Crawling Back: Amazing Spider-Man #23 Review (The Osborn Prelude, Part 3)
A strange development in the Green Goblin's history undermines an issue buoyed by some nicely maintained subplots
—by Nathan on November 10, 2023—
He first fought Spider-Man.
He then humiliated Spider-Man.
Now, he’s…staking his claim as the head honcho of the New York City underworld?
This Green Goblin guy must be crazy.
For those settling in who haven’t read my prior two "Osborn Prelude" posts, let’s get you up to speed: the Green Goblin, in his first appearance, roped Spider-Man into a real production of a fake movie to clobber him with some help from the Enforcers. Months after this defeat (thanks in part to a last-minute interruption by the Incredible Hulk), the Goblin stuck his nose into Spidey’s business a second time, interrupting the inaugural meeting of Flash Thompson’s Spider-Man fan club, which the teenage hero felt obligated to attend in costume. Spidey endured a brief period of public humiliation and self-doubt (not the first or the last time that’ll happen!), eventually firing himself up and trouncing the Sandman.
What’s transpired in the aftermath of these events is somewhat important. Peter’s relationship with Daily Bugle secretary Betty Brant has encountered an obstacle named Ned "Wait, I’m not actually the Hobgoblin!" Leeds, who, unlike his MCU counterpart, is Peter’s consistent rival for Betty’s affections basically until his death (yes, I know Ned and Betty tied the knot before that, but we get somewhat of an emotional roller coaster tossed in there to mess with Betty and Ned’s happily ever after prior to his untimely demise). There’s no love lost between these two men. And if that weren’t rough enough, Peter’s fallen on his sweet Aunt May’s bad side, popping in late one evening after trouncing the Circus of Crime and causing her to take a slightly more authoritative stance with her typically responsible nephew.
The time seems ripe for a certain green-and-purple pariah to "Here’s Johnny!" his way back into Spidey’s life, hacking his way through the door of Peter Parker’s existence.
"The Goblin and the Gangsters"
Writer: Stan Lee
Penciler: Steve Ditko
Inker: Steve Ditko
Colorist: Stan Goldberg
Letterer: Sam Rosen
Issue: Amazing Spider-Man #23
Issue Publication Date: April 1965
The Goblin’s decision to make the mobs an offer they can’t refuse is a strange development, to say the least. Nowhere during his prior appearances do Lee and Ditko outline the villain’s dreams of usurping the underworld–the Goblin seems more motivated by the thrill of his costumed identity and to prove himself against Spider-Man. This is a curious development, and not the last time Lee and Ditko, and even other writers, will turn to it (the Goblin was parading around with gangsters as recently as Dan Slott’s original Superior Spider-Man series). I glanced ahead a few issues to see if some determination was given for the Goblin’s gangster games, but all I can find is a reference to the villain’s repeated need to align himself with like-minded individuals. I was hoping for something a little more intellectually stimulating or narratively consistent, but I suppose we’ll take that.
I can kinda see the Goblin’s need for criminal companionship, especially if we consider his previous partnership with the Enforcers, but that doesn’t really stand here. All along, the Goblin demands fealty not friendship. He wants to muscle in, take over the rackets, bring the New York City underworld under his purple-gloved fist. If anything, there’s an interesting sense of control we see permeating the Goblin’s actions, not just control over the New York underworld, but control over the entire situation–he’s got schemes within schemes planned, playing the role of a "double agent" at moments when it suits him. This is, perhaps, the brainiest we’ve seen our green-garbed goofball, manipulative in his dealings against the mob.
Like last issue, there’s little in the way of revealing the mystery behind the Goblin’s grim persona, but if anything, we should see him as a seemingly master manipulator (I say "seemingly," because, as the Goblin realizes late in the issue, he’s tad too clever for his own good). As I’ve admitted before, I don’t know how deep Lee and Ditko were in plotting the Goblin’s true identity prior to this issue–he’s clearly an intelligent individual, and though he doesn’t come across as brainy like Doctor Octopus, he’s a genuinely clever tactician. Yeah, lots of Spidey villains seem to be scientists, inventors, or tinkerers (and Tinkerers) of sorts, but the Goblin feels different than, for example, Mysterio, who used his special effects wizardry to produce his gadgets, or Electro, a former electric lineman who designed devices to increase his power. Maybe it’s because we quickly learned Mysterio’s smoke-and-mirrors methods that makes the Goblin all the more sinister…maybe it’s the sheen he’s hiding behind (for now) which makes his manipulative prowess all the more impressive. We don't know how he works or who he is, we just know he's smart and tenacious...and his constant scheming from the shadows makes him an enigmatic, terrifying threat.
Though there's little development on the Goblin’s identity, we get some engaging movement through the life of Peter Parker. The ole’ "Parker Luck" kicks in (when doesn’t it?) much like it did the last time Spidey faced the Goblin–Peter’s on the outs with his dear Aunt May, and he meets a matter of misunderstanding with Betty Brant. The Aunt May angle is largely played up for laughs: during a battle with some gun-toting gangsters, Peter slips away to give her a call, doing what he can to be a good nephew. May’s pleased, but her obliviousness to Peter’s current whereabouts and activities, fueled by comments about Peter "be[ing] a bit little delayed" and May worrying whether Peter is "dressed warmly," injects some of Lee’s trademark ironic humor–you just darn well know how she’d react if she only knew her favorite nephew was parading around in his pajamas, bopping gunsels over the head! Why, she might just faint dead away, the poor dear.
The Betty Brant situation is just a piece of a long-running puzzle that demarcates one of Peter’s first real relational problems. Peter and Betty never become official, not like his relationships with Gwen Stacy, Black Cat, or Mary Jane, but Lee just loves having them circle like lost airplanes. Ned Leeds worms his way in-between the two, adding fuel to a fire Peter had hoped was put out a while ago. And, very interestingly, Leeds doesn’t even make an appearance–Peter becomes jealous over correspondence between Leeds and Betty, showing how even the shadow, the mere presence or mention of Peter’s rival, causes consternation. We’ve watched Peter and Betty dance this dance before, and as I’ve noted, I’ve never approached their relationship with the same annoyance as I approached some of Lee’s other infamous love triangles.
What works is each situation feels different–yeah, you may feel a little back-and-forth on Peter’s end as he struggles through periods of “Does she-? Does she not-?” melodrama with Betty…and, for sure, if the two just sat down and had a conversation, this could all be cleared up. But at the very least, if we’re okay admitting Lee is just toying with these two just to wring all the drama he can outta them (which I am, surprisingly, fine with), we can just sit back and enjoy the tension. The drama doesn’t feel static or stuck, like some of Lee’s other ill-fated romances. And, heck, it doesn’t linger on the sidelines for years…and years…and years…once Lee puts this one on the chopping block, it remains as dead as Uncle Ben.
Some other moments make this issue notable, such as the return of Frederick Foswell (formerly known as "The Big Man") and a pretty good fight between the Goblin and Spider-Man, where the purple-pated pumpkin-pitcher makes it clear he’ll no longer broke any of Spidey’s annoying intrusions on his life. The Goblin’s motivations are a little odd for this issue, I’ll admit, steering a little clear of the enmity he’s created between himself and Spidey (Spidey’s involvement in the Goblin’s schemes is, apparently, purely incidental). I don’t quite get the diversion in scheming, and the Goblin’s strange fixation on underworld domination will last through a few more issues. Other happenings in Peter’s life help carry this issue, perhaps allowing Lee some subplotting to make up for a bizarre turn in the Spider/Goblin saga.