Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Hobgoblin: Knockoff Made Good

When something works in comics, it has the propensity to spread like wildfire. This can be particularly true in the case of villains and even more so when it comes to Spider-Man’s villains. We’re talking a flock of Vultures, a pack of Kravens, Goblins of every make, a Scorpion and Doctor Octopus of each gender, not to mention symbiotes galore. In some cases, the copies make their own mark and turn out to be worthy successors to the mantel; in others, they end up cannon fodder so the original can make their way back into the limelight.

I’ve recently been reading the Amazing Spider-Man: Origin of the Hobgoblin trade and am struck by how Hobby is one “knockoff” who didn’t just pick up where his predecessor left off, he established his own distinct spot in Spidey lore.

A lot of “second generation” bad guys feel lazy because they seem to pick up their gimmicks for lack of their own ideas. Blackie Drago literally stole Adrian Toomes’ Vulture wings rather than come up with a different gimmick. The Kraven boys followed in daddy’s footsteps pretty slavishly out of tribute or tradition. However, while Hobgoblin swiped the Green Goblin’s gear and basic style, he went out of his way to make sure everybody knew they were not the same.

One of the things I’m really digging in these early Hobgoblin stories—written mostly by his co-creator, the great Roger Stern—is how he analyzes where Norman Osborn went wrong and takes measures to avoid the same pitfalls. It gives the character credibility that he not only recognizes insanity but also how it can be limiting, as opposed to just another nut seduced by promise of power. He’s cagey and deliberate whether it means avoiding a pointless fight with Spider-Man before he’s ready or cleaning up every last loose end. The Hobgoblin doesn’t want to live up to any legacy, he wants to surpass it; he wants to be better.

Something else I credit Stern and folks like Tom DeFalco with is how they gave Hobby a definitive arc in those first appearances. There are under a dozen comics collected in the trade I’m reading, but they really do account for the definitive Hobgoblin epic. For a year or two, the character was very much at the center of Spider-Man’s world, particularly in Amazing Spider-Man, involving himself with the ongoing soap opera and retaining a significant role in the background of issues even where he wasn’t the star. He comes into Spidey’s life, makes a huge impact, then fades out having left an impression.

I’m not clear on the exact circumstances surrounding the length of the original Hobgoblin stories; the fact that DeFalco took over midway through and Stern returned over a decade later to conclude it his way tells me there were probably non-story factors at work, but that’s irrelevant to me. The fact is the way Hobby steals the show and then exits before wearing out his welcome works perfectly. While there would be subsequent Hobgoblins featured in the Spider-Man books and elsewhere, that sense that the guy Stern knew to be behind the mask only made a handful appearances and then vanished for so many years adds tremendous mystique. Even now, when the original has come back and even died, the character carries a weight because your mind doesn’t go to whatever he was doing in the 90’s, it flashes right back to that first strong run.

Of course the mystery of the Hobgoblin’s true identity was central to his early success as well, with Stern doing his riff on the original Green Goblin in another way but with the nuances comics had gained and bringing his considerable strength at crafting the story to bear. Even reading this material in retrospect and knowing the answer to the questions being posed, I’m impressed by the suspects Stern lines up, the clues he leaves and the way it really does feel like it could be any number of folks. This also helps weave Hobgoblin into the tapestry of not just Spidey’s world, but Peter Parker’s, with the sense that a close colleague, old foe or even trusted friend could be the one unwittingly—or wittingly?—responsible for his woes. The paranoia is palpable and makes for a stronger story.

Kudos as well to John Romita Jr. as well as his dad on Hobby’s design. I always thought the color scheme of a pale face with orange and grey tunic both set the character apart and trumped the green and purple look favored by Norman Osborn and many other practitioners of evil. The first time I saw Hobgoblin was on the 90’s Spider-Man animated series—fantastically voiced by the great Mark Hamill—and I thought he made Venom look tame in terms of creep factor.

Recently Dan Slott seemingly brought the career of original Hobgoblin Roderick Kingsley to a bloody close—“seemingly” because it’s comics, not because I know something you don’t, because I don’t—having former heroic Green Goblin Phil Urich slice his noggin off and swipe his gear. It’s a nice full circle routine since Kingsley stole his shtick from another Goblin too, but more than that it’s been neat to see Phil step up and fill those Hobby boots as the wild card of the Spider-Man world, even maintaining that air of mystery since while we know who he is, nobody around him does.

So-called “knockoff” villains indeed don’t always have the highest success rate, but I’d say the current Hobgoblin stands a more solid chance than most not only because I personally enjoy him, but because he’s walking down a path whose trailblazer created by bucking the idea bad guys can’t borrow a costume or name and not also be their own baddie.