Amazing Spider-Man #95-98: How Harry Osborn Changed Comics Forever

It is 1971 and a strict code mandates what can and cannot be depicted in comics. Think like… What Disney has going on at the moment except ten times worse. No swearing, no nudity, no defying authority, no zombies, no blood, no “sexual abnormalities”, no “sex perversion”, no sex at all in fact, no excessive violence, no people with “physical afflictions or deformities” (fuck you, man), no gambling, no disrespecting your parents, no immodest outfits, no divorce, and no werewolves. Oh, and no drugs.

I’m not kidding! Go see for yourself!

So yes. This was extremely fucked up. And then a new Amazing Spider-Man arc dropped and things started to change. What character was the catalyst? None other than the subject of this blog, Mr Harold Theopolis Osborn.

It all sprung from a letter sent to Stan Lee. He talks about it in this interview:

There used to be a scrapbook in the office, and if it’s still around, the letter would be in there. I haven’t seen it in a million years. I got this letter — I don’t remember the exact wording — and they were concerned about drug use among kids. Since Marvel had such a great influence with young people, they thought it would be very commendable if we were to put out some sort of anti-drug message in our books.

That’s coming, but let’s take a quick look at the run-up first. In ASM #95 Peter is missing Gwen, who has gone to London after the death of her father, so he decides to follow her there. Who better to drop him off at the airport than Harry?

HARRY: But how are you gonna find her, Pete? London's a pretty big town.

PETER: And I've a mighty big yearning, Harry! I'll find her somehow.

HARRY: Well, keep it all together, roommate! Don't do anything I wouldn't do. And I'll do anything.

PETER: Thanks for the lift, Harr. I'll be back pretty soon.

HARRY: Don't hurry! I'll have the refrig all to myself.

PETER: [thinking] Well, I did it! I'm finally on my way to Gwen. If only I wasn't so nervous about seeing her.

“And I’ll do anything,” adds Harry, apparently rather flirtatiously. Sorry, Parksborn fans, that would’ve been banned by the Code as well.

Peter has an adventure fighting terrorists in London, and then realises too late that if Gwen knows that both Spider-Man and Peter Parker are in ol’ Blighty she’ll put two and two together. Dismayed, he decides to go back to the USA.

But alas, things are not going well back home. Harry has, unbeknownst to Peter, developed a serious drug problem and ASM #96-98 tells that story. A story Not Approved By The Comics Code Authority!

Stan Lee himself explains in the book Comic Creators on Spider-Man why that ended up being the case:

How did you convince Martin Goodman [Marvel Comics founder] to allow you to drop the Comics Code when you wanted to do the drug abuse story in Amazing Spider-Man #96-97?

I was very proud of Martin. When I told him I wanted to put the books out without the Code seal, he said go ahead and do it. It was a gutsy call. In those days, you wouldn’t be distributed and wouldn’t go to heaven if you didn’t have the Comics Code on your books. Martin felt we were doing the right thing by publishing these stories and I must say the stories got us some great publicity. The New York Times gave us a great write-up, and I got letters from parents and teachers and religious leaders who all commended us. It worked out very well.

It did. So… let’s begin this all-important Harry Story!

While Peter is worrying about Robbie potentially having guessed his secret identity, Harry invites Peter to the theater with “the gang.”

Harry practically throws money and a job offer at Peter to get him to come! Is this him displaying a generous nature, or an attempt to buy a friendship (from someone who was already his friend)?

Although Peter knows full well Norman has the tendency to turn into a supervillain, he decides to take the job nonetheless. Norman seems… mostly fine.

Norman also declares he’ll pay for them all to go the theater that night and see Mary Jane perform!

But en route to the theater, Peter-as-Spidey encounters a young man, high on drugs, about to drop off a roof. He helps, of course, and manages to save the kid’s life.

