Friday, January 25, 2019

Green, Green My Goblin Now

It is a fact that Steve Ditko stepped down as plotter, artist and co-writer of Amazing Spider-Man after issue #38. 

It is also a fact that the Green Goblin's long-concealed secret identity was revealed in Amazing Spider-Man #39. 

The conclusion is inescapable. Steve Ditko quit because Stan Lee had decided to reveal the arch villain's true identity. 

This idea has been in circulation for so long that it has become a received truth: here, for example, is the Guardian's obituary for Ditko: 

"But at his creative peak, Ditko abruptly left Marvel. The reasons may have included a creative battle over a storyline in which Lee wanted The Green Goblin to turn out to be Parker’s best friend’s father, while Ditko wanted him to be a random character. Lee’s instincts proved correct." 

But, as Captain Blackadder might have said, there is one tiny flaw in this version of events. It is bollocks. 


The Grotesque Adventure of the Green Goblin (Amazing Spider-Man #14) begins and ends with the villain in his civilian clothes, but with his face pointedly obscured. This is repeated in issue #17, #26 and #27: we readers see the Goblin plotting against Spider-Man, but we are not allowed to see his face. This is a clear signal that if his face were not hidden, it is one we readers would recognize. There would be no point in hiding a character's face if it was not a face the audience already knew.

In issue #37, Once Upon a Time There was a Robot, Ditko introduces a new mystery, ostensibly unrelated to the Green Goblin. A businessman, Norman Osborn, is engaged in a longstanding feud with a scientist, Prof. Stromm. Osborn swindled Stromm out of some inventions and caused him to be unjustly sent to prison; Stromm therefore sends a flock of robots to destroy his electronics factory. But Stromm knows something about Osborn, and Osborn is prepared to commit murder to silence him. 

In #39, as everyone in the world knows, Stan Lee resolved both these mysteries. The Goblin, having unmasked Peter Parker, rips off his own mask and reveals that he is...none other than....[SPOILERS FOLLOW] Norman Osborn. 

Most of us cannot conceive of a time when we did not know that Osborn was the Goblin, any more than we can conceive of a time when we did not know the name of Luke Skywalker's father. But as a piece of narrative I don't think the Osborn/Goblin story line is very satisfying. The mystery of Osborn's feud with Stromm is not brought to a particularly satisfying resolution by the discovery that he is the Goblin; and the long standing puzzle about the Green Goblin is not satisfactorily resolved by the revelation that he is Norman Osborn. We never find out what inventions Osborn stole from Stromm; we never find out what secret Stromm was going to reveal. (He never knew that Osborn was the Goblin.) And "some science blew up in my face and turned me evil" is not a great back-story. 

If we only had the comics to go on, I would guess that Stan Lee wanted to resolve all Ditko's dangling plot-lines as quickly as possible. So he chose the path of least resistance. What is Osborn's secret? He is the Green Goblin. What is the Green Goblin's identity? He is Norman Osborn. Onwards and upwards. 

But it is more complicated than that. 

You knew it would be.


The idea that Stan and Steve disagreed about the Goblin was in circulation as far back as 1974, when Marvel's house magazine, FOOM!, claimed that Lee was still clinging to the old idea of the Goblin being a resuscitated Egyptian Mummy and Ditko was going for the scarcely less far-fetched notion that he was Ned Leeds. But as the years rolled on, the "some random guy" theory gained traction. 

Here is Stan Lee talking in an interview in 2014: 

I never knew why he quit in the first place. It might have had to do with the fact that I was trying to tell him how to do the stories. With the Green Goblin we didn't know who the character really was. I wanted him to turn out to be Harry Osborn's father. 

Ditko said, "No, I don't want it to be. It should be somebody we don't know." 

So I said, "Steve, the readers have been following the series for the longest time, waiting to find out who he is. If it's somebody they've never seen they'll be frustrated." 

Anyway, I couldn't convince him and he certainly couldn't convince me, so that might have been what drove him away. 

But he never told me and we don't see each other anymore.

And here he is, telling the same story in 2017

I had a big argument with Steve Ditko, who was drawing the strip at the time. When we had to reveal the identity of the Green Goblin, I wanted him to turn out to be the father of Harry Osborn, and Steve didn’t like that idea, 

He said, ‘No, I don’t think he should be anybody we’ve seen before"’

 I said ‘Why?’ 

He said ‘Well, in real life, the bad guy doesn’t always turn out to be someone you’ve known.’

 And I said, ‘Steve, people have been reading this book for months, for years, waiting to see who the Green Goblin really is. If we make him somebody that they’ve never seen before, I think they’ll be disappointed — but if he turns out to be Harry’s father, I think that’s an unusual dramatic twist that we can play with in future stories.’ 

And Steve said ‘Yeah, well, that’s not the way it would be in real life.’

And I said ‘In real life, there’s nobody called The Green Goblin. 

And so Steve was never happy about that, but since I was the editor, we did it my way.” 

