Back in 2007, when I was writing about the death of the original Green Goblin, I described how shocking it was to see him die in the classic “Death of Gwen Stacy” storyline. I pointed out that he was impaled on-panel, just to make it clear that he was really dead and there wasn’t going to be a last-minute cheat to allow the character to survive. “Except that there was,” I then said, “some twenty years later, but we’ll save that for another long, angry day.”
That day has arrived, but I’m not really angry anymore. Marvel’s doing its thing and I’m doing mine. But I did want to explain why it was a mistake to bring back Norman Osborn, and along the way give my answer to why Norman isn’t Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis (although I should note clearly here that this is entirely separate from any answer MGK might give, and that he reserves the right to give his own answer at some future point. He’s nice enough to give me a guest spot here, but I don’t speak for him.) But let’s start with the resurrection of Norman Osborn. (After the cut, because this is kind of a long one.)
For those of you who don’t remember the Clone Saga, either because you weren’t reading comics back then or because you blotted it from your mind out of sheer mental self-preservation, Marvel had kind of written themselves into a corner. In one of their many attempts to get rid of the Spider-Marriage, which they’d convinced themselves was dragging down sales, they’d completely junked everything about the character except for the name, origin and superpowers. Spider-Man was now Ben Reilly, a Starbucks barista who’d spent the last five years traveling the American heartland in the belief that he was nothing but a clone of the original Spider-Man, only to find out (in an epic tale of betrayals, deceptions, and sundry plot complications) that he was the original, and Peter was the clone. Peter lost his powers and went off to live a happy life with Mary Jane, and Ben became the one true Spider-Man!
Except that fans don’t just read a comic for the name, origin and superpowers. The industry has gotten the wrong-headed idea that they do, because back in 1954 someone rebooted the Flash along those lines and it worked, but it primarily worked because there weren’t any fans of the Flash back then to care about everything they threw out. By the 1990s, there was an entrenched fanbase for most of the popular characters who had no intention of continuing to buy a title with a completely different main character just because it still said “Spider-Man” on the front cover. (Or “Green Lantern”, or “Green Arrow”, or…)
So the decision was made to get rid of Ben Reilly and make Peter the one true Spider-Man! …er, again. The problem was, by this point they had worked so hard to convince people that this time it wasn’t a cheat or a trick or a hoax that Ben was the original and Peter was the clone that they had written out just about every possible escape hatch you could think of. Any behind-the-scenes manipulator capable of orchestrating all of the various events of the last several years would have to be someone who knew Peter’s true identity, have a lot of resources and a maniacal hatred of Peter Parker and Spider-Man, and oh by the way it couldn’t be the Jackal (which would have made a lot of sense) because they’d just used him in a way that made it clear that he thought Ben was the clone. (And they were determined not to reveal that the Jackal was a clone too, because by that point the one thing absolutely everyone was agreed on was that if they heard the word “clone” one more time they were going to explode in a ball of pure rage.)
Bob Harras was the one who decided that the only character with the emotional weight to fit the bill was Norman Osborn. This was a mistake. Not, I want to stress, because Norman was impaled on-panel and it was ludicrously implausible to imagine him surviving that. I mean, yes, it was. It was absolutely ludicrous. But the original Spider-Clone survived being dissected by Curt Connors and thrown into a smokestack, and nobody balked at that. (Although come to think of it, that does explain away one of the biggest loose ends in the Clone Saga, the skeleton in the smokestack that even the writers didn’t have a clue about. Maybe that was the original Spider-Clone, and Ben Reilly was a different one.) No, the reason that it was a mistake to make Norman the villain behind it all was that Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin, should have stayed dead.
Normally, I don’t make that statement. I have gone on record multiple times as saying that if contrived resurrections cheapen deaths, the answer is to stop killing off characters so frequently and not to have fewer resurrections. Killing off a character in a shared universe is generally an act of colossal arrogance and short-sightedness, a statement along the lines of, “Well, I can’t think of anything more to do with this character, and I’m the Most Creative Person of All Time! The only interesting thing left to do is kill them off.” It’s never true. There are always more interesting stories to be told with a living character than a dead one, and that’s what makes resurrections so inevitable no matter how contrived they wind up being. The blame should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the killing writer, not the resurrecting one.
Except for Norman Osborn.
Because really, when you go back and read the original Green Goblin stories, he wasn’t much of a villain. He was a C-list Kingpin wannabe who failed at everything he tried, lost pretty much every fight he was in, and whose only talent was in running away. He didn’t even really have a backstory, because Stan Lee and Steve Ditko couldn’t decide who he was going to be under the mask. (Ditko wanted it to be a totally unmemorable nobody, to show that villains didn’t always have to be someone important to the hero. Lee felt like they’d spent so long building up the mystery of the Goblin’s identity that the audience would be upset if it wasn’t someone they recognized. The dispute was one of the reasons that Ditko left the title.) Basically, the Green Goblin was by no means the most important of Spider-Man’s bad guys.
