"The Hobgoblin storyline is one of the bigger messes in Marvel's history. It's not as bad, perhaps, as the Clone Saga. But it shows the worst of what can happen when a mystery is passed from one creative team to another with each deciding to change things to suit there own whims. You can't do that with a mystery that's been running for four years. The clues and ideas that each team left end up having no relevance and so your revelations turn out to be out of the blue. And four years is just too long to sustain interest." - Excerpt from SuperMegaMonkey.net's entry on Amazing Spider-Man #289
Whatever your feelings about how the mystery of the Hobgoblin's true identity was handled, the consensus appears to be that the mystery simply went on too long, mostly for the reasons that SMM mentions. The character's creator, Roger Stern, has stated that he wanted to handle the Hobgoblin's identity in much the same way as the mystery of the Green Goblin's identity unfolded. To say that the situation veered wildly off that course is an understatement.
Reading the storyline when these issues were originally published, I was probably as curious as anyone about the answer to the mystery--though if we're to believe the letters pages that presented feedback from what appeared to be countless readers who were eager to offer their own guesses as to who the Hobgoblin really was, my interest was only a fraction of those who were seemingly waiting with bated breath for the big reveal.
Yet the departure of Stern from the title, after writing only three stories featuring the character, would derail that train for all of us, as well as shatter whatever consistency and intentions he might have had for how the plot would be resolved. Personally, I found the Hobgoblin an interesting character in his own right, with his anonymity perhaps playing a part in that appeal; but the issue of his identity became the character's major focus, and eventually it all spiraled out of control and resulted in a denouement that felt both rushed and anti-climactic.
Rather than go into lengthy detail on the subject, consider this post to be the CliffsNotes version of this zig-zag subplot, as the PPoC takes a stab at covering this period of Amazing Spider-Man that hopefully breaks it down for you in a way that makes it both fun and informative. The information will be confined to events occurring in ASM rather than including any Hobgoblin appearances in either Spectacular Spider-Man or Web of Spider-Man, otherwise we'd be here all day; but we'll cover all the bases, though at the end we'll find that we've got a double header on our hands.
Amazing Spider-Man #s 238-239, 244
Editor: Tom DeFalco
Writer Roger Stern kicks off this saga with artists John Romita Jr. and Sr., as Spider-Man pursues and takes out a car of fleeing bank robbers--all but a hood named Georgie, who flees down a manhole and eludes capture (mostly because Spidey doesn't want to spend his afternoon tracking the guy through a labyrinth of sewers). Georgie ends up striking the mother lode, when he stumbles across a secret door and follows his nose to fresher air--and more.
We don't know who Georgie contacts to pass on what he's discovered (and we won't know for quite awhile)--but his contact appears to be very interested in the cache of equipment and materials that he's found.
Unfortunately for Georgie, our friend considers Georgie to be such "evidence"--and so when the van's payload is dropped off elsewhere and Georgie drives off to dispose of the vehicle, Georgie is disposed of as well when the stranger detonates the van remotely.
Afterward, the shadowed stranger takes his time in thoroughly investigating the Green Goblin's weapons and equipment, as well as poring through the journals of Norman Osborn that were included. In the process, he becomes seduced by the power that Osborn held as the green-garbed criminal, and decides to claim the identity for himself. After making a few changes, that is.
When "the Hobgoblin" makes his debut, he runs into Spider-Man, who had been investigating a series of break-ins at Osborn's manufacturing facilities. The Hobgoblin is injured in the battle and barely escapes, then lays low--for five months (for us), during which time he realizes that there is one more ability of the Green Goblin's that he must gain for himself if he's ever to face the web-spinner again.
Amazing Spider-Man #245
It's at this time that the mystery of the Hobgoblin's identity becomes one of misdirection, when we find the villain experimenting with chemicals while following Osborn's notes that describe how to increase his strength. The experiment ends disastrously when it literally explodes in his face--but his life is saved when his henchman pulls him from the burning wreckage and makes sure he's left for an ambulance. Some time later, the bandaged man awakens in the hospital, and finally returns to the scene, though it appears some details of his experience are still fuzzy.
Suiting up, the Hobgoblin discovers that the experiment has been a success, and he's now able to challenge Spider-Man with the enhanced strength of the Green Goblin. The battle is fierce, but Spidey is able to disable his foe by using one of his own exploding weapons against him. And then the fun begins.
