November 12th, 2008
“Green Goblin in the trees”
We were on a steam train, dashing past some woodlands when my son said those words. The sentence struck me as an example of the kind of winsome utterance one might expect from a small child obsessed by Spiderman. But at bedtime, as we were making our way through Each Peach Pear Plum, and I found myself attempting to explain to an anxious boy that the Wicked Witch hidden beneath the bramble bush should be thought of as a nice witch for the duration of the story, I started to reconsider. Later, as I went to turn off the light, T gestured fearfully towards the shadowy corner of the room and whispered “Green Goblin in the brambles!”. A small shiver ran down my spine and I realised that Mysterio would have to wait, I wanted to write about Norman Osborn’s monster.
Three other trajectories had led me to this point. The first was the feeling when reading the recent Amazing Spiderman arc New Ways to Die that something was missing from the current incarnation of the Green Goblin, and that, going further, something had been missing from almost every incarnation of the Green Goblin that I’d come across throughout my adult life. Initially I suspected that the character just doesn’t work for me conceptually and I dropped the subject, but part of my brain kept nagging. I remembered the huge impact the Goblin made on me as a kid, and how much I loved him. Those lunatic pumpkin bombs and that glider that only a madman would even consider flying, the way his pointed fingers sparked and spat yellow energy, and those cartoon eyes whose worrying presence sat incongrously in a book where people’s facial features veered towards realistic.
The second line of thinking was inspired by Halloween: I wanted to write something that would tap into my feelings about the festival. The British relationship with Halloween, although it twists back into distant and dark millennia, has been strained for most of my lifetime. Trick or treating was almost unheard of in the sleepy country village where I spent my formative years, and would often be met by bafflement or outright hostility. Knock on the wrong door, of which there were many, and you could expect a bucket of water over your head, or worse: a grimacing pensioner gripping their chest in terror. The situation wasn’t without it’s advantages, however; if one were, say, an amoral child it was possible to exploit the ignorance of our neighbours by insisting that the exercise was in aid of charity. Now, personally I wouldn’t countenance such behaviour, but, to paraphrase the fella, I knew a lad who would.
Of course, the search for sweets and hard cash wasn’t what the venture was about. What really interested me was the opportunity to stay up late and stalk those cold Autumn nights. The Village highstreet was old and dark and constantly threatened to give way to the silent fields that rolled down into the valleys below. Pub signs swung violently in the shrieking wind, and the graveyard beckoned from its black perch on the Village edge. We would often dare one another to go down into the lightless church cellar, or run round the twisted elm tree five times, safe in the knowledge that the Devil would only come out at midnight. In later years we discovered a tomb which would give up its skeletal secrets, if, that is, one were prepared to get down on one’s hands and knees and, torch in hand, peer through the cracked masonry and into the blackness. The Halloween of my childhood was playful and fun, but it always had an edge, amplified by the Hammer House qualities of my rural location, and the suspicious mutterings of my fellow villagers.
The third branch of thought came to me while rewatching the episode of Twin Peaks (we’re about to dive into spoiler territory, but seriously if you haven’t seen Twin Peaks by now the question has to asked: what the fuck is wrong with you?) when Leland Palmer, possessed by the demonic Bob, gears himself up to kill Maddy. I know commentators tend to focus on the scenes where Bob is directly made manifest when attempting to lock down the show’s scariest moments – the scene where he clambers over the furniture and rams his leering, sadistic face into the camera springs to mind – but for me those sequences where Ray Wise takes Leland Palmer from warm, desperately sad family man to manic, cackling killer have always struck me as the bedrock of the Bob experience. There’s very few things as nightmarishly horrific as the idea that those that we rely on for love and protection could be transformed into hateful, sadistic monsters determined to see us suffer and die. It’s a fear that has its roots in our childhood nightmares; it’s the bellowing dad and the screaming mum, it’s the wicked stepmother and the brutish giant. It’s the poisoning of everything we hold dear, both as individuals and as a culture, and Ray Wise managed to fit the entire ghastly tragedy into a few seconds of screen time when he looked into a mirror, paused to straighten his tie, cracked a smile, and began to laugh.
And right there, right fucking there I saw Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin.
