Ask people the name of Spider-Man’s arch enemy, and some people will say Doctor Octopus, others Venom. But odds are most will say “The Green Goblin.”
The Goblin has been the biggest thorn in Spidey’s side since he was introduced in 1964, with many, many characters taking on a Goblin-based identity. With a “Goblin War” upon us in the Spider-books, along with the character’s 50th anniversary coming up, we decided to try to parse out the complete history of the Green Goblin, the Hobgoblin, and multiple subsidiary Goblins so you’ll know the score.
And so, sit back as we attempt to parse five decades of twists, turns, tragedies and a few select alternate versions in an appendix. We do this because we love you, and because in the words of Meatwad from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, “We is dumb. Dumb as hell.”
Green Goblin I: On the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #14, readers were introduced to “the most sinister, most dangerous foe Spidey’s ever fought!” As hyperbolic as those 1960s comics could get, this was a case where they weren’t just whistlin’ Dixie.
Inside, a figure whose face was covered in shadows (get used to it) declared it was time for the Green Goblin to meet the world and prove his power by taking down Spider-Man. Armed with such gimmicks as pumpkin bombs, zap-gloves and a “Flying Broomstick” (later modified into the more familiar “Goblin Glider”), he battled Spidey over several encounters, never winning, but always getting away.
The character’s memorable visual, with a menacing mask whose rictus grin resembled the Joker, gave him a nightmarish quality that made him more menacing than the usual Spider-Foes, and the flying glider also gave him a unique maneuverability that made his confrontations with Spidey particularly visual (yes, the Vulture could also fly, but those big wings were a bit limiting).
Most importantly – he had mystique. Because Spider-Man was never able to capture the Goblin, his identity stayed secret, meaning that things were building to a major confrontation between the two characters.
The identity of the Goblin had not been established when the character was created, and who he would be became a point of contention between Spider-Man co-creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Lee and Ditko were already not getting along, and it has been alleged for decades that the Goblin’s identity was the last straw because Ditko did not want the Goblin to be an established character, though Ditko himself has denied this.
Ditko’s comments indicate that he intended the Goblin to be Frederick Foswell, a Daily Bugle reporter who had previously been revealed as a would-be crime boss early in the series before going “straight” (the character stayed reformed and was later killed in Amazing Spider-Man #50).
Regardless, the two-parter that revealed the Goblin’s secret came just after Ditko departed the book with Amazing Spider-Man #38, with new artist John Romita Sr. taking over.
The story took the Goblin to a more dangerous edge, as he used technology to stalk Spider-Man to his home, figuring out his identity of Peter Parker. One abduction later, and he did the classic supervillian move of unmasking and revealing his true identity…
…Norman Osborn, a corrupt businessman with weirdly cornrow-like hair who’d been introduced a few issues before, and the father of Peter Parker’s new friend, the also-cornrowed Harry Osborn.
Norman provided a self-serving story about how he’d been a “loving” (read: distant) single father to Harry and become head of his company by forcing out his scientist partner, Mendel Stromm. Mixing up a formula based on Stromm’s notes (and, it was retroactively established, did a trial-run for the Goblin that we’ll talk about in the appendix for this), Norman found the formula turning green as it blew up in his face, granting him superhuman strength and intelligence. It also drove him crackers, but he didn’t quite grasp that.
The Green Goblin thus gained a dangerous edge that most supervillains never did – knowledge of the hero’s secret identity, something particularly dangerous for Spider-Man, given his frequently being branded a “menace” in the paper. Luckily for Spidey, this confrontation ended with Osborn developing soap opera amnesia, forgetting Spidey’s identity…along with his own villainous alter ego.
For the next few Goblin returns (and in a few of the Goblin’s appearances in later Spider-Man TV cartoons), the challenge was to get Osborn amnesiac again before he could reveal Spidey’s true identity to the world, or for the information to hurt Harry, who had become one of Peter Parker’s best friends.
The Goblin made three returns this way, each of which is notable as a breakthrough moment in comics. The first was in issue #2 of the first version of Spectacular Spider-Man, notable as Marvel’s first attempt at doing magazine-sized black-and-white comics, which would become a major part of the company in the 1970s.
The second was Amazing Spider-Man #96-98, where Harry Osborn became addicted to drugs, causing Osborn to revert when he saw his son in a coma. This was more notable more Marvel running the issues without the Comics Code Authority’s Seal of Approval after they refused to approve the issues for even mentioning drugs.
The positive feedback for the issues actually helped lead to revisions of the Code, some of which allowed for the depiction of supernatural creatures in non-magazine comics for the first time since the heyday of such EC books as Tales from the Crypt. As a result, such books as Tomb of Dracula and Swamp Thing owed their existence in a way to the Green Goblin.
The third Goblin return…was when stuff got real.
