The Return of Norman Osborn

You said it, Norman.

Let's begin with the controversy surrounding Norman's return, including the whys & wherefores, the historical perspective, and my responses to the naysayers who disapprove of his coming back.

The Controversy

One of the most controversial episodes of Spidey's recent history was the return of Norman Osborn from the dead in 1996's "Revelations," which brought an end to the tortured, unpopular Clone Saga storyline. The subject still pops up on discussion boards with people providing their opinion on whether or not Norman should have returned. Usually, it seems to run about 50-50 with some people happy to have him back, and the other half feeling that his return is blasphemous to the Church of Spidey. For example, check out this comment from Eric's Spider-Man Page, which pretty well sums up the feelings of those who feel Osborn should have stayed dead:

"Marvel was in trouble for bringing back a character that died 21 years ago (Peter's clone), so they solved the problem by bring back a character that died 23 years ago."

As all of us long-time fans know, Norman Osborn "died" in Amazing Spider-Man #122, receiving his just reward for murdering Peter Parker's true love, Gwen Stacy, in #121. Typically, super-villains tend to die ambiguous deaths, so that they can be written back in if circumstances warrant. But, Norman's departure looks like it was intended to be permanent. For any of those who doubt that he was supposed to be dead, dead, dead - well, here's the proof:

Looks pretty definite, doesn't it? No explosions in which the body was never discovered, no disappearances into another universe, no doppelgangers dressed up at the last minute to assume the identity of the villain just before his "death," no clones(thank goodness), you get the picture. Nope, Norman gets it right in the chest repeatedly until his Goblin Glider runs out of gas, and his lifeless body collapses to the ground with a sickening thump. If this issue had been written and drawn now rather than in 1973, we probably would have been treated to the spectacle of gushing blood and maybe even some crunching bones and other spewing body tissues.

Then, to reinforce the certainty, on the first pages of issue #123, we see Osborn's body being placed in the meat wagon while Jolly Jonah Jameson rants and raves about Spider-Man's responsibility in the matter. By this time, as we know from later issues, his son Harry had stripped Norman of his Goblin costume and put him in street clothes in order to protect his name and reputation. Since I'm sure that Spidey didn't call the police right away after the battle to tell them that the Green Goblin's bloody corpse was laying in some alley (and likewise, it would have taken Harry some time to peel away the costume and etc.), a considerable amount of time has probably elapsed. Now, Norman's body should have been growing stone cold if he were really dead. Or, if he really wasn't dead, the fact that blood was still circulating in his body due to the special Goblin formula already repairing the damage to his heart should have caught someone's attention, particularly a trained paramedic. So, it was safe to say that this dude was dead. And he stayed that way for more than 20 years.

Well, he's baaaaaaacccckkkk. And this strict constructionist of Spidey continuity is glad to have him among the living again.

Why Did Norman Come Back?

Well, I will concede that he wasn't brought back from the dead as part of a carefully orchestrated plan on Marvel's part. In fact, the evidence suggests that his return was rather hastily devised (considering the long lead time necessary in comics, the fact that Amazing Spider-Man #407 trumpeted the return of the "original" Spider-Man, and by Amazing #411 we're hip deep in the "Blood Brothers" storyline which began to suggest that another change was in the air, I'd say that qualifies as "hasty").

By the end of 1995 it was clear that the Clone Saga, which resulted in the replacement of Peter Parker by Ben Reilly, who was supposedly the "true" Spider-Man, replaced by Peter's "clone" after the events of Amazing #149, was a disaster for the Spider-titles and Marvel, had gotten completely out of control, and had to be brought to a final resolution. However, what had complicated the situation was that in order to for it to seem logical for the Spider-Man we had been reading about for more than 20 years to have been a clone in the first place, the writers had to construct a wildly convoluted chain of events which essentially rewrote several key events of the prior 20 years. For example, in between the two Clone Sagas (the first being Amazing #147-149,), it was determined that the clones of Gwen, Peter and Miles Warren/Carrion were not really clones at all, but genetic reconstructions of other people. Well, those stories had to be reversed, or ret-conned, in order for the whole Clone Saga II to make any sense (it still didn't). It was also at this time that the utterly nonsensical story of middle-aged ESU college professor Miles Warren being an assistant to the High Evolutionary and leading some ridiculous rebellion of animal people against the Evolutionary was devised (Shudder).

