By August, 1968, I’d been buying Amazing Spider-Man regularly for eight months; and if it hadn’t vet become my very favorite comic book, it was awfully close. I wasn’t quite ready to start investigating his earlier, reprinted adventures in Marvel Tales just yet (perhaps because I wasn’t yet sold on the other Marvel heroes he shared space with in that twenty-five center — Thor and a solo Human Torch — or perhaps because at that time I still thought Steve Ditko’s artwork looked a little strange), but otherwise, I was buying everything your friendly neighborhood arachnid appeared in.
Or I was trying to, anyway. I know for sure that when the full-age ad shown below had turned up in Marvel’s comics that spring, I’d been pretty darned jazzed, and had had every intention of buying the book:
But the first issue of Marvel’s great new experiment in expanding into the black-and-white comics magazine market, then being profitably exploited by Mad magazine and its ilk as well as by Warren Publications, never reached the convenience stores where I usually got my comics. Or, maybe it did, but it sold out before I got there. In any event, I never saw it* — at least not until some years later, when I picked it up as a back issue — and so I didn’t even have a way of knowing that the cover illustration shown in the ad was a mere approximation of the fully painted cover by Harry Rosenbaum (over layouts by regular Spidey artist John Romita) that actually adorned the issue. Another, more significant consequence was that my introduction to black-and-white comics art outside of either the pages of the aforementioned Mad, or the daily comic strips that ran in our local newspaper, would be postponed for another few years.
Thankfully, I had more success finding the second issue of the magazine — because unlike the first issue, which featured a stand-alone story**, Spectacular Spider-Man #2 presented the culmination of a subplot that had been building in the web-spinner’s monthly title for almost as long as I’d been reading the book — the return of the Green Goblin.
If you read my posts from earlier this year about Amazing Spider-Man #61 and #62 — or if you just happen to really be up on your half-century-old Spider-Man stories — you’ll recall that in those stories, Norman Osborn — a wealthy and well-regarded businessman, and also the father of Harry, Spider-Man’s buddy and roommate in his civilian identity of Peter Parker — was slowly beginning to recover memories he’d lost due to events chronicled in AS-M #40. That was bad news for Peter, Harry, and just about everyone else, including Norman himself (though perhaps not, from his eventual point of view) — because Norman had at one time been the costumed super-criminal called the Green Goblin, prior to being defeated by Spidey and contracting amnesia due to a severe electrical shock he received in the process. And just one issue before his defeat, the Goblin had uncovered the web-slinger’s secret identity — which meant that if Norman remembered he was the Goblin, he’d almost certainly also remember that Peter Parker was Spider-Man.
The subplot had continued to develop in successive issues over the first half of 1968. In issue #63, an agitated Norman turned up at Pete and Harry’s apartment:
Norman didn’t appear in the following issue, nor did Harry (though both were mentioned in other characters’ dialogue, helping to keep the situation in readers’ minds); but in #65, we learned that the elder Osborn had gone mysteriously missing, leaving poor Harry even more anxious:
By the time August rolled around, my eleven-year old self might not have been quite as frantic as Harry Osborn, but I was still super-eager to find out what would happen next. And so, I was delighted when Spectacular Spider-Man #2 appeared at last on my local magazine racks — and even more delighted to find that the first issue’s black-and-white format had been supplanted by the full color I was accustomed to.
The comic still came in a larger, magazine-style package, however; and that, along with another fully painted cover (entirely produced by John Romita, this time), a black-and-white single page recap of Spidey’s origin on the inside front cover, and an illustrated contents page, all served to make the book still seem special.
The story itself, scripted by Stan Lee and with art by Romita and Jim Mooney, got under way with a two-page spread that followed the contents page:
I think that my younger self must have been at least a little bemused by the “missing” Norman Osborn’s presence in this opening scene, considering that he was still supposedly AWOL at the end of last month’s issue of Amazing Spider-Man (#65). One might conclude hat Norman simply turned up in the interim between the two stories; there’s a problem with that notion, however, that we’ll get to in just a bit.
The next few pages are mostly flashbacks, with Peter recalling earlier battles with the Goblin. These were actually pretty interesting to me in 1968, as a relatively new Spider-Man reader who’d yet to see the villain in action.
