All about the pie
Just a minute here to talk about a comics supervillain whose type doesn’t figure into Doctor Xaos, neither lesser nor ultra, but rather personal, who is primarily dangerous due to what he knows, how he’s related to the hero through ordinary ties, and what flips his switch.
Here’s a pretty good summary of the early significant Green Goblin stories: Lee & Ditko, and Lee & Romita Sr.
For the first, I stress that Spidey was not the figurehead of the company, they were barely into the third year of the series, no one had ever written him except Lee and Ditko, and there was no auxiliary product (toys, shows, Pez dispensers, nothin’). The stories were “street-level,” about criminals and crime-stopping, not universes and cosmoses. This one was a convoluted crimeboss Dick Tracy-style story, based on guessing games about three competing bosses’ identities; it concludes with two of them unmasked and the Goblin escaping, his aims thwarted. It works too to understand just how weird the Goblin is, within the story itself, to the extent that gaudy-named, masked comics-Mafia bosses call him “that freak.” Ditko especially brought this out with his disturbing eyelashes, a touch I miss in other depictions.
The second is the knockout, and one my favorite comics stories partly because I actually owned #39-40 and saw it reprinted in Son of Origins, my first book about comics. I don’t suppose I have to summarize anything about it. Comics pundits love to say “two sides of the same coin,” but this is one of the few times it’s true, laid out here perfectly:
That’s why the 2003 Raimi film works so well, it really is solely about these three panels, although shifting the core character between hero and villain to a different person. I saw it twice in the theaters and noted the same thing at the same moment, and anecdotally, talked about it with triple-digit many people who’ve confirmed it for their viewing experience. When, the one moment and no other, did the whole audience suddenly fall silent simultaneously? You know the answer: it’s at the Thanksgiving dinner scene, when Norman tries to bogart a finger-scoop of pie.
Here you go, but by itself, the brief clip doesn’t catch why, because in fact, I’m talking about the entire movie. This is the moment toward which every single event so far has been pointing, and afterwards, on which every single event depends. Why?
People say “heroes need villains” but that is all backwards. Whatever arc you care about for the hero, the little one of his or her origin, or the big one of whatever happens from now on, that is mighty fine and dandy … but come on, there are thousands of those, and most died on the vine, completely forgotten. The butthole pucker arrives when the villain shifts from doing his own thing, his own plan, his way of life, his workaday villain-ness … to focusing. If you’re familiar with my role-playing game Sorcerer, then you can see I’m talking about the villain’s Kicker.
In the film’s story, Norman is crazy and murderous, but his aims are financial. Until this scene, he’s held steady about that; when he tries to adapt to new circumstances by trying to co-opt Spider-Man, Spider-Man is still merely obstacle or opportunity regarding those aims.
What brings him to that dinner is family and nominal friends – his son, his son’s girlfriend, his son’s friend, and his son’s friend’s aunt – the latter of whom, he has no interest in whatsoever. He is not, at this point, any specific threat to Spider-Man or relevant to Peter’s life-decisions.
That’s why the audience including me reacted: they now knew that the entire conflict has shifted, that when the Goblin and Spidey come face to face again, it will not be a collision of randomly-moving particles any more, but directed, zero-sum combat between competing and equally desperate interests. It doesn’t even matter which one makes the first move, because now, one of them absolutely must. Furthermore, Aunt May, previously unknown to and irrelevant to the Goblin, is now inevitably his target.
So let’s replace that “heroes need villains” malarkey with the real operating concept, which is that “a worthy villain needs a pie.” It’s not abstract (“I must have pow-ah!”) or an origin-thing (“argh! I am a lizard!”): it’s an event right there in the story, relative to prior events and circumstances (in this case, family/friends) and unequivocally consequential to every event to follow.
Concept (“green goblin”) is not enough. It’s better than a mere list of powers, it’s necessary, but not sufficient. You gotta have the pie.
Next: Man of steel
Posted on April 9, 2015, in Filmtalk, Storytalk and tagged Aunt May, butthole pucker, creepy eyelashes, Green Goblin, John Romita Sr., Kicker, Norman Osborn, Pie, Sam Raimi, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2003 film, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.
This may be my favorite post so far. I love how personal Spidey’s stories are. They’re intimate—human— in a way that, say, Batman stories never seem to be (another hero who’s spurred to crimefighting by the loss of parents).
I also love Raimi’s Sipder-Man films (well, except for 3); they capture this humanity perfectly.
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I agree with you that Amazing Spider-Man #39-40 is great stuff. It’s a pivotal thematic shift in the larger story arc, too: Spider-Man, who is fatherless three different ways (real father is dead; Uncle Ben surrogate father is dead; teenage “sidekick” character without any fatherly mentor), starts getting involved in stories that focus a lot on bad fathers. Here, he cures Harry Osborne’s bad father by punching said father in the face. A few issues down the line, we get to see the sort of father J. Jonah Jameson is (a proud but very selfish father); in a while after that we get the battle between Kingpin and Richard Fisk; Robbie Robertson worried about his son; Captain Stacy and his relationship with Gwen. But the first of these “How To Be a Dad” stories is this one.
My personal favorite of the early Spidey stories is the Goblin’s debut in Amazing Spider-Man #14, which is pretty much a perfect issue: eerie new villain with bickering henchmen, a ludicrously kitschy plot, a big cameo, and all balanced with some time for the supporting cast. It’s a lovely single piece of work.
The remark about the Goblin’s eyelashes is spot-on. There’s a queerness to the Green Goblin in Ditko’s work, particularly that first issue when he’s roaring around on a giant phallic broomstick. He’s got these delicate girly eyelashes, this ridiculous elfin mask, and a really affected theatricality that most of Spidey’s villains (e.g., the Vulture, Kraven, Doc Ock) avoid, all while trying to take command of a “tough man’s” racket like the mob.
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In my recent re-reading, I found that Jameson’s real humanizing moment for me came when he showed how much he loved his son, and most importantly, showed it to his son. It highlights that Osborn’s failing isn’t that he doesn’t love Harry, but that he cannot be loving toward him.
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Superb combination of worthy literary criticism (in the sense of “thorough examination in context”) as well as a sharply drawn illustration of how this can be pivotal in the design of games and game sessions. Thanks!
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Also, I’m not sure if this counts as a “pie moment,” but for an instance of Doctor Doom deciding, “I have had enough of the Fantastic Four and am going to ruin their freaking lives,” I suggest checking out Mark Waid’s Doctor Doom arc in Fantastic Four circa 2002-2003. Good stuff, and Doom–while focused on mere vengeance–has seldom been creepier.
This is a great insight. You shared it with me at GenCon 2003 and it was one of the seeds that sprouted into With Great Power.
As an aside, I was thinking that I just hit upon a similar insight in the redesign of With Great Power. Out of sheer procrastination during the first playtest, I had written notes for creating a hero, but none for writing a villain. So I simply created a villain the same way, with an attitude of answering the creation questions in as villainous manner as possible. My villains have all gotten way more interesting. It seems they are created with the potential for their own “pie moment”, which often happens during play.
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