If you had told me last year that Flash Thompson would be on my list of favorite comic characters by the end of 2012 I would have told you, “Flash Thompson? Who is…Oh yeah! That Spider-man bully….what?” Out of any of Spider-man’s supporting cast he was the one character that only seemed significant when interacting with a teenage Peter Parker. A bully who had a strong sense of hero worship for the titular hero while simultaneously picking on the hero’s alter ego? It didn’t seem like the character would grow beyond that, forever cursed to one-dimensional character limbo.
Then the weirdest thing happened to Flash. He grew up.
In comics, we often look at Spider-man to be the character that has grown up from his roots. Peter grew up, got multiple jobs, got married, and had become an Avenger. The web-head that was Flash’s source of hero worship had become an adult, far removed from his tortured teenage roots. Flash’s role in the series should have ended there, but instead he persisted and thrived, developing a life for himself.
Over the years, we saw Flash take on several roles that were all natural evolutions of his original high school bully persona. He was a gym teacher, a soldier, and one of Peter’s closest friends. He was an adult that felt shame for what he was as a teenager and was looking to take the lessons he had learned from his previous hero worship as a means to reconstruct himself as an individual. It made him a great supporting cast member that showed a mature development that the reader could get behind while not taking attention away from Spider-man. Even when he lost his legs in the battlefield you felt it was a natural progression for the character who wanted to do good through the emulation of Spider-man.
Even with that development, however, it didn’t seem like Flash’s transformation into Venom would be a success. A black ops, gun toting, military Venom that has never had a history of superheroics? There was no way Flash should have worked out as Venom, much less deserve his own book as Venom. And, yet again, I was surprised.
Why is this the case? Why has the current Venom series been such a success?
The reason for the success is because Flash has done something for us that we have never fully gotten from Peter. We have gotten a true growth of character. Over the course of the series, we have seen the transformation of a man into a hero while simultaneously destroying everything in his civilian life as a sacrifice to uphold the ideals of heroism he worshiped in youth. Where Peter often laments the fact that he is Spider-man and the responsibility that it holds, the responsibility of forward growth for the character is inevitably reverted back to status quo, even if said reversion requires contrivances that demonstrate gross irresponsibility (ie. One More Day) Flash is a different entity. Flash is a character who is not bound by status quo so he is subject to numerous changes while his character laments the fact that he is Flash Thompson, loving his super-hero alter ego more and more despite the damage it does to his real life.
Flash’s story is a tragic tale many people can relate to. He was a star in high school. He had a future ahead of him and was a positive character. When Flash went to Iraq and lost his legs he lost a part of himself and behaved admirably despite the trauma of losing his ability to walk. In fact, I doubt Flash even thought about his legs much when offered to become Agent Venom by the military. Flash’s character suggested he was more concerned with being able to contribute to the world than walking. He took responsibility for the sake of the world and his own inner sense of heroism. However, often times when one takes on responsibilities the results can be destructive to those who shoulder them.
From a personal experience, I have known of many responsibilities that I took on not because it was my place to do so, but because I wanted to. I wanted to contribute and help. And at times it has changed me and felt like it was destroying my well-being. Flash is an extreme of that concept and what many people go through in the pursuit of what is good. He took on a task far greater than the power he has within to bare it. And with the darker reality of his being he faces a darker breed of villains, each one paralleling Spider-man’s most famous rogues and demonstrating a sickening wickedness that exacerbates his own emotional strife.
Flash goes to alcohol for comfort. Flash gains an addiction to the venom symbiote. Flash pushes away his loved ones and isolates himself from his loved ones until he feels he needs to emotionally punish himself for his failures. This tragedy all stems from Flash’s own self-perception that he is a hero and Avenger. He is everything he ever wanted to be; yet he is unable to fully cope with the reality of his situation.
Since becoming Venom Flash has turned his character from a forgotten side character in the Spider-man mythos into something more. He has shouldered the weight of Atlas upon his shoulders, but refuses to give that responsibility to others for the sake of wanting to help as many as he can. He destroys himself so he can be all that he can be and more. Where Spider-man quotes the words of Uncle Ben of “great power comes with great responsibility” Flash is something different. For our current Venom it is “great responsibility requires great sacrifice.” When I think of the struggle of a man trying to do right at the risk of his own life I salivate at the stories that can come up.
Is it any wonder why Flash Thompson was one of my picks for best character for 2012?
Nice article. I’ve been curious to know what they’ve been doing with the most recent Venom, and I heard Flash had taken over the symbiote as a government agent. I also loved the ASM issue discussing Flash’s medal of honor and war injuries. It was good to see them telling this sort of story.
Good analysis. I haven’t read SM in many years, though I had heard about Flash’s new persona as Venom. You’ve touched on something that is a real problem in comics, though, and that’s the tendency to leave things unchanged for the main character. The real drama comes through watching the side characters. With a new character, like Flash’s Venom, you can go in new directions that Spidey never could, even when he wore the symbiote. DC had to reboot their entire universe so that they could shake up the main characters and take them in new directions. Marvel creates alternate universes for the same reason. If comics are going to survive, they have to find ways to let characters grow and change. The most famous example of this was letting Dick Grayson become Nightwing, finally putting the pixie boots behind him. With adult characters, it’s harder to age them without people thinking, “Wow, Batman’s getting a bit old to keep doing this, isn’t he?”
Thanks for the article, it made me think.