Chatting With Novelist Sarah Bruni About The Amazing Spider-Man 2
On a breezy New York Wednesday afternoon, novelist Sarah Bruni and I caught a matinee of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 at the giant AMC multiplex in Times Square. Writers aren’t unaccustomed to weird layers of narrative echoes in both fiction and real life, but because Electro (Jamie Foxx) had just battled Spidey in Times Square, our post-screening walk from there to Bryant Park made it feel like we hadn’t left the comic book world we’d just inhabited for the past two and half hours.
Bruni is no stranger to inhabiting comic book narratives. Her novel—last year’s The Night Gwen Stacy Died—takes its title from the Marvel comics event of the same name. In her book, Bruni’s protagonist Shelia is a 17-year-old girl working in a gas station who is approached by a strange, brooding man who insists on referring to himself as Peter Parker. The novel isn’t a retelling of a Spider-Man tale in any way, but instead, uses the motifs and images of the Spidey-myth (and Gwen Stacy in specific) to ask essential questions of personal identity and why we choose to be the people we are. And because Bruni’s literary faux-Gwen Stacy was inspired by the “real” one, I had one essential question for the author of The Night Gwen Stacy Died; “How did you feel about Gwen Stacy dying in the new movie?”
“You know,” Bruni says, “When Spider-Man was holding her at the end, I expected her eyes to open—even knowing the true end to Gwen Stacy’s story from the comic books, I expected a happy ending from a Hollywood movie—and I realized in that moment a part of me wanted her to stay dead.”
“Do you think that’s because you feel a loyalty to the comic storylines because of your book?” I ask
“Strangely, yes, because I otherwise don’t feel a sense of loyalty to the comic storylines.” Bruni shakes her head and tells me that when she started doing research for The Night Gwen Stacy Died, she didn’t feel loyalty to the comics storylines, and instead felt like an “outsider” to the comic book world. In the book, Shelia even has to pass a quiz from a comic book store employee in order to buy her Spidey-comics. So does Sarah Bruni now feel like the comic book insider because of her involvement with Gwen Stacy mythology?
“I guess I only feel like an insider to this single aspect of the storyline that I spent so much time treading over while writing the novel. Watching the movie also unexpectedly made me feel more a part of the Spider-Man narrative because this film so clearly takes place in the same present day New York that I live in. I lived in other cities when I was reading Spider-Man comic books as research for this book, and the borrowed parts of this narrative in my novel play out in the Midwest, so I never before have so strongly felt this mythology colliding with my everyday life. In the movie, Spider-Man fights Electro at the exact intersection where I taught a writing class at Broadway and 41st. Being immersed in that narrative again here in New York was, for me, pure fun.”
But the real question of Gwen Stacy—the love of Peter Parker’s life and a stable and healthy person—is why did such a non-tragic person have to die? I wondered if in any narrative (superhero or literary!) do central protagonists need tragedy in order to become the person they’re supposed to be?
“Well,” Bruni says, “I consciously didn’t give my Gwen Stacy—Shelia—any sort of tragic backstory, because I wanted to experiment with this well-adjusted Midwestern girl who didn’t have anything necessarily ‘wrong’ in her life, but then sort of graft those comic-book narratives onto her from the outside—see how my character and the story would shift to accommodate this borrowed identity and narrative.” This made me wonder that if Sarah Bruni was asked to create her own brand-new superhero, if she would feel compelled to give said hero a tragic backstory.
“If I hadn’t given my Peter Parker, an element of tragedy or darkness,” she says, “The novel wouldn’t have worked. So, I guess you do need have the tragic element in there somewhere… and it’s true in this movie too. The story of Spider-Man is that Spider-Man always wins-out over Peter Parker. Peter Parker constantly vows to give up his work as Spider-Man when his regular life continues to be compromised as a result of his work as Spider-Man. And obviously in this movie, it’s no exception. After Gwen Stacy dies, he gives up on Spider-Man for a few scenes, and we basically get one scene and one scene only in which he mourns Gwen. But the films ends with one final scene that reaffirms his role as Spider-Man, sacrificing whatever alternate course of action Peter Parker might want for himself.”
So, if Gwen Stacy is a martyr, what did she die for?
“It’s the whole problem of these comic books that were written in the ’70s,” Bruni says, “You know, the whole putting women-in-refrigerators thing. Gwen Stacy dies so this notion of Spider-Man can be perpetuated.” When I ask Bruni if she was trying to correct for that troubling notion by appropriating Gwen Stacy for her novel she said: “Yes. Of course! It wasn’t something I was conscious of when I first started playing with this narrative, but once I read the comic books firsthand and saw how essentially passive Gwen Stacy was—what little agency she had available to her—I felt compelled to explore how my protagonist borrowing Gwen Stacy’s identity might somehow complicate this expectation.”
Comic book deaths like Gwen Stacy’s will be probably we analyzed and debated for years, much in the same way the death of Hamlet’s Ophelia haunts us, not because there’s one specific meaning, but because it seems like a character is killed only to restore a larger story’s status quo. And here, the death of Gwen Stacy is a mixed bag. In one way, it’s a mature moment in comic books, while in another way, it’s simply freeing Spider-Man of the need to access his real emotions at all.
“But he does access his emotions,” Sarah Bruni says, “But it’s just once, maybe every twenty issues. And then; he’s right back at it.”
The Night Gwen Stacy Died is available as an Ebook and paperback from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is playing in theatres nationwide now.