Additionally, Warren's Jackal had been given a complete physical and personality makeover so that he bore absolutely no resemblance to the character he had originally been, including a new predisposition to rattle off succeeding series of stupid rapid fire puns that made him more of a Joker rip off than a unique Spidey supervillain. He had also been built up by the writers into this huge, manipulating, super-smart, all-knowing, all-seeing bad ass who was capable of engineering the whole Clone Saga.

And now - all of that had to be reversed again in order to make Peter Spider-Man once again, and Ben the clone. But how? If you read the one-shot 101 Ways to End the Clone Saga, you get an idea of the quandry Marvel found themselves in since they had let this monster get completely off-tangent. They either had to create some huge cosmic event, some new fangled scientific oddity or come up with someone big enough, bad enough, and around long enough, to have been pulling Miles Warren's strings from the very beginning. Not only that, but it had to be a Spidey villain who knew that Peter and Spider-Man were one and the same, and who hated them both to the degree that he would have the motivation to manage the events of the Saga. To have invented yet another new villain to have been behind all of this would have been a huge letdown, and any cosmic events would probably would have made the situation even more complicated and cumbersome to deal with in the future.

So, now you begin to see how limited Marvel's options really were.

Venom couldn't come to the rescue, because not only did the first Clone Saga long predate Venom, but Eddie Brock clearly did not have either the intellectual or financial resources to pull off the Clone Saga. Plus, it just wasn't his style. Doctor Octopus certainly would have had the brainpower and the access to the kind of science required - but he did not learn Spider-Man's secret i.d. until Amazing #397, and even at that, he had just been killed off by Kaine (another dumb move) right after he had made an odd sort of peace with Spider-Man.

The only other classic villain to whom this whole affair would have been feasible for would have been Mysterio, since he theoretically could have induced a super illusion on Spidey for the duration of the Clone Saga - but that would have required Marvel telling fans that the Clone Saga never happened.

So that leaves only two possibilities, and both have the last name of Osborn.

Now, Harry was a fairly probable candidate. In fact, I remember the owners of a comic shop I used to patronize speculating that the mastermind behind the Clone Saga was Harry. Perhaps he would have been a less controversial choice because he hadn't been dead for very long, and his death was not part of a widely revered story.

However, Harry didn't really work, either. For one, he had just been dug up and his identity confirmed in Legacy of Evil. (Not that would necessarily stop him from being brought back to life, I admit. After all, in The Jackal Files didn't the Jackal state that he had confirmed that both Harry and Norman were dead?) Second, during the time that the plot of the first Clone Saga would have been hatched, Harry would not have had the motivation or the wherewithal to have concocted such a scheme. In Amazing #122 he was recovering from another acid trip, and while he was coherent enough to have switched his father's clothing (and pay off the coroner in Osborn Journals), it would have been a bit much to have him be the mastermind behind the Clone Saga. Additionally, he did not confirm for himself that Peter Parker was Spider-Man until issue #134, and after being beaten by Spider-Man in issue #137, he went to the booby hatch where he stayed until issue #151 and by then he had forgotten about the whole Green Goblin gig. In fact, until Harry got his wits back around the time Bart Hamilton became the Green Goblin in Amazing #176-180, he was pretty much a harmless simpleton. Not only that, but he did not even remember that his father was the Green Goblin until the Hobgoblin tried to blackmail him with that information in issue #249. So, yes, it could have been Harry, but that would have required a lot more creative dancing and retconning that the choice that was finally made.

That leaves only one little indian - and his name is Norman Osborn, the only villain who (1)knew that Peter was Spider-Man, (2) had the financial resources (3) had the cunning, and (4) had the motivation to pull this off. After all, we don't have to be told how much he hates Spider-Man. In fact, Harry's recent death actually made Norman's return at that particular time even more plausible, and provided him with a significantly additional motivation to wreck Peter Parker's life.

Osborn's resurrection defies logic

I've heard this one, and my first reaction is "Come on!" I'm a big comics fan, and in order to truly enjoy comics or most fiction, you have to tolerate huge lapses in logic in order to enjoy the story, or you'll simply nitpick it to death. Sometimes it's actually fun to point out such lapses when the story is so well told that they don't diminish your enjoyment of the story. One of the interesting things about die-hard comics fans, though, is their willingness to accept certain lapses in logic, but not others.