Amazing Spider-Man #249
Editor: Danny Fingeroth
And so Lefty Donovan has the dubious distinction of being the first person to be assumed to be the Hobgoblin. The real McCoy goes on to successfully complete the experiment and gain super-strength, with his next stop the prestigious Century Club where Osborn enjoyed a membership (which was passed down to his son, Harry) and where some of New York City's most wealthy, influential men have been invited to hear an offer they might want to think twice about refusing.
The Hobgoblin figure here turns out to be a robot--a precaution used by the man himself, who immediately makes his cackling entrance and reiterates his position after Spider-Man fails to stop him.
Amazing Spider-Man #251
The two meet again head-on in a no-holds-barred battle where the Hobgoblin is making use of a specially designed armored "battle van" of Osborn's and discovers an unwelcome webbed hitchhiker. The van eventually goes out of control and crashes into the Hudson River, finally exploding when the Hobgoblin, on the verge of being captured, misfires his hand weapons at Spider-Man and instead hits vital circuitry in the van. Spider-Man survives the explosion and makes it to surface, but finds no trace of the Hobgoblin other than the villain's mask.
One other casualty is the Hobgoblin's creator, Roger Stern, who has departed the book and been replaced by writer Tom DeFalco. (This issue also marks the beginning of Editor-In-Chief Jim Shooter's Secret Wars series.) From the tone of the editor's note from Danny Fingeroth in this issue's letters page, the whole matter of the Hobgoblin's identity and its buildup amounts to little more than a shrug from everyone involved, and this issue's story is meant to shutter the matter closed--at least until Fingeroth, new writer Tom DeFalco, or anyone else feels like taking another crack at the character and picking things up where they were left off.
(Nice touch with the orange background.)
Amazing Spider-Man #259
Apparently wishing to expand his operations from simple blackmail and extortion, the Hobgoblin returns and begins an association with the criminal mastermind known as the Rose--closing out 1984 with still no progress on uncovering the Hobgoblin's identity.
With the destruction of Osborn's journals during a previous battle with Spider-Man, the Hobgoblin kidnaps Harry's pregnant wife, Liz (Allen), in order to force Harry to reveal the whereabouts of additional journals. Harry only comes up with a master list of Osborn's old hideouts, which the Hobgoblin has long since ransacked. In the ensuing battle, Spider-Man is on the verge of capturing and unmasking the Hobgoblin, only to be forced to save Harry, Liz, and Mary Jane from the inferno that's erupted as a result. Nevertheless, the fight leaves no doubt that the Hobgoblin has suffered his most thorough defeat by Spider-Man to date.
Amazing Spider-Man #s 276-278
Editor: Christopher Priest (as Jim Owsley)
After a lull of 17 months (for us), and now finding ourselves in the midst of Secret Wars II, the Hobgoblin reappears, still working for the Rose and making the rounds on his behalf while now also extorting funds from the city's various criminal gangs who are not exactly happy with the arrangement. Rumbles of discontent can also be found in others, such as Flash Thompson, his girlfriend Sha Shan, reporter Ned Leeds, and his wife Betty. Sha Shan has left Flash, partly because he has become abusive toward her and also because he's pursued an affair with Betty (who's been having marital difficulties with Ned), news which makes Ned furious with Flash--minutiae that's only relevant due to another round of misdirection that's put in play concerning the Hobgoblin, who appears after Flash and Ned have had a violent confrontation in the street.
In an effort to lure Spider-Man into the open, the Hobgoblin seeks to attract the media's attention by picking a hostage out of the crowd to abduct--in this case, Sha Shan, whom the Hobgoblin keeps close to him when Spider-Man attacks in order to use as a shield. Eventually, Spider-Man succeeds in rescuing Sha Shan; yet the battle is cut short when Spidey's webbing strikes the Hobgoblin in a vulnerable spot, at least where his identity is concerned, forcing him to retreat.
Some time later, Flash and Sha Shan exchange bitter words at the hospital where she's being cared for, after which Flash gives a live TV interview that leaves no doubt as to what low esteem he holds for the Hobgoblin. Eventually, Spider-Man attacks the Hobgoblin again with a vengeance, this time with surprising results.
The difference between this encounter and the one with Lefty Donovan is that even Spider-Man believes that there's no question that the Hobgoblin's identity has been uncovered. And so we now have our second red herring in this saga--Flash Thompson, who appears to be looking at a long stay in prison, which will probably put Sha Shan and Ned at ease but won't do much for Betty's mood.
