Comics you should own (Amazing Spider-Man)
Marvel, 14 issues (Vol. 1, #238-251, Mar. 1983-Apr. 1984)
These 14 issues are the first part of the mid-1980s Hobgoblin Saga, and they constitute what I would call the high point of Spider-Man between the death of Gwen Stacy and J. Michael Straczynski's renaissance of the past few years. It's pretty shocking that for ten years (essentially the 1990s) Marvel would treat their flagship character with such disrespect, but that's the way it was, true believers. Let's look at better days.
The Hobgoblin Saga has been covered, better than I ever could, in these articles. It's highly recommended reading about how the editors of Spider-Man allowed this great villain to descend into stupidity. Since I'm dealing with just stories before he became lousy, I won't get into the whole thing. However, I'm sure I'll repeat some of the things said in these articles.
So: Stern on Amazing Spider-Man. In need of a "Green Goblin" type villain, he creates the Hobgoblin. Here's generally how the issues break down:
#238-239: Introduction of the Hobgoblin. We don't know who he is, but he's scary!
#240-241: A two-part Vulture story. Remember two-part stories?
#242: Spidey fights a robot belonging to the Mad Thinker. Remember one-part stories?
#243: Mary Jane returns to Peter's life! Yippee! And Peter quits graduate school.
#244-245: The Hobgoblin returns, and Spidey is supposed to believe he dies. Peter's not buying it!
#246: J. Jonah Jameson, Felicia Hardy, Mary Jane, and Peter all daydream about their perfect lives. Holy cow, a one-part story about daydreaming!
#247-248: Thunderball returns. Spidey beats him.
#248: The second part of the book is "The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man." Many people have a soft spot in their hearts for this story. I am not one of them.
#249-251: A Hobgoblin trilogy! Holy crap -- it's decompressed storytelling, 1980s-style! Included in this is the "Special Normal-Sized 250th Issue," as the cover tells us, with Hobgoblin himself in the corner logo telling us to steal the book. Remember when Marvel had a sense of humor?
So those are the stories in this little collection. Stern and Romita, ably assisted by a cast of thousands of inkers (or finishers, in most cases), bring us some brilliant stories. But why should you buy them?
Well, the interesting thing about these stories is how Stern is able to build on the past without wallowing in nostalgia. These days, comics seem to give us nothing but nostalgia (a trend that started with Marvels, as I've stated before). There's nothing inherently wrong with nostalgia, but when it gets in the way of the growth of an artistic medium, it tends to strangle anything else in the cradle. I don't mean that all of comics do this, but many do, especially those put out by the Big Two. When a writer tries to break free of the past, he gets excoriated in some circles (Straczynski on Amazing Spider-Man and Morrison on X-Men come to mind). Then, to appease the fans, writers who do push the envelope do some extra-special wallowing in past glory (Straczynski with Gwen Stacy boinking Norman Osborn and Morrison's own Dark Phoenix Saga). In 1983, Marvel hadn't really developed the cult of Lee/Kirby/Ditko yet, so its talent was free to build on the past without slavishly aping it. This is what we get with the first part of the Hobgoblin Saga -- Stern respects the past and uses it, but at no time does the Hobgoblin kidnap Mary Jane and take her to the top of the George Washington Bridge (yes, it's my obligatory shot at Mark Millar, although he's not the only one guilty of this).
I'll get back to this idea. Let's look at what Stern is doing in these stories. The Spider-Man books back then were a ridiculous convoluted soap opera, with all kinds of crossovers, but what was nice was that you could only read one title without worrying about what was happening in the other. Felicia Hardy (the Black Cat) spends all 14 issues in the hospital because of injuries she sustained in Spectacular Spider-Man. We don't need to read the other comic, because Stern reminds us how it happened more than once. Meanwhile, in Amazing, we get Spidey fighting bad guys while life goes on around him. Aunt May is seeing someone (I don't remember whatever happened to Nathan Lubensky) and turning her home into a boarding house. Spidey lets a bad guy go, and he stumbles upon a secret lab of the Green Goblin. He tells a shadowy figure about it, and this mysterious man becomes the Hobgoblin. Peter relives the guilt he felt about letting the burglar who killed Uncle Ben go all over again. It sucks to be him.
The Hobgoblin immediately begins looting all of the old Green Goblin hideouts, and he starts making improvements. He experiments on a small-time hood named Lefty Donovan, injecting him with the Goblin's strength serum and sending him out to fight Spider-Man dressed as the Hobgoblin. Donovan dies, but the Hobgoblin gets all the data he needs. Finally, he tries to blackmail Jameson, Harry Osborn, and a group of elite businessmen whose secrets he discovered in Norman's journals, but Spider-Man (with some help from Wilson Fisk) thwarts him. At the end of #251, the Hobgoblin is presumed dead at the bottom of the river, but Spider-Man knows better.
The idea of the past intruding on the present is different from nostalgia, and Stern uses the continuity that Peter and his gang have with the past to his complete advantage. This is a time when the Marvel Universe was only 20 years old and was still relatively simple enough that you could keep track of everything. Now, this kind of storytelling is quite impossible, and I would argue that comics are cheaper for it. Stern takes an idea that has bothered Peter for years -- letting the man who killed his uncle go, and instead of rehashing that old chestnut, he finds a way to put a new spin on it. Peter did all he could to get the bad guy, and he's not presented as a jerk, like he is in the original story. Here, it's just life -- the man escapes into the sewers, and Peter thinks the cops will be able to find him. It's a much more complex take on the "with great power comes great responsibility" theme, since in the first instance, Peter was just being a jerk. Here, he's already a hero, but one with a life, after all. He agonizes a bit about it later, but he's mature enough to deal with it.