For example, some readers are willing to accept that a bite from a radioactive spider would give a teenager "spider-powers," that mysterious cosmic rays would give a group of four citizens extraordinary (and all quite different) super powers, and that a gamma bomb could explode and turn a scientist into a not so jolly green giant - with none of these people dying from radiation poisoning or cancer. As far as villains returning from the dead, how about Doc Ock's and Hammerhead's survival while being in the heart of a nuclear explosion back in Amazing #133? Ock survived by encircling himself in his indestructible tentacles. And although Hammerhead had no such protection, he had merely been turned into some form of walking, talking ectoplasm that was returned to human form after Doc Ock zapped him in issue #159. I don't recall a whole lot of controversy about these highly improbable returns from the dead. So, after these leaps of faith, we can't accept that Norman's exploded heart couldn't be healed by the very "Goblin formula" that turned a conniving businessman into a lunatic who wears a green and purple suit and flies around on a glider? I mean, we're talking about fantasy to begin with. Super-villains never stay dead - it's in the union rules. Based on those union rules, it's amazing that Norman actually stayed "dead" for over 20 years.

And speaking of lapses in logic, how was Harry able to take off Norman's costume and put him in street clothes without being covered with blood himself (and believe me, there would have been a lot of blood), leaving all sorts of bloody footprints from the scene of his father's demise, being seen by someone while covered in blood, and taking some of said blood with him to his apartment? Unless some of those Goblin hideouts come fully equipped with showers and other de-incriminating devices - but if Harry didn't know his father was the Goblin prior to this, how did he know where the hide-outs were? So, even the classic story of Amazing #121-122requires some leaps of faith for it to work.

The point? Norman's return from the dead wasn't anything special or unique but fit right in with the bizarre pseudo-science that is a vital part of the genre.

Osborn's resurrection ruins the classic story in Amazing Spider-Man #121-122.

That's a good point, but it's not really true. If Gwen returned from the dead, then that story would be ruined, because non super-powered people can not, and should not, be returning from the dead (but then there's the Aunt May thing isn't there? Sigh). Wait a minute, Gwen did return from the dead? Well, no, she really didn't - but that was her clone, not the real Gwen. Glad we got that straightened out. So - let's see, it isn't a bad thing if there's a clone of the original Gwen Stacy running around, a clone that then turned out not to be a clone according to Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #8, but then turned out to be a clone again as a result of the Clone Saga. (And for all of you who thought that the Osborn Journals was a complicated, convoluted attempt to square away things, go back and re-read Scarlet Spider Unlimited #1 for the truly wacky, bizarre, and unconvincing way it tried to rewrite history.) In other words, in little over 2 years after the "Death of Gwen" storyline, Gerry Conway had already muddied it by bringing in the Gwen clone and creating the Jackal, turning a middle aged college professor into a super-villain wannabe.

If Osborn had been resurrected after 1 year or 5 years, then yes, that would have probably have cheapened the events of that story, and it would have deprived us of several years of stories involving the ups and downs of Peter's and Harry's relationship as they each tried to come to grips with the legacy of the Green Goblin. If Spidey's run had been only 150 or so issues, then come to a definite end, then yes, Osborn should have stayed dead. The only problem is, Spidey is now going on 40 years old, and could last that many more if Marvel doesn't drive a stake into the heart of its greatest creation. Gwen's death was 27 years ago. Sometimes, a re-evaluation of things is in order. While it is important to maintain continuity and not completely disregard it as DC has done in many of its comics - the relentless march of time forces a reassessment of previous events.

And Peter still thinks about her. The powerful backup story in Webspinners #1 demonstrated that. Norman's return has not resulted in Gwen being forgotten. In fact, it has brought the tragedy of her death closer to Peter than it has been since he married MJ. The death of Gwen was a shocking reminder to Peter of the fragility of life and the senselessness that often surrounds its end. Norman's evil presence reinforces that.

