Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Mystery That Wouldn't Die!

OR: "Because You Never Really Demanded It!"

After the conclusion of the winding, four-year saga that teased the mysterious identity of the Hobgoblin in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man, we learned at last that the Hobgoblin was in fact "Daily Bugle" reporter Ned Leeds--a shocking revelation which put an end to years of speculation by the book's readers, as well as years of internal strife in the Marvel Bullpen that resulted in a virtual revolving door of writers and editors on the book. When the dust settled, it seemed we'd seen the last of the Hobgoblin--that is, until almost ten years later, when the character's original writer, Roger Stern, decided to revisit the story and turn the saga's finale on its ear.

The result is the 1997 three-issue series, Spider-Man: Hobgoblin Lives, where Stern makes an honest effort to bring about the revelation he'd intended for the character, though in the process he must dismantle or otherwise take into account all the pieces put in place by the different writers and editors who assumed responsibility for the mystery in his wake. Since this new story hit the racks twenty years ago, I don't happen to recall if there was any outcry by readers for the Hobgoblin's return or if anyone wanted to revisit the tangled mess of his identity; the Hobgoblin, after all, didn't have the complexity of Norman Osborn, nor Osborn's connection to Peter Parker's own secret identity--and that would hold true for the identity established for the character in either 1987 or in Stern's revised tale. Aside from his modus operandi and bag of tricks being similar to the Green Goblin's, the Hobgoblin was more of a substitute character for his predecessor who seemed to conduct his affairs from the hip, a reflection of having a number of writers handle him and his true identity remaining unknown for so long.  There's also the nagging observation that when his identity is revealed, in either version of his story, it really makes no difference one way or the other as far as moving this character to the A-list.

But Stern's reputation as a writer carries a lot of weight with me, and perhaps for those readers in '97 who remembered his work at Marvel and were seldom disappointed by his efforts. For what it's worth, that holds true here, as well--though whether the Hobgoblin is a character you want to see Stern spending his time on is perhaps debatable.

In blog form, we have the luxury of picking up this story on the heels of its ending ten years prior--and if the theme of this new story holds any initial interest, it mostly lies in the how all the pieces of the prior saga will be sorted out, reshuffled, and pieced back together in a way that's both intriguing and satisfying, while hopefully elevating the Hobgoblin as a character in the process. The Hobgoblin would get a new lease on life a year and a half later, in the "Goblins At The Gate" storyline in Spectacular Spider-Man--where Stern and co-plotter Glenn Greenberg reintroduce Osborn and tie in the Hobgoblin, thereby providing the latter with excellent exposure that could raise his profile with readers and establish him as a force in his own right. For that to work, Stern in this story will need to establish a formidable identity for the Hobgoblin, one who can not only go up against the likes of Norman Osborn but also establish an impression on readers that, in their eyes, makes this character one worth bringing back.

And so we seem to be back to square one:

Or, put another way: Arrgh!

For Spider-Man, only a few months have passed since the matter of the Hobgoblin had been laid to rest with the discovery that reporter Ned Leeds had been the villain all along. That brief interval, established for the purposes of this story, gives Stern plenty of opportunity to lay all the new pieces of his story in place while bringing us up to date on where things were left off with the story's principal and incidental characters. Basically, it breaks down like this:

Peter Parker (and Mary Jane):
Peter's own narrative sums up things pretty well. "Losing our baby. Aunt May dying. The layoffs at the Bugle. That whole crazy mess with my clone. And then finding out that Norman Osborn--the Green Goblin--was alive and behind most of it! We all thought that he'd died years ago!" By comparison, nothing even close to this turmoil happens in my life in the span of just a few months--and am I glad.

Jason Macendale:
Macendale, who had hired the Foreigner to kill the Hobgoblin and then abandoned his identity as the Jack O'Lantern to become the new Hobgoblin, has been tried for his crimes and is awaiting the jury verdict. The authorities and the general public are unaware that Ned was the original Hobgoblin; only Peter, MJ, the Kingpin, Macendale, and Betty Leeds are privy to that information (along with the Foreigner, though who knows who the Kingpin might have informed).

