Wednesday, December 28, 2011 at 12:47PM
My favorite Marvel villain, hands down, is the Hobgoblin. I was a big fan of his predecessor, the Green Goblin, even as a kid. To have the Hobgoblin appear in an “old enemy returns from the dead” sort of sense just as I was getting back into reading comics (after I started playing Champions) just hit every possible geek sweet spot imaginable for me. The image, the writing, the back story, the keeping his secret identity an actual secret — everything about the character was just what I wanted to read. Roger Stern is a freakin’ genius. And of course having the inestimable John Romita Sr. illustrate the character’s first appearances didn’t exactly hurt.
I made sure to pick up every comic that featured the Hobgoblin (even long after other, many of them lesser, writers had carried him forward and at some points in time ruined him). I kept them in a special section of my comics boxes. If I were somehow to get the miracle assignment of writing Spider-Man, he’d be the first villain I’d think about using, no question.
I have only one problem with him. In 1997 — fifteen years after creating him in Amazing Spider-Man #238 — Roger Stern penned the Hobgoblin Lives three-issue mini-series that finally revealed the Hobgoblin’s actual secret identity. There’d been several supposed revelations in the interim, all generally botched because of mis-handling and mis-communication at Marvel (the Hobgoblin’s Wikipedia page has a good summary of what happened). Stern, the character’s creator, finally told us that he was really Roderick Kingsley, an unethical businessman who’d been a character in the Spider-Man milieu for a long time (one created by Stern himself years before).
My problem is, Stern is absolutely wrong. There’s no way Kingsley could be the Hobgoblin, given the canonical facts available to us. Even if we only limit ourselves to analyzing the comics Stern actually wrote, the clues still don’t support the notion that the Hobgoblin is Kingsley.
For years I’ve wanted to write up an in-depth analysis of this topic, just to satisfy my nerdrage (well, rage may be too strong a term) on it. Now that I have my own blog, it’s time to scratch this particular itch. ;)
I don’t propose here to give an in-depth history of the Hobgoblin from his earliest appearance onward; it would take too much time and generally isn’t necessary for the purposes of making my argument. If you want to read the actual issues involved, here’s a list of the most important Hobgoblin appearances (abbreviations used: ASM (Amazing Spider-Man); PPTSS (Peter Parker The Spectacular Spider-Man); HL (Hobgoblin Lives)):
ASM 238-29, 244, 249-51 and PPTSS 85: the original Roger Stern run that created, developed, and “killed” the character. (Bill Mantlo and Tom DeFalco are also credited as writers on some of these stories.) The “truest” Hobgoblin canon at the heart of the character.
Marvel Age #5: A comic-sized “magazine” discussing current goings-on in the Marvel comics that has an article about the creation of the Hobgoblin.
ASM 254, 259-61, 275-76: the Hobgoblin’s first appearances after his supposed death in ASM 251, including attacking Harry Osborn to get more of Normal Osborn’s journals and framing Flash Thompson.
ASM 294-89: the “Gang War” story arc and its sequel, ending in the death of Ned Leeds and the supposed revelation that he was the Hobgoblin.
HL 1-3: Roger Stern returns to the Hobgoblin after fifteen years to write the final story that at long last definitively revealed that the villain was Roderick Kingsley.
There were numerous other Hobgoblin appearances in these books, Web Of Spider-Man, Moon Knight, and other Marvel comics, but none of them are relevant to my analysis.
Before I proceed, let me add that I don’t mean any insult by this article. Normally I’d defer to a creator’s statements about his own work without question. And I certainly have great respect for Roger Stern’s creativity and skills. But this subject fascinates me so much I can’t resist analyzing it to death. ;)
What Do We Know About The Hobgoblin?
The first step in determining the Hobgoblin’s secret identity is to figure out what we know about him canonically. In other words, what’s been revealed, directly or indirectly, through his appearances in the Spider-Man comics?
