In early 1972, despite the fact that I’d been reading Amazing Spider-Man for four years (albeit with a single ten-month hiatus between March, 1970, and February, 1971), one of his longest-established supporting characters — Eugene “Flash” Thompson — was, if not exactly an unknown quantity to me, still less than a truly familiar face. My first issue of Spidey’s title, #59, had been released one full year following #47, the issue in which storytellers Stan Lee and John Romita had shipped Flash off to military service in the Vietnam War. Sure, I had read enough reprints of the early, high-school-set material by Lee and Steve Ditko to have a good grasp of the character’s original bullying-Peter-Parker-while-idolizing-Spider-Man shtick. But my “real time” encounters with Flash had been limited to a few scenes that appeared in a run of late-’69 to early-’70 issues, where the young soldier had made a return visit stateside just long enough to incur Peter’s jealousy over Gwen Stacy, due to a misunderstanding that thankfully got cleared up (more or less) before Flash headed back to Southeast Asia.
So I’m not sure what I expected when Lee and his artistic collaborators (Gil Kane and Frank Giacoia, in this case) brought Flash back into the fold of Amazing Spider-Man‘s regular supporting cast — apparently for good, this time — in issue #105. But I’m pretty sure I was surprised to see him, just a few months later, become the focus of a two-part tale which would turn out to be not only Stan Lee’s last original complete storyline for the title he and Steve Ditko had launched in 1962, but also the single all-time favorite Spidey continuity of John Romita, the artist who co-plotted as well as drew both issues. All this, with the still-current Vietnam War providing the story’s dramatic (if also somewhat problematic) backdrop… and, oh, right, Doctor Strange shows up, too.
Actually, come to think of it, I doubt that anyone was expecting all that in early 1972, even if they’d read every single appearance of Flash Thompson all the way back to Amazing Fantasy #15. Still, you get the idea.
We’ll be digging into those two issues — AS-M #108 and #109, to be precise — momentarily. But first, we’ll need to lead into it with a quick recap of relevant events in #106 and #107; and before we even do that, it’s probably a good idea to review just where we are with Amazing Spider-Man at this particular point in time, half a century ago.
As regular readers of this blog will likely recall, in the summer of 1971 Stan Lee had taken a four month sabbatical from the Marvel titles he was then writing, AS-M included — though only after sticking Spidey with four extra arms at the conclusion of the milestone 100th issue. Lee had left it up to his second-in-command and heir apparent, Roy Thomas, as well as to continuing artist Gil Kane, to get the web-slinger out of that one — which they had, though only after introducing Marvel Comics’ first villain to carry the label of that other “V”-word (i.e., vampire). Thomas and Kane had followed that two-parter with another one that was even more off the wall, as Spider-Man headed south to the Savage Land for a team-up with Ka-Zar that riffed on King Kong as well as other giant monster tales.
But with issue #105, Lee was back; and, joined by his artistic collaborators (Gil Kane on #105, followed by a returning John Romita on #106 and #107, with Frank Giacoia on inks for the lot), he launched into a three-parter pitting Spidey against longtime foe Professor Spencer Smythe, inventor of the line of “Spider-Slayer” robots who’d bedeviled our hero off and on ever since issue #25 (Jun., 1965). Following Thomas and Kane’s envelope-pushing tales, this was about as definitive a swing back to “traditional” Spider-Man adventure as one could imagine.*
That said, Lee and Romita did have something in the works which, though not nearly as outré as the wall-crawler’s clashes with Morbius and Gog, was nevertheless something the readers of Amazing Spider-Man hadn’t seen before. And they started laying the groundwork in #106 and #107, in scenes that fell in-between Spidey’s battles against Smythe’s latest Spider-Slayer model.
Issue #106 sees Peter Parker happily heading out on a date with his very serious girlfriend Gwen Stacy, only to be taken aback when Gwen announces she wants to stop by Flash Thompson’s apartment to check on him: “He hasn’t looked well since he returned from Viet Nam.” “Flash?” gulps Pete. “But — but this is supposed to be our date, honey!”
