Ruby Nation

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Norman Osborn, Pride of the Pharmaceutical Industry

“ I was suffering from a severe chemical imbalance. One I was born with. Like millions of Americans. And in my terrible state I was taken advantage you can see now, I am a well man. I have signed documents by Nobel Prize-winning doctors to back that up. I am well. And really, do you think for a second that the president of the United States and the Joint Chiefs of Staff would allow a murderous costumed maniac to lead an important initiative in this, the most important time in our history? “
-- Norman Osborn in a live TV interview, Dark Avengers #5

“ Revenge doesn’t need strategic or political or military virtue...revenge is its OWN virtue! “-- Norman Osborn in private, Dark Reign-The List: X-Men #1

There’s a unusual and disturbing trend in superhero comics to reference heavy-duty psychiatric medication as a fix for troubled characters. For no super-character is this more obvious than with Norman Osborn, the former Spider-Man villain Green Goblin who has used the power of a good PR department to become a political powerhouse and patriotic hero. Norman’s past as a serial killer in a Halloween mask, if you believe the way he tells it, is the result of a chemical imbalance. Through his faith in Jesus and his heavy regimen of antipsychotics, he has become a dutiful public servant. Of course, this is all fabricated, and the medications have done nothing to keep the American people safe from him.

In the hands of writers like Warren Ellis and Brian Michael Bendis, who have moved the character from being a legitimate businessman who moonlights as a Spider-Man villain to a deeply unhinged politician with dark designs on all the heroes, Norman has reached a new high ( or low ) for cruelty. He’s not just a bad man, but an avatar of everything vile about politicians. To use Harry Potter analogies, he started out as a Voldemort, a cliche’ Dark Lord who was easy for anyone to label as a villain. Now he’s become a Y-chromosome Dolores Umbridge, who uses the systems of military, capitalism, and patriotism as implements of oppression. He even shifted his super-suit from the Halloween get-up of the Green Goblin to a stolen Iron Man suit in red-white-and-blue colors, which he calls the “ Iron Patriot “. And the psych meds he downs with Gregory House-levels of vigor are enabling his ability to maintain power.

Whatever cocktail of pharmaceuticals Norman’s been flooding his veins with has had effect-- it keeps him from being an overt super-villain who personally murders Spider-Man’s girlfriends for kicks. But they do nothing for Norman’s morals; he’s still a domineering and abusive patriarch to his son Harry ( Spider-Man’s best friend, who even became a Green Goblin himself due to Norman’s secret brainwashing ), a ruthless military general who puts the country’s safety in the hands of fellow unrepentant super-murderers like Bullseye and Venom, and a corrupt corporate executive who made his fortune designing biological weapons. Thanks to the pills, Norman can do all his evil deeds without getting himself caught through a psychotic episode; every time he starts slipping, he can drown out his Goblin impulses with pills.

To discuss the practical workings of the drugs in Norman’s system would be futile-- we know that he’s altered his bio-chemistry with his company’s super soldier formulas, so he may be immune to the many side-effects of antipsychotics. To discuss the cultural meaning of Norman’s pill-popping is a bit trickier. Norman is not a commentary on the kind of person who takes medication-- the stigma attached to the drugs is something Norman avoids, because he’s upfront with the American people about his “ chemical imbalance “ and his need to correct it. He instead seems to be a commentary on the limits of such pharmaceutical influence-- his whacked-out Goblin impulses may be restrained, but his contempt for everything but the Church of Norman remains. Medication can help people change their habits, but not their nature; reforming people who make the conscious choice to hurt is harder.

My personal experience with antidepressants has given me understanding of both aspects to medication-- they can help some people reach a level of mental clarity that allows them to function, and they can plague other people with a laundry list of debilitating side-effects. The bottom line is that psych meds are a medical tool, with pros and cons like any other, that should be used responsibly and appropriately. That Norman can use them as a get out of jail free card seems to be the writers’ commentary on the overinflated cultural capital pharmaceuticals have; the public of the Marvel America trust that pills and Jesus are enough to redeem their political hero. In fact, it seems that Norman’s profoundly disingenuous faith is a mirror for his psychiatric “ condition “-- he’s using a semiotic shortcut towards reform, and nobody except the superheroes seems to question it.

The current line-wide story with Norman in charge has had its ending telegraphed from the start-- even with the pills, Norman is not a stable man. Marvel’s writers portray him as a mix of George W. Bush’s post-9/11 public persona with Richard Nixon’s paranoia and delusions of grandeur; the meds are what help him pretend to be more the Good Ol’ Boy W.-type than the enemy-list-making Tricky Dick. But he’s just delaying the inevitable breakdown. My hope is that when Norman falls, it is in part a result of his gratuitous self-medication. At some point the abilities of the pharmaceutical corporations will stop working, and we’ll see that no amount of chemical enhancements can fix a man’s morals-- or lack thereof.


  1. It's also interesting that Norman is essentially the result of a drug that, from its original description, was a pharmaceutical enhancement. Stromm formulated the serum to make someone smarter and stronger, that is, to improve body and mind.

    The classical definition of health, of course, is "sound mind in sound body." That's what the serum's promise was said to be, and why Norman wanted it so badly as to catch Stromm out. And of course he did that by using the lever of corporate rules in an unethical fashion, busting Stromm for using corporate money he intended to repay to fund an off-the-books project. Which results Norman then kept to himself, repeating the embezzlement in spirit.

    So it's no wonder Norman's using this shortcut; it's the same shortcut he always used, but now he's deluding the public and not (just?) himself.

    There is, of course, the intertwined etymology of pharmacy and pharmakon we inherit from Plato. The pharmakon is the name for both remedy and poison, and Socrates's metaphor in the Phaedrus for the use of rhetoric and philosophy. Norman's rhetorics, as you point out, play with this. So too do the clarifying effects of his current medication, and more obviously, the Goblin serum itself. The pharmakon's indeterminacy is also mappable onto the indeterminate sourc eof Norman's radical evil -- is he a wicked man excusing himself by taking a false remedy, or a madman whose wickedness is the result of a poison he imbibed?

    On a less critical note, I'm still rather bored by Norman. Fun as it is to see the tactics he uses, it's not as if his wider goals are particularly interesting. In fact, I'm not sure we've ever gotten any details on just why he likes having power, other than the somewhat tautological idea that he likes abusing power and therefore wants it. But I suppose that's one more dark reflection of the pharmacy: Norman can't even understand power itself except as One More Drug.

  2. Thank you for bringing your brilliant analysis to my blog, Omar. It's always welcomed.

    I agree that Norman is not an interesting character in and of himself, since he has absolutely no redeeming traits and is just an evil fucker. For me his interest is in the fact that he's used modern marketing to spread his depravity across every system in civilization. My initial focus was on his medical history, how he uses drugs ideally designed to help ill people reach clarity to excuse his murders ( so he would be a wicked man excusing himself with his PR placebos, since as you noted, he got the Goblin serum through unethical means in the first place ). But he's also perverted notions of God ( his faux-Christianity ), family ( his abuse of his son ), country ( using support-the-troops rhetoric to justify torture and murder ), and the very notion of the super hero.

    After watching a stray episode of the excellent anime Fullmetal Alchemist, it occurred to me that Norman's role in the modern MU is as a symbolic homonculus made of the heroes' failings. The Iron Patriot suit could be seen as a mix of Iron Man's compulsive impositions with Captain America's lack of foresight. Homunculi being another alchemic/medical analogy....

  3. I love that - Iron Man's compulsive impositions with Captain America's lack of foresight, ha ha! Very clever and very astute.