For starters how many Goblins have there been and how many have had mystery identities? Off the top of my head we’ve had the following:
- Green Goblin I – (mystery)
- Green Goblin II – (no mystery)
- Green Goblin III – (mystery)
- Green Goblin IV – (mystery)
- Green Goblin V – (mystery)
- Hobgoblin I – (mystery)
- Hobgoblin II – (no mystery)
- Hobgoblin III – (no mystery)
- Demogoblin – No other identity (no mystery)
- Grey Goblin – (mystery)
- Goblin 2099 – (mystery)
- Hobgoblin 2211 – (sort of a mystery)
- Green Goblin – (no mystery)
- Golden Goblin – (no mystery)
- Green Goblin – (no mystery?)
- Hobgoblin – (no mystery?)
The other four – the first & fifth Green Goblins, the first Hobgoblin and Goblin 2099 – were all longer running mysteries. In at least three out of four cases their (first) revealed identity was not what was intended by their creator, and in two cases later issues sought to undo the damage by retconning the original reveal into a set-up. And in all four cases there’s much to criticise the revelations for.
Whilst it’s good advice that if an author introduces a mystery identity villain they should make sure they do a revelation before they leave the title, it’s not always a guarantee of success. Peter David included as near to a revelation of Goblin 2099’s identity as he could in the space of his final issue of Spider-Man 2099 – only for subsequent editing to change it before the issue hit the shelf. (See Peter David (1996-04-27), “who is GOBLIN 2099. – alt.fan.peter-david for his contemporary reaction to having just seen the printed version.) A later 2099 one-shot did at least contain a panel that retconned this away as a shapeshifting impersonator. Roger Stern had left the Spider-Man titles some three years before the Hobgoblin was first revealed in what’s widely considered a mess. A decade later he went back to fix the identity of the Hobgoblin the way he had intended but the new identity was a character who hadn’t been seen in a decade and not all fans were happy. And I remember posts on Usenet in 1998 leaking that the Spider-Man writers and editors had never actually decided who Green Goblin V was before chucking him in the titles.
The story behind the Hobgoblin revelation is messy due to writers and editors not always remembering things or agreeing with each other and, it appears, one writer throwing out a particular name as a bluff only for others to operate on the basis that that really was the intended identity. The storyline dragged out over four years with multiple writers and editors (and it appears marketing got involved – there was a one page advert in early 1986 promising major Hobgoblin revelations that year) and the revelation came in an issue by a fill-in writer. Peter David was given one double-sized issue to resolve what everyone else had written up to that point and found all the clues literally going down a dead end. So he wrote the issue that way. (Whilst a lot of people don’t like that particular revelation, about the only person who seems to blame Peter David is the man himself. Just about everyone else either accepts he was caught in a mess created by others, or claim that he was ordered to write it this way.) A decade later the revelation would be overturned.
Of course a major problem with all this is that if you reveal a major villain to be a key member of the supporting cast you are potentially destroying both the villain and cast member. Perhaps this is why Green Goblin V was revealed to be the ultimate disposable character. But that revelation is a sign of the trouble when you go the other way – make them someone obscure and you get a collective “so what?” with the revelation. And once you get into shapeshifters and clones it gets even sillier.
By these standards the original Green Goblin mystery was probably the best of the longer running ones. He may have turned out to be a character introduced only two issues earlier, but the revelation has stood the test of time with no later writers rewriting this piece of Spider-history, unlike the first Hobgoblin and Goblin 2099. And whilst the revelation story took the Green Goblin in a new direction, the character and his alter ego remained powerful forces in Spider-Man’s life, even when seemingly dead. Perhaps that’s why the later mysteries have all ended in such confusion – it’s very difficult to produce a character with such long lasting impact and that makes it even harder to find suitable successors.
And despite decades of comic book folklore that Steve Ditko was so opposed to Norman Osborn being the Green Goblin that he left the series and Marvel over this, he has since written the essay “The Ever Unwilling” in Robin Snyder’s The Comics Vol. 20, No. 3 [March 2009]. To the best of my knowledge it’s not available on the web but quotes are including at Greg's Blog of Clue-by-Fours: And the Green Goblin is?, and they state:
“So certainly, the GG [Green Goblin] could hardly be any reason for me quitting Marvel.As I said in my review:
Now digest this: I knew from Day One, from the first GG story, who the GG would be... I planted him in J. Jonah Jameson’s businessman’s club.” [prior issues of the newsletter had a contest to identify all the planted appearances of the character]
“I planted the GG’s son (same distinct hair style) in the college issues...” [referring here to Harry Osborn]
...if true then the criticism shifts from things not being planned out but instead having a quick and poorly devised revelation, to a grand plan that wasn’t properly implemented early enough. Nobody could read the Goblin stories in issues #23 & #26-27 and guess that the Goblin was “the man with funny hair in the background at Jonah’s club”. In the heat of the moment the revelation must have amazed contemporary readers, but looking at the run as a whole in the cold light of day and it falls rather flat.But unlike the rest it still stands. No later writer tried to overturn this. But it’s easy to see why. By the time anyone might have even thought about revisiting the original Green Goblin’s identity there had been too many later developments that made it impossible to undo. Once again it shows that the Green Goblin, at least in the first couple of decades, really only became incredible after the fact.