Monday, August 15, 2016

The Amazing Spider-Man 8 (II): What is Flash Thompson's Problem With Peter Parker

What is Flash Thompson's Problem With Peter Parker?

In the first few pages of Spider-Man #8, Peter Parker calls Flash Thompson "loud mouth" "dumb clown", "clumsy meat-head", "ugly", and insinuates that he can’t read or write. Flash Thompson calls Peter Parker "puny", "weakling", "scarecrow", "teacher’s pet", and "worm". Parker arguably starts the altercation by priggishly telling Thompson off for calling the experimental computer a "gizmo" when it is actually "one of the scientific marvels of the age."

It is always tempting to see if the names of fictitious characters have any significance, but in these old Marvel Comics it isn’t often profitable. Peter is a rock, of course, but Parker is simply a man who looks after a park. Jameson is the son of James, and his son is John, which gives us a trio of apostles, but that doesn’t take us very far. Peter’s two girl-friends, Betty and Liz, are both presumably Elizabeths, which doesn’t take us much further. Brant is probably derived from Brand which probably means Sword; and Allan might mean little rock. Ben is a Jewish name, but May isn’t.

However, it is hard to believe that, when Stan Lee named Peter Parker’s high school adversary Flash he didn’t have Harry Flashman, the most notorious cad in scholastic fiction, at the back of his mind. Flashman was a pupil at Rugby school, which gave its name to Rugby football, from which American rules football (as opposed to soccer) is indirectly descended. Flash Thompson is a footballer although this never really comes into the story. 

Flash is often said to be a bully; but he never does anything really nasty. There is no stealing lunch money, hiding under-wear or physical cruelty. Flashman arranges to have Tom Brown flogged and tries to roast him alive; Flash merely plays practical jokes on Peter and takes the mickey out of his sprained arm. God knows, verbal bullying can be just as crippling as physical bullying, but the name-calling between Thompson and Parker is a two-way street.

Flash Thompson believes in an obsolescent code of masculine honour. According to this code, and according to his own lights, he generally does the right thing. He believes that, because of his strength and athletic prowess, he should be at the top of the pecking order — literally and figuratively the biggest man on campus. This may also be why he is such a big fan of Spider-Man; he positively wants to defer to any obviously stronger and more heroic male.

The boys treat Flash as leader; the girls regard him as a "he-man" and "dream-boat". He can date whichever one of them he chooses. But he respects the rules of dating as they stood at the time. He is surprised when Liz agrees to go on a sympathy date with Peter (which Peter breaks) but there is no question of him coercing either of them. Liz hasn’t agreed to go steady with him, so she is free to see whomever she chooses.

When I hear the term "school bully" I think of a big guy — or, more likely, a gang of big guys — waiting for a smaller guy in some secluded spot and "duffing them up", either in order to steal money, or, more likely, for simple sadism. Flash Thompson isn't a bully in that sense. I am pretty sure that if some Gripper Stebson had stolen Peter Parker’s lunch money, Flash would have intervened on Peter’s side (as indeed he does on the one occasion when Peter is in trouble with the Principal.) What Flash wants is to fight a duel of honour with Peter.

Flash is bound by a schoolboy version of the gunfighter’s code. He wants to fight Peter to establish that he is top dog. He is quite certain that he would win, and he would certainly respect the result, but first Peter has to agree to the fight. Honour prevents Flash Thompson from hitting a smaller man, hitting a man with glasses, or hitting first. That is what all the taunting is about: if Thompson could make Parker lose his temper, then he would be within his rights to hit back. (And this is why Peter taunts Flash so boldly: he knows that the code of honour means that Flash can’t hit him.) The other males in the pack are supposed to either voluntarily accept Flash’s dominance, or fight him for it. Peter Parker will do neither. Flash's problem with Peter is that he is outside the Code. He will neither kowtow to Flash nor challenge him. He’s basically laughing at the whole thing.

The staff of Midtown High side with Flash Thompson over the Code. When Flash attempts to take the computer print-out which may have Spider-Man’s secret identity on it, Peter, for the first time physically pushes Flash away. Which, according to the Code, gives Flash the right to punch Peter if he wants to; at which point Peter has to either continue the fight or accept Flash’s dominance. Mr Warren, the science teacher, steps in. He correctly identifies what is going on as a feud between two young men (as opposed to a case of big boy picking on a little one) and suggests they "settle it once and for all" in the gym. It seems utterly bizarre to us that a teacher would sanction a fight between two students. When I was at school, "fighting" was one of a small number of offences that could still result in corporal punishment. But the past, as someone once said, is a foreign country. They do thing very differently there.

Back in — oh 1999 was it? — Dave "Cerebus" Sim challenged Jeff "Bone" Smith to fight him in a boxing ring because he believed that Smith had told a lie about him. Smith declined. I never really understood what such a fight would have achieved. It always seemed to me eminently possible for someone to be weak but honest or strong but a liar. Is the idea that once you have established that you are the stronger man, you are free to tell lies if you want to? Or did Dave literally believe that it would take divine intervention to establish who had given the more accurate account of their house party to the Comics Journal?

But however strange the code of honour may look to us, Flash Thompson tries to obey his own precepts. Flash lost the fight. Peter proved he was a real man after all. So the next time they meet (in issue #9) Flash swallows his pride and tries to be pleasant to him -- and overture Peter entirely rebuffs. In issue #10, he tries again, actually turning up at the hospital to visit Aunt May. He blusters that Liz forced him to go, but Peter sees through this immediately.

Maybe a big man trying to persuade a small man to have a fight is still a form of bullying: like the expert swordsman wandering around taverns hoping that someone will besmirch his honour so he can kill them. Maybe a modern teacher might recognize what Peter is doing to Flash as a form of reverse bullying — the little guy perpetually sniping at the big guy, intending to cry "foul!" when the big guy eventually hits him. But then, one would hope that a modern teacher would also be aware of Peter Parker’s difficult situation — he's had a close family member murdered, for goodness sake! – and cut him some slack. But this honour and dominance scenario accounts for the relationships between Peter Parker and Flash Thompson far better than simply painting Flash as a bully and a sadist.

Later revisionist continuity revealed that Flash Thompson had an alcoholic father who thrashed him, and that his first name was Eugene.

He is now a member of the Guardians of the Galaxy.

A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
Andrew Rilstone

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. This essay forms part of his critical study of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original Spider-Man comic book. 

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Amazing Spider-Man was written and drawn by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and is copyright Marvel Comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copywriter holder.

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