‘Spider-Man’ shocker: Is Flash Thompson about to come home from Iraq in a body bag?
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Is Flash Thompson -- the prototype jock who has been part of the Spider-Man universe since the beginning -- about to become a casualty of war?
It sure sounds like it. I just got off the phone with Marc Guggenheim, one of the writers of Marvel’s ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ series (and also the co-creator of the ABC series ‘Eli Stone'), who said that issue No. 574 is going to jolt fans with its harrowing look at the life of an American soldier in the urban combat zones of Iraq. And not just any soldier -- the man under fire is Thompson, who first appeared in ‘Amazing Fantasy’ issue No. 15, which introduced the world to the arachnid superhero way back in 1962.
‘The story we have and the ending of that story are something that we hope will show what it is really like for these real-life heroes risking their lives in Iraq,’ Guggenheim said. ‘Does he make it out? Well, it is combat and it is dangerous. Bad things happen. When I first told the editors my idea for the ending, I thought there was no chance. But everyone embraced it. I don’t want to give the ending away but it does change things in a very major way.’
Thompson was a high-school bully in the early Spidey stories who picked on Peter Parker even while starting a fan club for Spider-Man, whom the jock admires. Through the years, the Thompson character veered in personality and circumstance -- sometimes he was oafish or vindictive and unsympathetic, at other points he was a clean-cut All-American college type who (as his nickname suggested) was impulsive and rash but not a bad fellow.
As the Vietnam War raged and ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ picked up older readers, Marvel decided to have Thompson volunteer for the Army and was shipped off to Southeast Asia. After his return, he was more mature and more sympathetic. In the 1970s, with Parker portrayed as a college student instead of a high-school student, Thompson was part of the circle of aging young adults grappling with relationships and real-world compromises that made high-school rivalries seem like distant and petty squabbles.
Guggenheim and his writing partners and editors came up with the idea of reviving the Flash-in-the-military subplot about two years ago and began dropping in references to signal that to readers. Finally, after many months, the team felt they needed to deliver in a major way on this hinted-at story.
‘The question came up, ‘Are we ever going to see what Flash is up to?’ We decided yes but then the challenge was to decide what that story would be. Does Spider-Man go to Iraq for some reason? We decided quickly that wasn’t what we wanted. Sometimes you get these fully formed ideas that come to you and the one I had then was that we would follow Flash in this combat area with the dangers of door-to-door fighting and would see how Spider-Man inspires him. It would go back to the idea of Flash being a real fan of Spider-Man and so we see that admiration inspire Flash to bravery.’
Artist Barry Kitson has done a pretty amazing job with this issue, from what I’ve seen, and he spent a great deal of time studying the uniforms, weaponry and gear being used in Iraq to keep the issue credible with the many soldiers and Marines who read comics. Jeff Guerin, a veteran who was injured in Iraq by an IED (improvised explosive device) also read the story and checked out the art in advance to give guidance about the nuances of the war zone. Guerin is dealing with some major challenges in his recovery and I asked if that sort of post-injury insight is also informing the story of Thompson. ‘I don’t want to give away the ending, again, but everything that Guerin told us is helpful in this story in one way or another.’
Guggenheim said he was resolute that Thompson serve in Iraq, not Afghanistan. The reason was that the writer believes that film and television have again and again used the central Asia country as a setting to avoid any political overtones. ‘I definitely didn’t want to politicize this story. That’s the last thing we wanted to do. But at the same time the soldiers in Iraq have been underexposed in film and television because everyone is trying to be safe in what they say and do. With this it’s a story about the experience of these real-life heroes, not the politics that put them there.’
I know how the story that Guggenheim wrote actually ends but I want to respect his desire to keep the drama intact, so I’ll keep the finale quiet. There are advance copies of the issue floating around and a few of them, it turns out, have even made their way into the hands of soldiers and Marines overseas. ‘It’s true, that has happened and I’m already getting some fan letters from them and comments about this story and what we’ve tried to do. It means an awful lot to me.’
-- Geoff Boucher
All images from ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ issue No. 474 and its original artwork are courtesy of Marvel Comics.