The Hobgoblin is obviously a homage to the original Green Goblin, and it's an interesting choice by Stern to create him rather than bringing Norman Osborn back from the dead. I haven't read many comics prior to the 1980s, so I don't know how often people were resurrected in those days, but I think that today, the writer would just be lazy and bring the original Norman back (I think this because that's what Marvel did in the mid-1990s). It's so much more interesting to watch the Hobgoblin go through the various stages of his development. We don't know who he is, but Stern had his ideas, and he dropped plenty of hints. The Hobgoblin is someone with a family and a decent career, because he thinks about them occasionally. He is also convinced he's not crazy like Norman Osborn was, and it's fascinating to watch how he eventually becomes as crazy as Norman was (he's not really nuts by issue #251, but he's getting there, and later writers ran with it, although not as subtly as Stern does). The mystery of the Hobgoblin is fun because it takes the original Green Goblin concept and deepens it -- Peter's always wondering not only who the Hobgoblin is, but if his existence will make Harry remember all about the Green Goblin, as well as if the Hobgoblin is going to find Spider-Man's secret identity in Norman's journals. Stern balances the sense of Spider-Man's history without devolving into self-indulgent nostalgia, which is not as easy as it sounds.
He does the same thing with the minor stories in this arc. The Vulture story is interesting because it gives us an origin of the villain (I don't know if we'd ever gotten one before) and it also gives us a plausible reason for where he is and why he returns. The Mad Thinker story, even though it's lightweight, flows naturally from the events occurring in the greater Marvel Universe, as does the Thunderball story. These days, using an old villain, it seems, is cause for more and more hype that ultimately fails to deliver, and using villains from other "corners" of the Marvel Universe is almost unheard of (I mentioned this in my look at Spidey's fight with Juggernaut, but it bears repeating). These stories show, once again, that Spider-Man does not exist in a vacuum, and it's nice to see.
Another big event in this arc is, of course, the return of Mary Jane Watson, which would eventually lead to her marriage to Peter. Stern is excellent at juggling the many storylines weaving their way through both Spider-Man books, and bringing MJ back is a stroke of genius. She is another example of honoring the past without dwelling on it. Peter mentions his marriage proposal to her, but Stern doesn't linger on it. MJ is presented as a party girl, but Stern lets us know that she has more depth without beating us over the head with it. MJ immediately causes Peter some consternation, since he's supposedly in love with Felicia at this time, but since Felicia only knows him as Spider-Man, he's conflicted. The soap opera aspects of Peter's personal life are not obnoxious and not fantastical. They don't need to be, since he's a freakin' superhero, after all. His "Peter Parker" life moves along like real life, and offers a nice balance to the antics when he's in his costume. This is why some superhero comics are so frustrating today -- things never happen (a process Dave Fiore, with his maddening genius for things comic-book, calls "dynamic stasis" -- a great term). But in Peter's life back in these days, things did happen. He quits grad school because he can't make all aspects of his life work, and grad school is the odd man out. Obviously, he breaks up with Felicia later and marries Mary Jane, but that's down the line. Aunt May is also moving on with her life, and even J. Jonah Jameson steps down as Editor-in-Chief because of his involvement with creating the Scorpion (it's why Hobgoblin is blackmailing him, and JJJ confesses in the newspaper rather than pay). Harry and Liz have a house-warming party at their new place, and the romance of Lance Bannon and Amy Powell (I found out her last name) moves on as well. These are all people who have a significant impact on Peter's life, and Stern realizes that they are going to change and move on. When Amy is putting the moves on Peter, we know it's because she wants to make Lance jealous and not because she's a crazy bitch-queen (I'm looking at you, Emma Frost as written by Grant Morrison). Real people, doing real-life things. In a superhero comic book.
It's really fun to read these books, because they are done with such lack of ironic detachment that seems to be the norm in many books today, and also without the "we'll never write stories as good as Lee and Kirby, so let's just retell those" mindset that also seems prevalent these days. These are stories that you can read with no knowledge of Spider-Man beyond "He was bitten by a radioactive spider and got powers." They can also be enjoyed if you know everything about Spider-Man. They are stories not just for comic-book geeks, but stories that are exciting and adventurous, but also thoughtful. Because they weren't written in the 1960s, I doubt they're collected in trade paperback (I honestly haven't looked), but you can probably track them down in the long boxes. Stern left the book with #251, and the Hobgoblin began a weird slide into craptitude before it was revealed that he was Ned Leeds (that's not who Stern said it was, but he was long gone, so he had no input) in a story written by Peter David, of all people (who has also weighed in on the subject, if you go to the entry on 18 November), but for these 14 issues, he was a true inheritor of the Goblin legend, and I would argue, the last time the Goblin motif was used in any kind of good way. Seriously, what has happened since then that's better? Bendis? Don't make me chuckle.
I haven't gone into the clues Stern drops about the Hobgoblin, but like I said, there's that great article I linked to above. It's really interesting reading, I swear!
All you non-comic-book fans out there (all what, 3 of you?), I promise I won't keep blogging about comics! Although maybe you should get reading! Don't you want to be a comics geek?