The Marvel universe is full of spider-people, from Spider-Woman to Spider-Ham. They have their own origins, cross-overs, and soon they’ll have their own animated movie starring Mile Morales. When you think of Spider-Man, however, Peter Parker immediately comes to mind.
He holds a special place in most fan’s hearts as the original Spider-Man. But what would it have been like if that radioactive spider had bitten someone else? Writer Gerry Conway and artists Diego Olortegui and Chris O’Halloran bring us one possible answer in What If? Spider-Man #1.
Power Without Responsibility
What If? Spider-Man #1 explores what Spider-Man would be like if Flash Thompson had been bitten instead of Peter. Within the first few pages, we find out that Flash’s Spider-Man is brutal and arrogant. He feels entitled to the public’s admiration, showing neither mercy toward his foes nor compassion toward the people he saves.
Meanwhile, Peter Parker captures Spider-Man’s excessive violence as a photographer. In this universe, Uncle Ben is still alive but Aunt May is gravely ill. Desperate to save his aunt, Peter goes to Flash for help. In order for Flash to do the right thing, he must come to terms with the truth: he is not a hero, but a jerk who happens to have superpowers.
Flash Thompson: The Almost-Hero
Conway gives Flash a great arc that is satisfying and self-contained while still leaving the possibility for more story. We find a narrator in the Unseen, who sees everything including the alternate reality where this story takes place. His voice provides another layer to the story, but sometimes he’s a little on the nose. In his commentary, the Unseen discusses the difference between a dutiful soldier and a thug with a gun.
This provides the framework for Flash’s arc. When he gets his powers, Flash already thinks he’s a hero, leading him to be anything but heroic. He doesn’t feel the same sense of responsibility that Peter feels. Evidently, he doesn’t have anyone to guide him the way that Uncle Ben guided Peter. As a result, Flash doesn’t realize that he isn’t genuinely a good guy until it’s too late.
Faced with the truth, Flash finally confronts the insecurities that made him who he is: his fear of not being good enough. Tragically, this realization motivates Flash to become the hero he thought he already was, but he may have missed his chance. For this reason, I think of him as not quite an anti-hero, but as someone who was almost a hero.
The Stunning Visuals Of What If? Spider-Man #1
Olortegui’s art details the emotional journey of both Flash and Peter. In the opening panels, Peter snaps pictures as Flash’s Spider-Man brutally beats the Masters of Menace who beg for mercy. I find it telling that his version of Spider-Man doesn’t have very expressive eyes as we’ve come to expect.
Consequently, Spider-Man’s appearance is not particularly threatening on its own. Instead, he lets the villains’ bloodied faces and onlookers’ terrified expressions do the talking. His most effective work comes later when Flash completes his arc and finally accepts that he is no hero.
At this moment, Olortegui masterfully recreates Steve Ditko’s iconic page from Spider-Man #33, in which Peter Parker miraculously lifts up a huge piece of machinery that threatens to crush him. Seeing this image with Flash in Peter’s place was extremely effective and emotional. Visually, we see him assume the position of a hero as he finally accepts that he isn’t one. The irony could not have been more perfectly executed.
The Spider-Man We Never Knew…
If you haven’t already, go read What If? Spider-Man #1! Conway tells a compelling tale about what it means to be a hero. At the same time, he enriches our understanding of both Flash Thompson and Peter Parker.
The artwork beautifully compliments the story, visually taking Flash from vicious vigilante to repentant almost-hero. This story doesn’t just deepen our understanding of the Flash who became Spider-Man, but the Flash who unwittingly bullied Spider-Man. Whether you’re a casual fan or you’ve been reading comics forever, you do not want to miss this one!
A Compelling Standalone
This is a different kind of Spider-Man comic that's well-written, beautifully illustrated, and emotionally moving without changing the Spider-Man we already know and love.