1970, it was just around the time that Marvel started to expand. And I was brought in to help out with Roy, and Roy was taking on more responsibilities from Stan. And in the course of about two or three years, Marvel went from publishing about 10 or 11 titles a month, to publishing about 40 or 50 titles a month. And they did not change their managerial structure. There was still only on editor, and one assistant editor, and maybe one or two assistant assistant editors.
So you had a situation where what had worked for a very small group, which was to have one person overlooking everything with a couple of trusted people underneath who were very much on the same page with that person about how to tell comics the Marvel way, had expanded to a much larger system where there were 50 different books being published, with maybe 10 writers working, one supervisor, no real communication, and people going in different directions. Which was perfectly fine, if they’re going in different directions, if that’s what you want (laughs). But it wasn’t what anybody wanted.
So I came into this situation and what amounted to different fiefdoms. Len Wein was writing and editing his own books, Marv Wolfman was writing and editing his own books, Steve Englehart was writing his books, but with nobody editing them. Chris Claremont, and so on. That was great in one sense, because it allowed for a lot of creativity, but it was very chaotic from a business point of view, because there was nobody in a position of authority to make sure that things actually happened. And you ended up with situations where artists were waiting for writers to deliver work. The artists, this is their livelihood: they don’t get paid if they’re not drawing. If the artists aren’t drawing, the inkers aren’t inking, and so on. People were basically losing money, never mind the company. The company was losing money, because when the books would come in late, the company would pay a penalty to the printers to get the books printed in time. It was just a terrible situation.
So because of that chaos, there had also developed a series of dysfunctional in-house relationships, where you had little groups of people who were organised around their own common interests and really resented any authority being exercised over them. We were in a very anti-authoritarian time anyway (laughs), so under the best of circumstances, people weren’t going to be happy, but this was even more bizarre.
There was one case where a writer was working on a book. It was the only book he was working on, and he was really not very good. Maybe with a good, strong editor, he could have been brought along and helped to develop himself, but there was nobody there in that context to do that. I decided I would take him off that book. He was working in production, so it wasn’t like I was taking a pay cheque out of his hand. So I took him off the book, and about a day later, the assistant head of production came in and told me, you can’t fire him off that book, because he’s a member of our coven (laughs). Yes, they had an active witches’ coven at Marvel, and they were going to fight for their guy!
Another guy, a good friend of mine, was very upset with me because I was holding him to deadlines, and he’d never been held to deadlines. Somebody threatened to quit if I wasn’t fired, two of the top creative talents at the company left to go to DC because they felt I was bullying them. And after about four or five weeks of this, I realized that this was not the life I wanted to be leading. I had wanted to be the editor-in-chief because I loved those books, and I loved the Marvel mythology and I wanted to be a participant in helping to form and create that, and that was not happening (laughs). What was happening was all this other stuff, this very traumatic stuff, so I decided that I needed to switch positions and become a fiefdom of my own! (laughs)
Check back in with us for the third and final part of the Gerry Conway interview, where we talk DC, Firestorm, minority representation in comics and Wonder Woman. You can read the first part of the interview here.