Crawling Back: Amazing Spider-Man #39-40 Review (The Osborn Prelude, Part 5)
This climactic showdown redefines the Spider/Goblin war, perfectly ending the first chapter of a decades-long saga
—by Nathan on January 18, 2024—
This is the big one.
Over the last several posts, we've examined the escalating conflict developing between Spider-Man and a little elfin villain named the Green Goblin. What started out as the Goblin crafting a rivalry between himself and a "celebrated" member of the superhero community has become a full-fledged war built on threats of humiliation and outright violence. The Goblin simply wanted to prove himself against a superhero at first, but as Spidey has resisted his multiple efforts at securing a foothold in the New York criminal community, the Goblin's become all the more eager to dispose of his hated foe. "Defeat" has officially changed to "destroy."
We reach a major turning point in the Spidey/Goblin war in these issues. Stan Lee and incoming artist John Romita crank the wheel all the way to the right and slam on the gas, sending Spidey's ongoing journey hurtling off the highway into the abyss. He may crawl from the wreckage alive, but he cannot escape unscathed.
"How Green was My Goblin"/"Spidey Saves the Day"
Writer: Stan Lee
Penciler: John Romita
Inker: Mike Esposito
Colorist: Stan Goldberg
Letterers: Artie Simek, Sam Rosen
Issues: Amazing Spider-Man #39-40
Issue Publication Dates: August-September 1966
It's under new penciler John Romita (Sr., not to be confused with his equally talented son) that this climactic showdown occurs. Steve Ditko, having left the book after various disagreements and creative differences, just missed the finale to the long-running mystery he and Lee had been building. As I discussed a few posts back, Ditko and Lee were more aligned with the "Who is the Green Goblin?" mystery than some may assume, despite rumors to the contrary. Those who believe Ditko wanted the Goblin to be a regular guy have most likely missed his comments that he seeded Norman Osborn in panels across several issues before the character was officially introduced in ASM #37.
The Goblin mystery itself, in those prior issues, still holds great historical heft. Some of the villain's motivations feel a little wonky at moments, but there's a very clear arc to his character: the Goblin clearly escalates conflict between him and Spidey, from simply wanting to defeat the hero during their first encounter, to returning to humiliating him, to then throwing around threats about harming or killing the accursed Web-Slinger. The Goblin clearly has a vendetta against Spidey, and this is where it all boils over.
Until this point, nobody has unmasked Spidey…at least, not in any way that stuck. Doctor Octopus has previously removed Spidey's mask in front of Betty Brant and J. Jonah Jameson while Peter suffered from a cold, but all in attendance simply assumed Peter had donned a costume and thrown himself at Ock, not that he was the genuine article. ASM #39 is the first instance of a villain, in a fairly canny manner, determining Spider-Man's true identity. Plot-wise, it's a nice deviation from what Lee has presented us with previously. For all his intelligence, the Goblin has been primarily physical against our hero, rendering him unconscious at least once during the whole Crime-Master bit. This is a shift towards the psychological warfare the Goblin will conduct against Spider-Man in the ensuing years, particularly during the time Norman moved against Spidey from the shadows after his "death."
The Goblin learning Peter's identity cements him as the hero’s arch foe; arguments can be made that Otto Octavius, particularly in recent years, has made a claim for that title, and it could also be argued that Venom at one point held that coveted position. But during the Lee/Ditko run, and for a long time afterward, no single villain managed to plague Spidey in the way the Goblin had. Yes, Doc Ock was certainly a contender for most consistent villain Spidey faced, and he was the first adversary to soundly defeat Spider-Man (the Vulture gaining the upper hand in his first encounter with the Web-Head notwithstanding). But the Goblin's the first one to learn who Spider-Man is. The reveal wouldn't have had the same impact if the Vulture, Electro, the Sandman, or the Chameleon learned Spidey's identity before any other villain. The repeated battles between Goblin and Spider created a dramatic escalation of antagonistic tension between the men that takes on new form in these issues.
Not only does this elevate the Goblin's status as a villain, but in Peter's mind, it elevates the threat the Goblin represents. Throughout the arc, Peter worries about Aunt May, not necessarily how the Goblin could use his identity to strike at her (which is a viable concern), but how the Goblin could jeopardize her indirectly. Were May to learn of Peter's identity, Spidey believes, her health would take a catastrophic hit. Is it the most logical sequence of thinking Peter employs? Not necessarily. But the "Spidey holds his true identity close to the chest" concept has been ingrained in us by Ditko and Lee up until this point that we automatically believe it's more believable than it should actually be. You're prone to thinking that, yeah, May would just drop dead away if she ever made the connection between her nephew and this mysterious masked hero she's encountered before and, along with the general public, believes to be a genuine threat and meance, even more so than a criminal like Doc Ock.
