“Super Blog Team-Up” is back, and this time, an expanded roster of some of the finest comic book blogs on the internet is tackling a controversial topic in the medium we profess to love: retroactive continuity, or retcons for short. Over the years, these little “alterations” of a certain character’s history have been applied with mixed results. For my entry, I’m taking a look at the two-part “Mind on Fire” storyline in Amazing Spider-Man #581-582, which discusses how Harry Osborn returned to the land of the living.
Retcons can often be a dirty word when applied to the Spider-Man universe (hello “One More Day” and your red-headed stepchild, “One Moment in Time”). But there are a number of instances where a continuity change was needed and ended up making an either forgotten or reviled Spider-Man story better (hello Hobgoblin Lives). Then there’s “Mind on Fire” in Amazing Spider-Man #581-582, a unique instance of a retcon sounding like a terrible idea on paper (Harry Osborn back from the dead?), but actually being well executed because the story is filled with sound logic and is true to the characters involved.
When the “Brand New Day” era of Spider-Man was ushered in with the grace and dexterity of a three-legged bull ice skating on a 40 degree day, fans were so outraged by how Peter Parker’s “deal with the devil” dissolved his marriage to Mary Jane, that a number of other editorial changes that significantly impacted the Spidey universe were seemingly lost in the shuffle. One of which was the fact that Harry Osborn, long-presumed dead since the epic Spectacular Spider-Man #200 (arguably one of my favorite single-issues of Spider-Man of all-time) was suddenly alive and well again, managing a Coffee Bean, and resuming his trademark tense and awkward relationship with his father, Norman.
Characters being resurrected is second nature for the comic book world, but part of what made Harry’s revival eyebrow raising was just how perfectly executed his death was in Spectacular #200. The issue marked the culmination of a long-running storyline by J.M. DeMatteis and Sal Buscema that focused on Harry’s decent into madness and return to the Green Goblin persona. The wonderful “Child Within” storyline looked into the childhood trauma that started Harry down his dark path, and the stakes were raised further by the intensely uncomfortable Spectacular #189. By that point, Harry’s sanity was so far gone, and his hatred for Peter/Spider-Man was so intense, that it was patently obvious that Osborn would either succeed in killing his friend, or he himself be killed off. Spectacular #200 gives us that inevitable ending, but also redeems Harry by having him rescue Spider-Man and his wife and child (Liz Allen and Normie) from an exploding building before dying from an adverse reaction to the dreaded Goblin formula. It’s a story DeMatteis remains fiercely proud of to this day, and rightly so.
Endings so perfect rarely come along in this medium, so it was unclear why Marvel chose to bring Harry back from the dead other than “because.” It was equally troubling when nobody actually explained where Harry had been this whole time, but Dan Slott and Mike McKone take on this task in ASM #581-582 when they send Peter and Harry out on a road trip to take care of some “business” involving his ex-wife Liz, Normie, and Harry’s brother-in-law, the supervillain, Molten Man.
It’s during this road trip that Peter asks Harry what all ASM readers were thinking: so umm… what’s with the being dead and alive thing (I’m paraphrasing here)? Harry casually responds that he thought he already explained all that, but before every last post-One More Day Spider-Man fan could riot by this lack of clarity, Harry offers a pretty detailed and straightforward account of what’s been going on the past few years.
In short, the Goblin Serum that presumably killed him, kept him alive and while he was being taken to the morgue, good ol’ Norman shows up, pays off some people so he can get possession of Harry’s body, and then employs the master of special effects Mysterio to find a substitute body for funerals, the casket, etc. Norman proceeds to send Harry to Europe where he’s instructed to “lay low” and clean up his act for a few years, before allowing him back into the U.S. and living in Peter/Spider-Man’s world again.
It’s not the most groundbreaking explanation, but what it lacks in elegance, it makes up for it sound logic and reasoning. Namely, Marvel did a similar resurrection angle with Norman a few years earlier after he was presumed dead at the end of ASM #122. While Norman’s return was even more shocking at the time – especially when it was revealed that he was the mastermind of the “Clone Saga” and later that he had hired a body double for Aunt May and faked her death in ASM #400 (speaking of terrible retcons) – by the time ASM was in “Brand New Day” mode, I don’t think anyone was too upset about Norman’s presence in our comics. Having Norman hide Harry in Europe all those years was lockstep in how the Osborn-family patriarch had been characterized (as a Lex Luthor-esque master manipulator and power broker) and bringing in Mysterio and his unique (and underrated) skillset was icing on the cake. So, thus far, no arguments from me.
Adding to the quality of this story is the fact that Slott goes a long way demonstrating just how much Harry had matured and grown up. Harry still has an understandably tense relationship with Liz and Normie due to that whole faking his death thingee, but he also goes out of his way to prove to them that he has their best interests in mind, which is consistent with how the character was redeemed in Spectacular #200. We discover that Harry goes to Liz and Normie so he can administer a cure he concocted for Mark Raxton, aka, the Molten Man. Things got out of hand when Raxton sees Harry, but after Spider-Man shows he’s not afraid to fight the good fight in New Jersey, the Molten Man gets his cure.
If Marvel had just brought Harry back to become the Green Goblin once again, ignoring all of JMD’s careful detail and characterization, it would have been a slap to the face to one of the great stories of the modern era. Instead, ASM #581-582 reads like it evolved organically from those older stories.
Harry’s growth is also not lost on Liz, who tells her ex that the “scales are balanced.” Liz also gets to verbalize the understatement of the century when she tells a carping Normie (who, for what it’s worth to all you current Green Goblin mystery followers, demonstrates a seething hatred for all things Spider-Man) that “nobody” in this world is “normal.”
As time went on, Harry further removed himself from the public eye and the drama of being around Peter and Spider-man, so it would appear that this retcon was effectively used as a way to further redeem the character and bring some closure to his life. Of course, nothing in comics is final, so all bets are off if Slott has another surprise reveal up his sleeve as we move further into “Goblin Nation.”
All images from Amazing Spider-Man #581-582: Dan Slott, Mike McKone, Andy Lanning & Jeromy Cox
Super Blog Team-Up Roll Call:
Silver Age Sensations: The Red, White and Blue Avenger!
Flodo’s Page: Green Lantern Secret Origins – Revision or Retcon
Longbox Graveyard: Retcon – Roy Thomas and Earth-2
Between the Pages: Good Cowboys Always Shoot First
Bronze Age Babies: Was the Vision Really Carrying a Torch?
Superior Spider-Talk: Peter Parker – Child of Radioactivity or Mysticism?
Superhero Satellite: Retcon – Crisis on Continuity Earths
Fantastiverse: Age of Retcon Bucky 4.0 – The Winter Solider
I think the *why* of Harry’s return is pretty clear. Since BND was about softly rebooting Spider-Man to get rid of his marriage and make him feel younger again, the return of his best pal from his hey-day makes perfect sense, esp. when it lines up with what was depicted in the movies.
While the movies and the comics don’t ever line up perfectly, I think there is an idea that if a movie-goer does deign to pick up a comic at the very least they should find the same characters around to have something to grasp on to in the transition.
And as you mention, Norman’s return already laid the groundwork for the possibility of Harry’s return, so it works – even if Norman’s return is even more of a travesty from my perspective.