Comics : Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #109

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This story is part of an Arc: "Vengeance From Vietnam!"
     Part 1 / Part 2

This story is part of a Lookback Series: Al Observes

This review was first published on: 1999.

Background...

The Jack Kirby Collector is one of the best comic-related periodicals being published these days but, owing to Kirby's scanty work on the wall-crawler, it doesn't usually deal much with Spider-Man. An exception is issue #18 (January 1998), that features a Kirby-drawn Spidey cover and "Excerpts From the John Romita Panel, Held at Comic Con International: San Diego on July 19, 1997". Among the great Spidey anecdotes is this exchange:

QUESTION: What's your favorite issue of Spider-Man?

ROMITA: There was a two-story arc having to do with Flash Thompson returning from Viet Nam, where some Southeast Asians were out to kill him because they felt he had desecrated their temple when he was a GI. It was my plot, a lot of it was my idea. Stan injected Dr. Strange into the second half which was great... It's my favorite because I like the story, and also becaue I was a Terry and the Pirates freak when I grew up. I used to absorb it through my pores every Sunday, and in that storyline I had a big Chinese chauffeur who was based on Big Stoop.

So you thought Flash Thompson was only twenty-five years old in 1999, huh? Here he is, just back from his Southeast Asian tour of duty facing "Vengeance From Vietnam".

In Detail...

"Enter: Dr. Strange!"
Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #109
Jun 1972 : SMURF 109.500 : SM Title
Summary: Flash, Vietnam Legacy
Arc: Part 2 of "Vengeance From Vietnam!"
Editor:  Stan Lee
Writer:  Stan Lee
Pencils:  John Romita, Sr.
Inker:  John Romita, Sr.
Cover Art:  John Romita, Sr.
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Review
 Reprinted In: Marvel Tales #88
 Reprinted In: Marvel Visionaries, John Romita, Sr.
 Reprinted In: Essential Spider-Man #5
 Reprinted In: Spider-Man: Visionaries - John Romita, Sr. (TPB)
Articles: Doctor Strange, Flash Thompson, Gwen Stacy, Sha Shan

Peter is desperate to help the abducted Flash Thompson but he doesn't dare run off and let Gwen think he's "gutless". A guard gives him his shoes back and Pete repeats that wonderfully lame story about the explosion blowing them off. He goes to the bathroom supposedly to "wash up a bit". But he is actually trying to buy time to think of a solution to his dilemma.

Once in the bathroom, he sees himself in the mirror and notices that his Spidey shirt is sticking out above his shirt collar and that no one has noticed. This makes him realize three things: he's got his Spidey costume, he's got his civvies (including his shoes), and everyone is so shook up, they are accepting all sorts of ridiculous things.

Suddenly, the officials (and Gwen) outside hear a fight taking place in the bathroom. Before they can rush in, they spot Spider-Man outside the window. He is carrying Peter Parker away with him. "Relax!", he tells the gawkers, "I'm not gonna hurt this clown! I just wanna ask 'im a few questions." And how does Spidey accomplish this feat? He has taken his civvies and stuffed them full of webbing to simulate a body. He swings away so quickly that no one notices the deception and his mask muffles his voice enough so no one makes the connection. This ruse allows him to, after dumping the webbing and civvies on a rooftop, go after Flash's abductors, but it also greatly upsets Gwen who now thinks this event is her fault since she insisted on Peter staying behind. (And, actually, if you think about it, she's right. Without her insistence, this little charade wouldn't have been enacted.)

Anyway, Spidey scours the city, searching for the spider-tracer he planted on the giant. He gets a pull on his spider-sense right away, which gets stronger and stronger as he heads to Greenwich Village. Soon, it gets so strong that he "can hardly bear" the sensation. A voice tells him not to be alarmed. "I was forced to resort to so extreme an expedient in order to contact you." Spidey cannot see who is speaking but we can. It is Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, in his astral form.

(This brings up a frequent inconsistency with Dr. Strange. Can other people see him in his astral form or can't they? In this story, Strange tells Spidey "While in my astral form, I am invisible to your eyes!" and yet, there have also been countless stories when Strange has been visible to people in his astral form including (I believe) Spider-Man. (So, it can't just be Spidey who can't see him.) So which is it? If Stan Lee is the source of Marvel Universe knowledge, it's clear that Stan feels that the Doc is invisible in this form. At least, he felt that way for this one issue.)

