Crawling Back: Amazing Spider-Man #37 Review (The Osborn Prelude, Interlude)
As the Green Goblin mystery nears its culmination, cracks can be found in Lee and Ditko's collaboration on the subplot's development
—by Nathan on January 6, 2024—
What they say about mice and men probably also applies to spiders and goblins.
When I initially plotted out this series of these "Osborn Prelude" posts building to Spectacular Spider-Man #200, I merely included all the issues which featured the Green Goblin as a character, regardless of who wore the mask. In my last post, I even noted that my next review would be about ASM #39-40, which I fully intended to be the case. But as I began reading those issues, I recalled a narrative which occurred only a few issues prior, in ASM #37; as I glanced at that issue to jog my memory, I realized it's actually a fairly important issue to the overarching Osborn narrative Lee and Ditko were creating as well as Ditko's second-to-last Amazing Spider-Man issue before John Romita took over penciling. So I decided to incorporate a scheduling change: why not throw out a review of this piece first, before diving into the climactic showdown that is Spidey and the Green Goblin’s first "final" fight?
I don't intend this to happen as I produce future installments in this series, because we'd reach SSM #200 much later than I'd like if I did. We'd cover all kinds of Osborn related issues, including more extensive looks at Norman's temporary memory loss, Harry's ongoing drug usage, and other ideas which these Goblin-focused narratives touch on. I know there's a lot of history in-between the issues I'm reviewing in these posts that I just won't cover, at least not in this sub-series of "Crawling Back" posts. This review is an exception. Given the Goblin never makes an appearance (at least not in costume), I'm only referring to this as an "interlude" and not even an official post.
Consider it a small break from the Goblin and a bit of an examination about the Osborn under the frightening facade, a look at who wore the mask shortly before we were ever supposed to find out.
"Once Upon a Time, There was a Robot"
Writer: Stan Lee
Penciler: Steve Ditko
Inker: Steve Ditko
Colorist: Stan Goldberg
Letterer: Sam Rosen
Issue: Amazing Spider-Man #37
Issue Publication Dates: June 1966
Believe it or not, this marks Norman Osborn's first appearance in Spider-Man comics.
In my last "Osborn Prelude" post, I briefly discussed the conflict between Stan Lee and Steve Ditko over who they wanted the Green Goblin to be. It seems to be a lot of "he said, he said" between the two men based on how they've recounted this period in time. Regardless of whether their intentions actually varied as wildly as has been reported, one thing is true: before this issue, readers had seen Norman Osborn previously, way before he was ever officially named.
Readers were given their first glimpse of old "Stormin' Norman" in ASM #23, as a member of the "Midtown Business Executives Club" J Jonah Jameson also attended:
Two issues later, in ASM #25, Norman popped up at the Daily Bugle offices, with Jonah saying goodbye to him:
During the whole Crime-Master fiasco in ASM #26-27, Norman resurfaces at the club in both issues, contributing some dialogue, his first ever "speaking role" in a Spidey comic:
Our only reference to this character being Norman Osborn is visual, of course. You can see our then-nameless club member has cornrows, similar to those of Harry Osborn, Peter Parker's fellow college classmate and later best friend, originally introduced in ASM #31. He also resembles the man officially introduced this issue. Ditko himself specifically stated he seeded this background character with the full intention of revealing him as the Green Goblin later.
Ditko is often credited as "plotter," as he is in this issue, so I have to assume that much of the Green Goblin teasing, which culminated in ASM #39-40, was orchestrated by him. I don't know how much creative control he had over the narrative or how much of the Lee/Ditko squabbling over the Goblin's identity is true. It's clever, however, that Ditko purposefully seeded in a character he fully intended, from the start, to be his primary antagonist. There's Osborn, chilling in the background, without a name or any reason for us to think he's hiding anything. Unless eagle-eyed readers at the time noted the distinct physical similarities between this club member and Harry Osborn, you probably wouldn't give this guy a second thought.
Reading this issue again, I feel somewhat torn about the approach. Again, from a visual standpoint, Ditko's concept is clever: it's very fun, especially with hindsight, to flip through older issues and think This guy was here, in plain sight, the entire time. Why did I never notice it? And to paraphrase Spidey from ASM #27, the villain is rarely who you think it is in real life. If Lee and Ditko had planted, for example, a highly irascible individual who despised Spider-Man (not that anyone could ever hate Spider-Man!) for several issues before revealing himself to be the Goblin, we may not be as surprised. If the Goblin ended up being JJJ, would we have the same reaction as the Osborn reveal? Perhaps more on that when I cover the next couple of issues.