Ultimately, Norman becomes so distraught that he leaps from his chair, desperate to get away from the screened, larger-than-life images of Spider-Man and the Goblin:
As Pete continues to fret over the potentially catastrophic consequences of Norman’s memory returning, the story slips again into flashback mode, this time recapping the final battle between the Goblin and Spider-Man. Again, this was of considerable interest to me in 1968, since the brief glimpses of this event shown in recent issues of Amazing Spider-Man had focused only on the very end of the battle. I can recall being especially unsettled by the scene in which the Goblin attacked Peter in front of his own house, nestled in a quiet, ordinary residential neighborhood that looked a lot like my own — a scene that brought the comic-book fantasy of costumed character mayhem “home” in a more real way than just about anything else I’d read or seen up to that time:
As the story returns to the present day, Pete pays a visit to his Aunt May, still living in that same modest house:
The sequence of panels above — the dramatic payoff to months of build-up in the monthly series — is very well done, with artists John Romita and Jim Mooney expertly conveying the moment’s powerful impact through what’s probably their strongest art of the issue.
Fleeing the hospital, Norman calls on his newly restored memories to guide him to one of the Goblin’s many secret hideouts, where he completes his transformation from troubled businessman to resurrected super-villain:
It’s another great, dramatic moment, though perhaps not quite as powerful as Osborn’s instant of recollection a few pages earlier. I think that’s mainly due to the fact that penciler Romita, for all his strengths as an artist, could never make the Green Goblin’s physiognomy come off as anything much more than a cartoonish, vaguely creepy Halloween mask.
Compare with these two renditions by the Goblin’s co-creator, Steve Ditko, from Amazing Spider-Man #23. Even though you know the guy is wearing a rubber mask, it’s all too easy to believe you’re looking at a real green goblin, due to the expressiveness with which Ditko invests the character.
The story now turns its attention back to Peter, whom we see meeting up with his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, while on his way to a class at Empire State University. If you follow this blog, you may recall that Pete and Gwen were recently on the outs, with Gwen having received the mistaken impression that her beau had physically attacked her aged father, retired police captain George Stacy (yes, the very same pipe-smoking gentleman who was showing Green Goblin films in this story’s first scene), while the former was under the hypnotic control of the Kingpin. Pete felt he couldn’t explain what really happened without revealing he was Spider-Man, thought that turned out not to be the case. As it turned out, Capt. Stacy finally remembered what had happened to him while under the Kingpin’s influence, and (in issue #64) explained to Gwen that Peter was trying to help him the whole time. OK, so maybe she wouldn’t have bought that story coming from Mr. Parker himself, but it seems like our hero could have at least tried. Oh, well — everything’s hunky dory again now.
After classes are done for the day, Peter and Gwen stop by Norman Osborn’s apartment to check in with Harry — and poor Pete gets the very bad news about the senior Osborn having fled the hospital:
An anxious Peter drops Gwen off at her home, and then heads back to his own apartment, worried all the while that the Gree Goblin may already be lying in wait for him:
Peter’s nightmare, as dramatic as it is, doesn’t quite seem to call out for a full-page splash panel. Unlike with the earlier flashback scenes, one has to question whether the creators are padding their tale a bit here to fill the magazine’s 60 pages.
Unable to sleep, Peter changes into costume and starts swinging through the city’s concrete canyons, searching for any sign of his foe. Unknown to Spidey, the Goblin is very close — but isn’t ready to reveal himself quite yet:
Spider-Man heads for home, while the Goblin watches him go, gloating: “My plans for your destruction are now complete! I only need… a few hours more!”
“…you fatuous fool!” Yep, it looks like Norman’s back to his old “father of the year” ways, for sure.
The three-panel sequence shown above, coming right after the scene of Spidey and the Goblin’s nighttime prowls, would seem to be set later during that same night — “a few hours” later, as suggested by the Goblin’s final dialogue in said scene. But there’s a wallopingly huge continuity problem here, connected to the “Norman Osborn is missing” scenes from the last several issues of Spidey’s monthly series — which, as we noted earlier, would seem to require being slotted in before the beginning of the present tale, as unwieldy as that might be.
The problem arises from the fact that plot thread actually continued a little further than I previously indicated; in fact, it extended all the way into Amazing Spider-Man #66, the issue that went on sale the same month that Spectacular Spider-Man #2 did. In that issue, Peter offers to help Harry search for his still-missing dad, and the two of them drive to the Osborn Industries plant:
This scene has to take place after Norman recovers his memory of being the Goblin on page 13 of our Spectacular Spider-Man #2 story, but before he recalls that Harry’s roommate is his hated enemy Spider-Man. But since he has remembered that little fact by the time he flies by behind Spidey on page 24, the scene in AS-M #66 must take place between those SS-M #2 pages. Yet, both Peter’s and Harry’s activities during that interval seem to be completely accounted for; Pete spends a day in classes at E.S.U., then goes with Gwen to visit Harry at Norman Osborn’s apartment, where he’s been waiting for news since his dad bolted from the hospital. There’s no chronological room for the “plant” scene above, let alone any of the other “Where’s Norman?” scenes from the last several issues of AS-M.