There are those who feel that by coming back, Osborn did not "pay" for the crime of murdering Gwen. Unfortunately, it is a fact that many who mourn murder victims are never able to obtain closure, certainly not by being able to pummel the murderer either to death or senselessness. And not all murderers are even caught and made to pay for their crimes. I would also counter this line of thought with - how many times has the Joker murdered someone? Didn't he murder Jason Todd - the second Robin? Didn't he cripple Barbara Gordon with a bullet in her spine, ending her career as Batgirl? He also killed Commissioner Gordon's wife, didn't he? But he's still around, although Batman really did want to kill him after the Jason Todd thing, but Superman did his Super Self Righteous Boy Scout thing and got in the way. Do you think the Joker is going to be 86'd out of the Batman titles anytime soon? Of course not - so why shouldn't Spidey continue to have his deadliest villain lurking about? (You don't think Norman is Spidey's number one villain? That's the next article.)

Gwen's death had tremendous shock value and was unique at the time. To have such a long standing character so close to the hero suddenly be murdered sent ripples thoughout Spidey fandom and the comic community. Unfortunately, the shock of Gwen's death has been diminished, not by Norman's return, but by Marvel's making killing off characters close to the hero a routine thing. For example Betty Banner and Karen Page have also recently died. And I don't even want to bring up the MJ thing currently going on in the comics.

Norman is now a Lex Luthor/Kingpin clone

Oh ye who have such short memories of comic history. Norman Osborn was a coat and tie villain even before he was revealed as the Green Goblin in Amazing Spider-Man #39 back in 1966, predating the Kingpin by more than a year, and the current interpretation of Luthor by two decades. In fact, there is evidence that Osborn was not even the original choice of at least one of Spidey's creators to be the Goblin.

If you Take a close look at Amazing Spider-Man #37 & 38, circa 1966, it seems obvious that the decision had not been made to reveal Norman Osborn as the Green Goblin. We first are introduced to Norman in issue #37 - although if you look carefully at earlier issues, it appears that Norman was making brief appearances as a member of J. Jonah Jameson's country club clique as far back as issue #23. In fact, part of Spidey lore is that one of the reasons Stan Lee and Steve Ditko ended their collaboration on Spider-Man is that they disagreed on the identity of the Goblin. Unfortunately, I cannot remember if I have ever read definitively from either Lee or Ditko themselves about the nature of their break-up (anyone know if they've spoken about it?), so I am reporting on the conjecture of others. One story is that Ditko wanted the Goblin to be a complete unknown, to demonstrate that life is not always so neatly wrapped up in a nice little bow. This is a valid point, since in a city as large as New York (and who's to say the Goblin couldn't live in Joisey, or even Connecticut - David Letterman does - and no, I'm not making any implications about supervillain status for David Letterman - but he did guest star in The Avengers several years ago), why should the villain be someone the hero already knows? Stan, on the other hand, allegedly felt that to dangle the mystery of the Goblin's identity for two years in front of the fans and then tell them it was a nobody was a dramatic cheat. However, I'm not entirely sure I believe this version of the story. You'll remember that back in Amazing Spider-Man #26-27 we were introduced to a mysterious character known as the Crime Master who was in a brief partnership, then rivalry, with the Green Goblin to take over the underworld. His identity was also a secret, with some red herrings dropped that Frederick Foswell, a reporter for the Bugle (also the Big Man in Amazing #10) might be the Crime Master. However, at the end of issue #27, the Crime Master is revealed to be Nick "Lucky" Lewis, someone we had never heard of. Spidey himself made the observation that "In real life, when a villain is unmasked, he isn't always the butler or the one you suspected. Sometimes he's a man you didn't even know." Therefore, I have a little trouble believing that only one year later Ditko would want to pull the same trick with another villain.

The other Goblin theory, which I think has more credibility, was mentioned in a very valuable little reference source from back in 1982 called The History of Spider-Man, published as part of Fantco's Chronicles Series, in which each issue spotlighted a different hero (I had never heard of Fantco before or since, so don't ask me who they were or if they are still around) and included several articles of indepth reviews, analysis, and editorials about that issue's respective hero. The first article, written by a reporter by the name of Steve Webb, included the following paragraph speculating about Ditko's departure and the Goblin's identity. I quote it verbatim:

The Green Goblin's) identity was a mystery for 25 issues - apparently in part because Lee and Ditko disagreed on who the character should turn out to be. Ditko reportedly wanted the Goblin to be Ned Leeds, another Bugle reporter who competed with Peter Parker for Betty Brant's affection. But, as a writer-editor, Lee must have seen how sloppily repetitious that would have been after reporter Foswell turned out to be the Big Man.

