And the goblins—they had not really been there at all? They were only the phantoms of cowardice and unbelief? One healthy human impulse would dispel them? Men like the Wilcoxes, or ex-President Roosevelt, would say yes. Beethoven knew better. The goblins really had been there. They might return, they always did. It was if the splendour of life might boil over and waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one heard the terrible, ominous note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall. Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.
—E.M. Forster (1879-1970), Howards End
In retrospect, Marvel’s massive plan of the last several years seems insanely obvious: beyond the justification of their controversial resurrection of Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin, some years previously in the pages of the Spider-Man line, their goal was to provide a character, however peripheral at first, with one of the finest, most complex, and cohesive character arcs in their publishing history.
That idea was this: if one of the most deluded lost souls of the entire Marvel Universe was given the chance afforded to Jesus of Nazareth in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ or George Bailey in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, what would he do with it, what would it means for the world, and what would happen as a result? What would happen, following a crucifixion on a device of his own creation, if he was given a second chance at life?
While there was no true auteur behind The Last Damnation of Norman Osborn, this reverse-redemption-by-committee couldn’t have had a better set of architects, brief as some of their involvement was: Joe Quesada, Mark Millar, Warren Ellis, Brian Michael Bendis, J. Michael Straczynski, Matt Fraction, Paul Jenkins, Dan Slott, Matt Fraction, Christos Gage and more.
It all began with Norman Osborn’s murder spree in the pages of The Pulse, the Brian Bendis-penned spin-off of the now-classic Alias. Having finally been pushed off the tipping point of sanity, Osborn had begun murdering women in New York in a way disturbingly similar to the last moments of Gwen Stacy all those years ago. His arrest, shown from two perspectives in both The Pulse and Mark Millar’s concurrent Marvel Knights Spider-Man, seemed to close the book on Spider-Man’s greatest foe, his identity finally revealed to the public.
Oh, but it was not the end of the book. It was the end of a prologue, for his story was just beginning. From his Hannibal Lecter-esque moments inside Ryker’s Island to his near-death at the hands of mind-controlled foes of Spider-Man, Osborn’s presence in the Marvel Universe was perhaps even more potent than ever. Ironically, he himself was later mind-controlled into attacking an Atlantean delegation. Once cleared of all charges following the superhuman Civil War, he was placed in charge of the Thunderbolts project, which positioned him to steal certain key information from Nick Fury and Deadpool and allowed him to kill the Skrull Queen in “Secret Invasion”. This “shot heard ‘round the world” and broadcast internationally put him in charge of national security agency H.A.M.M.E.R., dismantling S.H.I.E.L.D. and effectively firing the now-fugitive Tony Stark. However, as always, Norman couldn’t hold himself together, eventually exposing his true colors to the world, again on television, during his illegal act of war against Thor’s home of Asgard during the recent “Siege” mega-event.
A very brief synopsis and possible over-simplification of the arc, sure, but how often does a supporting character, whose very presence in a company’s current crop of books, get a storyline where he transforms from a 20th Century Edward Hyde to a 21st Century David Berkowitz to a superpowered Karl Rove by way of Charles Manson? The answer, of course, is never. This is what makes Norman Osborn’s seven year itch for power, from prisoner to world leader, so compelling, so provocative and special. Everyone from Doctor Doom to Ultron to the Mandarin to Dracula wants to rule the world. How often do any of these guys get to do that for more than a few issues, tops? How many get to do it for close to a year and a half? And how many get to do it in continuity?
The coup-de-grace of the massive Osborn arc, of course, was Dark Reign, the period of nearly a year and a half wherein Norman held sway over the comings and goings of almost every single hero, villain and civilian in America, not to mention other parts of the world. A gimmicky villain best known for his homicidal rage against the Amazing Spider-Man, forced the X-Men out of their home in San Francisco and onto an island called Utopia. He gathered a group of supervillains, dressed them up as their arch-enemies and called them Avengers, when, in reality, “Masters of Evil” would have been more appropriate. He tortured civilians, government scientists and superpowered children. He transformed Camp Hammond into a propaganda machine called Camp H.A.M.M.E.R.. He chased Tony Stark to the ends of the Earth. He lied, cheated, bribed and stole. He declared war without authority.
