Ever since the days of the Big Man in ASM #10, the mystery, particularly the hidden identity of a masked villain, has been a staple of the Spider-books. With the introduction of the original Green Goblin in ASM #14, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko took the mystery to a new level as they created a villain who evaded capture, kept reappearing to harass our hero and was not unmasked until two years after his debut.
In the thirty-plus years since, mysteries of all sorts have arisen and been (mostly) resolved. When they work, they make the reader hunger for the next issue and their eventual resolutions are surprising pleasures. When they don't, they are tiresome and seemingly endless.
Here are my five very informal rules for a successful Spider-Man mystery.
1) No mystery should last longer than the amount of time an average kid stays with the series.
How long does an average reader stick with comics? I have no statistics on the subject but my guess would be about two years. Plenty of time to introduce and resolve any decent mystery. Obviously, the creative team can do little if our reader is completing his two years when the mystery is introduced but if we assume the mystery first appears in the first issue our reader picks up, it should definitely be concluded by the time he puts down his last issue. One of the biggest offenders of this rule is the Hobgoblin mystery which began in Amazing Spider-Man #238 (March 1983) and didn't conclude until ASM #289 (June 1987), over fifty issues and four years later.
2) The same writer who started the mystery should finish the mystery.
Even though I'm sure that there have been many mysteries where the writer has worked out the solution as he went along, it still should be that original writer who does the figuring. The first Green Goblin mystery suffers a bit by the lack of Steve Ditko in the decision-making process. (Though, according to those around at the time, Ditko and Lee were at such loggerheads over the Goblin's identity, that it was never going to be solved as long as both were still involved in the series.) But, again, the biggest culprit here is the Hobgoblin, resolved a couple of years after creator Roger Stern left the book. Stern was so dissatisfied that, given the chance, he returned ten years later to retcon the Hobgoblin back to the identity he had in mind. Which brings us to our next rule:
3) When the time has passed, it's past.
While Stern's plans for the Hobgoblin's identity may have worked in its original continuity, by the time Hobgoblin Lives came out, it was too far gone to be truly compelling. Roger had to painstakingly reintroduce his suspects, characters who had been dropped so long ago that they were unfamiliar to the readers. And Roderick Kingsley, Stern's choice for the villain, was seemingly shot dead and forgotten long before.
The truth is, there is a statute of limitations of interest in a mystery. Usually there is an correlation between the decrease in interest and the amount of time it has been forgotten in the books. Even if it is badly resolved, even if it is unresolved, there comes a time when it just doesn't make any difference. Note to any creators contemplating revealing the identities of Facade, the new Jack O'Lantern, or the latest Green Goblin. It's too late! We don't care anymore.
4) If the answer is disappointing, give it to us quickly.
Don't make a big deal out of it, unless it is a big deal. So the new Rose is Jacob Conover? Yawn. That one should have been revealed in one issue. So, Peter's parents are robots? That's what everybody guessed in their first appearance. The biggest offender in this catagory is the Black Tarantula; built up so large, even a good solution would have been anti-climactic. And who was he? I can't even remember. Let's never see that ridiculous character again.
5) But don't short-circuit the effort.
If you've got a good mystery going, give the readers time to mull it over. Don't come out with it all in just an issue or two. Two recent examples of prematurely pulled plugs are Shadrach and the mystery Spidey who showed up in the new #1 issues. Even as I was still relishing the notion of Peter Parker playing real photographer and having to deduce Spider-Man's identity, it was revealed and completed. Of course, given the disappointing solutions and their tie-ins to the hateful Gathering of Five storyline, a longer mystery would have resulted in a violation of rule number four.
OK, I've given you a bunch of examples of how NOT to do a Spider-Man mystery (with, if you follow the rules, the biggest offender, surprisingly, being the original Hobgoblin... made even more disappointing because of Roger Stern's wonderful set-up). How about the best according to our system? The first Green Goblin comes close but falls short because of Steve Ditko's departure. What else, then? My choice, believe it or not, is the mystery of the Jackal. Covering a little less than two years (ASM #129-149) and controlled by a single writer (Gerry Conway), the Jackal showed up just often enough to keep the reader curious. His identity was a shock; Miles Warren was a long-time character, predating the appearance of the Jackal by many years. And Gerry's explanation that Warren went mad after the death of Gwen Stacy fit the character even as previously written by Stan Lee. Check out Warren's obvious affection for Gwen all the back in ASM #53 (October 1967). Yes, this story has since been tainted by the reappearance of the Jackal and by the tie-ins to Norman Osborn and Scrier but forget all that. It's Spider-Man mystery at its best. If the present creative team could get a mystery like that going and resolved again, it would make up for a whole lot of abuses.