The struggle I have with fully appreciating Ditko's method is that, since we're only a few issues away from the dramatic revelation, he has to double-down on planting an enigmatic contender for the mantle. I say this assuming that ASM #39-40 were always the issues intended to be that first "final" showdown between Spidey and the Goblin, even if Ditko had stayed on the book. I don't know if Lee changed the order of things following Ditko's departure. But given we've never (officially) met Osborn until now means his "formal" introduction feels a tad rushed. I do believe this is a good place to introduce Osborn as a supporting character, especially since he's Harry's dad, and Lee and Ditko could easily play off his appearance as expanding Spidey's world. I have no problems there. But this is the guy who's gonna be revealed as your biggest bad guy in just a few issues…shouldn't there have been at least a few more hints?
What's "rushed" about Osborn's first appearance is that we're very quickly clued into a more nefarious side of him before we ever really become familiar or comfortable with him as an individual. Hints and clues which could have been planted earlier are all forced into this issue. He's not treated like a prince. We know he's dealt underhandedly with Professor Mendel Stromm, the issue's antagonist; he's rude to Harry; he comments vaguely on his "plans"; he bashes Spidey against the back of the head at one point.
To be fair, none of these clues are directly tethered into his Green Goblin persona. Readers could have assumed any of these just meant Norman Osborn was a grade-A jerk. Out of these, perhaps the only hint that Osborn is a little more than just a businessman with a dark side comes from him walloping Spidey. Dude temporarily knocks our Web-Head hero out, evidencing some kind of advanced strength. That may have raised some eyebrows.
That…and maybe one other clue.
Near the end of the issue, Mendel Stromm is nearly murdered by an unseen assailant. Pushing the self-proclaimed Robot Master out of harm's way (only for Stromm to keel over from a heart attack), Spidey catches the glint of a gun barrel through a high window; Spidey leaps to the window…only to find nobody there. Someone's sped off. A page later, as the issue wraps up, we're shown Norman Osborn, holding a gun that looks veeeery similar to the one which almost shot the professor. That can't be a coincidence, right?
This clue, out of all the others, is the most clever. It advances the mystery. If Osborn was the man who shot Stromm, how did he get away so quickly? Spidey himself questions the shooter's speed and how they managed to reach the window. With only those details, I can easily imagine the wheels turning in readers' heads. How do you reach a window without a ladder? How do you vanish before Spidey can reach the window? Flight, perhaps? And who do we know can fly?
The Vulture, obviously. I bet everyone thought Norman Osborn was the Vulture.
This is the kind of mystery I would've liked to have seen woven throughout preceding issues. Maybe Ditko used whatever available tactics he had to drop any sort of hint. But the Goblin's story has been fairly scrambled. He's gone from developing an enmity towards Spider-Man towards vying for control over the New York mob scene. We've been teased with the man beneath the mask, hidden in shadow, dressed in fairly fine clothes. In those business club scenes, Osborn does occasionally wear green or purple–were those intended to be more visual clues? If Lee or Ditko ever intended for anyone to at least try and guess who the Goblin was when they weren't debating whether the Goblin should be an actual character or a random dude off the street, we're not given a lot to use to make an educated guess.
Save for the Goblin mystery, I've not touched much on the rest of the issue. That's primarily because so much of this issue is devoted to the Osborn factor: the central plot involves Stromm sending robots after him, with Spidey engaging those robots, unknowingly saving the life of the very man who wants him dead more than anyone else not named "Doctor Octopus." There's some slight development in other areas–we get to see Patch in action again; Peter Parker (now in college) clashes with Flash Thompson and begins developing a (contentious) relationship with Gwen Stacy (yeah, like anything'll come from that, right?); Peter comments on how JJJ has another new secretary working for him after Betty left a few issues prior. But the development of the Osborn/Goblin narrative is where the bulk of this issue is focused.
As I noted, I'm realizing more development on the Osborn end of the Goblin mystery would have been appreciated. Clever as it was for Ditko to include the same background character across multiple issues, it's not a clue which really helps us narratively. Thus, this issue (and, in some ways, the next) is primarily responsible for sewing the seeds which sprouted when John Romita took the reins of Amazing Spider-Man. Given varied comments from both Lee and Ditko, it's difficult to accurately gauge just what exactly each man hoped to accomplish with the Goblin or when they hoped to bring those plans to fruition. In hindsight, it's a mystery more cluttered than I may have believed previously. I think younger me assumed both Lee and Ditko had a plan set in adamantium from the beginning. With the benefit of research and re-reading, I'm seeing that wasn't the case. The Goblin mystery is compelling…but so is the eternally unanswered question of what may have happened if Lee and Ditko were on the same page regarding the true identity of the nefarious ne'er-do-well.