By contrast, Doctor Octopus was clearly intended to be Spider-Man’s arch-enemy. He was a powerful physical challenge to Spider-Man–Peter didn’t beat Doc Ock in a fair fight until long after Ditko had left the series. He represented a moral dilemma; how could Peter hold Otto responsible for his actions if he’d suffered brain damage? And thematically, he represented everything that Peter could be without his conscience holding him in check. He was science stripped of its moral center, power and privilege without any thought to the consequences of exercising it. Both men were human beings made better by science, and both originally thought of their gifts only as a way to gain material benefits. But Peter learned differently, and Otto never did. Whenever Spider-Man fights Doctor Octopus, he’s fighting the person he could have become. That’s arch-nemesis material.
What weight Norman has, by contrast, came from his last two major appearances as the Green Goblin. In the first, Stan Lee finally unmasked the character and, in an effort to give him that extra dimension as a threat, showed that he was no more responsible for his actions than Otto. Norman was high on Goblin serum when he committed his crimes, which meant that Peter felt like he couldn’t cut loose on his friend’s father. But this was pretty much a dead end for the character–for him to keep that aspect of the character, he had to be mostly Norman and only rarely the Goblin, so his use was highly restricted as a result. You can’t have him go insane again and again and again and again, not without diminishing returns, and you can’t really do anything else with him.
The other big story was, of course, ‘The Death of Gwen Stacy’. This was huge, and not just because it was an iconic moment in Spider-Man history. It was huge primarily because of the last scene, where unbeknownst to Peter, Harry watched his father die and swore revenge. This transformed the entire concept of the Green Goblin, far more thoroughly than Gerry Conway probably intended at the time. He probably just planned for Harry to take over as the bad guy…but it went a lot further than that.
Because after Harry came Bart Hamilton, a psychiatrist who helped treat Harry’s nervous breakdown and decided that hey, maybe Norman was on to a good thing. And Roderick Kingsley, who found Norman’s old stuff and decided that if a lunatic like Norman could almost become New York’s top criminal with the equipment, what could a sane criminal do? And Harry again, this time trying to redeem his father’s name by turning the Green Goblin into a superhero. And Jack O’Lantern, who decided he’d get more respect if he borrowed the Goblin name. And Phil Urich, who headlined his own series as a heroic Green Goblin. And, and, and…fundamentally, the Green Goblin was far more interesting as a meme appropriated by a variety of Spider-Man’s friends and enemies for different purposes than the character of Norman Osborn had ever been. There were more interesting stories to tell about the memetic Green Goblin, the banner that Spider-Man’s enemies rallied to, the ghost he could never defeat because you can’t kill an idea, than there ever were about poor old pathetic Norman and his mental disorder.
And bringing him back proved it. Marvel has been doing a desperate tap dance ever since bringing Norman Osborn back from the dead to avoid people catching sight of how uninteresting he is. They’ve amped up his power levels from “guy that Spider-Man could probably cold-cock with one good punch if he wasn’t always sneaking out while another bad guy took the lumps” to “able to take Spider-Man in a fair fight” all the way up to “a suitable threat to the entire Avengers team”. They’ve transplanted Lex Luthor’s personality from the DC Universe (where, to be fair, it’s no longer being used because they decided over there that Lex was more interesting as a battle-suited chump who takes it on the chin every time he fights Superman) into the Green Goblin so that he can be threatening as a master manipulator and player of games, rather than the failed businessman and lightweight never-was criminal that he actually was when he was alive. They’ve had him kill off the “pretenders” to the Goblin identity, not realizing that the pretenders were far more interesting than the original.
In short, they’ve done everything possible to reinvent the character of Norman Osborn, because the original Norman Osborn simply wasn’t capable of being the character that they needed at that particular point in Spider-Man history. Original Norman wasn’t up to manipulating Spider-Man’s whole personal life, forging clone test results, kidnapping Aunt May and faking her death, hiding Spider-Man’s infant daughter in Europe, tricking the Jackal, and everything else needed to make the Clone Saga make sense. So they made a new Norman who was. It was the only thing they could do at the time, really, other than just throw both Ben and Peter into the “Heroes Reborn” universe for a year and have them come back as one person…but it made the character much less interesting than he was back when he was a ghost hovering over Spider-Man’s life, an original sin that Peter Parker could never quite purge.