“Oh, we’ve a whole lifetime ahead of us, Pete!” Those poor kids… if they only knew…
“I used to think I just loved you for your looks“. Gee, that’s kinda shallow, Pete. (Although maybe I should be addressing Stan…)
Anyway, that’s as far as we get with the Flash subplot in issue #106. Moving on into #107, we find that Peter is a little too busy as Spider-Man, dealing with Smythe and his Spider-Slayer, to give any thought to his old frenemy’s problems (at least up until the last page). Not so Ms. Gwen Stacy, however, who’s approached by Flash as she’s strolling alone across the Empire State University campus..
“You’re more to me — than just a friend.” Hmm, I guess Peter’s not completely imagining things, at least as far as Flash’s interest in Gwen is concerned — though, obviously, the lady doesn’t reciprocate Mr. Thompson’s feelings.
Meanwhile, Spider-Man finally defeats Prof. Smythe and the Spider-Slayer, just in time for that last page I mentioned…
And just like that, our subplot advances to main plot status, as we head straight into Amazing Spider-Man #108. With this issue, John Romita returned to both pencilling and inking Amazing Spider-Man for the first time since #93 (Feb., 1971) — which had, in its turn, represented the first time he’d done both jobs since #48 (May, 1967). Since your humble blogger hadn’t started reading AS-M until #59 — and since #93 had come out during my ten-month sojourn away from the title — that meant that this was actually the first Spider-Man story fully illustrated by Romita that your humble blogger had ever seen — well, outside of a back issue or two, anyway.
Even longtime fans more familiar than I was with Romita’s full art from early in his initial AS-M run might have discerned something different about his work in issues #108 and #109, however. That’s because, according to the artist himself, he was specifically inspired by the settings and plot elements of this storyline to evoke the style of one of his most profound influences, the newspaper strip cartoonist Milton Caniff — creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon — in a way he never had before.
As Romita wrote in his 2009 afterword to Marvel Masterworks – The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 11: “I was channeling Caniff — big, bold brush strokes, great foreign intrigue, shadowy scenes. It all fell into place.” And indeed, these are two good-looking comic books; it’s not at all hard to understand why they’re the artist’s two favorites out of all the Spider-Man comics he ever drew. Still, while one hates to begrudge Romita the obvious joy he felt in paying tribute to one of his artistic heroes, it’s clear in retrospect that Terry and the Pirates — in Romita’s own words, “an adventure strip about a young American kid in China during the 1930s when pirates and warlords plagued the Orient” — was perhaps not the best place to start if one really wanted to offer an authentic portrayal of Vietnam in the early 1970s.
Note the use of the so-called “chop suey” font for “Vietnam” in the story’s title lettering — an attempt to visually evoke an “Asian” vibe that’s typical of the era, but which really has nothing to do with Vietnam.
Actually, before we go further, we should probably take a moment to provide some larger historical context for what we’re about to read, in regards to America’s war in Vietnam, circa early 1972.
Back in 1968, responding to the war’s growing unpopularity at home, Richard Nixon had successfully campaigned for President on a promise to bring “an honorable end to the war in Vietnam”. Once in office, the Nixon administration pursued a policy of “Vietnamization” which. focused on training and equipping the military forces of South Vietnam to take over the war effort, while simultaneously reducing the number of its own troops “in country”. This policy was successfully carried through, at least in regards to the drawdown of American personnel; from a height of 543,482 in April, 1969, the number of U.S. soldiers in South Vietnam had been reduced to 156,800 by the end of 1971. In other words, the returning Flash Thompson had a lot of real life counterparts.
But it was still very much a hot war, as not only American troops continued to die (2,414 in 1971 alone), but also thousands of Vietnamese soldiers (on both sides), and many civilians, as well — in the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia as well as in Vietnam. In December, the New York Times reported that, according to an investigation conducted by the U.S. General Accounting Office, American and South Vietnamese bombing was contributing substantially to a growing refugee problem in Cambodia, where over two million civilians had been driven from their homes since the war spread to their country in 1970 — as well as to civilian casualties.
And despite American offensive ground operations coming to an end in November, the U.S. continued the war in the air, culminating in an intensive five-day bombing campaign against North Vietnam at the end of December.