And he murdered. Gods, how he murdered—and he murdered gods, too. The Swordsman. The Sentry. Lindy Reynolds. The Punisher. Ares. The civilians at Soldier Field. All of their blood is on Norman Osborn’s hands (Incidentally, Osborn’s “red right hand” during all of this was a woman named Victoria Hand, who had red highlights).
The flaws in his actions elude him. In S.W.O.R.D. #4, after communicating with Henry Gyrich via Osborn’s Iron Patriot armor about forced deportation of all aliens on Earth, Norman flies by Mount Rushmore, mentioning out loud to no one in particular that he wants his face side-by-side with those inspirational Presidents one day, preserved for all time. Even Jan Brewer doesn’t have those kind of aspirations. At the conclusion of Dark Avengers #16, the series finale, Osborn opines in his prison cell that he knows one day, one of the “heroes” is going to accidentally set about a chain of events that will destroy the world, and laments that he will not be there to stop it. Mimicking the “Confrontation” song from the musical version of Jekyll and Hyde, he stares down his mind’s projection of the Goblin, blaming him for that eventual absence. The reader can almost hear the Goblin sing to Osborn: “I’ll live inside you forever/With Satan himself by my side/And I know now, that now and forever/They’ll never be able to separate Jekyll and Hyde”.
Additionally, Osborn shows no remorse for lying and stealing his way to the top, feigning ignorance when Nick Fury, the very man from who he stole the information that put him in power, confronts him about it during Dark Reign’s series of The List one shots. In the Secret Warriors installment, Fury presents Osborn with his own list, a mere three items long: “Punch Norman in the face”, “save the world” and “have a beer”. Norman, once punched by Fury, uses his position against Fury, threatening the wanted fugitive with all sorts of punishment. Fury serves as a blatant counterpoint to Norman Osborn: a man who worked for everything he ever had, a war veteran and super-spy turned fugitive, standing opposite the head of national security, a maniacal criminal mastermind with a checkered past and, of course, a background in corporate America.
Also serving as foils to Osborn during “Dark Reign” are Henry Pym, the leader of the Mighty Avengers during Osborn’s tenure as head of H.A.M.M.E.R., and Tony Stark, the “World’s Most Wanted” fugitive known worldwide as Iron Man. Henry shows what Norman would be if his claims to heroism, despite (or perhaps in spite) of his mental illness, were honest, while Tony shows a less damned version of Osborn’s own future: the corporate leader, unprepared to assume the role of head of national security, is branded a war criminal and a traitor in the eyes of his people.
Interestingly, at the conclusion of “Siege” and the revelation of Osborn’s true nature to the public, two key figures of Marvel’s period of “Civil Unrest” are there who were present and, in fact, largely responsible for Osborn’s initial arrest: Luke Cage and Spider-Man. An argument, then, could be made that the last seven or so years of Marvel stories is actually about this particular troika, their commonalities and their differences, but that would not only be doing a disservice to the recent character arcs of such luminaries as Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, Jessica Jones, Reed Richards, Tony Stark, Henry Pym, Nick Fury, Sharon Carter and others. And it would be doing a disservice to Norman Osborn, the true, subtle star of most of this period, and the undeniable marquee name of the last year and a half of it.
With the care and precision of the most brilliant surgeons, Marvel’s writing staff of the last seven years created an iconic, status quo-shifting series of events that redefined a universe and, most importantly, showed a staggeringly real, horribly frightening, organic evolution of a character whose time, many thought, was over. Osborn and the Goblin, like Jekyll and Hyde almost 125 years ago, left a trail of destruction in their wake that was fitting to the times. Hyde’s violence was of a domestic variety, subtle, small and devious. The Goblin within Osborn—the Goblin within so many human beings these days—committed crimes of a domestic sort, as well, but there’s a difference between a handful of murders and a lifetime of heinous executions, illegal declarations of war, homegrown terrorism and permanent alteration of allegedly inalienable rights.
With every century, we get the Jekyll and Hyde we ask for with our actions.
In fiction, it was Norman Osborn, in a calculated, intense power play created to hold a mirror up to human nature. In reality, we’re rarely so fortunate.