This story is so full of holes that it could be served up as a cheese course in a Swiss restaurant. 

The suggestion that Ditko might have walked away because Lee was "telling him how to write the stories" is mind-boggling. It corresponds to nothing we know about the two men's working relationship. In his infamous 2007 interview with Jonathan Ross, Lee was perfectly clear: in the early days, Steve worked from a brief plot summary which he could change and embellish at will. In the middle period, Steve worked from a one or two sentence plot seed from Stan Lee. And at the end -- certainly from issue #25 and perhaps as far back as #17  Lee had no input whatsoever into the creation of the plots. Steve "would just go away and do whatever story he wanted". In 1966 Lee told the Herald Tribune:

"I don’t plot Spider-Man any more. Steve Ditko, the artist, has been doing the stories....We were arguing so much over plot lines I told him to start making up his own stories." "

And according to the accounts of people who worked at Marvel at the time the two weren't even on speaking terms. Ditko mailed finished artwork to the Marvel offices, or handed it to secretary Flo Stienberg or office manager Sol Brodsky. 

So — when and how is this perfectly reasonable discussion about a plot point supposed to have taken place?

Lee says that he "wanted the Green Goblin to be the father of Harry Osborn". But in 1966, Harry Osborn barely existed: he was a minor character, a wingman and foil for Flash Thompson. In later years, Parker would indeed make friends with Harry and become his roommate; and Stan Lee would insert flashbacks in which Parker's first reaction on seeing the Goblin's true face was "My best friend's father!" But none of this was true in 1966. If Lee had really wanted to make the Goblin's identity have a personal resonance for Peter Parker, why wouldn't he have insisted on him being the father of Gwen Stacy or Flash Thompson? 

It makes little sense to say that "Since I was the editor, we did things my way." "We" didn't do anything at all. Steve walked outwithout completing a cover or a splash page for his final issueand Osborn storyline was wound up by John Romita.

Certainly, Ditko did like stories in which the villain turns out to be an anonymous nobody. Three previous bad-guysElectro, the Crime Master, and the Looterturned out to be no-one Spider-Man had ever heard of. Did Ditko really want to do it a fourth time? I suppose it is just possible that this might have been the hill Stan Lee chose to die on. But why would he say "readers will be frustrated" rather than "no, Steve, we've done that before"?

But Ditko didn't have any absolute aversion to dramatic unmaskings and surprising revelations. In issue #31, he deliberately made us curious about the identity of the Master Planner (allowing us to eavesdrop on his monologues from outside his base, but not to see his face). In #32, the Master Planner turned out to be, not some random fella, but Doctor Octopus. In #19, Ditko had deliberately made us curious about the identity of the man-in-the-dressing-gown who was spying on Peter Parker. The following issue, the man-in-the-dressing-gown turned out to be, not John Doe, but J.Jonah Jameson. The last time we saw the Green Goblin, he was holding his mask aloft while his face was blacked out by shadow. That was how Steve Ditko chose to draw him. There is no way that this character was ever going to turn out to be Matt Dillon or Norman Fester or Lucky Louis.


If Lee's version of events is hard to swallow, Ditko's own account is not much more palatable. 

"I knew from Day One, from the first GG story, who the GG would be. I absolutely knew because I planted him in J. Jonah Jameson’s businessman's club, it was where JJJ and the GG could be seen together. I planted them together in other stories where the GG would not appear in costume, action. I planted the GG’s son (same distinctive hair style) in the college issues for more dramatic involvement and storyline consequences.”

It is perfectly true that Norman Osborn had already been shown as a background character at J. Jonah Jameson's club before his first "named" appearance in issue #37. But it is a bit of a stretch for Ditko to say that he knew that Jonah's club-friend was the Green Goblin on day 1. The Green Goblin first appeared in issue #14; the Norman Osborn figure doesn't appear until issue #23the Goblin's third appearance (of four). And it is not quite fair to say that he showed Jonah and Club Man together in "stories" which didn't have the Goblin in them. He did so exactly once, in issue #25. "From the first appearance of Club Man, I knew that he would be the Green Goblin" is a plausible claim "From the first appearance of the Green Goblin, I knew that he would be Club Man", not so much.

Things got very sour between Stan Lee and some of his ex-collaborators in the 80s and 90s. (Jack Kirby once claimed that Stan never wrote a word and was functionally illiterate!) But if Ditko says that he always intended Harry to be Club Man's son and Club Man to be the Goblin I am inclined to believe him. It would be a very odd thing to lie about. 