(And for those of you who aren't familiar with Dr. Strange, he is the other major character created at Marvel by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Once an egotistical surgeon, only interested in wealth, Stephen Strange loses, in an accident, the sure-handedness needed for his profession and must resign. He is eventually reduced to poverty and, desperate for a cure, journeys to the Himalayas to track down the truth of a rumor... that there is a man named the Ancient One who practices real magic. The Ancient One exists, Stephen finds him, but does not get a cure for his injury. Instead he finds his heroic self, by defying the Ancient One's evil disciple Baron Mordo. Satisfied with Strange's transformation, the Ancient One makes the Doctor his new disciple. If you like Stan and Steve on Spider-Man, you owe it to yourself to track down their Dr. Strange work in the original Strange Tales. The year and a half long Baron Mordo/Dormammu/Eternity storyline that finishes both Stan and Steve's run on the series in Strange Tales #130 (March 1965)-Strange Tales #146 (July 1966) is particularly superior stuff.)

Anyway, Spidey may not be able to see Doc's astral form but that doesn't stop Strange from leading him to his home. The spider-sense narrows out "like a beacon" and though he feels "like a puppet forced to respond to someone else's will", Spidey follows. He soon reaches the home of Dr. Strange. The magician's astral form joins his still, sitting body and the Doctor welcomes the wall-crawler to his den. (Stan tells us that the two men have met before but "A no-prize if you remember when ('cause we don't!)" Well, the first meeting of the two was Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 (1965). Were there any other team-ups for these two between that one and this one?)

Spidey begins to tell Dr. Strange that he cannot stay because he is on the trail of Flash's kidnappers but this is what the master of the mystic arts wants to talk about. Using the amulet known as the Eye of Agamotto (also the name of the first comic shop I used to go to. Gone for years now but I still miss that store.), Stephen reveals an image to Spidey. It is Flash Thompson, his hands bound behind him, "helplessly kneeling before an altar, guarded by monks!" A closer look reveals that the apparent idol on the altar is not a statue at all but the frozen form of the Hidden Temple High Priest. He is not dead after all, but only entranced. Unfortunately, according to one of the monks, "Naught can waken him except the death of the one who made him so!" Flash protests that he, in fact, tried to save the holy man but the monks won't listen. When the sage's daughter, Sha Shan, enters, Flash entreats her to tell his captors that he tried to warn the temple dwellers. Sha Shan replies that "it is not for me to dispute the words of those who serve my father". The monks order Flash to a cell until the time he "will die that our master may live". But with Flash protesting his innocence, Dr. Strange's magically produced image fades. The time for watching is over. Now it is time for action. Donning his cloak of levitation, Dr. Strange joins Spider-Man in his mission to save Flash Thompson.

Back in the sanctuary, Flash is in a dark room, alone with his thoughts. He decides that he is willing to die, "maybe someone has to die to make up for all we've done to them!" But his thoughts are interrupted by the opening of the door. It is Sha Shan with a finger to her lips.

She tells Flash that the monks "thirst for vengeance" so strongly "they would not believe" but that she remembers that Flash came back to help them, that he was "felled by falling bombs" and that she led him to safety until a US army patrol found them. She returned to the temple to find her father fallen and the monks in control. They insisted that Flash was at fault. Sha Shan protested but as the daughter of the Holy One, she had to obey those in command. Flash wonders why she has come now. She tells him he must accept his fate and pulls a long knife out of her gown and appears about to stab him. But the monks arrive and grab her from behind. If the prisoner is killed before the sacred ritual, they say, the Holy One is condemned to "eternal sleep". Though they sympathize with Sha Shan's apparent thirst for vengeance, she must wait for the appointed hour.

Meanwhile, Gwen Stacy has rushed to Peter's apartment to see if he is yet home. His roommate Harry Osborn answers the door and Gwen tells him that Pete was kidnapped by Spider-Man, unaware that Aunt May is visiting and has overheard everything she has said. Frightened, May cries out, "What happened to my poor, dear boy?" With tears in her eyes, an angry. upset Gwen lashes out at the older woman, telling her that Peter is no longer a boy and that it is time for his Aunt to let go. (And almost thirty years later, it's still time.) In the middle of this tirade, Gwen suddenly realizes what she is doing and apologizes but May tells her not to. "You have every right", May says, "Perhaps a foolish old lady, lonely and unthinking, can smother a person with love." (And this subplot eventually leads to May's disappearance and the revelation, in ASM #115 (December 1972), that she has become Doctor Octopus' housekeeper!)