By my reading, what we know is this:
—he has sufficient underworld connections that a lowlife like George Hill would know to go straight to him with the discovery of an old Green Goblin hideout (ASM 238)
—he’s ruthless enough to kill George Hill without question or qualm (ASM 238), and to sacrifice Lefty Donovan once he’d learned what he needed to (ASM 245)
—he has sufficient technological/engineering skills to rig up a bomb (possibly while in close proximity to George Hill), instantly reconfigure some of the Goblin’s equipment, and the like (ASM 238-239). This includes improving the pumpkin bombs (Spider-Man notes in ASM 239 that the Hobgoblin’s bombs “packed more explosive than any the old Goblin ever carried!”), so he must have some skill at working with explosives. It also includes enough knowledge of chemistry (and presumably biology) to understand Norman Osborn’s notes and re-create the Goblin Formula.
—he has sufficient resources and/or skills to get the battlevan into Manhattan without the police knowing about it (ASM 239)
—he’s probably known to the public, and/or has some sort of high position in society, because he’s worried that “the disgrace would be too great” if he’s discovered to be the Hobgoblin (ASM 239). Similarly, in ASM 238 he says “the compulsion to escape the restraints of society is something I can well understand,” implying that he holds some sort of position of responsibility and/or prominence. And in ASM 249 he has the connections to know how to reserve the Booker Room at the “prestigious Century Club” (apparently by pretending to be J. Jonah Jameson).
—On a perhaps related note, in ASM 251 he thinks to himself that the disgrace of being unmasked “would be too much for me... for my family!”. This means he has a family of some sort, and that he cares about what happens to them.
—he’s “a man who knows how to use power” (ASM 238)
—he’s wealthy enough to own stock in Osborn Manufacturing (ASM 238). Of course, just owning stock doesn’t per se mean he’s wealthy, since anyone can own stock, but most people who own stock are relatively well off — and the way he refers to buying “a few more shares” implies that he already owns a lot of them.
—he’s sufficiently athletic and skilled that he could use the Goblin’s jet-glider and weaponry with great skill almost as soon as he found it (ASM 238-39).
Caveat #1 — in ASM 238 he specifically states that a jet-glider’s controls “can be mastered in seconds,” so riding one may not require much skill (though realistically speaking, steering it primarily through body attitude would require a lot of practice, I think). And that says nothing about accurately using weapons (particularly thrown weapons) while riding a jet-glider, which would definitely require a high degree of skill.
Caveat #2 — near the beginning of ASM 239, Menken says there’ve been “a half-dozen” break-ins at Osborn facilities “in the last few weeks.” Arguably the Hobgoblin could’ve practiced with the Goblin weaponry extensively enough during that time to become good enough to fight Spider-Man later in ASM 239. That’s not beyond the bounds of plausibility for comics... though it sort of strains “realism,” given how difficult it’s got to be to throw accurately while straddling a jet engine moving at high speed. And if he is in fact socially prominent or holds a position of responsibility, it’s questionable how much of those “few weeks” he could devote to training.
—however, he’s not sufficiently athletic to have the stamina for a fight with Spider-Man — after even a relatively short battle in ASM 239 he’s practically exhausted.
—he has brown hair cut short (ASM 245) (Caveat — in theory this could be a wig. That wouldn’t make sense, but it is possible.)
—at the end of ASM 251 he mutters, “N-no... you don’t understand... you’ve never understood...”. It’s unclear if he’s actually talking to Spider-Man or to someone in his head. (He goes on to say that he’s not crazy, so that may be what he’s referring to.)
—he knows who Mary Jane Watson is (ASM 261). (It’s possible he learned of her from studying Harry Osborn, but it’s more likely a clue to his identity.)
—per Roger Stern in Marvel Age #5, “[t]he Hobgoblin is partially into this for the ego of the thing, for the release it gives him. So that’s a clue to his identity right there.”
In theory, all of this should be enough to try to figure out out who he really is. In fact, the Marvel Age article says, “So the clues are there — for anyone who can sort true from false, fact from fiction.” It’s entirely possible that’s just journalistic hyperbole, but let’s take a shot nonetheless.
Why Not Kingsley?
Roderick Kingsley, the man held forth as being the true Hobgoblin, is a longstanding character in Spider-Man continuity. He’s a powerful, successful businessman with minor underworld connections and a willingness to engage in unethical business practices to get ahead. And he was created by Roger Stern, back in PPTSSM 43 (where he’s described as short and skinny).
