Spider-Man should never grow up: Gerry Conway interview

The Amazing Spider-Man’s classic writer Gerry Conway on succeeding Stan Lee and keeping Peter Parker forever young

Stan Lee’s successor on The Amazing Spider-Man in 1972, rising star Gerry Conway and now legendary artist John Romita went to create the few no-Lee storylines considered classic by fans of Marvel’s biggest property. From the death of Gwen Stacy and the introduction of the Punisher as a hardboiled antagonist, to the first ever DC/Marvel crossover in 1976’s Superman Vs The Amazing Spider-Man: The Battle Of The Century, Gerry Conway’s impact on the character is as profound and long-lasting as bridge-tossing-induced whiplash.

More than though, Conway was a Spider-Man fan – the first in a long line to take on the title – similar in age and experience to the garrulous young Web-Slinger himself. Many commentators claim the Silver Age ended when Gwen Stacy died, but for Spider-Man, the Silver Age, like his awkward youth, is eternal.

It must’ve been intimidating writing Spider-Man after Stan Lee – the book was so well-defined at that point.

It was. Putting it into context for me personally, I was just about to get out of my teens – I was 19 years old – and when you’re that age, your sense of what you can accomplish versus what you can actually accomplish is quite different. I think my self-confidence overcame my intimidation. My adolescent self-confidence!

Gerry Conway Spider-ManWhat did you think you were able to bring to the character when you started working on him?

Well, one thing I knew for sure that I could bring to the character was that I loved the character passionately as a reader and as a writer. I also felt that I personally identified with Peter Parker because of my age. Peter and I were, for all practical purposes, the same age, we had a simpler background – although I didn’t get bitten by a radioactive spider. I did grow up in Queens, not very far from where Peter grew up in Forest Hills, and I had similar assimilation issues with my schoolmates as much as Peter had. There was a lot of congruity between us as writer and character, so right from the beginning I felt I had an insight into his mentality that perhaps someone of a different age of a different generation might not have had.

Were you able to put a lot of your own experiences into the character?

Oh, absolutely – in fact, quite a bit of Peter’s experiences, especially around the time that Russ Andrew took over as artist, were actually happening to me. Peter’s first apartment was very similar to my first apartment that I got in New York City; his relationships with his co-workers were similar to my relationships with my co-workers. His love life, between the love of his life and the one he really should be with was very similar to mine…the drama is always heightened when you’re translating from your personal experiences into a story, but there is a route in your personal experience, it’s hard to write the character sympathetically enough to the reader also responds.

Do you think that’s Spider-Man’s strength, having such a core in the Peter Parker character?

I think Peter Parker, obviously they’re trying to do this in a different way right now by bringing in a new Spider-Man, but I think that Spider-Man inherently is Peter Parker. What makes that character is that he’s a teenager, or an ordinary person, with those powers. He has to deal with those difficulties we all have to deal with in life, just being people, who is gifted with these additional abilities which can be a benefit or a curse. So Peter, as an individual, is crucial as a character in a way Hal Jordan isn’t crucial to Green Lantern. That isn’t to say the character doesn’t have worth – that Hal Jordan and Green Lantern, let’s say, isn’t a strong combination – it’s just that, as we saw, anyone can wear the green ring, but not anybody can be Spider-Man. And that, I think, is key to that character.

Does it make storytelling more of a challenge with Spider-Man, as you have to keep these core concepts about Peter Parker – he has to be this outsider, he has to be an identification figure and struggle in his personal life, you can’t make him too comfortable?

Oh absolutely. But I think that actually makes him simpler – with some characters, you have to work at coming up with conflict because their lives, in certain ways, are fine, you take for example the Fantastic Four, which was always a weaker book than Spider-Man in terms of the drama of the stories. Part of the reason, in my view, why that was, was that only one of the four had a serious problem – that was Ben Grimm. He was the only one in the book, out of the four, who had a serious problem! Everybody else’s problem was not an integral part of their personality. So Johnny Storm is ‘hotheaded’ – who cares? It’s not a big deal, it doesn’t give us a great deal of background into who he is. Reed Richards is distant emotionally; again, there’s not much there, so you have to work as a writer to come up with conflict and stories that put the character not just in physical jeopardy but emotional jeopardy. With Peter, he’s in constant emotional jeopardy, because his personality, at least in the era I was working on him, his personality was fragile and still in the process of developing into an adult. And that’s an extremely fraught time emotionally for most people, and I think from a writer’s point of view, it was much easier to work up stories for Peter Parker, Spider-Man, than it was to work up stories for any other character except Batman.

Gerry Conway Spider-ManDo you think that made it more difficult to develop Peter as a character because he has to be a certain age the whole time – he can’t mature in quite the same way as other characters?

Well, I’m of the school that believes it’s not necessary to develop a character beyond the individual story. Let me put this into context. The pressure to take Peter Parker, for example, and age him and develop his life led us into the marriage with Mary Jane growing into his early 30s and into a dead end, as a character, to the point where they had to wipe it all out and start over. That was a response to the need of the fans who wanted to continue reading the character, to make that character relevant to their lives as they got older – but that’s not the character! The character is an 18-20 year-old or 17-20 year old teenager, in the same way that Sherlock Holmes basically exists in 1887, and any story that takes place with him in 1914, which Arthur Conan Doyle tried to do, don’t really feel like the real Sherlock Holmes.

It’s not so much that Peter is a character in his era, he’s a character in his life era. He is a teenager. His problems as Spider-Man are teenager problems. Once he develops past that point, he ceases to be the same character. Why would you want to do that? If you want to write a different character, write a different character! If you, as a reader, don’t want to read about a teenage Spider-Man, read some other character who’s of an age more appropriate to your concerns. We wouldn’t want to go back and age Christopher Robin – why would we want to read stories about Christopher Robin in his 30s? It’s this bizarre relationship that fans have with the heroes of their childhood, that they want to them to age with them and develop with them. The big flaw that I think the superhero comic business fell into in the Eighties and Nineties was following that impulse, and taking characters to the next stage of their life stories and in effect, creating new characters that may not have been as popular or iconic as characters that they replaced.

The married Peter Parker is a much less interesting character than the teenaged Peter Parker, and that’s what we’ve seen – the field has taught us that.

Look out for more Gerry Conway on SciFiNow.co.uk and in a future issue of SciFiNow, you can pick up his hugely influential early run on Spider-Man in Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man – Volume 13.