Norman Osborn's recent return to the Spider-Man books has seen him team-up with a surprising ally in his attempt to finally achieve victory against Spider-Man - the murderous Carnage symbiote. Osborn's new persona as the Red Goblin is being hyped as part of the most brutal Spider/Goblin clash yet, bringing to an end Dan Slott's decade long run at the helm of Amazing Spider-Man. Yet the question has to be asked -- while Norman Osborn has gone to great lengths to restore his fighting edge, unable to move beyond his fixation with the web-slinger, do the Spider-Man books still need Norman?
Since his first appearance as the Green Goblin in 1964's Amazing Spider-Man #14, Norman Osborn has been a recurring thorn in Spider-Man's side. Vying with Doctor Octopus for the coveted mantle of Spidey's greatest foe, Norman's schemes and plots over the years have had huge ramifications on both Peter Parker's civilian and costumed identities. He was the first villain to discover Peter's identity as Spider-Man, was revealed as the mastermind behind the controversial Clone Saga and, in a character-changing moment for the webslinger, was directly responsible for the death of Gwen Stacy, the love of Peter's life.
The aftermath of this incident led to Norman's 'death,' where he was impaled on his own Goblin Glider. He was subsequently absent from the Spider-Man books for more than two decades, with his legacy enduring through the mental travails of his son, Harry, and the numerous Goblin imitators that were inspired by his legacy. Gone but not forgotten, even from beyond the grave he corrupted others with his malign influence.
In 1994 came The Clone Saga, the divisive storyline that turned the Spider books upside down. Peter Parker was eventually replaced as Spider-Man by Ben Reilly, the supposed clone who had been revealed as the real Peter Parker. When Marvel creators sought to bring this interminable storyline to an end, restoring Peter to his position as Spider-Man, various weird and wacky scenarios were considered. The eventual decision was one that involved a huge retcon. The true mastermind behind the Clone Saga was revealed to be Norman Osborn, who had been living in Europe after having escaped his brush with death.
If this seems like the kind of crazy retcon thought up by a group of creators desperate to end a controversial storyline then, well, that's because it essentially was. But despite the reveal being understandably controversial, there was also an undeniable logic to it. As Spider-Man's greatest foe, only Norman Osborn was thought to have the necessary gravitas to be the mastermind pulling the strings. The same trick was used again a few years later when Aunt May's 'death' in Amazing Spider-Man #400 was revealed to be another of Norman's schemes (It involved an actress genetically modified to look like May. Don't ask...)
In the following years, Norman was a constant presence in the Spider-Man books, reinserting himself into Peter's world in all manner of ways. He bought out the Daily Bugle, presenting himself as a respectable businessman who had gone into hiding due to Spider-Man's threats against his life. This period of Norman's comeback, when he was primarily seen in a business suit rather than goblin colors, was almost enough in itself to justify his comeback from the dead. He manipulated Peter's friends and supporting cast, weaved subtle machinations in the background, and by not resorting to his Green Goblin persona made it almost impossible for Spider-Man to retaliate.