Many things about Kingsley correspond to known facts about the Hobgoblin. He has some underworld connections (though not what I’d call “strong” ones; to me it strains credibility that George Hill would go to him, but I’ll accept it on the basis of “comics logic”). He’s wealthy and socially prominent; he’d certainly worry about being personally disgraced and could own a lot of Osborn stock. He’s not athletic and would likely be exhausted after fighting Spider-Man in ASM 239. He’s been shown to have some technological and chemical skills; while they seem relatively minor to me (at best), I can accept his upgrading the Goblin equipment on the grounds of “comics logic.”
Beyond that, though, I think there are enough strikes against Kingsley that he simply cannot be the Hobgoblin. First, I have a hard time seeing him as being ruthless enough to murder George Hill in ASM 238. Being an unethical businessman, an intellectual property thief, and a corporate raider is one thing. Killing people in cold blood is another thing entirely.
Second, we know little about Kingsley’s family; there’s no known reason why he’d be concerned about disgracing them. The only one ever shown is his brother Daniel, years after ASM 251 was published... and Roderick was cruelly using and exploiting him, so he didn’t really care about him at all.
Third and most damning are the events of ASM 249-50. In ASM 249, Roderick Kingsley is one of the Hobgoblin’s blackmail victims. Before the Hobgoblin appears, he sees Harry Osborn in the room and thinks, “Norman Osborn would have had proof of the kickbacks...”. Then he’s present in the room when the real Hobgoblin appears. (And we can be sure it’s the real Hobgoblin and not a robot — the robot who first addressed the group didn’t trigger Spider-Man’s spider-sense, but the Hobgoblin who crashes into the room does. In theory this could be another dupe like Lefty Donovan, but I think that’s highly unlikely for the reasons discussed below.) Right before that Kingsley himself speculates “He could even be one of us!”, which may be intended as some sort of clue or pointer, though in the absence of any further discussion or follow-up it’s not really evidence of anything. When Spider-Man confronts Kingsley to try to find out what the Hobgoblin has on him, Kingsley is worriedly pacing the floor, thinking to himself, “Of all the times for my brother to be out of town! If ever I needed him...!”. When Spider-Man speaks to Kingsley, he becomes visibly frightened — as Spidey puts it, “He’s too scared to talk!”.
All of the above points to Kingsley and the Hobgoblin being two separate people. However, according to Hobgoblin Lives, Roderick Kingsley would have his brother Daniel disguise himself as Roderick and take his place so Roderick could operate freely as the Hobgoblin. (They’re actually described on the Wikipedia page as “identical twins,” though they’re not drawn that way in HL to my eyes.) But in light of ASM 249-50 and some other factors, I don’t think that explanation holds water.
First — evil twin brother? Seriously? That’s just too hackneyed and absurd. Roger Stern is a better writer than that. The whole explanation sounds to me very much like an attempt to explain the known facts years later when it became apparent there was no easy answer to the question of the Hobgoblin’s identity. (And in fairness to Stern, a significant part of the reason there’s no easy answer is the way that writers and editors who followed him didn’t handle the character well after Stern stopped writing him — when writing HL he had to work with what he was given.) It’s Hobgoblin ex machina.
Second, there are absolutely no clues in the classic Stern run on the character that even remotely point to the “Daniel disguises himself as Roderick” explanation as a possibility. (And few, if any, that would justify that explanation even after Stern’s departure.) If Stern knew when he was creating the Hobgoblin that the villain was Roderick Kingsley, and that Kingsley used his brother Daniel as a cover, he would have dropped some clues that at least vaguely hint at that possibility. He’s too good a writer to just pull something out of his hat at the last minute — he’s constructing a mystery and would have provided the necessary clue to his readers.
Third, when Spider-Man goes to talk to Kingsley, Kingsley’s thinking “Of all the times for my brother to be out of town! If ever I needed him...!”. That internal monologue makes no sense at all if Roderick is the Hobgoblin and Daniel his cover. One, Roderick would never launch a major scheme like the blackmail plot without Daniel around to cover for him. Two, if that’s Daniel in disguise (which seems unlikely because a woman’s there who’d easily discover that he’s wearing a disguise during close, intimate contact), Roderick couldn’t be “out of town” — he was just in town fighting Spider-Man.
Similarly, if the Kingsley at the blackmail meeting weren’t the real Kingsley, why would he be thinking about the “dirt” Norman Osborn had on him? If it were Daniel in disguise, or a robot, that internal monologue makes no sense at all. Only the real Kingsley, who’s not the Hobgoblin, would think that thought.