Writer Gerry Conway wanted to shake things up for Spider-Man, and he did it with a story that for comics readers at the time was like watching Bambi’s mother get shot.
In Amazing Spider-Man #121, Osborn cracked again when Harry had a drug relapse and his company ran into trouble. Turning back into the Goblin, he abducted Peter Parker’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy and met Spider-Man for combat on the George Washington Bridge (technically, the art depicted the Brooklyn Bridge). He tossed her off, and Spidey caught her with his webbing…only to find she was dead once he pulled her up.
(Side note: “The shock of the fall” was the reason given for Gwen’s death, though the art and subsequent notes in letter columns indicate that her neck snapped from whiplash as Spidey’s webbing caught her. This begs the question as to whether Spidey killed Gwen himself by accident, and why this hasn’t happened more often with other people he’s saved. End digression.)
Overwhelmed with rage and grief, Spider-Man threw down big time on Norman, barely stopping himself at the last minute from delivering the death blow. Determined to finally throw Osborn in jail, regardless of the cost to Harry or his secret identity, Spidey didn’t notice Osborn activating his Goblin Glider by remote…but managed to duck at the last minute as it came at him, causing the glider’s razor-sharp edge to impale the Goblin through the heart and against the wall.
In two issues, not only had the hero not saved the girl from his arch-enemy, but both had wound up dead by story’s end. This…this was not how superhero comics usually went.
For many, the story marked the end of the “Silver Age” of comics that Marvel’s reign had helped bring about in the 1960s; it also helped begin a trend of comic book love interests being killed off (the decision to kill Gwen came in part because Marvel didn’t want Spidey to get married, marking the first but not last time extreme measures would be taken to prevent a Spider-Marriage).
The Green Goblin was dead, but the character’s popularity meant that the identity would make a return, creating a unique “legacy” aspect to the character…or, should we say, characters.
The question behind the identity of each Goblin and how they fit into the Spider-Mythos has been the driving force each time a Goblin has come into play, ranging from those closest to Peter Parker…or those most willing to hurt them.
Green Goblin II: The first new Goblin was set up right as Norman Osborn died, with a shadowy figure witnessing his death. Soon after, Spidey found himself wondering why Osborn’s identity as the Goblin hadn’t made the papers. The answer was worse then he ever could have imagined.
A drug-addled Harry Osborn had slipped out of the Osborn mansion and witnessed the final battle between Spidey and the Goblin…and after Spidey left, discovered his father’s true identity. His already unstable mind shattering, Harry stole the costume and equipment, blaming Spider-Man for his father’s death.
Harry then met Spidey as the Goblin, and while he lacked his father’s super-strength and genius, Spidey had the problem of not wanting to harm his best friend. When he captured Harry, the police didn’t believe this younger man was the Goblin, despite Harry’s insistence. There was hope for Harry…but the shadow of the Goblin would loom over him for the rest of his life (or lives, it’s complicated).
Green Goblin III: Harry’s Goblin-jaunt bought him a trip to the happy house, where he got into a struggle with a (wait for it) shadowy figure. Shortly thereafter, the Green Goblin went after crime boss Silvermane…just as a PO’d Harry woke up and escaped from captivity. As it turned out, his shrink Bart Hamilton had managed to get all the Goblin-info out of him…and decided that HE should be the new Goblin.
The resultant battle saw Harry put on the costume again to go up against Hamilton, marking the first time Spidey was pitted against multiple Goblins at once…though hardly the last. In the end, Hamilton got exploded, and Harry, who’d conveniently blocked out Peter’s identity and such like his dad, proclaimed the Goblin dead once and for all.
Knowing what y’all know about comics, any guess as to how long this lasted?
Hobgoblin I: This is where things really get confusing, because there were…changes made in this storyline, several times.
In the early 1980s, writer Roger Stern decided to go a different route in bringing back the popular Goblin character by restoring his menace and mystery. In Amazing Spider-Man #238, a crook stumbled upon Norman Osborn’s old equipment, and reported it to his boss, a (pretend to be surprised) shadowy figure …who promptly killed his lackey and became an all-new threat…the Hobgoblin.
With his Halloween-orange outfit and bone-white mask (designed by John Romita Jr., following in the family tradition), the Hobgoblin cut a menacing figure who spent the next several years plotting against not only Spidey, but fellow crimelords and villains as well. He also had a sweet van.
But who was he? Well, he wasn’t…
Hobgoblin (II): …”Lefty” Donovan, another hapless lackey who proved a guinea pig when the Hobgoblin found Norman’s Goblin formula and wanted to test it out. After being forced to mix up the Goblin formula by Hobby, it blew up Osborn-style in Lefty’s face.
A hypnotized and superpowered Donovan battled Spidey, then enjoyed a fatal Goblin Glider crash thanks to Hobgoblin 1.0…who had monitored his vitals and used the science to figure out how to perfect the formula, granting him Osborn’s original strength without the maniacal behavior (minus, you know, dressing up like a Goblin).