This would have been the real-world background that informed Stan Lee and John Romita’s storytelling, even if the driving idea behind their plot was Romita’s conception of Flash Thompson as (in his words): “A young American in the Orient, tangled in a war with characters good and bad” — a contemporary take on Caniff’s Terry, in other words. And, of course, it would also have informed the reading of at least a portion of these comic books’ original audience, in February and March of 1972.
Until he can figure out who’s who, Spidey decides that he’d better try to keep everyone on the scene away from Flash — though he wisely decides to give his initial attention to the gas-masked guys with the guns. That works well for a page or two, but then our hero is struck hard from behind…
Spider-Man’s use of the term “Orientals” is likely to make contemporary readers wince. His “refugees from Fu Manchu” remark, however, which along with invoking the “Yellow Peril” trope assumes that Chinese is the default nationality for Asian people, is arguably even worse (though, as we’ll see momentarily, he’s about to get called out on that assumption).
While the gas is still clearing, Spidey picks up Flash and swings off with him; the MPs who had the young veteran in custody don’t shoot for fear of hitting him rather than his presumed abductor. And so, moments later…
Flash’s use here (and in later dialogue) of the term “natives” reflects what was likely an unconscious (though still unfortunate) condescension on Stan Lee’s part towards the people of Vietnam; I mean, I’m pretty certain that you’d never have seen that word used in any of the writer’s scripts for Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos to refer to European civilians during World War II.
“It is written — to save one life is to save the world.” Indeed it is, although the text in which this sentiment first found written expression appears to have been the Jewish Talmud. — not a work you’d normally expect to find in a Vietnamese temple, no matter how ancient or mysterious. But then again, we’re never told just what religion the hidden temple is a temple of, so who knows? (The most logical assumption would be would be that the temple’s denizens are Buddhist — but Lee’s script is so non-specific in regards to their beliefs and practices that there’s really no way to say for sure.)
On their way to return Flash to the military’s protective custody, the young vet confesses to Spider-Man that because he can’t remember what happened when he blacked out, he can’t be completely certain that he wasn’t responsible for the deaths of the people at the temple, “in some way”. “That’s a heckuva doubt to have to live with!” Spidey responds sympathetically.
After dropping Flash off at the Federal Building, our hero changes back into Peter Parker and returns to his apartment — where Gwen soon shows up, asking Pete to join her in going to said building so they can try to find out what’s happening with their friend. (How’d Gwen, who last saw Flash being driven away in a car, find out where he was? Your guess is as good as mine, as the story doesn’t say.)
Certain that the “giant chauffeur” and his associates must be there to make another attempt at kidnapping Flash, Peter tells Gwen he needs to duck out a moment to call J. Jonah Jameson about some photos for the Daily Bugle. But instead, he ducks out a window, and then (after removing his shoes to facilitate his wall-crawling) creeps over to another window to toss a Spidey-Tracer™ onto the chauffeur’s jacket. Before he can retrace his steps, however, there’s an explosion, which knocks out the building’s lights. Peter realizes that there’s no time to change into Spider-Man, and so…
John Romita designed the chauffeur specifically as a callback to one of Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates characters, Big Stoop — a mute strongman described in Wikipedia as a “9-foot-tall (2.7 m) Mongol”, who assists the strip’s white American heroes in their Chinese adventures.
Peter manages to evade the blows of the chauffeur (who refers to himself as “the giant one”, incidentally) and even gets in one good lick — but then the giant one grabs him by the ankle, and…
When Gwen and the military personnel arrive on the scene, Pete explains that he was knocked for a loop by the explosion, the force of which blew off his shoes (riiiight). But he’s OK now, he says — and then he asks Gwen to wait for him, as he’s got unspecified “things to do!” “No, Peter,” she implores. “No!”
That’s quite the bind our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man has gotten himself into, isn’t it? Let’s proceed directly on into issue #109 to see how he inevitably gets himself out of it…
Peter excuses himself to go to the men’s room to wash up, and while he’s in there, he gets an idea…
You’re right about that, Stan — though I’ll be darned if I can recall the precise circumstances of the last time he did.
Anyway, as soon as he’s out of sight of the Fed Building, Spidey stashes his Peter web-dummy on a rooftop, and then the search is on:
Despite not being able to see the person talking to him, Spider-Man nevertheless finds himself unerringly guided by his spider-sense into the heart of Greenwich Village, where…
Wow, Stan was really casual about his footnote references for this issue, wasn’t he? No time to look up those back issue numbers, apparently.
