Over the next few months, SuperiorSpiderTalk.com will publish “Mysterious Ways,” which will look at some of the most significant, long-running “mysteries,” as well as a number of unresolved mysteries from Spider-Man comics. Entries will outline what made the mystery so important to the overall mythos of the Spider-Man universe, and whether or not the payoff (or lack thereof) was worth the build.
This time around, let’s watch Mark blather on endlessly and examine who was the Hobgoblin:
During the critically acclaimed Roger Stern/John Romita Jr., run on Amazing Spider-Man, Stern notably wanted to move away from using the same old tired villains over and over again and instead opted to feature underappreciated/underutilized bad guys like the Vulture and Tarantula, or brand new creations. Of those new rogues, Stern/JRJR’s most famous creation was Hobgoblin, who was physically similar to Spidey’s nemesis, the Green Goblin, but was also depicted to be far more cunning and intelligent. And just like the Green Goblin, a big part of the Hobgoblin’s allure was the fact that nobody knew the identity of the person wearing the costume.
I don’t know if “Hobgoblin-ologist” is an actual term, but if it is, I’m one of them. People who followed my previous writings at my old site, Chasing Amazing, know all too well that the mystery surrounding the Hobgoblin’s identity is one of my favorite Spider-Man topics to discuss because of the vast amount of back-office politics that ultimately altered the direction of the story (arguably for the worst, but we’ll get to that in short order).
As such, the build-up for the Hobgoblin mystery should really be broken down into two phases: Stern and JRJR’s work on the story, and then everything that followed their departure from the book in Amazing Spider-Man #250. That’s because the power of hindsight has revealed that Stern and Romita really did a wonderful job of building up their mystery, but because they never got around to pay it off, those that followed them (for various reasons) ultimately botched the execution of the story in legendary fashion.
The Hobgoblin’s first appearance in ASM #238 is arguably one of the greatest debut issues for a new villain in Spider-Man history. The comic is actually a master class in slow burning, suspenseful story-telling and also marks the high watermark for JRJR during his first stint on the book.
The issue introduces us to a shadowy figure snooping around an abandoned lair of the original Green Goblin. Stern and Romita immediately cast everyone in the story as a potential suspect — Harry Osborn, Lance Bannon, some other anonymous guy who shows up near the lair — before killing off one of those suspects (the random guy) and giving us just a breathtaking visual sequence of the new villain slowly putting on his costume and revealing himself (on the final page, ‘natch) as the Hobgoblin.
The character is quickly presented as a formidable foe for Spider-Man, fighting him to a virtual draw (despite the fact that he’s admittedly not prepared to face his web slinging adversary in this issue). By the time the character appears in his second arc, Stern and Romita would introduce a trope that would become a staple for the Hobgoblin — the false reveal. While fighting the masked villain, the Hobgoblin’s glider nosedives and crashes. When Spider-Man approaches the body, he recognized the man as small-time hood Lefty Donovan. But the reveal doesn’t add up to Spider-Man. How did someone so under-the-radar become so strong and gain access to Osborn’s lair? And why did his glider crash as if it was under someone else’s control?
Just before Lefty could spill the beans, he’s suddenly killed. The real Hobgoblin would return for a third arc. This would be the storyline where Stern really started to lay the groundwork for his mystery, hiding clues all over the place as to who the villain might be. The Hobgoblin attacks a social club and promises to out the deepest secrets of all of its attendees. We get a close-up of one of those in attendance — fashion mogul Roderick Kingsley — who looks incredibly nervous as he wonders where his brother may be. It’s a totally random snapshot into the life of one of many socialites who were being intimidated by the Hobgoblin. Why Kingsley (who, for what it’s worth, was a Stern creation during his run on Spectacular Spider-Man)? I’m obviously lingering over this point because it would prove to prescient.
Unfortunately during this storyline, Stern abruptly left ASM, turning the book over to Tom DeFalco. Reportedly, one of the first things DeFalco did when he took the reigns from Stern was ask about the Hobgoblin’s identity. When Stern revealed the villain’s identity, DeFalco was admittedly unimpressed with the resolution of this mystery and asked if he could take the story in his own direction. Stern obliged and DeFalco, alongside artist Ron Frenz, was off to the races. And that’s when things started to get weird.
One of DeFalco’s chief accomplishments during his run was building up the criminal underworld element within the Spider-verse. There was a new gang boss in town, the mercurially dressed (and masked) Rose. Naturally, the Hobgobiln’s arc dovetailed nicely with DeFalco’s larger storyline. Hobgoblin joined up with the Rose despite the fact that the gang boss didn’t trust him and thought Hobby was losing his mind.
