Published in 1988, The Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #8 was part of Marvel's "Evolutionary War" storyline, where all of Marvel's summer annuals shared a similar story, dealing with The High Evolutionary's attempts to artificially advance humanity to a new evolutionary level, and I have probably already lost you. It was written by Gerry Conway, an underappreciated but consistent Spider-Man writer, and pencilled by Mark Bagley. It was square-bound, and contained several back-up stories and features.
The main story, as seen on the cover, has a startled Spider-Man exclaiming in surprise as he sees Gwen Stacy walking down an alleyway. Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man's first important girlfriend, was murdered by the Green Goblin in a Spider-Man story from the early 1970s, also written by Gerry Conway. The story was important both from the point of view of the internal logic, as it increased the guilt and regret of Spider-Man, who was unable to save Gwen Stacy, and from an external point of view, as it showed that Marvel was able to take risks and kill off popular characters (although, of course, killing a female character to provide motivation for a male character would later be seen as problematic, to say the least). So that is the background of this story.
The story starts with Spider-Man seeing what appears to be a clone of Gwen, pursued by some flying, high-tech robots. They both disappear, and Spider-Man swings back to his apartment, where his newlywed fashion model wife wonders why he is so despondent. His sadness over his departed, but possibly cloned girlfriend promises to be a stumbling block in their developing marriage. But just as we are about to deal with that, we are transported from a creaky apartment in Manhattan, to a star-sized space ship floating in the core of the Milky Way, home to The Celestials, mile-high space gods of mysterious motivation. It turns out that the High Evolutionary has come there to observe The Young Gods, mutated humans who each represent one of 12 different human achievements. They were taken by the Celestials from different eras and places on the earth, to serve as exemplars of humanity. The High Evolutionary teleports away, and the Young Gods follow him. At the same time, Spider-Man, out hunting for Gwen Stacy, is also teleported into the High Evolutionary's base. There is then a classic comic-book scene: a rumble in a high-tech underground base, between Spider-Man, the Young Gods, and the high tech soldiers of the High Evolutionary. After obtaining victory, Spider-Man learns that Gwen Stacy's clone is not actually Gwen Stacy, but a woman inflicted with a genetic virus that changed her appearance to that of Gwen Stacy. Having survived these happenings and revelations, Spider-Man returns to earth, to his small apartment, and has an emotional moment with his wife.
Besides it was even more confusing than that, and despite the fact that I might take a gently mocking tone to all of this, I tried to describe the plot in detail, because it is important. And I liked it.
Oh, and the rest of the 64 page annual included an origin story for the Young Gods, and also more of the history of the High Evolutionary, where we get to see him punch Galactus.
Why were the Young Gods, minor characters who were introduced in Marvel's more cosmic stories, suddenly inserted into a Spider-Man story? And not just any Spider-Man story, a Spider-Man story that relates to one of his most pivotal moments? My own guess, is that the Marvel Comics editorial staff was wondering if the young, multicultural Young Gods could be popular like The New Mutants, and decided to put them with the popular Spider-Man to find out.
One of the long standing problems with comic books is that the needs of seriality often disrupt the importance of key moments. Or, in other words, it cheapens death when we know someone is going to be "brought back" via cloning or time travel or magic a year in the future. This comic book starts by asking some serious emotional questions: how does having a departed loved one change someone's future relationships? And just as we are ready to ask that question in earnest, watching Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson in a small apartment, we are interrupted by some gigantic spaceships and a villain base battle where Spider-Man is mostly overshadowed by some minor characters that even adroit Marvel readers would not be familiar with. Fighting a man whose magenta battle armor has a loincloth. It's ridiculous. To some, it might cheapen the emotional impact of the basic story: Peter Parker's love for Mary Jane fighting his guilt over Gwen Stacy.
And yet, real life often works this way. Literary fiction usually presents grappling with big issues as happening over a static background. But in real life? There is no reason why a helicopter can't crash in your backyard the day after you come out to your parents. I hope it is not in bad taste to bring up this matter, but this site's first communal experience with dealing with mortality and tragedy was eclipsed when the next day two planes hit the twin towers, in an event that seems like something that could only happen in a science-fiction story. Marvel Comics had a ridiculous mixing of the street-level with the cosmic, of the almost-possible with the clearly fantastic, with building emotionally important character arcs with using characters as chess pieces for the purpose of plot. Part of me wonders what this story would be like if it was closer to earth, but part of me appreciates the authors and editors for truly spinning the wheel of what type of story they could make.