Mar 23, 2017

The Hobgoblin and the False Equivalence

Comic Book False Equivalences
The Hobgoblin
Ben Smith

Dan Slott has been the target of online “fan” anger several times since taking over as the ongoing writer on The Amazing Spider-Man. One of the first such incidents coming after Slott finally brought back the original Hobgoblin only to have him seemingly killed and replaced by Phil Urich.

The character of the Hobgoblin has a long and convoluted history. Roger Stern created the character to carry on the legacy of the Green Goblin during his legendary run in the ‘80s. The real identity of the Hobgoblin was a mystery, but after much behind-the-scenes turmoil, he was eventually revealed to be Ned Leeds (just in time to be killed off and replaced by a new Hobgoblin). This never sat well with Stern, who eventually got a chance to return and reveal the first Hobgoblin to be Roderick Kingsley like he had originally intended (in the Hobgoblin Lives mini-series). Unfortunately, this happened at about the same time that Norman Osborn was resurrected as part of the grand finale to the Clone Saga. For many years, much to the chagrin of long-time fans like myself, the Hobgoblin was considered redundant by Marvel now that the Green Goblin was back.

So you can understand how disappointing it was to have the original Hobgoblin’s big return teased at the end of Slott’s first issue, only to see him murdered in the very next. I have to admit, I was pretty damn disappointed myself, since the Hobgoblin happened to be the premiere villain of my childhood Spider-Man fandom. (For a long time, being the overly fast and careless reader that I am, I thought his name was Hobogoblin. So I called him Hob-o-goblin. Eventually I realized my mistake and had to learn how to say it correctly, and also relearn how to live happily again. That was a tough transition. In a related story, I was not the smartest kid.) The Green Goblin had been long gone, and really only had 3 stretches as a Spider-Man villain to begin with. The Hobgoblin was far and away the coolest looking and the most dangerous Spider-Man villain of the mid to late ‘80s. But, I sat back and began to think about this death rationally (something most online “fans” are incapable of doing) and I came to the following conclusion: Roderick Kingsley isn’t that essential to what made the Hobgoblin good. (I also didn’t totally believe that Roderick Kingsley was really dead.)

Many fans considered Roger Stern’s Hobgoblin the only good version of the character (I happen to think Tom DeFalco did a good job also, but I digress) and considering most of what was done with the character after him, it’s difficult to disagree. However, Roger Stern never got a chance to reveal who the Hobgoblin really was, so as far as what’s actually on the page, the Hobgoblin and only the Hobgoblin is all that mattered. Who he really was under the mask had never become a factor. The Hobgoblin unquestionably declined in quality following Stern’s departure. This difference is made even more distinct after it’s later revealed that Roderick Kingsley had been the Hobgoblin all along, but retired after Ned Leeds was framed and killed. This created a clear block of time where the character was a) good and b) definitively Roderick Kingsley (in retrospect). Therefore, it’s easy for many fans to make the false equivalency that Hobgoblin can only be good if he’s Roderick Kingsley. Yet, one does not actually rely on the other. (Especially since Roderick Kingsley had only barely been shown as a supporting cast member before Stern left. This point is highlighted by the fact that when Stern revealed Kingsley as the Hobgoblin ten years later I, a lifelong Spider-Man fan, had no idea who he was.)

Side note: I remember an online fan complaining about the new Phil Urich Hobgoblin, saying that Roderick Kingsley’s version of the character had always been distinguished by his sane, rational mind. My reply was that he only believed the Hobgoblin to be sane because the character kept saying he was, but that anyone riding around on a flying bat throwing exploding pumpkins may not be as rational as they claim.

Phil Urich ended up having a decent run as a new version of the Hobgoblin. (Unfortunately, his creepy relationship with Norah Winters ended up ruining her as a character. That was a complete misstep by Slott, because I felt she had a lot of potential. Hopefully she can come back from it.) Of course, Slott later revealed that Roderick Kingsley was not in the costume when Phil killed the Hobgoblin, but that it had been his twin brother all along. (Color me unsurprised.) Phil later joined Norman Osborn’s army of goblins for the big finale to Slott’s Superior Spider-Man (which was another case when “fans” lost their minds). In a nice touch of characterization, Norman tried to have Roderick taken out, since he knew he was the one goblin that would refuse to work for him. The Roderick Hobgoblin has since found a nice niche in the current Marvel universe franchising out D-list villain identities to anyone with enough money to pay for it.

Human beings often try to make correlations or create explanations to establish some order to what is a life of disorder and chaos. This is never more evident than in the world of comics, where thousands of writers and artists have all weaved a small portion of the massively large and unruly tapestry that is the Marvel universe. As Jim Shooter once said (paraphrasing) it’s a puzzle with millions of pieces that will never fit exactly perfect. Therefore, it’s easy to make correlations like only Roderick Kingsley can be an entertaining Hobgoblin. When that fact was retroactively added later, and the only real determining factor (as is usually the case) was a writer doing wonders with a character he felt inspired by and invested in. At the end of the day, good writing combined with good art is what makes for good comics. That’s an equivalency I stand behind.

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