Jake Conover:
Former reporter for the Daily Bugle, Conover is preoccupied with getting his hands on the extensive notes he'd loaned Ned concerning a corruption story Conover was building regarding Roxxon Oil.

Donald Menken:
An executive at Osborn's company and very loyal to his employer, though he's plotted a takeover bid of Osborn Industries using dummy companies he'd formed in order to conceal his duplicity. Currently in conflict with:

George Vandergill:
Board Chairman of Norchem, who is also initiating a hostile takeover of Osborn Industries. Vandergill is aware of Menken's illegal maneuverings and has threatened to report Menken to the SEC if he blocks his takeover bid.

Roderick Kingsley, Daniel Kingsley:
Brothers who do business in Roderick's fashion design firm, Kingsley International, Roderick calls the shots while his brother handles the day-to-day operations of the company. Roderick has also initiated his own takeover bid--as well as working with Menken in his scam involving Osborn Industries.

Betty Leeds:
Former secretary to the Bugle's publisher, J. Jonah Jameson, and now one of the paper's reporters. Though Betty had seen the Hobgoblin unmasked as Ned, her memories of the scene were suppressed for a time due to the Hobgoblin drugging her after the incident. With her memories returned, Betty has disclosed to no one that her deceased husband was the Hobgoblin--not even Jameson. But someone else has figured it out on their own:

Jonas Harrow:
A disgraced surgeon expelled from the profession for his unorthodox experiments, Harrow segued into becoming the go-to surgeon for those in the underworld interested in enhanced abilities--and even when they simply fell into his lap (such as Hammerhead, whose name is indicative of Harrow's handiwork). Scanning footage of both the original Hobgoblin and Macendale in battle, Harrow concludes immediately that the Hobgoblin who appeared on the scene after Ned Leeds' death is a different individual.

If it seems like we've gone through this drill before--assembled a cast of characters mostly to suggest that any one of them (with the exception of Peter, MJ, and Betty) might be the original Hobgoblin, still at large--we can only hope that these loose ends are either tied up swiftly, or that Stern doesn't jump ship again and leave them all dangling.

Fortunately, Stern moves swiftly to set things in motion:

Macendale is judged guilty on all counts--and while being escorted from the courthouse by police, Conover, at the scene with Peter and Betty, shouts to Macendale for comment on the rumor that he isn't the original Hobgoblin. Macendale surprises the assembled press by admitting his actions in having Ned killed, as well as disclosing that the first Hobgoblin was none other than Ned Leeds--an announcement that broadsides Betty and causes a media frenzy, while Macendale is delighted that his murder confession guarantees that he'll be tied up in judicial proceedings indefinitely and won't yet face execution for the crimes he's already been convicted of.

Meanwhile, Macendale's outburst leads to scenes of reaction from Menken, the Kingsley brothers, Vangergill, and Harrow--as well as Betty, who finally admits to Jameson that the accusations regarding Ned are true.

As for Peter, he and MJ are revisiting the circumstances of Ned's death, and their deductions throw Peter's original conclusion about Ned into doubt.

Stern appears to place a great deal of emphasis on this segment, and no wonder--it serves as the foundation for him being able to move forward with this story, since it's the pivotal scene that casts doubt on Ned being the Hobgoblin. All of Stern's reasoning lies in the premise that the Hobgoblin's super-strength should have enabled Ned to subdue his attackers, and easily--but there are problems with this approach.  Consider, for instance, that the four attackers were seasoned hit men in the employ of the Foreigner, and heavily armed; they also took their victim by surprise, presumably knowing the kind of foe they were sent to kill and prepared for his resistance. Also consider that the Hobgoblin, though super-strong, had none of the speed, agility, or danger-sense of Spider-Man--and without his jet glider to give him mobility, even a man with super-strength can't react fast enough to fend off four armed professional hit men at once.  The circumstances simply aren't as open-and-shut as Stern would have us believe.

Nevertheless, the seeds of doubt are well-planted, in the minds of both Spider-Man and the reader. As for Macendale, he falls victim to his predecessor, the real Hobgoblin, who covertly infiltrates his maximum-security prison and eliminates him as an embarrassment whose purpose has been served.

