Since the publication of Edge of Spider-Verse #2 (by Jason Latour, Robbi Rodriguez, Rico Renzi, and Clayton Cowles) a year ago, one of the most common questions I get from casual comics fans is a variation on “What is the story with Spider-Gwen? Why do people like her so much?” Some of it is easy to explain—that costume, her attitude/rock and roll lifestyle, Emma Stone’s stand-out performance in the Amazing Spider-Man films, and even the Married With Sea Monsters version of “Face It Tiger“, which provides the series with its own soundtrack. But, this only explains part of the story: why is Spider-Gwen among Marvel’s best-selling titles, selling well above Silk, the other breakout star of the Spider-Verse event? I have a theory.
Most comic readers today are too young to remember the original Gwen Stacy before her death 42 years ago, and instead first met her in flashback as the shadow that constantly lingered over Peter Parker. For myself and many others, Gwen was always dead. Though we didn’t have a name for it then, Gwen was the prototypical woman in a refrigerator.*
A funny thing happened in the four decades since Gwen’s death, though: women in comics stopped being treated as things to date, rescue, or stuff in fridges, and instead became characters in their own right. But, some of the most famous women in comics remained victims of earlier storylines: Barbara Gordon remained crippled while Bruce Wayne recovered from a similar spinal injury, Carol Danvers remained a partial amnesiac while Logan recovered his memories, and Gwen Stacy remained dead while so many heroes were resurrected.
Then, in Edge of Spider-Verse #2, we got a glimpse of a different Gwen Stacy: not just a Gwen Stacy who lived (we’ve seen that in various What If?-type stories over the years), but a Gwen who was a hero in her own right, as well as a fully formed character. (How sad is it that Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez gave Gwen greater characterization in 22 pages than she had in her combined Silver Age appearances?) She didn’t just date the hero, she was the hero: Gwendolyn Stacy, Spider-Woman.
Unlike the numerous other Spider-Women, though, Gwen is the Spider-Person of her universe. Her Peter Parker, who instead became the Lizard, is dead,* and serves for her a role similar to what Gwen serves for Peter in the main Marvel universe. She is the protagonist of her own story, with her own agency.
Put simply, Latour and Rodriguez (with assistance from the other writers, artists, and editors in Marvel’s Spider office) have done the remarkable: they have unfridged the prototypical woman in a refrigerator. They have given her back life, personality, and agency. And they have done it at precisely the moment when a revived Gwen Stacy could have the greatest impact. And this, I believe, is a large part of Spider-Gwen’s appeal: she represents the transition away from woman-as-object and toward woman-as-agent, nay, protagonist. While the era of fridging may never be wholly over—a dead loved one is too tempting a back story for many creators—post-Spider-Gwen it will be hard to view fridging as anything but a tired, misogynistic, cliché.
Though Marvel has named the second volume of Gwen’s adventures The Radioactive Spider-Gwen, I might have suggested The Unfridgeable Spider-Gwen.
* While Gail Simone named the trope after the particularly gruesome death of Green Lantern Kyle Rayner’s love interest, Alexandra DeWitt, the trend of killing off love interests in comics began in earnest with the at-the-time shocking death of Gwen Stacy. Indeed, Gwen’s death is often identified as the dividing line between the more innocent Silver Age and the grittier Bronze Age.