Monday, September 21, 2009

Understanding Norman Osborn (maybe)

I’ve been thinking about the Green Goblin.

Well, no, who I’ve really been thinking about is Norman Osborn. Zom at Mindless Ones has an amazing piece on the character, but focuses more on the Goblin aspect than the Norman aspect, which is in keeping with the thematic/symbolic focus of the Rogue’s Reviews. I want to talk about Norman Osborn, and what his deal is.

This all comes about because of a comment I made on my sometime-host’s blog, which I’ll reproduce here to begin with:

“Norman Osborn was retconned into a diabolical manipulator after the Clone Saga just because they needed *somebody* to be the mastermind behind it all, so why not have it be Spider-Man’s most notorious villain?

“Only problem is, when you actually read the original Green Goblin stories, if you take away the initial mystery of his identity, his connection to Peter Parker, and killing Gwen Stacy, Norman’s just a Halloween-themed dude who wants to take over the underworld. This is not an A-list villian for anybody but Spider-Man because of the personal connection; Captain America would probably regard him as being somewhere between the Grey Gargoyle and the Owl (hey, at least the Owl *has* a power base instead of always trying and failing to build one!).”

See, that kind of bugs me about the character, as does that he’s supposedly Spider-Man’s greatest enemy, but doesn’t have that meaty thematic “oppositeness” that you want out of a great archenemy (conceptually, Doctor Octopus and the Vulture are better, and even Venom fits the bill a little more naturally); you can dig and say Peter represents responsibility and rationality while Norman is pure power and irrationality, but you can say that of a lot of hero-villain relationships.

However, that negative can be turned into a positive, as can his not-quite-A-list status that I mentioned above. The more I think about it, the more I like the notion that Norman Osborn is a guy who really wants to be a supervillain, but isn’t quite up for it.

Mark Millar did a run on Spider-Man a few years ago, and in its pages was an idea: Back when superheroes first started showing up in the 30s, a shadowy cabal of the rich and powerful created the supervillain as a concept, with the intent that the heroes would be too distracted by their obvious, superficial villainy to look into the corruption hiding in polite society. Now, I hate this idea. It’s cynical, it’s trying to be relevant and “realistic” but doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, and it implies that fighting supervillains for all these years has really been a waste of time, so why am I even reading this at all?

But there was one gem buried in that mess, and that was Millar’s take on the Green Goblin. The Scorpion explains how Osborn connects to this conspiracy: “Billionaire? Bio-chemist? All those big military contracts? … Osborn was their favorite super-villain contractor until he went a little nuts and started flying around on that goblin glider he built for himself.”

The kicker of the story is a letter Osborn mails to Peter: “It must be stressed that these fights are by no means a sign of any real enmity. On the contrary, I hold you in enormous regard and am always grateful for your attentions. Were it not for you, I would be just another boring businessman running another boring chemical-manufacturing business.”

I think Millar is far too cute and on-the-nose about it, but the basic idea is one I actually kind of like: The Green Goblin is Norman Osborn’s midlife crisis. In his original appearances, the Goblin persona does tend to assert itself when Osborn is under a lot of stress. What if the Green Goblin and his accoutrements were a commission (“I don’t know, can you make him kind of Halloweeny, like a demon or a gremlin or something?”), and one day Osborn snaps and gets that Why should they have all the fun? idea in his head.

But, just like an aging man who buys a red sports car and dumps his wife for a 25-year-old (and any other clichés you care to throw in there) doesn’t actually become a young man, taking super-serum and trying to take over New York’s mobs doesn’t actually make you a supervillain. Because he is just no good at it. Like I said, even the Owl can get a gang together; the Goblin has trouble wresting control from someone called “Lucky Lobo.”

Similarly, his plans to kill Spider-Man through manipulation never work, and they become increasingly desperate. Once he learns Spider-Man’s true identity, the plan is generally “Get a bunch of people Peter cares about in trouble to lure him out.”

Then, of course, at the height of desperation, he kills Gwen Stacy. And this is where Zom’s idea of the Goblin comes in.

See, Norman/Goblin isn’t a Jekyll-and-Hyde sort of deal, a good man turning evil. Norman/Goblin is a bad man who becomes worse. Even if Osborn had designed the Goblin for somebody else, the Goblin takes a life of its own. Osborn, after all, really just wants to be a fairly typical supervillain; he wants to be a master-manipulator type like the post-Crisis Lex Luthor, to be the kind of guy with a long, drawn-out revenge scheme against Spider-Man. But Osborn’s not that clever when it comes right down to it, and so he fails, and the Goblin-thing in his head that’s made out of desperation and hate hasn’t got the patience for elaborate supervillainy. “Just push his girlfriend off a bridge. No psychological chess game, no battle of wits. Just kill her. Then kill him.”

That’s how I think I might enjoy seeing the character portrayed. Most of the time he’s just Norman Osborn in a Halloween costume trying to be the diabolical archvillain who’s courteous of his nemesis and keeps his secret identity for himself as a plaything. But at the first sign that things aren’t going to go his way, a switch is thrown inside his head, and all that posturing melts away to reveal a vicious, cruel thing just looking for somebody to hurt.


cease ill said...

Now THAT is an interesting character who seems like a human being. The conniver who's managed to climb into such political power in the NEW AVENGERS issues I've been picking up might as well have been a new character! However, it seems the contingencies of sales required an identifiable go-to mastermind, so he's become a less-genius Lex Luthor for Marvel. We only have these characters that populate our private alternative universes available as fan fictions, unless we take the kernel of the idea to a proper original setting---and THEN of course we have the unenviable task of creating compelling trappings (and there's just NO topping Ditko's Spidey suit for the hero).
Takes you back to being a kid, knocking off corporate properties with your own ineffable sensibility, doesn't it, though?

Justin said...

Heh, true enough. I'm not too proud to admit that as a kid, I drew a very cleverly disguised comic about a character called "Spider-Human". Dressed in half black, half white split down the center like a photo negative (yep, no topping Ditko).

Slighly more interesting was an ad for a late-80s Doctor Strange comic I saw (, which spurred me to create (again, very clever) Doctor Crazy. Only thing was, I'd never seen Doctor Strange before, so I thought *Dormammu* was the main character! So it was basically a Dormammu knockoff as a good guy. Potentially interesting! But only potentially.