Norman obviously isn’t Leland – he was never a good guy – but the principle remains the same (as a thought experiment you might want to mull over what Benjamin Horne might have looked like under the same circumstances. Horne certainly has a lot in common with Osborn). Like Bob the Goblin is the ultimate corrupting force, something so far removed from Osborn’s pedestrian villainy that it inhabits an entirely separate category. Despite his faults Norman Osborn loves his son and cares about his business. His motivations are recognisably human because Norman Osborn is a man. The Green Goblin on the other hand is monstrous and demonic. Put simply, he’s evil. He hates for the sake of hating, and hurts others because he enjoys it. He destroys and spreads chaos because destruction and chaos are his lifeblood. Warren Ellis got the closest I’ve seen to this vision of the Green Goblin when he had him run rampant through Thunderbolt Mountain maiming and killing anyone who got in his way. And, prior to that, in those small sequences where, mid sentence, Osborn would vanish, replaced for a fleeting moment by an inhuman “ha heh!”. Ellis made me believe that the impressively nasty and brilliantly manipulative Director Osborn was, when juxtaposed with his alter-ego, a paragon of sanity and order. What he didn’t quite capture was the terrible absurdity of the situation. Thunderbolts with its relentless grey and black moral landscape and tone simply couldn’t hope to bring the depth of evil to the Goblin that Twin Peaks brought to Bob because in order to do that you need light, warmth and levity, things that Twin Peaks had in spades. Bob’s blood red maw throbbed so much harder thanks to the fact that Twin Peaks was awash with humour, charm, and loving (if troubled!) relationships. Twin Peaks was playful, constantly and plausibly shifting it’s mood. One minute we find ourselves laughing as Leland tap dances his way across the Great Northern’s dancefloor, the next, we struggle to watch as he rolls on the carpet consumed by grief, the awful reality of a man cruched by loss amplified by the effortless play of opposites on display.
Hold on for a minute while I digress yet again.
Here’s a true story. In the early Zeroes, Bobsy, The Beast Must Die, and assorted friends of the Mindless held a Halloween party. Their house was a typical example of the rental property inhabited by Brighton’s large student and graduate population: dirty, cold, unloved, and managed by deeply hateful, some might say Satanic, estate agents. The kind of space that when you get older and wiser you wonder how the fuck you could ever have lived like that (and when you get older and wiser still it becomes apparent that, really, it was all pretty fucking great). But on that particular Halloween it got nastier. I’m not sure if I asked about the spattered blood red writing on the walls – what it said, what it meant. It was striking, intimidating even, but its effect was softened by its incorporation within a wider, horror orientated, decorative scheme. Nevertheless, I remember feeling distinctly uneasy as I walked down the stairs towards the toilet, pursued by those crawling letters.
The rest of the evening was a fog of papier mache cocks that spunked blood and cum, shrunken monkey heads atop flowery pinafores, Blair Witch totems, flickering pumpkins, Papa Lazaru, and various representatives of the host of hideous. I left early, perhaps 10 or 11 o’clock, so it was only the next day that I learned what had happened after the clocks had swung past the witching hour. My hung-over flatmates reliably informed me that the spidery writing above the lavatory was an incantation, copied verbatim from some grimoire or other – a summoning spell designed to attract a demon. So could it have been merely a coincidence that, deep in the depths of the night, the loo began to vomit shit and piss and puke, flooding the entire room and much of the hallway with stinking effluent? And could it really have been an accident when, as the sun began to rise and the revellers fell onto the street, The Beast Must Die, half dead from booze and partying, collapsed into the sofa and onto an upright kitchen knife, consigning him to A&E purgatory?
I love the way that anecdote is simultaneously silly and not a little worrying. After all, that writing didn’t really cause the basement to be transformed into a sewer and rip open TMDB’s arsecheek. That would be ridiculous, but then I double dare you to put that shit on your walls. There’s a playfulness at work here, a precarious balance between fun and threat. Treat or trick? The anecdote inhabits a space reserved for the Halloween experiences of my childhood where the outright silly threatens to give way to something dark and terrible. It’s the space we normally refer to as creepy or spooky, and is frequently visited in Twin Peaks. A phantasmagorical liminal zone between safety and terror, and it’s territory that the Green Goblin should inhabit.
I don’t know what happened to the Goblin, or exactly when he became simply a supervillain. Perhaps he always was, but if that’s the case my childhood self continuously always failed to notice. Today’s Goblin appears to suffer from the same problem as the Joker: most writers (Ellis being a notable exception) just don’t seem to know what to do with him, the default setting being somewhere between vengeful schemer and giggling loon. Saddest of all, most of the time he quickly degenerates into a flat, scrappy baddie. What my son reminded me of with his ominous pointing and his vision of “Green Goblin in the brambles” is that I used to find the Goblin profoundly creepy. To T he fits into the same category as ghosts, ghouls, werewolves and vampires. He’s a creature of the night, something that haunts your dreams and sits smiling at the end of your bed. But he’s also the kind of guy that Scooby Doo is brought in to deal with, and gets his arse handed to him by Spidey in our daily play dough driven narratives. He’s a figure of both fun and fear, and frankly he should work that way for adults too.