The "Leeds as Goblin" thread that Ditko alledgedly was working toward picks up some legitimacy when in issue #38 Leeds and Peter nearly come to fisticuffs over Betty's whereabouts. Leeds grabs Peter by the jacket and tells him "I never did like you, and I don't like you now." At the end of the issue, as Spidey finishes punching out a bunch of bad guys, he comes across a store window mannequin which reminds him of Ned Leeds. He punches the dummy stating "Know why I hate you, Leeds?" and storms off. This was Steve Ditko's final issue of Spider-Man.

In the following issue, in which Osborn was revealed to be the Goblin, Spidey's internal radar was nullified and the Goblin was following him around in order to learn his secret identity. Peter walked into the Daily Bugle and met Ned Leeds, who then proceeded to apologize to Peter, who reciprocated with his own self-flagellation. Not that two grown men couldn't have each realized they were acting like a couple of chumps and come to their senses and apologized (been there, done that, got the t-shirt), but read back to back, and with #39 marking Stan's first Spidey story without Ditko, it seems like there was a definite change of direction for the Leeds character.

So, while it is not clear that Norman was meant to be the Green Goblin, he was definitely a crook. He had railroaded Mendel Stromm into jail ten years prior to the #37 story, and stolen his inventions. At the end of that story, in order to prevent Stromm from exposing him, he tried to shoot Stromm with a rifle (very un-Goblin like). In #38, Osborn adopts a cheesy goatee and sunglasses disguise in order to hire some thugs to take care of Spider-Man. So, it seems that Osborn was developing his own agenda separate from the Green Goblin's agenda. Osborn's thoughts at the end of #37 that "Now that (Spider-Man's) suspicions have been aroused, he must be disposed of" seem to indicate that only at that time did Norman Osborn begin to plot a campaign against Spider-Man. Since the Green Goblin had been trying to do away with Spider-Man since issue #14 , it seems odd that only now would it cross Norman Osborn's mind - unless, of course, Norman wasn't originally supposed to be the Goblin.

My point in all of this historical exposition? That Norman was always intended to be the "evil businessman," whether or not he was destined to be the Goblin. Still think Norman is a rip off of Lex? As my final exhibit, just check out what Lex was wearing back in the 1970's, which was the decade that Norman met his demise. Looks like he was still doing his shopping at Super-Villain Surplus. But hey, at least he got some nifty green jet boots thrown into the deal. Lex did not become the evil businessman until John Byrne (yep, same one) redefined the character in his "Man of Steel" reboot during the mid 1980's, which is the standard the Superman comics still follow to this day.

The Kingpin rip-off theory is a little harder to refute, although, again, Osborn was a villain even before the Kingpin's debut (Amazing #50). However, the stories post-Clone Saga with Osborn's sinister behind the scenes presence, as well as his blocked, bulked up physique courtesy of John Romita, Jr., could easily remind the reader of the Kingpin. It is quite possible that in matters of style, the Spidey artists have either consciencely or unconsciencely borrowed from the Kingpin in their interpretation of Norman. However, Norman remains a completely different personality from the Kingpin. He's a lot less sane for one, his loathing of Spider-Man is far more personal than the Kingpin's, and there was no indication after Norman's return that he was attempting to wrest control of the underworld mobs as he had during his first incarnation. Although he and the Kingpin squared off against each other briefly in Made Men, and the Kingpin clearly sees Norman as a threat (as the assassination attempt in Peter Parker #95 shows), many of Norman's agendas, stupid DNA-bomb plot aside, remain unknown.

Norman's his own man, folks.

Norman was more of a cool villain when he was dead

Actually, this is a pretty good argument.

Yes, I agree that at one time, Norman was a more effective villain dead than when he was alive. This was reflected in two scenes, one from Spectacular #200 prior to Harry's death and Amazing #390 as Peter is dealing with the aftermath of Harry's death and the whole "parents back from the dead thing" that Harry engineered. In both scenes, the characters are talking to pictures of Norman Osborn. His continued impact on the events in Spider-Man more than 20 years after his death was indeed chilling and made for good drama. Again, though, that lasted as long as Harry was alive to be tortured by his father's legacy. And, if Harry had remained among the living, then there would have been no remote reason to bring Norman back. After all, we would have had a Green Goblin (although I always felt that Harry had always been a rather ineffective Goblin. While the battles were more personal between Peter and Harry due to their friendship, Harry lacked his father's sheer menace and villainy), and to have Norman back prior to Harry's death would have resulted in a retelling of the old Amazings from Stan's day, and that would have served no purpose.