Fourth, continuing with the “Roger Stern’s too good a writer” theme, there’s no basis for arguing that Kingsley wasn’t, in fact, as scared as he’s depicted as being in ASM 250. We’re never told that he’s a gifted actor, given any clue that Kingsley’s dissembling, nothing. I think it has to be accepted as fact that Kingsley’s legitimately scared of the Hobgoblin and of talking to Spider-Man. (I suppose one could argue “he was scared of having his villainous identity exposed,” but there’s no evidence for that at all).
Fifth, it seems highly unlikely that the Hobgoblin who fought Spider-Man in the Century Club could be a brainwashed dupe like Lefty Donovan. Roger Stern went to a lot of trouble to set up the Donovan aspect of the Hobgoblin’s story and provide readers with clues about what was going on — ably illustrating how skilled a planner and strategist the Hobgoblin is. We’re given no indication whatsoever that the Hobgoblin who fought Spidey in ASM 249 isn’t the genuine article. To claim otherwise would, again, be too Hobgoblin ex machina.
In short — taken together the canonical facts do not support the conclusion that Roderick Kingsley could be the Hobgoblin. While some clues argue in favor of that theory, too many argue against it decisively.
So, Who Is It Then?
If it’s not Kingsley, it’s got to be someone else. Let’s look at the major suspects presented to the readers at various points during the 1983-97 period and see who might fit the profile.
Lance Bannon: Peter Parker’s rival as a photographer is often around during the Hobgoblin Saga, and various characters occasionally comment that he “hasn’t been seen in a long time” or “has been acting mysteriously lately.” But there’s no indication he has the ruthlessness, money, technological skills, or social prominence to fit the role. Even Kingsley makes more sense than Bannon.
Richard Fisk: The son of the Kingpin enters the Hobgoblin Saga as the Rose, the Hobgoblin’s partner during the Gang War storyline. But he doesn’t fit the profile to really be the Hobgoblin all along (which was in fact Tom DeFalco’s intent, according to the Hobgoblin’s Wikipedia page). It’s true that he has underworld contacts. You could perhaps even stretch things and say he’s ruthless enough to kill George Hill, though as depicted in the comics he seems to disdain violence and go out of his way to avoid using it. He’s athletic, but not superpowered.
But there are several problems with naming him the Hobgoblin. First, while he might worry about disgracing himself, why would he care about disgracing his family? His father, the Kingpin, does that every day. Second, there’s no indication Richard Fisk has any technological or scientific skills; in fact, as the Rose he depends upon his friend Alfredo for jobs involving bugs, security systems, and other devices. Third, he’s sufficiently athletic that he shouldn’t have been that tired after one fight with Spider-Man. Fourth, his name isn’t so much as mentioned in the original Roger Stern run on the Hobgoblin. If the intent was that Fisk be revealed as the Hobgoblin, there’d have to be some clue specifically relating to him in the ASM 238-51 run... and there’s nothing.
Dr. Jonas Harrow: Harrow, a longstanding Spider-Man adversary, was first suggested as a suspect in Hobgoblin Lives, and the possibility has intrigued me ever since. He definitely fits several aspects of the profile. He’s ruthless and could certainly commit murder without hesitation. He’s well-connected in the underworld. He possesses superb technological skills, but isn’t athletic. He’s presumably got plenty of money stashed away and could easily own Osborn stock.
Unfortunately there are a number of strikes against him. First, he’s not socially prominent and we’ve never been told anything about his family. There’s never been any indication that he “needs to escape the restraints of society” — he’s a criminal by trade.
Second, why would he need the Goblin Formula? His main modus operandi is to enhance others to superhuman status, so he could easily subject himself to his own treatments and technologies. Possible answers: his own processes aren’t as safe or reliable, they won’t work on him for some reason, or they can’t be performed by anyone else. But there’s no hint of this anywhere in the Hobgoblin canon. If any of these answers were correct, though, we’d need some sort of clue — an offhand reference like “my own work contains nothing this effective!”.
