With the recent news that the Venom symbiote is returning to its original owner, Eddie Brock, SuperiorSpiderTalk is going to chart the tumultuous journey of this alien goo from its humble beginnings to its current phenom status today.
In part three, we’ll look at Flash Thompson:
As odd and awkward as it was for Marvel to take a lifelong C-lister like Mac Gargan and hand him the Venom symbiote, you can imagine the initial reaction to the next major character to become the “new” Venom.
Prior to early 2011, Eugene “Flash” Thompson was best known as Peter Parker’s high school bully-turned-buddy. The character was most relevant — primarily as an antagonist to “Puny Parker” — during the earliest days of the Spider-Man universe when Stan Lee and Steve Ditko spent ample time emphasizing the high school teen drama elements of Peter’s world in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man. When Lee/John Romita Sr. started to tone down the animosity between Peter/Flash toward the end of the 1960s, Thompson lost some of his edge. And while the character remained a consistent part of Peter’s orbit going forward, occasionally being featured as a key figure in some random subplot, the idea of Flash carrying his own comic book series (even a miniseries) was farfetched at best, and absurd at worst.
Still, the post “One More Day” Marvel Universe proved to be a land of new opportunity. First there was the excellent standalone “Flashback” story by Marc Guggenheim in Amazing Spider-Man #574, which established Thompson as both a valorous war hero and a paraplegic. In the comic, Flash, back in the U.S. Army, comes under heavy fire and is seriously injured. But he still finds the inner strength to continue on and complete his mission by reflecting on his own personal hero, Spider-Man. “Flashbacks” was not designed to read like your standard superhero comic book story, but it did demonstrate that under the right circumstances, Flash could be compelling main character.
ASM’s first ever “point one” issue (ASM #654.1) to unveil a stark new status quo for Thompson and the symbiote: Agent Venom.
Rather than making the symbiote possess another supervillain, Agent Venom was a covert operative deployed by the U.S. government for highly dangerous “missions.” While bonded to the symbiote, Flash got his legs back and also demonstrated augmented strength/speed/agility. Additionally, after years of looking up to Spider-Man, Flash finally had the opportunity to be a real-life superhero himself. The caveat to all this was that Flash — no stranger to substance abuse issues according to his comic book biography — was only allowed to stay bonded to the symbiote for 48 hours at a time, or risk having his brain and body chemistry permanently altered by the symbiote (which, despite being attached to a “good guy” was still depicted as being a malevolent entity).
If any of this sounds like a glorified What If issue premise, that’s because, in the context of that one ASM issue, it basically was. Like a lot of Slott’s ideas that were developed during this timeframe, Agent Venom was certainly fun and different, but also somewhat shallow. But that was all rendered moot because immediately following ASM #654.1, Slott’s time with the character was essentially spent giving way to Rick Remender, who was tapped to write an ongoing Venom solo series, with Flash as the titular character.
The first few issues of Venom more or less followed Slott’s blueprint for Agent Venom: they focused on covert missions, like Venom fighting Kraven the Hunter in the Savage Land. However, Remender took the character in some bold new directions once he got more comfortable with Flash. Thompson’s problems with addiction became a front-burner plotline for the series, especially as it related to the symbiote making Flash feel physically whole again (by giving him his legs back). Beyond that, Flash’s less than ideal childhood and homelife (Flash having a deadbeat, alcoholic dad was one of those subplots that was added to the character’s bio many years after his first appearance in 1962) was mined by Remender to add fuel/reasoning behind Thompson’s troubled romance with longtime girlfriend Betty Brant. Venom was effectively tied-into the big summer Spider-Man storyline of 2011, “Spider-Island,” but following those few issues, the solo series really became a book about Flash and his demons, rather than a book about Venom.
Remender’s run featured a couple of “misses” in my humble opinion (I never liked “Circle of Four” though I know there are people out there who loved it) and the symbiote “cult” that exists out there in the wild world of the internet routinely complained about how Venom was being depicted. But after years of watching the character devolve, first into a brain-eating caricature as Eddie Brock, and then into unintentionally absurd C-lister as Gargan, Venom, in his own weird way, felt fresh and exciting again.
Naturally, this was not meant to last. Toward the end of Remender’s run, Agent Venom inexplicably joined the incredibly bloated roster of the Avengers (but it was the “Secret Avengers” so I guess that’s sorta/kinda different). Then, once Remender left and gave way to Cullen Bunn, Venom was transformed into a Bronze Age-esque monster book — a reinvention that probably would have been more successful if the previous 20-something issues of the series weren’t so grounded and character-driven.
Venom was inevitably cancelled about a year or so later, but Agent Venom lived on, showing up in the pages of Superior Spider-Man, and then later Guardians of the Galaxy, which in turned led to another wacky era of Venom-dom, the Venom: Space Knight series. With Robbie Thompson at the helm, Space Knight was essentially a smart alecky Flash in space series. If that sounds completely out there as a concept, you’re not wrong.
Unfortunately, Space Knight, despite lasting for 13 issues, reaffirmed what many critics were thinking when Agent Venom was initially pitched as a concept more than five years earlier — what was Marvel thinking making Flash Thompson the new Venom? Then again, just writing out that sentence and realizing that Agent Venom lasted FIVE YEARS, is an amazing feat. In today’s terms, five years is a lifetime. Five years for a glorified What If story is practically the stuff of legends.