There’s a doubling inherent to the Goblin that I want to see played up. On one level he needs to be the Goblin who clearly scares the bejeezus out of my little boy: luminous yellow eyes peering out of the darkness, an inhuman creature hunching over a giant bat, a spine chilling cackle echoing across Manhattan’s concrete canyons. Less supervillain, more monster. Less schemer, more gruesome inevitability. On another level, however, he’s a four-colour action figure, a toy that comes complete with pumpkin bombs, jet glider, and ghost nets. The Goblin’s weaponry has always been a celebration of the ridiculous, so bizarre that it managed reach out and touch the domain of weird colonised by the Silver Surfer’s surfboard and Galactus’s helmet. This tension between the demonic Goblin and his sillier twin is exactly the sort of thing that makes Twin Peaks work, and that drives many of Hammer House’s more frightening efforts. Take Theatre of Blood, for example – a film which features Vincent Price, a failed thespian, leading an acting troupe of psychotic vagrants on a revenge mission against the critics that spurned him. I have seldom seen anything quite so knowing and camp, but it’s humorous absurdity, far from detracting from its fear quotient, actually fuels it. As we’ve said time and time again on Mindless Ones, there’s a point at which things that look ridiculous can slip over into the realm of the Other. It’s a trick David Lynch, Alan Moore (see his LoEG answer to Rupert the Bear) and Grant Morrison frequently rely upon, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t work for the Green Goblin. I mean, this is a guy who actually spent time building bombs that look like pumpkins. That’s not normal behaviour, that’s not something anyone does ever. What kind of freak would even consider doing something like that?
Further precedent can be found in Eighties slasher films. Freddy (even in his first, notably bloodthirsty outing) certainly straddled the line between hellish and hilarious, as did many, many of his video nasty brethren. It’s also worth noting that the monster/supervillain dichotomy is alive and well in a significant number of spider-foes. Venom, Carnage and the rest of the symbiote crew are explicitly monstrous creations; then there’s the rest of the Goblin family – Hobgoblin, Demo-Goblin, Menace, etc… Dr Octopus has something of that horror stalwart, the mad scientist, about him, and those tentacles can’t fail to be anything but creepy. Even all those “animal totem” baddies seem to hail from the inhuman, red in tooth and claw vision of nature. Of course all this gesturing to horrors beyond what one might think of as the bounds of the superhero genre has its roots in the concept of Spider Man – a character with a deliberately icky edge – and, I would argue, in the wider MU, which has never shied away from uncanny heroes and freakish champions mutated by science. The monstrous spider rogue can be read as simply a willingness to explore the terrain signposted by the creepier aspects of a man with spider powers.
The problem with invoking the monster is that it often degenerates into creative shortcuts. See Carnage and the Jackal’s incessant giggling, see Carnage and Venom’s constant desire to eat everyone around them, see Carnage’s spiky bits and accompanying (off panel) gore, in fact, see Carnage full stop. No, what I want to see brought to bear is the spooky Goblin, the Goblin that’s simultaneously fun and frightening, and personally I feel that would require bringing an entire aesthetic, perhaps even a slew of horror-narrative conventions to the stories in which he appears (I’m generally of the opinion that the big baddies deserve to be framed in this way). I want lightning and rain and the shadow of the bat glider. I want the demon who circles its victim, the hunter in the darkness that stalks the hero’s loved ones through abandoned warehouses and lonely city streets, capturing them in his ghost nets and whisking them away into the night. I want him to ham it up like the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: “I can smell you Mary Jane”. I want to see those yellow eyes glare out of the darkness and that demented grin at Aunt May’s window. I want Peter Parker to think he catches sight of something green and giggling in the trees. And when it finally comes time for Spider Man and the Goblin to go head to head I want to see it play more like one of those final confrontations in slasher films, where the heroine goes alone into the dark to face a foe that just won’t go down and always dances on the edge of sight.
I want something that could have lurked in the village church cellar on All Hallows Eve, and would be at home peering through the knotted brambles.