Spencer: A comic book needs more than just a good hero to work; it needs a supporting cast, it needs villains, it needs a world that feels alive and fleshed out. While super-hero comics exist in a shared universe, the best titles manage to carve a little niche out of that universe for themselves to thrive in, and there are few books on the shelf right now that do it better than The Superior Spider-Man. Otto takes a backseat in this month’s issue as Phil Urich—A.K.A. the Hobgoblin—moves into the spotlight, accompanied by a hoard of heroes and villains alike who want to see him taken down. It’s a blast.
After barely escaping Spider-Man’s destruction of the Shadowland, Hobgoblin finds himself in debt both to the Tinkerer and to the original Hobgoblin, Roderick Kingsley. He begins robbing banks with a nearly-religious fervor, and for a while his luck seems to have changed—but then the Goblin King turns off his cloaking and allows ol’ Hobby to be tracked by Otto and spurned geek Tiberius Stone overrides Phil’s gear, leaving him helpless. Although ol’ Hobby manages to evade Spider-Man in the end, Otto simply turns the tables and reveals Phil’s secret identity to the world.
There’s a lot going on in this issue, yet writer Dan Slott manages to keep the story from feeling overstuffed and bloated; Slott even uses the constant twists and character reveals to propel the story forward instead of letting them bog it down. It’s a testament to the world Slott has built—both in Superior Spider-Man and previously in his Amazing Spider-Man run—that the story works as well as it does. In fact, having this huge, pre-existing world of characters with interlocking stories allows Slott to continue adding and adding to the list of characters out to get Hobgoblin until it reaches almost farcical levels, and it’s that slightly humorous touch that makes this issue so much fun.
Hobgoblin himself is an inspired choice of character to hang this story on. Phil Urich actually comes off as Peter Parker’s evil opposite to me; Slott plays Phil like a guy trying to make a living and do extraordinary things, just like Peter, but facing terrible odds and worse luck—again, just like Peter. The main difference, of course, is that Phil lacks Peter’s ethics and sense of responsibility, but it’s uncanny how similar they’re played. Phil even films his escapades as Hobgoblin and sells them to the Daily Bugle just like Peter used to! (This is an ingenious concept and I can’t believe nobody’s used it before.) Phil Urich is just enough of an unlucky everyman that the audience can sympathize with his plight to an extent, but he’s still enough of a villain that we can laugh at his misfortune and root for the various factions vying to take him down; it’s a deliciously fun mix.
Speaking of ingenious concepts, I love the various schemes and concepts Slott’s used in this series. There’s Phil’s aforementioned camera scam, Otto’s Spider-Bots and the Goblin King’s hacks to it, Tinkerer’s business creating weapons for supervillains, Otto’s closing gambit to locate Hobgoblin, and even Kingsley’s tidy little business of renting out his supervillain persona. Slott has a gift for coming up with clever concepts that reference the kind of status quo we’re used to in superhero comics, then completely subverts them, and I’m always amazed by what he comes up with.
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about Hobgoblin, but this is still Otto’s series, and even while put on the backburner he’s still got his own plots to tend to. Back in Issue 13 I speculated about whether Otto, in his quest to become an even more Superior Spider-Man, would abandon the persona of Peter Parker or not. As the audience is treated to a brief glimpse of all the loved ones “Peter” has neglected over the last few weeks, Otto spends some time debating the matter himself, and seems to be on the verge of finally dropping his civilian identity altogether when he’s called by the one person who could change Otto’s mind: Anna Maria.
It’s odd to see Otto genuinely smile, isn’t it? Anna Maria is another fine addition to the world Slott has created; nobody else can quite bring out Otto’s humanity the way she can. Ultimately Otto seems to decide to continue being Peter Parker—for the time being, at least—if only so he can continue to see Anna Maria.
This marks an interesting contrast from the Otto Octavius we saw back in the first few issues of this title. There, Otto not only seemed interested in keeping up with Aunt May, Mary Jane, and everybody else important to Peter, but he even took pride in being able to make more time for them than Peter ever did. The change in Otto’s attitude reflects his shifting priorities and the increasing difficulty of his job as Spider-Man, but also the fact that Otto is becoming more and more interested in building a life for himself separate from Peter Parker’s.
Is that even possible now, though? Anna thinks Otto is Peter; can he ever have a future with her with that lie hanging over their heads? How long can Otto keep up his charade if Peter simply vanishes? Mary Jane is already growing suspicious, after all. As always, I’m eager to see how Slott and Otto handle the situation.
This issue ended up being a lot lighter than usual on the moral relativism Superior Spider-Man is known for, but Otto and Carlie’s debate over Otto’s actions in the Shadowland still addresses those tricky questions somewhat. Ethan, what do you think of Otto’s argument that “might makes right”? Did you enjoy Humberto Ramos’ art? And how did you feel about Hobgoblin’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day?
