Granted, I’m aided by the power of 20-20 hindsight, but there’s something about Amazing Spider-Man #238 that just comes across as being “special.” Even from a collectability standpoint – when I first started buying pricier back issues in the 1990s, I remember looking up ASM #238 in my Wizard price guide and reading something about a tattoo insert. Sure, the fact that the comic also marked the first appearance of the Hobgoblin was just gravy on the sundae, but what about that tattoo? Did anyone have a copy with the tattoo? A comic has to be special if it comes with a tattoo, especially if said tattoo adds an extra $40-50 to the collectible value of the book.
ASM #238 was one of my shocking discoveries in my oft-ballyhooed “big box of comics” some years ago, and sadly, it did not have the tattoo insert. But I still had a classic comic and one of the definitive examples of why the Roger Stern/John Romita Jr.-era of ASM is considered one of the greatest runs in the title’s history.
That “special” feeling I was talking about is invoked when I first open the book. There’s a “look how far we’ve come” vibe to the opening splash page as Peter thinks about how Aunt May has been reinvigorated by the opening of her new boarding home for senior citizens. We revisit Spider-Man’s origin story again with an Uncle Ben flashback – always a good indicator that the story at hand is going to be a major one (except in the case where Marvel produces a “bottle” episode of a comic).
And then to cap the importance trifecta before we even dig into the meat and potatoes of the Hobgoblin, there’s Peter pulling his Aunt May and her boyfriend Nathan Lubensky out of the way of a speeding car – a car that ends up being connected by a few degrees to the Hobgoblin. Again, the power of hindsight has demonstrated that the stories that show Peter’s loved ones being threatened in some meaningful way have generally gone on to be some of the greatest in Spider-Man’s history. Auny May has frequently been in peril over the years, but she very rarely gets physically attacked, even if the “attack” in this case was not intentional.
Something that Stern does masterfully in this issue is set-up a cornucopia of misdirection as it relates to the secret identity of the Hobgoblin. Compare that to what Stan Lee and Steve Ditko did in the first appearance of Amazing Spider-Man #14. Ditko/Lee were also protective of their new villain’s identity, baiting the audience at every turn by showing the character’s out-of-costume body, but never their face. But Stern toys with the audience a bit more aggressively in ASM #238. The first character we’re led to suspect is “Georgie,” one of the speeding-car robbers who stumbles upon an old hideout of Norman Osborn filled with the Green Goblin’s old weaponry.
Of course, it would be pretty lame of Stern and Marvel to reveal the secret identity of a new villain in his very first appearance, but you had to least consider Georgie as suspect #1 … that is until Stern pulls the rug out from underneath us.
There are very few instances where I find myself legitimately shocked by the events of a comic. The first time I read ASM #121, aka, the “Death of Gwen Stacy,” the life-altering ending had been spoiled for me so I was more or less numb to the emotional weight of the tragedy. Ditto for Uncle Ben in Amazing Fantasy #15. But the first time I read ASM #238 and I got to that page where the shadowy figure blows up the van with Georgie in it, I was shocked. It’s not that I cared all that much for Georgie – to be honest, I had no reason to give a hoot about him outside of the fact that he was a red herring from Stern. But that scene demonstrates a certain amount of malice and evil in a character that I don’t think Spider-Man had ever truly dealt with before (beyond Norman Osborn, and he didn’t become that savage until years after he first appeared). The exploding van is Stern’s formal shot across the bow – his new character means business and is not afraid to kill (with great theatrics) to protect himself.
But the coup de grace for ASM #238 is the literal first appearance of the Hobgoblin, in costume. Stern and JRJR build to this moment over the span of several pages in genius fashion. First we see this new character in street clothes testing the Green Goblin’s pumpkin bombs, then his weaponized gloves and the Goblin Glider.
Once he’s done with the equipment, he creates a mask – a new face that “still evokes the madness of the Goblin.” The character starts to don the rest of his costume, and we learn that he’s changed Green Goblin’s color scheme.
I’ve always found that little character detail to be incredible insight as to what kind of madman Spider-Man is dealing with in the Hobgoblin. The guy doesn’t want to just be another Green Goblin a la Dr. Barton Hamilton (Green Goblin III, a reveal I always found to be downright dumb because it felt like a random twist designed to trick everyone into thinking it was Harry Osborn the whole time). The Hobogoblin wants to create his own identity and become superior to Norman Osborn. This was also an interesting way for Stern to have his cake and eat it too during his run on ASM. He reportedly was under pressure to write stories about Spider-Man and the Goblin but he didn’t want to revive Norman or Hamilton, and he also didn’t want to put Harry back under the mask. So rather than just throw another random person in a Green Goblin costume, he created a brand-new character who was a bigger egomaniac than Norman. Brilliant.
The final image of ASM #238 may be Romita Jr.’s finest work on Spider-Man. A full body shot of the Hobgoblin, looking absolutely maniacal. JRJR creates a living, breathing nightmare – something out of a grotesque horror film.
THIS is how you introduce a supervillain to the world. Considering all of the lame D-list villains that were launched as adversaries for Spider-Man in the years preceding Stern’s run on ASM, Hobgoblin’s introduction in ASM #238 probably felt like a breath of fresh air for comic book fans.
Stern and JRJR built on the “special” quality of their brand new villain as he continued to make appearances, showing a character that both knew his limits and had the ego to always thirst for more power (physical and political). That’s what makes the “Original Hobgoblin Saga” a true “event” for Spider-Man fans in the 1980s – years before Marvel churned out major turning points/events in all of its titles every other month.
Next Thursday this series will continue with my thoughts on Amazing Spider-Man #239
All images from Amazing Spider-Man #238: Roger Stern & John Romita Jr.