However, the mood of the real Hobgoblin is decidedly in a more optimistic state.
It's around this time that Marvel publishes a house ad that promises big things in ASM this year where the Hobgoblin is concerned, so it appears DeFalco plans to see this story through.
Amazing Spider-Man #278
Unfortunately, the only significant development for the remaining seven months of '86 in this title occurs in a story written by Peter David and Jo Duffy, when Scourge, the assassin who's systematically eliminating super-powered criminals, comes looking to pop Flash in prison but is foiled by Spider-Man. (Scourge does put down the mentally disturbed Brian DeWolff--the Wraith--at the scene before escaping.) The incident is enough to make Spider-Man doubt Flash's guilt, when he realizes the evidence against his friend is mostly circumstantial--while the Hobgoblin makes what amounts to a cameo appearance in his own storyline.
Amazing Spider-Man #s 284-288
Editor: Jim Salicrup
Tom DeFalco is out--long-time penciller Ron Frenz is right on his heels--and the book's writing has now been transferred to former ASM Editor
Meanwhile, Spider-Man seems to have at least crossed off Flash as the Hobgoblin.
While Betty has stumbled her way into doing the same.
Clues are apparently being dropped by the bucketful--and no wonder, given the response to a letter published in the issue that concludes the gang war. We now seem to have Lance Bannon and Ned Leeds to add to our suspect list--and who knows who else is waiting in the wings. Could Marvel be prepared at last to wrap up the mystery of the true identity of the Hobgoblin?
Amazing Spider-Man #289
Peter David is brought back to script the issue that finally spills the beans. The story is set in motion when the high-priced assassin known as the Foreigner is approached by a client and has agreed to make a hit--and with the story's title page, we apparently witness the repercussions of that meeting.
We haven't quite put two and two together, since David's story must still fill in the details--and things are confusing right off the bat. For one thing, Peter Parker spots the Hobgoblin flying over the scene, which at first glance appears unrelated to the somber gathering at the airport; yet in another scene, we find the Foreigner being called on the carpet by the Kingpin for not consulting him about the Hobgoblin hit. Things aren't yet adding up as far as Ned possibly being the Hobgoblin.
To muddy the waters further, a scene in Spider-Man vs. Wolverine showed Peter finding a very, er, dead Ned (sorry) in his hotel room in Berlin.
Back in the States, the Kingpin puts the word out to Spider-Man that he has information on the Hobgoblin--and from Spider-Man's reaction at seeing the Hobgoblin's file, whatever revelations were contained within are shocking, indeed. In his mind's eye, Peter begins putting the pieces in place.
In the ensuing battle with Macendale/the Jack O'Lantern (who's now the new Hobgoblin), Spider-Man and Macendale suffer considerable injury--as does Flash Thompson, who's on the scene and saves Spidey from one of Macendale's exploding pumpkins. Afterward, however, Flash is cleared of suspicion by the D.A., while Peter decides it's best for Betty's sake if he keeps mum on the Hobgoblin's true identity.
And THAT would seem to be that. A subplot that took nearly four years to be wrapped up, with who knows how many casualties in the Marvel Bullpen left in its wake.
There are some pertinent quotes from the people involved in this story which help to shed some light on why it took so long for this dangling plot (or "this danged plot," as we readers forced to slog through it might call it) to be resolved. When you consider all that happened in the Marvel offices behind the scenes, it's a wonder that the staff involved in this story were able to meet their monthly deadlines at all, much less coordinate on a relatively minor development like solving the riddle of the Hobgoblin. I have a certain degree of admiration for the people in the industry who stuck it out during this period--their in-house difficulties must at times have been overwhelming and soul-destroying. Writer/Editor "Jim Owsley's" thoughts (and regrets) on the subject, in particular, make for interesting supplemental reading.
So has the door been shut on the mystery of the Hobgoblin's identity?
"Not so fast," Roger Stern might reply. Ten years later, the creator of the character joins with Ron Frenz for a three-part story that clears the air and wraps up this story as he'd intended--except that now he must take into account and somehow disavow the lengthy developments we've just hacked our way through.
Spider-Man: Hobgoblin Lives
And the question to answer remains the same: Just who is the Hobgoblin??
Have a look at all the teaser covers we fell for. Arrgh!