The last of the big three Spider-Man villains is the Green Goblin, although his reputation has changed over the years. The Green Goblin started out as a mystery villain, arguably the best in comics. When his identity was revealed, the answer was still satisfying, perhaps due to the quality of Amazing Spider-Man #39-40, and the iconic scene with the Green Goblin carrying an unmasked Spider-Man.
I’m not sure the story should have worked. Imagine how you’d feel today if there was a new mystery villain in the Spider-Man books. Let’s call him Mysteryman. After several years, Mysteryman’s identity is finally revealed—not because the hero learns any major clue, but because the villain decides to reveal what he has done—and it turns out to be a minor character’s father, introduced two issues ago! That’s just what happened with the Green Goblin, but Lee/ Romita made it work.
Norman Osborn quickly became a compelling character, especially with the knowledge that he could become the Green Goblin again at any time. He became a ticking time bomb. He was a guy who knew Spider-Man’s secret identity, and could endanger his supporting cast. And as Peter and Harry became friends, he became a bigger part of Peter Parker’s life. There was also the problem that he wasn’t truly responsible for his actions, so Spider-Man had to hold back against him.
Then the worst case scenario happened. Over the course of two issues, Norman Osborn died after murdering Gwen Stacy. In contrast to Doctor Octopus, who didn’t intend to hurt Peter Parker in any of the stories which involved his loved ones being in danger, this was an act of revenge against the man underneath the Spider-Man costume. It was such a monumental event that it’s been considered a possible endpoint for the Silver Age of comic books.
Norman’s twisted legacy lived on as his son Harry briefly tried to take over the family business. His weapons were later found, and used by the Hobgoblin. For twenty years, he was still referenced as one scary individual, a legacy that no dead villain has matched. But it seemed that having the man who killed Gwen Stacy still around would be too intense for a Marvel comic. The Goblin became more of a legacy villain. The individual in the Goblin suit didn’t matter all that much. He was like the Daleks in Doctor Who, or the Klingons in Star Trek. It was enough that Spider-Man fought a Goblin; it didn’t matter which one.
Harry Osborn became a substitute for his father. He was the member of Spider-Man’s supporting cast who would snap, and threaten Peter’s loved ones. And Peter would have entirely different reasons for trying to hold back.
For his Amazing Spider-Man run, Roger Stern decided to go in a different direction, replicating the original Green Goblin mystery with the Hobgoblin saga. Eventually, the Hobgoblin was revealed as the recently deceased long-time supporting cast member Ned Leeds. Jason Macendale, formerly the Jack O’Lantern, a B-list Spider-Man enemy first introduced in the pages of Machine Man, became the new Hobgoblin. Macendale did actually have an impressive Spider-Man pedigree though, as his creators were Tom Defalco and Steve Ditko.
The Inferno crossover was significant in the development of the Goblins. Harry Osborn donned the Green Goblin’s gear once again, the first time any Green Goblin would surface since the introduction of the first Hobgoblin. This also marked the first clash between two Goblins. A deal the Hobgoblin made with actual demons was the first unsuccessful attempt to give Macendale an upgrade. The demon would eventually be expunged, and become Demogoblin, a separate and short-lived member of the rogues gallery.
Harry Osborn’s return as the Green Goblin led to a 20+ issue mega-arc in JM Dematteis and Sal Buscema’s Spectacular Spider-Man. This was when Harry become a top-tier Spider-Man foe in his own right. He was one of two main villains for the seven-part Child Within storyline, and he would return to menace Spider-Man in two double-sized issues celebrating major milestones for the comics: the 30th Anniversary of Amazing Fantasy #15, and the 200th issue of Spectacular Spider-Man.
Harry died. There would be two more unsuccessful attempts to upgrade the Macendale Hobgoblin, both by Howard Mackie. In the first Spider-Man story I had ever read (aside from the newspaper strip)”Rage of a Desperate Man” Macendale became stronger as a result of a serum he inherited from Kraven the Hunter. In “The Blood Brothers” crossover, he was given cybernetic upgrades. Neither distinguished him. He just became a generic Goblin, which was okay as long as he was the only one.
There was a new Green Goblin during the Clone Saga, when Phil Urich, the nephew of long-time Spider-Man and Daredevil supporting cast member Ben Urich, found an old stash of Norman Osborn’s weapons. As a superhero, he was truly different from his predecessors. The Green Goblin monthly by Tom Defalco and Scott McDaniel was well-received and lasted for thirteen issues. It came to an end when Marvel decided to go in a different direction with the character.
Shortly afterwards, the original Green Goblin and Hobgoblin returned. Norman Osborn was revealed as the mastermind of the Clone Saga, partially because it was felt that there had to be someone truly significant pulling the strings during a two year long storyline. And he soon returned to the public life, buying the Daily Bugle, and doing what he could to make Spider-Man’s life a living hell.
It was also revealed that Ned Leeds hadn’t been the Hobgoblin. Instead, it was Roderick Kingsley, a businessman introduced during Roger Stern’s run on Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man. The Hobgoblin made one more appearance in Spectacular Spider-Man, and essentially disappeared from the comics for more than a decade. An alternate universe version of Roderick Kingsley would resurface in Spider-Girl, fighting a future version of Spider-Man’s daughter.
A major reason Kingsley disappeared from the books was that he was redundant with Norman Osborn as a major figure. Eventually, Osborn snapped, and was exposed as the Green Goblin. For a brief while, he had been tied to pretty much any bad thing to happen to Spidey pre-Civil War. He became a more significant fixture in the Marvel Universe as the leader of the Thunderbolts and the Dark Avengers.
During the Brand New Day era, Menace, a new Goblin was introduced, and eventually revealed as Harry Osborn’s girlfriend. She was the strongest and most grotesque of the Goblins. She hasn’t returned since the Brand New Day era, although this isn’t a problem considering the disadvantage of having too many recurring villains. The resurrected Harry Osborn got a character arc, as he abandoned the legacy of the Green Goblin.
Roderick Kingsley returned, seemingly to be killed off by Phil Urich, who went on to become the new Hobgoblin. It was then established that Kingsley was alive, and running a business in which he created and sold supervillain identities. Phil Urich was now in his employ. The new take on Kingsley allows him to be a fixture in the Spider-Man books, with an identity separate from the Goblins. It does leave the question of what to do with the original Green Goblin.