It’s worth pointing out that Stan Lee did no research whatsoever when it came to the actual drugs the characters use in this story! He said in this interview,

I felt that the only way to do it was to make it a part of the story, and we made that three-parter of Spider-Man. I remember it contained one scene where a kid was going to jump off a roof and thought he could fly. My problem is that I know less about drugs than any living human being! I didn’t know what kind of drug it was that would make you think you could fly! I don’t think I named anything; I just said that he had “done” something.

I am not a drugs expert, but I’m actually kind of interested as to what drugs would result in those kind of manic symptoms. Stan Lee didn’t know but hey, maybe someone reading this does.

Spider-Man sticks around to make sure the young man is okay and the cops are so impressed they decide not to arrest him.

I always wondered what happened to the guy after that. Did he get the help he needed?

Peter makes it to the movie theater (on time) and is congratulated by Harry for accepting the job. But then MJ starts flirting with Peter, even though she’s very much Harry’s girlfriend at that point, and Harry is dismayed.

Here’s Randy Robertson in a snazzy purple suit. He saw the commotion around Spider-Man saving the roof-jumper.

And well… unfortunately this is probably the answer to the question, “Did the guy on the roof get the help he needed?” It’s almost certainly a “no”. Because this was the 70s and racism was everywhere.

Many Spider-Man panels from this era have aged terribly. This is not one of them.

Harry becomes unsettled at Norman getting angry.

Norman’s fist is raised here. Was he about to get physical with Randy? There’s a much later story about Harry’s childhood that establishes Norman’s willingness to attack people younger and smaller than him, so Harry would have been well aware of his dad’s explosive temper.

“Nice Things” from Amazing Spider-Man Extra #3, released in 2009. But for now… back to the 1970s.

MJ heads into the theatre with Peter, not Harry, and Peter knows exactly what she’s doing. He’s not happy about it.

“How about it, dad? Isn’t she all I said she was?” says Harry to a distracted Norman. Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like he’s dating MJ to primarily impress his father, as was the case in the Raimi movies?

No prizes for guessing what’s behind that door.

Peter, Randy and Harry meet MJ outside the theater, but MJ is only interested in Peter.

“Poor Harry! I’ve a hunch MJ is bad news for him.” Peter thinks.

And he’s right! I love MJ very much but she’s meaner than she needs to be here. As the years went by we learned what causes her to act like this, but we’re not at that point yet. Oh, and this isn’t the only time we’ve seen how toxic the MJ-Harry relationship can get.

Where did Norman go? Well, I’m sure you can guess. He went back to that one room in the theater, and turns out it was an old hideout…

…for the Green Goblin!

Right, now we’re into issue number #97 which is where things get even more serious.

Norman and Peter fight, but Peter holds back, because he doesn’t want to hurt his best friend’s dad. Neither does he really want to hurt Norman either, just make him well again.

Norman makes the all-too-common Villain Mistake of not checking for a body, and Spider-Man gets away. But boy is he going through it.

This hits even worse knowing that Gwen will shortly meet her death at the hands of Norman.

Peter returns home and Harry immediately confronts him about “playing up to Mary Jane that way,” even though Peter wasn’t encouraging her at all. Harry’s also sweating a lot, as someone in medical distress might do.

“Just need something for my headache, and to make me sleep,” Harry says, reaching for the pills.

What are the pills, exactly? It’s established in Amazing Spider-Man #121 that Harry was taking LSD around this period, which makes sense –

LSD may trigger panic attacks or feelings of extreme anxiety, known colloquially as a “bad trip”. Although population studies have not found an increased incidence of mental illness in psychedelic drug users overall, with psychedelic users actually having lower rates of depression and substance abuse than the control group,[64][65] there is evidence that people with severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia have a higher likelihood of experiencing adverse effects from taking LSD.


-but as established, Stan Lee didn’t really care about what drugs they were!

Peter, clearly concerned, asks Harry how many pills he took. Harry answers, “What’s the difference? Who counts?” which is definitely a cause for concern. A line like that indicates that Harry isn’t just looking to get high, but rather wants to escape reality so desperately he doesn’t even care if it’s permanent.

Definitely a sign that he’s not mentally well.