The only way I can make Stan Lee's story make sense is to engage in a flight of fantasy  almost a piece of fan meta-fiction. Perhaps Ditko did indeed intend that J Jonah Jameson's friend from the club would turn out to be the Green Goblin. But he intended that Club Man should be known to Jameson but unknown to Peter Parker. Ditko intended that when Spider-Man pulled the Goblin's mask off, he would exclaim "I have never seen this guy before" but us readers would exclaim "Aha...but we have." (This is what happen in the case of Electro and the Looter. Peter Parker has never heard of Max Dillon or Norman Fester, but we  readers have.) Very late in the day, Lee insisted that Club Man should also have a personal connection to Peter Parker: that he should be related to one of his class mates. Ditko revealed that Club Man was the father of Harry Osborn, in issue #37, reluctantly and against his better judgment. His intention had been for the Osborn/Goblin story to be a slow-burner; a new cog in the story machine. Imagine all the ironic confusion that could develop once it was established that Jonah, without realizing it, knew both Spider-Man and the Goblin in their civilian identities. But Lee misunderstood Ditko's objection: he thought that Ditko wanted the Goblin to be someone who had never appeared in the strip before; whereas in fact, he merely wanted him to be someone Spider-Man himself did not know. And what angered Steve Ditko was not Stan Lee's decision to reveal that Osborn and the Goblin were one and the sameit was his decision to allow Peter Parker to find out far too quickly and easily.

A second story could go like this: Ditko did not intend Norman Osborn to be the Green Goblin: he had a quite different storyline in mind. For issue #39 he submitted artwork which continued the story from #37 and #38perhaps revealing what Osborn's current plans were and what secret Stromm knew. But Lee was so wedded to the idea that Osborn was the Goblin that he rejected the finished artwork. Ditko was so furious that he walked out. 

The difficulty with these two hypothesis is that there is not one shred or scintilla of evidence for either of them. But the alternative is to call the much-beloved Stan Lee a liar.


If Ditko had always known that the Goblin was Club Man and Club Man was Harry's father, I don't think he ever told Lee. We know how Stan Lee wrote: how much his characters brood; and how happy he is to allow the readers to listen in on their soliloquies. If he had known that Osborn was the Goblin I don't think he could have resisted the temptation to give him a thought balloon saying "Good...they suspect nothing!" or "They are talking about the Crime Master, but they don't suspect my secret!" And those first college episodes would have been improved if Nasty Harry had shared some of his inner thoughts about his own father with the reader. ("Why is Puny Parker blanking us all...just like Dad keeps doing to me.") 

Indeedto engage in another leap into meta-fictionperhaps Ditko didn't tell Stan who Osborn was because he knew that Stan would give the game away too early?

And so we crash into a brick wall. Lee's claim that Ditko wanted the Goblin to be Nobody is silly; but Ditko's claim that he knew who the Goblin was from the very beginning is hard to credit. 

In 1991 Ditko wrote:

"I know why I left Marvel, but no one else in this universe knew or knows why. "

Probably, we should leave it there. No-one in the universe knows what caused the final rift between Lee and Ditko.

Except possibly Jonathan Ross, and he's not talking.


"Robbie Reed", over on the "Dial B For Blog" site, writes about Ditko with an even greater obsession with minutiae than yours truly. And I think that that his guess about why Ditko left is as close to the mark as we are going to get. It wasn't the money: Charlton paid much less than Marvel. It wasn't editorial interference; he went and worked for Atlas which was the company Stan Lee's boss Martin Goodman founded when he finally parted company with Timley/Marvel. And it certainly wasn't the origin of the Green Goblin. But it may, perhaps, have been a point of narrative principal. 

Steve Ditko believed that heroes should be paragons: people to whom we look up; people we aspire to be. They shouldn't be overly burdened by human weaknesses and foibles. After he left Marvel, Steve Ditko wrote and drew the reassuringly one dimensional Captain Atom for Charlton; and moved on to do The Question and Mr. A, whose only superpowers were their moral clarity. He could cope with Peter Parker's whinging and insecurities as long as he was a schoolboy. He was telling the story of how a boy became a man. But he couldn't stomach the idea of him remaining a neurotic nerd forever. The infamous Herald Tribune essay identified "superheroes with super-problems" as Marvel Comics' unique selling point; and Stan Lee pretty much took that up as a company motto. He said that Peter Parker was the Woody Allen of the superhero world (shy, nerdy, nebbish.) He said that Spider-Man appeals to us, not because he is a hero to aspire to, but because he makes us feel superior. (We feel sure that we could do a better job of being a superhero.) Ditko couldn't live with that: and so he walked away. 

I don't know if I buy the whole story. But it is clear that the first great graphic novel in American literature tells the story of how the weak and dislikable boy from Amazing Fantasy #15 turned into the admirable young man from Amazing Spider-Man #33. The Final Chapter was the final chapter: Ditko couldn't go on telling the story of Spider-Man because, so far as he was concerned, the story of Spider-Man was finished.


So endeth this chronicle. It being strictly a history of a boy, it must stop here; the story could not go much further without becoming the history of a man. When one writes a novel about grown people, he knows exactly where to stop -- that is, with a marriage; but when he writes of juveniles, he must stop where he best can. Most of the characters that perform in this book still live, and are prosperous and happy. Some day it may seem worth while to take up the story of the younger ones again and see what sort of men and women they turned out to be; therefore it will be wisest not to reveal any of that part of their lives at present.  



Mark Twain.







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