But now, with Harry dead, the time had come...

But why bring him back at all?

I tend to believe that Osborn originally died because he had run his course as a character at that time. It became apparent that Stan Lee and Gerry Conway really did not have a fresh take on the character. After all - how many times could you have him regain his memory - fight Spidey - and then lose his memory again until you're ready to drag him out of mothballs once more? It had already been done three times - at the end of Amazing #40, the original Spectacular #2, and Amazing #99. So, better to eliminate the character that make him a shadow of his former self.

But now it's more than 20 years later, and Osborn is a more viable villain now than he was during his first go-round. He originally died in the 1970's, long before the 1980's "Decade of Greed," and the relentless corporate mergers, downsizings, and other shenanigans of the 1990's that painted less than flattering pictures of Corporate America. Now, businessman as villain is a common theme - witness how Lex Luthor's character was altered to fit that theme. Norman is equally villainous outside of costume as in it.

Also, there were two stories that tried to put the cap on the Goblin legacy after the death of Harry Osborn. The first was in Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #14 and the second was in the one-shot Legacy of Evil. The fact that two separate authors could come up with two distinct stories about the same dead villains shows the irrestible lure of the Green Goblin story. Not to mention actually trying to use the name and costume for a hero for a short period of time. So why settle for imitations? Why not get the real thing back?

And Norman is the one Spidey villain who has not been mined to death over the years, considering that we still know so little about him. It is easy to tell fresh stories about Norman because he has been absent so long.

And frankly, another reason to bring Norman back is the current "crisis" situation in the comics. We all know about the declining sales of Spidey and other comics, and the need to reach a new fan base beyond the "core" fans. All the talk about Ultimate Marvels aside because I don't want to go down that path right now, one way that you reach these new fans is with good stories and cool villains. And in my opinion, there is no one better than the original Green Goblin. I know some of the posters to the Spider-Man Message Board disagree with this, but in my opinion, each superhero needs an arch-enemy that really gets his blood pumping when he does battle with him, or the foreshadowing of said villain's return results in great anticipation. The best analogy is Batman and Joker. Because the history between those two is so strong, and they are so recognizable, you know that it's going to be a free for all when they meet. When the writing is good, each brings out the best (and worst) in each other. And no one gets to Spider-Man like Norman Osborn. In my opinion, Spidey would be at a competitive disadvantage for his greatest villain to be on the sidelines as the result of one story written nearly 30 years ago, when the other superheroes are obviously not shackled by the same constraints.

After all, bringing Mr. Spock back from the dead in the Star Trek movies was ridiculous when you think about it, and in all honesty, it did cheapen the emotional ending to The Wrath of Khan, which still remains the best of the 9 Trek movies that have been released. But I think most Star Trek fans were glad to have him back. I know I was.

Conclusion (finally you say?)

There are few who respect Spidey's history and continuity as much as I. I have been a worshipper at the Church of Spidey for 26 years myself, which is probably longer than some of the fans who are complaining about Osborn's return have been alive. As many of my articles have demonstrated, I am a firm believer in the evolution of the character and the titles, but there comes a time when an evolving storyline that stretches across several decades cannot be held hostage to an event that occurred long before most of the current readership was even born, let alone reading comic books. And I enjoyed the post-return Osborn stories. They brought a level of tension to the Spider-Man series that had been missing for a long time. Although Howard Mackie has been soundly criticized on the web pages for some of his plots, I thought that he wrote a really cool, nasty Osborn. I look forward to more battles between Spidey and his arch-villain for a long time to come.

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Copyright 1998-2007 by J.R. Fettinger. All rights reserved. All original content is the exclusive property of J.R. Fettinger. Spider-Man, the Green Goblin, and everyone else who appears in the Spider-Man comics is the property of Marvel Entertainment, and are used in these articles for the purpose of analysis and commentary.