Peter muses on how Harry is “weak.” But we know now that drug addiction doesn’t have anything to do with “weakness.”

Next morning MJ comes back on the scene to flirt with Peter in front of Harry some more.

She’s wearing green, and in the world of Spider-Man someone wearing green usually means Bad Things Ahead.

Peter confronts MJ about her treatment of Harry and she says “It’s a long story. Wanna hear it?” That’s a line that could be interpreted many ways. And my interpretation? She knows full well that Harry is using hard drugs but has no idea how to handle it. She’s young, she’s immature, she’s been through a lot, and she’s totally out of her depth.

And as Harry stalks away, a magnificently mustachioed drug dealer comes after him.

Harry sweats, again, as the drug dealer steers him away from anyone who might have intervened.

What’s this “new stuff” the drug dealer has? We never find out!

We know what decision Harry is gonna make here. “It’ll be worth anything, to get her out of my mind!” he declares, while thinking of… Peter being menaced by two giant MJ heads. Make of that what you will.

Harry takes the drugs from the dealer, though he curiously does not seem to pay for them, and swears he won’t get hooked. Unfortunately he quite clearly already is.

Cut back to Peter-

Peter did attempt to look for Harry after he stormed off, but couldn’t find him. He has bigger things to worry about though, Norman is still on the loose!

As Peter begins searching the city for him, Harry catches up with Mary Jane.

You decided to forgive me?” MJ says in anger. Where’s that anger coming from? Could it be because having someone you care about fall into substance abuse would be very triggering for a parental abuse survivor like MJ?

MJ breaks up with Harry right there and then. But I suspect there’s a lot more to it than just, “I’m nobody’s girl but my own.”

Harry is too far gone to see it that way and immediately blames Peter.

“When I heard the door slam open I thought it might be the Goblin,” thinks Peter. Not yet, buddy.

Peter understandably isn’t having any of this and Harry responds by trying to throw Peter out. (It is his apartment after all.)

Peter realizes that Harry is becoming irrational and “not himself.” Harry realizes it too. He seems to be shaking before he sinks down with his head in his hands.

Peter is sympathetic to Harry, because he’s a good person, and offers to call the Osborn family doctor. Harry says no and tries to claim he’s okay. But as soon as Peter’s gone, Harry goes straight for the pill bottle.

Where did Peter go? To look for Norman, of course. But he can’t find him.

Peter decides to head home (oh look! More green clothes!), assuming Harry will be asleep. But he isn’t. The pills he took are doing a number on him and he’s going “out of his mind.” You might have seen this panel before, it’s reasonably famous in comic book circles-

Harry is seriously ill, maybe even close to death, but luckily Peter returns just in time.

This scene of Peter finding Harry was revisited recently in Amazing Spider-Man (2018) #72.

Peter is about to call the doctor when Norman reappears at the worst possible moment!

…and that leads us right on to ASM #98!

Interestingly, the splash page of this one doesn’t mention drugs at all, it merely says that Harry is “ill.”

But drugs will certainly be mentioned later on in this issue.

First, though, Peter has to find a way to get Norman out of there long enough to summon help for Harry. (Hey! The colour of his jacket changed inbetween issues!)

There’s only one thing Peter can feasibly do – show Norman his son and hope it triggers something in him.

And it works! Norman doesn’t quite recognize Harry, but he understands he knows him somehow, and is confused and horrified enough to flee the scene.

Peter calls an ambulance and goes with Harry to the hospital. This is not the last time he accompanies Harry in an ambulance, but the second time around Harry will not make it to safety.

Sorry for the sadness.

Peter leaves the hospital, musing once again on Harry’s “weakness” and blaming Mary Jane for Harry’s turning to drugs. (Ouch.)

We spend a page or two catching up with Gwen in London, and then back to Peter.

“MJ would be just what Harry needs to cheer him up at the hospital,” Peter thinks, which doesn’t really match up with what he was thinking earlier.

Harry’s drug dealer approaches and Peter instantly goes into fight mode. There’s three of the dealers and one of him-

-so Peter wins easily of course.