Third, in Harrow’s every appearance he’s shown wearing distinctive “Coke bottle” glasses. They’re one of the main elements of his “look.” But none of the pictures we’ve seen of the real Hobgoblin out of costume have shown those glasses, or even a partial profile of them. Given how consistent an element of his appearance they are, seeing them in silhouette or the like would be an obvious clue (possibly too obvious). Since Stern never gave us that clue, I don’t think Harrow can be the Hobgoblin... but he remains an intriguing possibility.
J. Jonah Jameson: He lacks the technological skills and ruthlessness. Furthermore, if he did become the Hobgoblin, he would have attacked Spider-Man right away in an effort to “bring him to justice.”
Ned Leeds: Ned Leeds was “originally” revealed to be the Hobgoblin, though that turned out to be a frame-up job by the real Hobgoblin. Leeds followed the Hobgoblin back to his lair after the events of ASM 251, where the Hobgoblin captured and brainwashed him. Leeds believed he’d assumed the Hobgoblin identity partly to get a great story, and partly to pay back Spider-Man for the suffering he’d supposedly caused Leeds’s wife, Betty Brant.
Is it possible Leeds was the Hobgoblin all along? No, for several reasons. One is that, as hammered into us throughough Hobgoblin Lives, if Leeds were really the Hobgoblin he’d have been too tough and strong for four of the Foreigner’s men to break his arm and kill him.
But it goes beyond that. First, while Leeds certainly had underworld contacts from his work as a reporter, he’s not a ruthless killer and has no technological skills. For him to offhandedly murder George Hill goes against everything we’ve been shown about Leeds up to that point. Second, while you could perhaps stretch things and say that as a well-known reporter he was socially prominent enough to worry about being disgraced, we know nothing about his family or why he’d worry about them. The only relative we’re aware of is Betty Brant Leeds. That being the case, the appropriate clue would be to have the Hobgoblin worry about his “wife,” not his “family.”
Jason Phillip Macendale: For many years I thought Macendale made the most sensible suspect — in other words, that this is who Stern should have picked to be the Hobgoblin all along. Given his prior experience as Jack O’Lantern, Macendale had criminal contacts, was known to be ruthless and violent, had technological skills, and could easily have mastered the Goblin weaponry. (In fact, I’ve long assumed JoL was more or less an attempt to “re-create” the Green Goblin without explicitly having a fourth person put on that costume.) I also vaguely recall a mention in The Official Handbook Of The Marvel Universe that he came from a prominent family, though I can’t find the issue to verify that and in any event we have no information about why he’d be concerned about disgracing his family (particularly after his long career as an aggressive CIA agent and then costumed mercenary). But facts are facts, and they tell us it couldn’t be Macendale: since he’d fought Spider-Man before using similar methods, there’s no way he’d have been so exhausted at the end of the fight in ASM 239.
Donald Menken: Menken is trolled across our path in HL as a possible suspect, but it couldn’t be him. He’s just a bit player in the Spider-Man milieu, and his only appearance in the classic Stern run is a brief cameo in ASM 239. If he were actually the Hobgoblin he’d have shown up more frequently and we’d have been given more information about him.
Senator Bob Morton: Another suspect in HL, but another impossibility. He’s never appeared in the Hobgoblin Saga prior to HL.
Harry Osborn: An obvious suspect given his history, but he’s frequently shown in canon being attacked by or interacting with the Hobgoblin. Additionally, the Hobgoblin’s internal monologue in ASM 238 makes no sense if he’s Harry Osborn.
Norman Osborn: That Marvel would bring Norman Osborn back from the dead is a subject worthy of a Nerdragin’ column all its own. Fortunately, we can at least keep him from sullying the coolness of the Hobgoblin — given the Hobgoblin’s internal monologue in ASM 238 (and elsewhere) and his need to obtain the Goblin Formula to augment himself, he couldn’t possibly be Normal Osborn.
So... who is the Hobgoblin?
And The Answer Is...
...“I don’t know.” I’ve thoroughly reviewed all the available facts and thought about this for years, and I have to honestly say that I don’t think there’s anyone in the Spider-Man stories who fits the profile established by canonical facts.
If I had to put money on it I’d go with Jonas Harrow, but he’s just the best of a bad lot. Kingsley probably comes in second, but I just can’t reconcile the words and events of ASM 249-50 with his being the Hobgoblin. Until I have the opportunity to meet Roger Stern and discuss this subject with him, I’ll just have to keep pondering. ;)