At the sanctuary, the holy hour has arrived. Flash is led before the still form of the Holy One. He goes down to his knees and leans forward as the giant prepares to decapitate him with an ax. But, before he can, Spidey and Dr. Strange strike! Doc uses his magic to make the ax disappear and Spidey swings in to try to rescue Flash. He snaps the rope that binds Flash's hands, but before he can do more, the giant grabs him under the chin and lifts him up into the air. Spidey orders Flash to "split!" ("You don't haveta tell me twice!", Flash says as he exits.), then uses his webbing to cover the giant's face. Then, grabbing the giant by the shirt, he further distracts him until he manages to get a leg-lock and piledrive the giant's head down on the floor. He then tosses the now-unconscious giant at several other monks, taking them out of the action.

But there are more monks, armed with scimitars and they are preparing to attack Dr. Strange as he "weaves a spell" around the Holy One. Spidey stops the monks by covering them with webbing and Dr. Strange finishes his spell by chanting, "Let the trance be done! Let the veil be torn! With new life begun, be you now reborn!"

Making his escape, Flash meets up with Sha Shan who rejoices at his freedom. She tells Flash that she was not trying to stab him before but to free him by severing the rope that bound him. In the midst of this happy meeting, a voice is heard calling Sha Shan's name. It is the voice of her father, restored to life once again.

As a joyous Sha Shan rushes to her father, Spidey quizes Dr. Strange. The magician tells him that the Holy One was not dead but that "he survived the shelling by putting himself into a mystic protective trance", that "while in the trance, he sent a silent call" which Dr. Strange picked up. Which is how he got involved in the episode.

Dr. Strange takes his leave, even as the Holy One tells his disciples that Flash was not to blame for the shelling of the temple. A happy Flash blurts out, "Wait'll I tell groovy Gwendy about all this!" and that reminds Spidey of his jealous fears. "Now that he's a civilian again", he broods, "how can I compete with Flash? Especially when I know how much [Gwen] hates Spider-Man!"

It is the late Archie Goodwin who brings Sha Shan back several years later in his final issue of Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man (#8, July 1977). Flash finds Sha Shan living in New York but also learns that she has a husband... a man named Achmed Korba.

Several issues later, Bill Mantlo picks up this thread and presents his strange and lightly regarded four-part story of Brother Power and Sister Sun. (Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #12-15, November 1977-February 1978). In this tale, a new religious cult called the Legion of Light has mesmerized large numbers of young followers. The apparent leaders of the cult are Brother Power and Sister Sun who turn out to be Achmed and Sha Shan. But the real power is a shadowy figure, a being who Achmed claims appeared to him out of a fallen meteor in Vietnam. Sha Shan later tells Flash that she and her father returned to Vietnam to start a new temple and that her father sensed great approaching evil. He knew that a man would arrive looking for someone of goodness to balance his evil. The Holy One insisted that Sha Shan be that balance. When Achmed arrived, Sha Shan went with him while her father stayed behind to be killed in the last wave of bombings of the Vietnam war.

Things get more complicated when a trucker super-hero named Razorback teams up with Spidey to battle the Legion of Light. But forget about all that. The mysterious figure behind BP and SS turns out to be the Hatemonger and this Hatemonger turns out to be the evil Man-Beast who had fled the High Evolutionary and Counter-Earth only to crash land in Vietnam. Sha Shan fulfills her father's expectations when her defiance of Achmed and the Man-Beast delay their plans enough for Spidey and Razorback to save the day. Achmed is killed in an explosion and Sha Shan is free to become Flash's girlfriend.

She sticks around with Flash for quite a while until somebody noticed that Flash was now too young to have served in Vietnam. Since then, Sha Shan has been banished to oblivion with Marvel apparently as ashamed of her as they are of Razorback. It's too bad, too. With the loss of Sha Shan, Flash Thompson has been stripped of all his years of mature characterization. He is back to being the dim-witted jerk that dislikes Peter Parker only now he is further saddled by a drinking problem and an unreasonable affection for Norman Osborn. Stan Lee spent years turning Flash from a stereotype into a three-dimensional person. That has all been stripped away in the latest issues. This is progress?

(And, yes, that really is a letter from Tim Powers in the Spider's Web for #109, praising Stan's return to the book. Tim Powers has gone on to write such great fantasy novels as The Anubis Gates, The Stress of Her Regard, and Last Call. If you haven't read Powers, you should. I think you'll be glad you did.)