And now, an important interlude with Robbie and Jameson.

Robbie says, “I’m showing that drugs aren’t just a ghetto hangup! They hit the rich same as the poor. It’s everyone’s problem! We’ve all got to face it.” And I think that might sum up the essence of what Stan Lee was trying to do with this story?

Peter resumes his hunt for Norman.

Peter knows that Harry’s having a bad time, but he himself is having a pretty terrible one too, especially since Gwen has upped and left.

Heeeeeere’s Norman.

Peter has to fight back, but he still doesn’t actually want to harm Norman.

That’s beginning to look like an impossible task before Peter comes up with an idea. The same idea he came up with at the beginning of this issue in fact!

Peter jumps onto Norman’s head, sticks himself around his neck, and begins steering him towards the hospital Harry is in.

Poor Harry still doesn’t look well. There’s the beads of sweat again.

Peter’s plan has worked! Norman recognizes Harry and starts crying.

And then he outright faints. According to Peter, who knows this sort of thing, the shock has made Norman go “back to normal” again! And lose his memories of Spider-Man! I don’t think that’s how it works but I’m willing to buy into it for the sake of a good story.

Everything is wrapped up in a neat little bow for now. Harry is stable, Norman’s forgotten who Spider-Man is again, and Gwen – oh look here’s Gwen! She’s come back from London to be with Peter again!

“Who says we never give Spidey a happy ending?” shouts the last page of this comic. But in a year or so all this will be revisited- Harry’s drug problem, Norman knowing Peter’s secret, the Peter-Gwen relationship- and this time it will end with one of the most famous comic book deaths of all time. It’s a happy ending only for now. But hey, maybe that’s enough.

Back to reality. After this story hit and was, as Stan Lee said, “commended,” the Comics Code Authority was basically forced to adapt. Wikipedia says:

Confident that the original government request would give him credibility, and with the approval of his publisher Martin Goodman, Lee ran the story in The Amazing Spider-Man #96–98 (May–July 1971), without CCA approval.[21] The storyline was well received, and the CCA’s argument for denying approval was deemed counterproductive. […]

Lee and Marvel drew criticism from DC head Carmine Infantino “for defying the code”, stating that DC will not “do any drug stories unless the code is changed”.[13] As a result of publicity surrounding the Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s sanctioning of the storyline, however, the CCA revised the Code to permit the depiction of “narcotics or drug addiction” if presented “as a vicious habit”.

And Harry’s drug addiction is definitely a vicious habit. In fact, it’ll plague his life for years to come. But that’s a story for another day.

Hey, you want some further reading after all that? The blog Attack of the 50-Year-Old Comics has a really great writeup on this story arc and what people made of it at the time! There are even academic papers published about it!

And that’s how Harry Osborn, up until that point a reasonably ignore-able Spider-Man side character, changed the comics industry forever.

Want to read these stories? You can find them in Amazing Spider-Man Masterworks #10 or the Death of Gwen Stacy collection.

3 thoughts on “Amazing Spider-Man #95-98: How Harry Osborn Changed Comics Forever

  1. Twice! If you consider Harry’s second overdose setting off event leading up to Gwen’s murder.

    Small note but apparently Harry and MJ don’t break up in this story, or at least, they might get back together immediately after Harry returns. MJ refers to herself as “your girl” a few issues later and kisses him on the cheek on his return, although Harry is still uncertain on her wondering eyes.

    After ASM #121 Harry seems to have fully given up on her in his grief and growing paranoia and verbally lashes out at her, whilst a few days later MJ gives the final angry word as refuse to come out and talk to her.

    There’s something fitting that despite the doubts and digs, the two never have it out with each other untill after Gwen’s death. Unfortunately it’s all a little too late.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh dang yeah! You’re right! Oh man those two really did have a FASCINATING relationship.

      Kind of appropriate and very sad that Harry’s “It’s too late for love” line in Spectacular #200 is delivered to MJ, isn’t it? :(


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