So — how to reconcile these discrepancies? Beats me. Honestly, I don’t see any way they can be reconciled, at least not if one adheres literally to the scenes as they’ve been written.
I’m at something of a loss to explain why Lee and Romita did things this way. I can see why they would want to let their Spectacular Spider-Man story stand on its own, without references to other comics that might confuse the much-wanted “new readers” Marvel hoped to attract via the magazine format — but surely it wouldn’t have been that difficult to coordinate the relevant scenes in the two Spider-Man series to provide a more consistent chronology. But what do I know? Maybe they were rushing to get the books done on time, for whatever reasons. In any case, that water passed under the bridge a whole half-century ago — so, if you want my advice, I’ll suggest you just make whatever mental edits you need to in your own personal head canon (as I figure my eleven-year-old self must have done, way back in August, 1968), and we’ll get on with our story.
Back at home, Norman puts the next phase of his plan into operation — and the next evening, Peter gets a phone call from Harry. His dad’s come back, and he seems to be all better now! And that’s not all…
Although he’s certain it’s a trap, Pete doesn’t see that he has any chance but to play along — and so, he and Gwen are soon at Norman Osborn’s dooe, being greeted by their gracious host:
Peter conceives of a way to get Gwen, Harry, and Mary Jane*** out of harm’s way. On the pretext of needing to call his Aunt May, he steps into another room, where there’s a fireplace, as well as a phone. At first, Norman stands just outside the doorway, keeping one eye on his intended prey…
Once his friends are safely out the door, Pete himself exits the apartment through a window — though not before hearing Osborn say he’ll force his foe to come to him, by going after his Aunt May. And so, soon afterwards…
Spidey leaps to the attack, and the battle begins:
Spider-Man actually manages to get the drop on the Goblin within the next few pages, but finds himself faced by the same dilemma he faced the last time he fought the villain — the only way to ensure that Norman Osborn can never use his secret identity against him, by coming after him, his Aunt May, or his other loved ones, is to kill him — and he’s not willing to do that.
Unfortunately for our hero, the “psychedlic pumpkin” immediately begins to emit a strange gas — and within moments, Spidey starts seeing things:
These not-so-groovy ghoulies are followed by huge faces of Peter Parker’s friends and family (plus J. Jonah Jameson), looking hurt or angry, and then by giant, menacing figures from Spidey’s rogues gallery, led by the Goblin:
Looks like Spidey’s got a plan, though he doesn’t let us readers in on it right away.
Next, the Goblin swoops in for the kill, but is surprised when Spider-Man nabs his glider with his webbing and brings him crashing down:
Goaded by his arch-nemesis, the Goblin attacks, but he’s swinging wildly, due to his rage:
As Spidey puts it a couple of panels later: “The shock… the agony of the psychedelic gas — have forced him to close his mind to anything having to do with Spider-Man… or the Green Goblin… just as I prayed it would!”
As I recall, when I first read this story fifty years ago, I thought that Spider-Man had been extraordinarily clever in using the Goblin’s own weapon against him, to not only defeat him, but also return him to his much-preferred (by Spidey, anyway) amnesiac state. Reading it again today, I’m more inclined to think that Pete was simply extraordinary lucky to have successfully pulled off this gambit without completely frying Norman Osborn’s brain in the process.
Having confirmed that Norman no longer sees Peter Parker’s face as the face of Spider-Man, our hero lugs the unconscious man back to his (Peter’s) apartment — then, after a change of clothes for both of them, takes him to the hospital. When Harry, Gwen, and MJ show up tere — they’ve been searching frantically for both Pete and Norman ever since the false fire alarm — Pete explains that Harry’s father was worn out by the evening’s exceitement, so Peter brought him straight to the hospital without telling anybody. Umm, OK. Harry’s a little bit put out (justifiably so, I’d say), but buys his friend’s story.
Gee, Pete really seems to be taking a glass-half-empty attitude in that last panel, doesn’t he? Maybe he’s caught a glimpse of that rather ominous question mark following “The End” in the final caption. Or maybe he has a premonition that in a little less than fifty years, not only will he be fighting the same bad guy for the eleventy-seventh time — but he’ll even be doing it under the same cover as this issue’s:
OK, not exactly the same cover. But a pretty sweet homage by Alex Ross to the classic Romita original, nonetheless.
