Over the next few months, SuperiorSpiderTalk.com will publish “Mysterious Ways,” which will look at some of the most significant, long-running “mysteries,” as well as a number of unresolved mysteries from Spider-Man comics. Entries will outline what made the mystery so important to the overall mythos of the Spider-Man universe, and whether or not the payoff (or lack thereof) was worth the build.
For our first installment, let’s go back to the Silver Age and the introduction of Spider-Man’s most famous rogue, the Green Goblin.
About two years after introducing Spider-Man to the world, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created “the most dangerous foe Spidey’s ever fought” in the Green Goblin. However, unlike all of the other Spider-Man villains introduced to that point, Lee and Ditko initially withheld who was the man under the green mask.
The mystery behind the Green Goblin’s identity may go down as one of the best long-games in Spider-Man history. Despite the fact that in the early going of Spidey’s existence, Doctor Octopus was presented as more of an arch-nemesis to our hero (like Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Doc Ock was a brilliant but arrogant man of science who after a lab accident receives powers akin to an animal with eight limbs), the fact that the Green Goblin’s civilian identity was kept secret provided the character with an aura of mystery and danger. Of course in 1964, there was no indication that the Green Goblin would one day go on to become Spider-Man’s most diabolical and vindictive adversary, but there’s absolutely no doubt that the character is supposed to be seen as something “special” from the get-go — and not only because of his unique appearance.
In terms of developing the mystery, in every Green Goblin appearance following his debut in Amazing Spider-Man #14, Lee and Ditko provide readers with a few more clues as to what kind of person may be under the mask. In ASM #17, we see the Goblin’s hideout, which is filled with fancy machinery and equipment that he either built himself or purchased and had installed (implying wealth and mechanical know-how). In ASM #23, we learn that the Green Goblin wishes to take over “every racket in the city,” thereby indicating that the character has prominent connections to the criminal underworld.
The mystery of the Green Goblin, along with another new villain, the Crime-Master were front-and-center in what turned out to be Lee/Ditko’s final Goblin story in ASM #26-27. The arc begins with a vintage Ditko splash page depicting the Goblin, Crime-Master, criminal-turned-reporter Frederick Foswell, Spider-Man and a giant question mark, further teasing the mystery for readers. The storyline also introduces readers to J. Jonah Jameson’s “exclusive men’s club” where he hobnobs with a bunch of wealthy elites (including one man who, in a later story is given a name — Norman Osborn) and talks about the secret identity of the Green Goblin and the Crime-Master, one person even suggesting they are the same person. That bit of conjecture is quickly nullified when we see Goblin and Crime-Master battling each other for control of the underworld — and each apparently knows the secret identity of the other (but nobody is telling us!). Lee and Ditko also played the red herring card with Foswell, suggesting that maybe he had reverted to a life of crime and was one of the masked villains.
The Goblin/Crime-Master arc famously ends with the Crime-Master getting shot and killed (just seconds before revealing the Green Goblin’s identity) and being unmasked as … Nick “Lucky” Lewis. Who? That’s the point. Spider-Man opines that sometimes the guy under the mask isn’t actually the “butler” or the most likely suspect but someone you never heard of before. Fair enough, but that still gets us no closer to the Goblin. As it turned out, a lot of that had to do with the fact that Lee and Ditko couldn’t even agree themselves as to who the villain should be.
As the Goblin promises at the end of ASM #27, he lays low for a while and doesn’t reemerge until a year later in one of the most famous issues of the Silver Age. In the interim, a whole host of new supporting characters are introduced in ASM, including Gwen Stacy, Harry Osborn and his father, the wealthy businessman, Norman.
There’s definitely something fishy about Norman in his first named appearance (ASM #37). One of Norman’s business partners — who he admittedly cheated out of some of his prized inventions — attempts to burn down an Osborn industrial plant, which naturally leads to the businessman appearing agitated and irrational. But the reader hadn’t heard a peep from the Green Goblin in nearly a year, so why would anyone be putting two and two together here?
Ditko left ASM after issue #38, leading to the start of the John Romita Sr.-era and one of the greatest Spider-Man covers in the character’s history: a visual of an unmasked Spider-Man imprisoned by the Goblin and hanging over the side of his glider. It’s meant to be provocative and delivers in every way possible. In the issue, the Goblin stalks Spider-Man until he discovers his civilian identity. He attacks and captures Peter, pulling off his own mask to reveal … Norman Osborn.
History would prove that Marvel got it absolutely right with the Goblin’s reveal as Osborn. But if you remove all hindsight from this decision, on the surface, it’s a rather mercurial choice for the House of Ideas. Osborn had only been introduced as a named character a few issues earlier, which seemingly breaks one of the big rules of mystery building by not presenting the audience with all of the information needed to make an educated guess. Depending on which version of history you read, that might be the result of Lee and Ditko never finding a consensus as to who the Green Goblin was supposed to be.
Some interviews have suggested the Ditko went as far as to leave ASM because of the Green Goblin (hence the significance of revealing the Goblin’s identity in the very first non-Ditko issue). Ditko reportedly wanted the villain to be “just a guy” a la the Crime-Master and Lee thought they would be pushing the issue to do a similar reveal two times over. That story has been disputed by some other interviews that suggested Ditko’s exit from the book was as much a product of him being a curmudgeonly objectivist who was tired of working with a writer/editor who notoriously grabbed a lot of the glory for himself. I tend to find myself believing the latter because in retrospect, Osborn was not that scintillating of a choice in 1965. He was essentially “just a guy” like what Ditko wanted, and would only go on to become “Norman Osborn” well after ASM #39-40 were published.
Now, after putting our hindsight-powered glasses back on, we can safely say that Norman was a legendary choice as the villain because it added a very personal element to Spidey’s rogue’s gallery. Osborn was a guy who Peter knew from his civilian life. He was his “best friend’s” father in an era where Peter’s social life was becoming a very important part of the story (could you imagine what Riverdale would be like if Jughead’s dad was a sociopath?). Additionally, the reveal works because Marvel committed to it. After his battle with Spider-Man in ASM #40, Norman develops amnesia and forgets he’s the Green Goblin, but the reader watches as the character slowly gets his memory back and remembers his villainous past. That adds a layer of palatable tension to every Norman/Peter interaction that followed (with the added danger of Norman knowing Peter’s secret identity).
More importantly, the Goblin mystery established a template that would be revisited many times over in Spider-Man history — often with other characters in Goblin attire. And like many pioneering comic book stories, the mystery of the Goblin has been often imitated but never duplicated, thereby inviting a healthy dose of skepticism every time a new villain without a face or a name steps forward in a Spider-Man comic.