Roderick Kingsley also receives a visit from the Hobgoblin, this time in full costume, who now revises their prior working arrangement and declares himself an active partner in the company's takeover scheme. Kingsley is clearly aware of the Hobgoblin's true identity, having seem him face-to-face.

Meanwhile, Jameson has gathered his troops to review the security footage showing the disguised Hobgoblin murdering Macendale--and everyone assembled comes to realize, like Peter, that the original Hobgoblin is once again active, and he isn't Ned Leeds. The reporters get their assignments from Jameson--all except Betty, whom he feels should lay low. But Betty, understandably angry at how her husband was used by this villain, charges off to conduct her own investigation, with Spider-Man later assuring her of his help.

Elsewhere, Menken and Kingsley are discussing further details of their scheme, when Vandergill contacts Menken and threatens to expose the evidence he has against him unless Menken backs off. Menken reacts angrily--Kingsley, thoughtfully. More subtle breadcrumbs thrown our way by Stern.

Soon thereafter, we're witness to a destructive attack on Norchem by the Hobgoblin, who crashes into Vandergill's office and kills him on the spot. Later, when news reports are describing the carnage and Vangergill's fate, Menken is shown reacting, utterly satisfied that his worries regarding Vandergill are over.

Back at Betty's apartment, Spider-Man and Betty have spent the night sifting through the facts they have to date; and the next day finds Betty, Peter, MJ, and Flash Thompson continuing to compare notes, uncovering evidence that leads them to believe both Ned and Lefty Donovan (the Hobgoblin's first "stand-in") were brainwashed. The names of both Kingsley and Conover also come up as having possible connections to the Hobgoblin's activities.

Speaking of which, the Hobgoblin launches another attack--this time at Osborn's plant, though with Menken nowhere to be found. Betty has also been busy shaking things up--giving a televised interview where she claims to have her husband's notes on the corruption investigation he was conducting on big business. The interview produces noticeable reactions in Menken, the Kingsley brothers, and, unsurprisingly, Conover. Yet the most disturbing reaction comes in the form of the Hobgoblin himself, who attacks Betty in broad daylight but is temporarily stopped by Spider-Man before returning to kidnap her.

As Spider-Man searches frantically for her whereabouts, Betty awakens from a drugged stupor to find herself in the clutches of the Hobgoblin, who wants the information contained in Ned's notes. Instead, Betty strikes a bargain: her cooperation, in exchange for the truth about Ned and the Hobgoblin's connection with him. The Hobgoblin agrees, and reveals that Ned was captured while following the injured Hobgoblin after the debacle involving the battle with Spider-Man inside the Osborn "battle-van" that sank into the Hudson River. (Appropriately, the same battle that closed out Stern's run on Amazing Spider-Man.)

It's further revealed that it was Macendale's capture and trial that prompted the Hobgoblin to reappear and reclaim his status. However, the interview with Betty abruptly ends when Kingsley appears and threatens to stop the Hobgoblin at gunpoint--but the Hobgoblin easily disables him, and moves to eliminate Betty when Spider-Man bursts in and forces the Hobgoblin to flee. Spidey takes off in pursuit, but not before webbing Kingsley as a likely henchman to the villain.

Spider-Man's battle with the Hobgoblin begins in earnest--but back at the hideout, there is a different confrontation taking place between Betty and Kingsley. And as Stern throws one final twist into this saga that borders on farce, both Spider-Man and Betty discover the true identity of the Hobgoblin, once and for all.

With his hairpiece, Daniel Kingsley made the perfect alibi for diverting suspicion from Roderick whenever circumstances made it necessary (i.e., during the times when the Hobgoblin was active). Suffice to say that both Kingsley brothers go down--and Roderick's corporate takeover schemes are linked with Vandergill's murder while Kingsley's investment group becomes subject to a federal probe. Both Menken and Conover, of course, were bit players in this drama--as was Harrow, to an extent, with his purpose being served solely to punctuate Macendale's outburst in front of the media. Conover subsequently mends fences with Betty, who to no one's surprise is relieved that this affair is finally over and done with.