The Hobgoblin’s storyline got a little tricky once Roger Stern left the Spider-Books without revealing the Hobgoblin’s identity to others, leaving writers and editors to puzzle out his identity among the many suspects. Ultimately, they decided on…
Hobgoblin III: …Ned Leeds, longtime supporting cast character and reporter husband of Spidey’s first girlfriend, Betty Brant.
The backstory, as established, was that Betty had blamed Spidey for the death of her criminal brother Bennett in a battle with Doctor Octopus (he got better, but that’s another story), and Ned developed an irrational hatred of Spidey based on the “damage” he’d caused Ned’s marriage.
Ned, it turned out, had been the one to help start a gang war with crime boss The Rose, and on another occasion, he left Peter Parker’s friend/rival/future Agent Venom Flash Thompson (who’d been having it off with Betty, not for the last time) in a Hobgoblin outfit, framing him until he was saved by Spidey.
Now, here’s the thing: Ned Leeds had just been killed off in the excellent one-shot Spider-Man vs. Wolverine, which made the writers’ determination that he was the Hobgoblin a little…awkward. Their solution, conceived by writer Peter David, was to reveal that Ned’s death had been ordered by a different villain, who then became the new Hobgoblin…
Hobgoblin IV: …Jason Macendale, the minor villain Jack O’Lantern, who’d clashed with the Hobgoblin before.
For the next decade or so, Macendale was the Hobgoblin, though without the mystery, there was a bit of a struggle to make him a major threat. And it was an ill-kept secret that Ned wasn’t the first choice for the Hobgoblin’s identity, so who was that masked madman?
We’ll get to that. But first:
Green Goblin (Harry again): Harry had done pretty well for himself, fending off the Hobgoblin, taking the public revelation of Norman’s criminal jazz in stride, and fathering a son with wife Liz Allen, Normie. He’d even assumed the Green Goblin identity in a helping-Spidey context a few times.
The demon-invasion crossover “Inferno” served to put a strain on Harry’s brain, though, and his sanity leeched away. He began stalking Peter in Goblin-mode, and eventually consuming the Goblin formula himself, leaving him tormented by visions of his father’s “ghost” urging him to kill Spider-Man. His new take on the Goblin was scarily intense, but he redeemed himself saving his son and Mary Jane Watson from an explosion before dying as a side effect of the Goblin formula.
OR DID HE…?
Demogoblin: Meanwhile, Jason Macendale failed to get the Goblin formula, and straining to reestablish the Hobgoblin’s rep, made a deal with a demon during “Inferno” to get real power…only to wind up with actual demon-face and a split personality that left him with a tendency to speak in creepy religious stuff. It was all pretty cool when it was drawn by guys like Todd McFarlane and Erik Larsen.
After joining Doctor Octopus’ Sinister Six and an encounter with Ghost Rider, Macendale finally split off from the demon-junk, which reformed as…”Demogoblin,” who had a really cool flaming Goblin Glider and a big ol’ tongue, because it was the 1990s. He was destroyed by Blade the Vampire Hunter, then came back to life again, then got killed again saving a child in a collapsing church.
In the meantime, there was the brief reign of:
Green Goblin IV: In a short-lived solo series promoted with a comic-shop stand that cackled horribly when people walked by and SCARED THE CRAP OUT OF THIS WRITER, Phil Urich, nephew of longtime Marvel Universe reporter Ben Urich (who wrote a book on the Osborns called “Legacy of Evil” that was discredited and re-credited and…comics), stumbled upon an old Osborn hideout and got doused in Goblin formula.
Combined with an updated costume and equipment that gave him strength in conjunction with the formula, along with a madness-inducing “Lunatic Laugh,” Phil became the Green Goblin…only heroic. This was later recognized by many, many people as an extremely stupid idea.
Phil’s series lasted about a year (and, randomly, he teamed up with Ultraforce, you know, those heroes from that universe Marvel bought and never uses?), ending during the “Onslaught” crossover when his equipment got smashed and he didn’t know how to fix it. But we hadn’t seen the last of him...
The Hobgoblin continued to putter along sadly as…
Cyber-Hobgoblin: …Macendale, now out super-strength (addendum: scratch that, we were reminded he took Kraven the Hunter's strength formula to take out Demogoblin), decided to upgrade again by getting some cybernetic attachments from Gaunt, a cyborg who was secretly Osborn’s old rival Mendel Stromm. This included having his human eye replaced with an eye-patch-type thing. He was not smart, that one.
He got whupped bad by Spider-Clone Ben Reilly (we’ll explain in part two). But he would meet his fate soon, though not before not one but two original evils would return…
NEXT: We conclude our Goblin Saga with resurrections, time erasures, multiple regrettable pregnancies and a look at some of the strangest Goblins from alternate timelines/other media.