Meanwhile, in the background, DeFalco kept building up his suspect list as Stern did before him. Lance Bannon was still kind of suspicious and Ned Leeds, a smart, but otherwise forgettable tertiary character in the Spider-verse, was suddenly losing his cool over the smallest things, forcing a wedge between he and his wife, Betty Brant (who, in turn, was driven into the awkward arms of Flash Thompson). Speaking of which, Flash became a suspect, and was even framed as such during a run of stories penned by DeFalco. Roderick Kingsley started showing up again and boy did he look suspicious. Who could the Hobgoblin actually be?
This is where back office politics started to interfere with the story. Spider-book editor Jim Owsley (now Christopher Priest) was reportedly clashing with DeFalco and Frenz, fighting with them over missed deadlines and creative direction of the book. In an interview DeFalco gave with this site’s podcast, he mentioned that at an industry press event, Priest cornered him over the Hobgoblin’s identity. In an attempt to get him off his back, DeFalco told him Leeds was his guy even though that was not his intent. DeFalco wanted the man to be Richard Fisk (Kingpin’s son) with Kingsley serving as the Rose. It all made sense. Fisk had to live up to his father’s reputation, thereby driving him to madness, while the well-coiffed Kingsley was a natural fit for the Rose. The only problem is, the content of the comics never suggested that these characters were who we thought they were.
Priest fired DeFalco from the book and took over a storyline that had already been plotted, “Gang War.” In addition to showing Daredevil in a fat suit, the arc also revealed that the Rose was Fisk. Kingsley was unceremoniously shot (and presumed dead) during an issue of Web of. That just left the Hobgoblin and the one obvious suspect — Leeds.
Whoops! Priest decided to kill off Ned in the Spider-Man vs. Wolverine one-shot that had been published concurrently. So cross him off the list. So who was going to be revealed as the Hobgoblin?
And this is where things truly go off the rails (and also where a healthy knowledge of Marvel back office politics at least puts things into context). Soon after firing DeFalco from ASM, Priest himself was removed as Spider-book editor and replaced by Jim Salicrup, who wanted to put the whole Hobgoblin business behind everyone and reveal the character. With all of the Spider-books in such a state of flux, the honor of doing this deed fell to Peter David, who had made a name for himself writing some very gritty Spidey stories for Spectacular Spider-Man.
David attempted to look at the Hobgoblin mystery objectively and determined that Leeds was the most likely candidate to be the villain. When he learned that Priest was going to kill him off in Spider-Man vs. Wolverine, David was left with no other choice than to write a rather convoluted story (as found in ASM #289) where Leeds was murdered in Germany because of his Hobgoblin connections and that Spider-Man would learn all of this via a dossier held by the Kingpin.
Needless to say, it was not a well-received reveal — especially not after years and years of build-up. A storyline that started out with so much energy and promise limped to the finish line by providing readers with a villain that wasn’t even alive anymore for there to be a sense of justice or payback (or really anything — in the same issue where the Hobgoblin is unmasked, Jason Macendale, aka, Jack O’Lantern, becomes the new Hobgoblin and then promptly disappears for a few years).
In a vacuum, Ned wasn’t the worst choice to be the villain, and as David argued when he wrote the story, the evidence was certainly there to convict him. Despite DeFalco’s long-term plans to make Richard Fisk the guy, the comics themselves contained very little material that would have led anyone without inside knowledge to conclude that Fisk was the Hobgoblin.
But the legacy of the Hobgoblin and his reveal is further sullied by a storyline that followed about 10 years later. The Spider-books were in their post “Clone Wars” phase where creators were rebuilding some of the classic characters. Stern was apparently approached by Marvel about unmasking the Hobgoblin the way he had originally intended when the character was first introduced in the early-1980s. And thus we were treated to Hobgoblin Lives, a three-part miniseries where we learn that Ned was actually brainwashed by the real Hobgoblin to think he was the Hobgoblin (crazy, but not implausible in comic book speak). By the end of those three issues, we finally had our real Hobgoblin, Roderick Kingsley. But wasn’t Roderick at the social club that was crashed by the Hobgoblin in ASM #250? That was actually Roderick’s brother Daniel, who so happens to look a lot like Roderick.
Not to backtrack again, but reportedly when Stern revealed to DeFalco who the Hobgoblin was, DeFalco poo-pooed the idea. DeFalco didn’t think it was fair to introduce an “evil twin” angle (despite the fact that Daniel was not Roderick’s twin) as part of the reveal since at no point in any previous story did Stern ever establish that Roderick has a brother who looked like him. And speaking purely objectively here, outside of that one scene in ASM #250 where “Roderick” is panicked and looking for his brother, there isn’t much evidence to be found in the comics to suggest that Kingsley was the Hobgoblin either. But that’s a tough call since it could be argued that if Stern had more time to tell his story, he would have eventually put all the pieces out there in a respectable way.
Either way, the mystery of the Hobgoblin will forever remain one of the most fascinating editorial screw-ups in Spider-Man history based on how well developed this storyline was and how poorly executed it’s inevitable reveal turned out to be.