We also need to analyze the other side of the equation: after the Goblin learns who Peter Parker is, he reveals himself as Norman Osborn. I noted in my last post that Lee and Ditko's official introduction of Norman is somewhat unsatisfying. Through this arc, small clues are planted to indicate that the Goblin is, most likely, someone of means, but until ASM #37, Norman Osborn is never a candidate. Sure, you may be able to spot the recurring figure with the cornrows often in JJJ's company, and if you note the physical similarities between this man and Harry Osborn, you may be even able to assume some sort of relation between them. But until ASM #37, we don’t have a name. And, suddenly, there's Norman, behaving a little bit suspiciously. We get some extra clues here and there, even in ASM #38, but those details may just point Norman to being a corrupt businessman Lee and Ditko are setting up to be an antagonist at some later stage, not the man behind their long-running mystery.
As it stands, the revelation that Norman Osborn is the Green Goblin does less in these issues, in my opinion, to cement the Spider/Goblin rivalry and more to escalate the relationship developing between Peter and Harry Osborn. Until these issues, Harry had perceived Peter as rather cold and swell-headed; a brief interaction between them in ASM #39 starts turning the tide, allowing Lee to make the connection that each young man can bond over parental struggles–Peter letting Harry know he's an orphan, Harry confiding in Peter about his absentee father. The seeds of friendship are planted in a nice moment Lee upends with the Goblin reveal. What's Peter to do knowing his worst enemy is the father of his classmate? Interesting moral debates are woven into this final conflict: Peter knows he can't just kill the Goblin…but he can't very well let the villain get away knowing his identity.
The Goblin treats us to his origin story, a finely woven tapestry of tension Lee and Romita lay out for us. In a way, the Goblin's backstory isn't too dissimilar from Spidey’s own or even a legion of villains such as the Lizard, Electro, Doc Ock, the Sandman: an accident happens, someone gets powers as a result, they choose to use those powers after selecting a costumed identity. Only instead of going the showmanship route Spidey originally selected or deciding he wants to help people, the Goblin elects the criminal path. Lee largely chalks that up to Osborn's increased arrogance after the accident and its effects on his intelligence; it seems like a bit of a jump for Osborn to go "I’m smarter and stronger than most people, so that means I can become the world's greatest career criminal," but Lee does provide us with a sense the accident has completely warped Osborn's perspective. Some of the best moments in ASM #40 feature Osborn's words juxtaposed with flashbacks provided by Romita. His insistence that he's a perfect father for Harry while we clearly witness his negligence–to say nothing of Peter and Harry's previous conversation–showcase how twisted Osborn's viewpoint has become.
ASM #40 provides a wealth of tense storytelling which wonderfully follows the reveal in the closing panel of ASM #39. Peter's bound by the Goblin, listening to his raving, trying to free himself from his bonds. Lee and Romita work well to painstakingly dramatize Peter's attempts at escape, his efforts juxtaposed with the seemingly oblivious Osborn's monologuing. In-between these moments of tension are scenes focused on Aunt May and Betty Brant, each concerned for Peter in their own way. May feels the unintended side-effects of Peter's absence, growing more concerned for him; Betty, having up and left the city after feeling torn between Peter and Ned Leeds, determines to return and make her mind up once and for all, even if she's nagged by thoughts of Spider-Man, of all people. I've lately felt lukewarm to the Peter/Betty drama, but at least here, Lee promises some forward momentum…if our hero can make it out of his predicament alive.
Which he does. Of course he does. I couldn't very well be writing about Spidey comics from the 80s and 90s if he didn't live past the 60s. So we'll let that attempt at tension just evaporate.
These issues marked the end of an era for me. When I started "collecting" comics (and I put that word in quotes because I just picked up things to read, never thinking of them as an intentional effort to compile stories), my earliest Spider-Man issues ended here. So even though these issues marked the beginning of the storied Lee/Romita run, ASM #39 and #40 were the last Spidey issues from the 60s I'd read for a long time. I love the story, but I also look on this two-parter fondly for what the issues represent for me through the nostalgia-tinged lens I often use to examine comics.
For now, these issues also mark the temporary end of the Spidey/Goblin war. It's not over. Oh, it's so very far from over, and I'll be detailing later chapters in future installments. Consider this more of an unintentional ceasefire. Spidey crawls from the wreckage, dusts himself off, pulls the green-suited driver out of the car before the whole thing explodes in a ball of flames. Guy was driving like a maniac. And though someone should probably take his license away from him forever, he'll get it back, inexplicably. But we'll pass those car wrecks and rubberneck when we come across them. At the moment, let Spidey enjoy some fleeting relief.