And she's not alone. Good GRIEF. This saga lends new meaning to the phrase "identity crisis."

Stern has been quoted as saying that he knew what character he wanted to assume the Hobgoblin identity from the beginning. If that's true, then Roderick Kingsley seems to be an odd choice. If the goal was to pick one character who would be so unassuming that it was unlikely that anyone would suspect him of being a super-villain, then mission accomplished, since Roderick and Daniel Kingsley often had little to no attention paid to them aside from being characters that Mary Jane was involved with in her modeling career. And yet, when Kingsley was first led to the Green Goblin's cache of journals and weapons by his contact, Georgie, he remarked, "Notes, private journals... all this equipment!" -- to which Georgie replied, "Yeah, I figured a dude like you'd be interested!" What basis did Georgie have to make that assumption? Do shady dealings in the fashion industry constitute an interest in a double identity as a super-criminal?

Why would a fashion industry mogul become a high-profile villain and form extensive dealings with the underworld, go to such lengths to become a match for Spider-Man, and have no compunction about killing those whom he saw as obstacles (with poor Georgie being murdered simply for transporting the Goblin's equipment)? Stern states that he wanted to create a Goblin without the Goblin's madness, "a coldly calculating adversary"; perhaps a more accurate statement would have been to describe Kingsley as a Goblin without Osborn's psychosis, because, where the Hobgoblin is concerned, the jury isn't even out on whether the character is exhibiting madness.

I'll be curious to follow up on this train of thought with the later "Goblins At The Gate" story, where Kingsley and Osborn are contrasted side-by-side--though at first glance, Osborn appears to be the more coldly calculating adversary of the two. But for the time being, why don't we let the Hobgoblin--the real Hobgoblin--languish in prison for awhile, eh?

Spider-Man: Hobgoblin Lives #s 1-3

Script: Roger Stern
Pencils: Ron Frenz
Inks: George Perez (Pt. 1);
    Jerome Moore, Scott Hanna (Pt. 2); Bob McLeod (Pt. 3)
Letterer: Jim Novak


Warren JB said...

Brilliant. Your review of the situation, that is. The situation itself is more tangled than a... spider's web. (I'm sorry. I'm very sorry.)

Agreed that a bit-part fashion mogul was a slightly odd choice to be the mastermind behind all this.* (Though I'm not sure I could describe how it's more realistic to have an industrialist or a newspaper reporter dress up like a goblin and fly around on a bat-shaped rocket) The points where Kingsley said he was disenchanted and bored with the criminal life seem to ring true with his in-universe position, as well as explaining away the patchwork history resulting from real-life office politics. Maybe more so. Indulgent rich guy plays at being a gangster: novelty wears off. Though I'd say it wasn't Roger Stern's intent to hint at Kingsley's unsuitability as the Hobgoblin, given the reason for this miniseries' existence.

* Maybe, if they bring him back, he'd have a goatee. And a little dog. He's already got the brainwashing thing down pat.

Anonymous said...

Warren, not only did they bring him back but he DID have a goatee. I'm not kidding! I googled him!
I don't recall a little dog...


(Man, that's a little bit eerie, Warren)

Comicsfan said...

Warren, ordinarily I'd agree with you about either Osborn or Leeds being odd choices for suiting up as a goblin and terrorizing the city on a bat-glider; but the reason that Kingsley as the choice of the Hobgoblin's identity stands in such contrast to Osborn or Leeds is that, among the three, Kingsley is supposedly the one who took up the role with a sound mind. Leeds, of course, had no choice at all--while Osborn's accident with the so-called Goblin formula, salvaged from the notes of his business partner, unhinged his mind. Ironically, Kingsley found his own kind of madness in the role--but for him to choose to go down that path in the first place, to me, made about as much sense as if the CEO of Macy's were to have done the same thing.

Warren JB said...

C.F.: true, true! Though I was thinking of when Ned Leeds was written as the original Hobgoblin. Pre-Stern. Er, post... um, between the Stern bookends.

M.P.: Blimey! Goblins at the Gate was the last time (okay, the only time) I'd seen him. I must've missed something.