Let me introduce you to Harry Osborn of Spider-Man, a character who meant the world to me when I was a teen. You know, Norman Osborn’s son, Green Goblin II, inexplicable hair? That guy. Oh, you’ll have seen him in various Spider-Man movies and cartoons over the years, but they don’t give the full picture. 616-verse Harry is one of the hidden gems of the whole dang franchise: a mentally ill recovering drug addict and reformed supervillain who’s fought like hell to live a good life and be a better father than his one was. And he meant the world to me because, well, I was mentally ill, as well.
During the ’00s, the decade I discovered Spider-Man, I was basically hearing voices in my head constantly. It turned out to be OCD, that particularly horrible variant of it where you’re terrified you’ll hurt others via your own actions or inactions, where your inner voice is constantly telling you you will. Harry didn’t have OCD; he had schizophrenia, but as I leafed through the pages of the old comics he starred in, I felt a kinship. This guy also felt like his mind was falling apart!
Times changed, I started to get better, and well, Harry did, too. His (redemptive) death in Spectacular Spider-Man #200 was retconned during the extremely unpopular event Spider-fans know as Brand New Day, and from then on, I was as surprised as anyone that they didn’t have him revert to supervillainy. Harry kept being Peter Parker’s best friend, he told his abusive father where to stick it, he gained a second child (who is never drawn as Black now despite his being so in his first appearance, but god, that’s a whole other article), and he was seen going to AA meetings and putting his life back together.
For me, at least, he was a really good representation of a person with a mental illness—a reminder that just because you had terrifying thoughts in your head, it didn’t mean you were evil.
This lasted riiiight up until a couple of weeks ago.
Writer Nick Spencer’s (yep, the Hydra-Cap one) run on Spider-Man has seen Harry go full-on villain again. He’s not the Goblin this time, but a Hell-spawned literal demon named Kindred. How did this happen? We don’t know. Why did this happen? We don’t know that, either. Pacing is not one of Spencer’s strong suits, so chances are that we won’t get any answers for a while, really. We do know it’s something to do with that pesky Brand New Day, but that’s about it so far.
Kindred is basically everything Harry’s fought all his life not to be: vicious and violent, just like his father. Speaking of, while all this is happening, Norman is temporarily cured of his “sins” and put on the side of the good guys, thus creating a wince-worthy picture where the roles of abuser and abused are reversed. Kindred!Harry may not be the result of a mental breakdown (though, honestly, we don’t know yet), but Peter approaches the situation like he is, which is galling.
Spencer’s peppered in references to Harry’s previous mental health issues, as if to drive home a particular point: He’s crazy, so this was just inevitable, right? “You really had me this time, thinking you were some all-powerful monster, not the same sad, broken child I’ve had to fight for years,” Peter yells in the most recent issue, going for the punch rather than the question of why a friend he’s supposed to dearly love currently has centipedes growing out of him.
Harry’s response in between all the gory violence is, “You think this is just another breakdown. Poor Harry is hearing voices… I’m no longer chased by those demons, I am the demon.” So this would be a case, it seems, of literally demonizing the mentally ill.
Why does that matter? Well, that’s a question there very much is an answer to, namely that the portrayal of those with mental illness in pop culture media leaves something very much to be desired. Take Joker: well-intentioned though it may have been, it still pushed the tired trope that severe mental illness = violence. In fact, the opposite is true, those with a mental health condition are much more likely to be the victim of violence. That probably never occurred to Nick Spencer when writing scene after scene of Kindred!Harry killing-reviving-killing Spider-Man in various gruesome ways, but well, he is not a writer I look to when I want nuance and empathy on display.
There’s one particular moment in the post-Brand New Day comics which always stood out to me. It happens in Amazing Spider-Man Extra #1, which came out all the way back in 2008. Harry’s throwing a party and he’s trying to impress some rich businessmen. When his back is turned, they start making fun of his mental health issues. “Maybe I can get nut-job insurance. Then, it might even pay for him to turn into a blithering psychopath!” says one, while another chimes in “Like father, like son.”
Peter takes umbrage, as he should, and full-on physically fights them. I always loved that moment because it showed the writers were taking mental illness and the attached stigma seriously. But the Peter who tipped a punch bowl over the heads of some guys who were being cruel to Harry is not the Peter who’s present in this new story. This Peter seem to think Harry is in fact a nut-job, a sad broken child. And presumably we’re supposed to think that too.
“Don’t you ever get tired of this? Being the cliché? The first name people think of when things start going wrong?” Peter screams at Harry during their fight. Except, much like his mental illness, that cliché is not actually Harry’s fault.
(images: Marvel Comics)
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