“In stories, those who hope to do harm call attention to themselves. They kidnap public figures; they steal potent potions from scientific labs and unleash monsters of their own creation on the general populace. But what about the small and quiet criminals who hope to make no noise in their work? How to save someone from himself?”
Sarah Bruni’s The Night Gwen Stacy Died is a book that I picked up entirely because of the title and premise. As someone who likes learning about nerd culture, I’m familiar with Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker’s second girlfriend whose tragic death as a result of a conflict between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin has been cited as the end of the Silver Age of comics. However, The Night Gwen Stacy Died is not a superhero book, but a Midwestern runaway romance story with tangential ties to the impact of the comic books in the real world. As someone who believes that pop culture matters, but is well aware of the problems with getting too invested with one story or another, I wanted to see how this subject would be handled in a real-world story with an outsider’s perspective. The result is pretty much what I expected it to be.
Protagonist Sheila Gowen’s incentive to learn more about Spider-Man comes from the entrance of an alluring stranger using “Peter Parker” as an alias. As someone living in a small town who wants to leave for reasons she can’t articulate, she finds this drifter appealing and hatches a half-baked scheme to run away with him, only to find out that he has issues. Because of the wrong turns his life has taken, he clings to old Spider-Man comics like a life raft, giving Sheila a reason to look into comics she’d never consider touching otherwise. After the first act introduces Sheila and her decision to elope, the rest of the book is the ending to The Graduate; our lovers have eloped, burning bridges in the process, but was it the right decision?
The most interesting part of the book is how it handles the connection the characters have to that particular Spider-Man comic, which isn’t the sort of encyclopedic knowledge you’d expect from super-nerds like the ones who appear in one scene later on. “Peter” and Sheila only focus on the most immediately relatable parts of the story, as well as second-hand relations that Marvel couldn’t have foreseen back in the 1970s. The messy culmination of Sheila’s character arc begins with her finally reading that story and realizing that she’s been using the name of a character who had no agency and died for no good reason, whereas “Peter” clings to these comics out of attachment to his missing brother. It’s a good demonstration of the unpredictable ways that fiction can influence the lives of other people, even when they least expect it and aren’t what most people think of as fans.
Unfortunately, that’s the only aspect of the book that comes off exceptionally well. The main problem is that nothing about the ill-fated romance at the center of the book makes me want it to succeed, and thus feel loss when it doesn’t. Despite the book’s first act taking great pains to set Sheila up as someone who doesn’t fit in with the people in her life, she comes off as irresponsible and unempathetic. I could see where her parents were coming from when she talked about moving to Paris without a concrete plan for what she’d do when she got there. Some of her impulsive later actions could be interpreted as reckless impulsiveness or the ability to cut to the quick and take an opportunity when it comes. I honestly couldn’t tell which; the consequences of her actions are mostly beneficial, but also coincidental. Meanwhile, “Peter’s” flashbacks make him a much more sympathetic character, except that his neediness and the security blanket of his alter-ego become overbearing at times. One scene halfway through the book brings out the worst in him and Sheila, killing any doubt in my mind that these two didn’t belong together.
In the end, “Peter’s” arc gets too sappy to stick the landing, whereas Sheila is confronted with her misplaced priorities with no confirmation that she’s truly learned her lesson. There’s also a coyote motif that flirts with the idea of magical realism, also without committing. The Night Gwen Stacy Died is chock full of poetic paragraphs that set the scene well, but that doesn’t stop the human events of the story from feeling empty and inconsequential. All’s well that ends well, but it won’t be remembered well.