The classic Bronze Age Spider-Man story The Death of Captain Stacy has always been more about a moment than the three issues of story that lead up to that moment. The moment in question comes after yet another epic battle between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus. It’s a great battle to be sure but it’s the battle's collateral damage that is at the heart of the story.
Captain Stacy, father of Peter’s true love Gwen Stacy saves a little boy from being crushed by falling bricks and is mortally wounded as a result. Spider-Man picks up Capt. Stacy’s broken body and tries to get him to a hospital but Capt. Stacy insists that Spider-Man sets him down so they can talk while there’s still time. Stacy tells Spider-Man that Gwen loves him very much and that now there will be no one to look after her. He then calls Spider-Man by his real name, Peter. That Stacy knew who Spider-Man really was wasn’t that much of a surprise to readers. It had been hinted at in several issues prior to this story that Stacy had suspicions if not proof. However, it is a shocking and poignant revelation to Peter.
Peter’s secret identity always had more meaning to me than it did with other superheroes because it seemed there was always more at stake. This is due in part to the fact that we are so emotionally invested in the supporting cast in Spider-Man. We care about these people and we care if harm comes to them. We care about what Peter cares about. Peter loves his friends and family like we, the reader, love our friends and family.
|Peter's secret was almost revealed in Amazing Spider-Man 12|
This was what was always so much more interesting about Spider-Man than other heroes whose secret identity really didn’t seem to matter. One doesn’t get the same sense of danger if say Superman’s identity is revealed. Or someone like Bruce Wayne who is more wrapped up in being Batman than Bruce Wayne and who’s family is basically comprised of other heroes. Peters circle of friends and family are more like regular people. Some, like Aunt May, are more vulnerable than say Robin the Boy Wonder(or Girl Wonder, depending on your Robin of choice). There was one incident in Amazing Spider-Man 18 when Peter’s Aunt May is deathly ill yet again. The Sandman has escaped from prison and is itching for a rematch with Spider-Man. Spider-Man actually hides from Sandman rather than engage him in a battle where he might be killed because if he dies there would be no one to look after his Aunt.
|"I'm not chicken! I just really care about my Aunt" Sure, Pete. Sure.|
Peter is so afraid of what will happen to his loved ones if his identity is revealed that he can’t even trust the secret with his closest friends or the woman he loves (at least at this particular point in time. Much has changed since the Bronze Age). This is why stories involving the Green Goblin were always so intense. He knew who Spider-Man was and taunted him with that information and went after his loved ones. Peter carries this burden by himself and most of the tragedy in his life is the result of that secret that he keeps.
So when Captain Stacy reveals that he knew all along, it’s a very powerful moment for us and for Peter. Peter tells Stacy “You must have always known! But--you never told! You never gave me away!” Stacy dies and Spider-Man is distraught, mourning the “second best friend” he ever had. The first being, of course, his Uncle Ben. That Stacy kept Peter’s secret and continued to be his friend, continued to let him love his daughter, let Peter know for the first time since he had become Spider-Man that someone sympathized with his plight and cared. I find this revelation to be much more powerful than the tragedy of Gwen’s death which is itself a powerful story. But the death of someone that Peter put in the same classification as Uncle Ben is unique and had a power and poignancy to it that, for me, has still not been matched to this day.