Ethan: Otto remains a great character: his musing on what life would be like if he were to finally excise the last parts of the Peter Parker façade was terrific. Back when he was Doc Ock, the world was a simpler place – his real and costumed identities were one and the same, without the need for the constant evasion and protection of the alter ego.
For a typically single-minded guy, his life as Peter is tearing him in half on a daily basis. He sees value in spending time with Anna Marie and Aunt May, but the execution of his Spider-Man role trumps everything, even the loved ones in his life. He enjoys being able to rattle off the phrase “With great power comes great responsibility,” but when pressed, he agrees with the statement that might makes right. I don’t know what this means, now, in previous issues, or in his future. Is the psychotic Doc slowly drifting to the surface? Is Otto just going through the growing pains of superhero-hood, still redeemable despite his murderous missteps?
Putting Otto aside, I agree that this issue’s spotlight was on Ulrich/Hobgoblin. Spencer, I like your comparison of him to the (late) Peter Parker – they were/are both youngish guys trying to use superhuman powers they’ve stumbled across to keep moving forward, and they both seem to have some pretty terrible luck. Heck, Phil even tried the whole superhero thing for a few minutes, but the pressure ramped up, the support network wasn’t there, and Phil fell back into villainy. Come to think of it, though, we could argue that he’s as much of a mirror to Otto as he is to Peter: Otto started out Bad, is now trying out the Good thing, but not quite sure how he likes it. Phil’s early days were innocently Good, but one thing led to another and now he’s puzzling his way through what’s in it for him to be Bad.
Along the way, Phil’s got three pretty serious problems cramping his style, whether he’s choosing to kiss babies or rob banks: brand identity, licencing, and supply chain.
First, his brand. Who is Hobgoblin? In short, Hobgoblin is a splinter of and successor to the Green Goblin legacy. Until recently, only Norman and Harry Osborn wore the Green Goblin mask with any authority; Hobgoblin is a persona inspired by the Osborns’ mania, but one that is trying to find its own way apart from the Osborn family. Even so, the title is muddled: Roderick Kingsley is the one who gave the Hobgoblin name its clout; Phil is just riding Roderick’s coattails. Phil even started out as a Green Goblin, losing his grip on that particular holy grail when he lost control of his found tech (more on that in a moment). So now Phil is stuck with the offshoot persona of a great supervillain, without having the psychotic Osborn drive of the original nor the passion that compelled Kingsley to create the copy. Phil’s just a guy who found a mask and is clinging to it to pay the bills.
Second, his licencing agreement. To me, this is the weirdest part of Phil’s role as Hobgoblin. You don’t have to have an MBA to figure out that this deal is all kinds of crooked.
Let’s be clear: if Phil was some kind of part-owner of the Hobgoblin identity, or even just owed Kingsley royalties for using the name, he’d be in much better shape. As it is, he seems to have signed up for some kind of rental situation requiring monthly payments of a fixed amount – the only way he could be “late” on his payments is if there was some kind of fixed payment in the contract. I’m not even going to go into the absurdity of the idea of a villain agreeing to pay ANYONE ANYTHING for the use of an identity. Even if you look at it as a simple business arrangement, Phil is getting less than the short end of the stick here by obligating himself to pay Kingsley some kind of rental fee.
Third, supply chain. We’ve all seen Peter Parker fretting over torn gloves, masks, or “booties” (not even kidding, cf. New Avengers). When you’re a superhero or villain that isn’t independently wealthy or doesn’t either belong to a team, you have to supply your own tools and costumes, it’s just a fact of life. Usually, you don’t get into the business unless you have some kind of means to replace your gear, but Phil’s a different story. He fell into all of this when he found a Green Goblin mask, and he’s been begging and borrowing Goblin-tech ever since.
At the end of the day, this just isn’t sustainable. If you’re evil, you have to build up your corrupt empire to the point where the money is flowing in whether or not you’re out and about on any given day. If you’re a hero, you either expend that elbow grease to make your own stuff – a la Peter Parker – or you’re part of a team that’s funded by some trust-fund baby like Tony Stark.
Phil didn’t get this memo, and he didn’t figure it out on his own, so he’s paying someone else (the Tinkerer) to keep his gear functioning. Honestly, his previous reaction to the loss of his gear – getting out of the game entirely – makes far more sense than his current strategy. If you don’t even have the means to keep your flame-sword charged up and your goblin-glider fueled, DON’T USE THOSE TOOLS. Phil’s living out the woes of the average joe who doesn’t understand how credit cards work, and trying to live the life of a Super at the same time.
As if all of that weren’t enough, he’s got the Superior Spider-Man punching him in the face and the new incarnation of Green Goblin bubbling up from the underworld. His patron – the Kingpin – is on the run, and his only safe revenue stream – the Daily Bugle – can only serve up the small potatoes. To be honest, I don’t think this title has much room for the Phil Ulrich’s of the world. With the likes of Spider-Octavius and King Gobby on the field, bit-players like Hobgoblin are going to have to shape up or ship out, and I suspect there will be far more of the former than the latter.
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