But just so you know, Spidey and Doc Strange had met at least a couple of times before at this point in Marvel Universe history. The most recent, as far as I’m aware, had been at the wedding of Yellowjacket and the Wasp in Avengers #60, back in late 1968 (and that’s assuming that they actually spoke to each other on that occasion — all we know for sure is that they were both there). But the biggie by far, had been their epic team-up in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 (1965), as chronicled by Lee and Steve Ditko. (Your humble blogger was a Marvelite of too recent standing to have read that tale in its original presentation, but I’d caught it when it was reprinted as a last-minute fill-in in Doctor Strange #179 [Apr., 1969], with a new Barry Windsor-Smith cover, to boot.)
Returning to our present tale… Doc informs Spidey that he knows where Flash is being held, and then bids him observe what the Eye of Agamotto will reveal…
“Their priest now sleeps the endless sleep,” Dr. Strange explains, “and they truly believe only the death of your friend can mystically give him life renewed! Thus we must hasten — for the holy hour draws near!” Sure thing, says Spider-Man, just say where to find ’em. Strange replies that he’ll do even better than that:
“Maybe — someone has to die — to make up — for all we’ve done to them!”
As restrained as Flash’s statement is, I think it’s probably the closest thing to an expression of disapproval towards America’s role in the Vietnam War that had been made in any Marvel comic to date — whether in-story, or in such supplementary content as Lee’s monthly “Stan’s Soapbox” column. Prior to this, growing public opposition to the war had been reflected in Marvel’s comics mostly by the drastic ramping down of the staunchly anti-Communist rhetoric that had informed such early-’60s stories as Iron Man’s Vietnam-based origin in Tales of Suspense #39 (Mar., 1963), to be replaced by general sentiments along the line of “war bad, peace good”, without ever specifically criticizing the morality of this particular war. So while I won’t attempt to claim that anyone would ever mistake “Vengeance from Vietnam!”/”Enter: Dr. Strange!” for Archie Goodwin and Joe Orlando’s “Landscape!” (Blazing Combat #2 [Jan., 1966]), or Neal Adams’ “A View from Without” (Phase #1 ), the subtle rebuke of U.S. policy Stan Lee offers here still goes a good way towards balancing out the unfortunate Orientalism which otherwise suffuses this story — or, at least, it does for me.
Lee and Romita now switch scenes, albeit briefly, to Peter’s apartment, where Gwen shows up, understandably worried about what she thinks has happened to her guy. Pete’s roommate Harry Osborn tries to get her to keep it down, so as not to alarm our hero’s frail Aunt May, who’s visiting. But it’s already too late — May has overheard, and anxiously asks Gwen, “What happened to my poor, dear boy?” To which Gwen, in an uncharacteristic show of anger, retorts, “He’s not a boy! He’s not! He’s a man!”
This is probably a conversation that these two women needed to have, although the timing of Gwen’s outburst seems less than ideal. But, hey, real life is messy like that too, sometimes.
Meanwhile, Flash’s fated hour has come at last:
Using his webbing as well a judicious application of leverage, Spidey manages to throw “the Giant One” into a couple of his fellow compatriots, taking them all out of the fight, at least temporarily. But there’re more where they came from…
“…I’m in the clear now, Spidey! …Wait’ll I tell groovy Gwendy about all this!” Having been cleared of any guilt for the specific act of the temple’s bombing — in his own mind as well as in the eyes of the world — Flash is apparently ready to ditch that more generalized sense of guilt over the war in Vietnam that he was expressing back on page 11, and get back to the simpler business of being a thorn in Peter Parker’s side.