You see a lot of discussion these days about decompressed storytelling in comic books, both pro and con. Such storytelling is generally understood to involve, in the words of Stuart Moore, “extended, realistically-paced dialogue scenes; long, cinematic action sequences; slow buildups to establish a protagonist’s origins and motivations.” Decompressed storytelling is often thought of as having entered American comic books sometime in the Nineties, through the influence of Japanese comics (manga). It’s often contrasted with the comic book storytelling of earlier decades, especially that of the Sixties and Seventies (or, as many fans of this writer’s vintage like to call them, the Good Old Days). Back then, say some fans, comics creators knew how to give you your money’s worth. If they couldn’t fit their whole story into 20 pages, they nevertheless gave you a solid, satisfying chunk of same. None of this “writing for the trade” business. You didn’t pick up a comic book, start reading, and put it down finished five minutes later, unable to recall a single actual event that moved the story forward, back in my day, nosiree.
Well. It occurred to me, re-reading “The Goblin Lives!” for the first time in decades, that this fifty-year old story by Stan Lee and John Romita is about as decompressed as anything ever written by, say, Brian Michael Bendis, Even allowing for the several pages allotted to flashbacks — which, as previously noted, can be justified in the name of bringing a brand-new reader up to speed — there’s a whole lot of padding in this story, including a copious use of single and double-page splashes, other large panels, and the excessive repetition of information. If the difference between decompressed and compressed comics storytelling may be expressed as the former taking 60 pages to do what the latter could accomplish in 40, then this half-century-old Silver Age Marvel classic certainly qualifies. (And if you doubt the truth of that statement, consider that when this story was reprinted five years later in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #9, eighteen pages were trimmed from its length.)
Which isn’t to say that “The Goblin Lives!” is a bad story; it isn’t, in my opinion , by the standards of any era. It’s simply to note that while American comic book storytelling, as a whole, may be seen to have generally evolved over the decades from compression to decompression being the norm, it hasn’t been a steady, unified march from one standard to another. And that decompressed storytelling was around in mainstream comics well before the 1990s.
Page 58 was the last page of story in Spectacular Spider-Man #2, but it wasn’t quite the last page of the magazine. That honor went to a full-page ad promoting Spectacular Spider-Man #3, as shown below:
It’s an intriguing, if not especially informative promo. We can speculate that the story would have been another standalone, like the lead tale in the first issue, and probably wouldn’t have resorted to using an existing Spidey villain, as the second issue had. Ultimately, however, all we can do is speculate, since Marvel publisher Martin Goodman — already skittish enough about Marvel’s dipping its toe in the magazine waters that he’d mandated the shift from black-and-white printing to the more familiar (but also presumably more expensive) full color format after the first issue — got even colder feet after the second issue shipped, and summarily cancelled the magazine. According to John Romita’s introduction to Marvel Masterworks – The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 7, “when the sales figures came in, the magazines had sold extremely well, but Mr. Goodman could not be convinced to resume publishing the title.” And indeed, Marvel wouldn’t make another attempt at entering the magazine market until Savage Tales, in 1971.
As for “The Mystery of the TV Terror!”, it would never be published in any format — in fact, the only aspect of the story that would elver see print was Romita’s visual design for the villain, which (according to the artist’s introduction to Marvel Masterworks – The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 9) would be recycled about a year later for another character, the Prowler.
But fret not, frantic ones! Although posterity may have been robbed of this particular extra-length Spider-Man adventure, Lee and Romita had another one cooking that would see print very soon — just a couple of weeks after Spectacular Spider-Man #2, in fact. And it would prove to be much more significant in the history of the amazing as well as spectacular Spider-Man, Peter Parker, than “The Goblin Lives!” After all, the Green Goblin can return any number of times (and has — even after being “dead” for over two decades), but you can only reveal the secret of Peter Parker’s parents once.
Come back in just a couple of weeks to learn all about it, why don’t you?
*The closest I got to reading Spectacular Spider-Man #1’s “Lo, This Monster” in 1968 was a tie-in story that appeared in, of all places, Daredevil #42, where the main villain of the former tale — a crooked politician named Richard Raleigh — appeared in a couple of scenes. But despite Stan Lee being so continuity-conscious in this era that he wouldn’t let Roy Thomas use Captain America, Iron Man, or Thor regularly in Avengers for fear of chronological inconsistencies, he forgot all about this crossover by the time 1973 rolled around, and so allowed “Lo, This Monster” to be re-purposed and expanded to fill three issues of Amazing Spider-Man. Those issues showed that Raleigh, dead as a doornail by the conclusion of both SS-M #1 and DD #42, was still hale and hearty. Oops.
**At least as far as Spider-Man was concerned; see previous note.
***Just in case you didn’t recognize the young lady with the short and curly red hair — Mary Jane Watson’s “ginchy” new hairstyle had made its debut a couple of months earlier, in Amazing Spider-Man #64.
Thankfully, it didn’t stay around too long.