Or is he? In the years (and even decades) to come, Marvel’s artists and writers would take Eugene Thompson through a number of difficult personal situations — depression, alcoholism, and relationship problems among them** — which demonstrated that he was in fact still haunted by his experiences in Vietnam. These stories may have been crafted by other creators than those that got Flash into (and out of) America’s Southeast Asian war in the first place — i.e., Stan Lee and John Romita — but Flash’s long character arc nevertheless has its roots here, in a story which presents a view of a Vietnam veteran that (to the best of my knowledge) hadn’t yet been seen in American superhero comics. From the uncomplicatedly heroic Eddie Brent in Justice League of America #50 (Dec., 1966), to the physically wounded warriors Willie Lincoln (Daredevil #47 [Dec., 1968]) and Willie Walker (New Gods #3 [Jun.-Jul., 1971]), to the outwardly unscathed but inwardly troubled Flash Thompson of this storyline, the genre had taken a not insignificant journey — though it undoubtedly still had some ways to go.
As I mentioned near the beginning of this post, Amazing Spider-Man #108 and #109 represent the last original complete storyline scripted by Stan Lee for Marvel’s number one title. As such, I consider it his swan song on the series, even though — as my careful qualifiers should have already indicated — it wasn’t at all his last credit on the book.
In the next issue, #110, Lee and Romita introduced “the grinning Gibbon”, just as the “Next” blurb at the end of #109 had promised. As explained by Roy Thomas in his intro to Marvel Masterworks – The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 11, this rather underwhelming character had his genesis on an occasion when Lee was “walking through a small zoo with some fans on a speaking appearance. He joked about how he could make up a villain from just about any concept—and someone dared him to make a menace out of a lanky gibbon frolicking in a nearby cage. So he did.” That makes for a nice anecdote, I suppose, but not much more than that, at least as far as your humble blogger is concerned.
Lee didn’t hang around to conclude the storyline that brought us the Gibbon — that duty fell to Gerry Conway, who took over the gig of scripting Amazing Spider-Man with issue #111 and remained on the book for the next three years. Even so, we hadn’t seen the last writing credit for Stan Lee in AS-M, as issues #116-118 presented a three-part storyline that was credited to both Lee and Conway. The deal here, however, was that Lee’s contribution was essentially a reprint — the story was a revision and expansion by Conway and Romita of a tale originally presented in the black-an-white comics magazine Spectacular Spider-Man #1 (Jul., 1968), and thus didn’t feature new any writing from Lee, at all. (At the time these issues first came out, my continuity-conscious self was highly irritated at this repurposing of old material, because even though the monthly color Amazing Spider-Man title had never referenced the events in SS-M #1, another comic published around the same time in 1968, Daredevil #42, had. That seemed sloppy, if nothing else.)
So, I’d just as soon consider #108 and #109 to represent Stan Lee’s farewell to Amazing Spider-Man, if nobody minds (and, hey, probably even if they do). For all the flaws in the story presented in these issues, it was at least something new from Lee, both narratively and thematically — which was more than you could say about many of his other latter-day scripts for Marvel, in the period just prior to his ascension to the role of Publisher, and his simultaneous permanent withdrawal from regular comic-book writing.
We’ll close by noting that while AS-M #109 might well have also been Lee’s farewell to the other major Marvel character on which he’d collaborated with Steve Ditko — Doctor Strange — that, rather surprisingly, turned out not to be the case. But for more about Stan Lee’s last dance with the Master of the Mystic Arts, you’ll have to check back with us in about six weeks.
UPDATE 3/16/22, 12:50 p.m.: An earlier version of this post erroneously stated that Flash Thompson volunteered for military service in Vietnam, rather than being drafted. Thanks to Blake Stone for the correction.
*According to Roy Thomas’ 2009 introduction to Marvel Masterworks – The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 11:, he himself actually produced the plot for #105, the first issue of the Spider-Slayer trilogy (despite not being officially credited for such), in collaboration with Gil Kane — although, as he notes, the basic idea to bring back Smythe and his invention was probably Lee’s.
**Flash’s later “relationship problems” involve, among a number of other women, Sha Shan, who, some time after the events of AS-M #108 and #109, emigrates to the United States. After an extended period of being portrayed as a put-upon girlfriend, Sha Shan (eventually granted a proper Vietnamese surname, Nguyen) would, thankfully, be allowed to evolve, ultimately transcending the “lotus blossom” stereotype she was originally conceived as. Her independence and competence would be demonstrated when, following Flash’s loss of his legs during his second tour of duty overseas (long story), she re-entered his life in the critical role of his physical therapist, helping him to learn to walk again on his new prosthetic limbs.