Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers from The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 released on September 19th, 2018.
Johnny Storm fans have had a rough time of it these past few years. First, our fave fam was banished from the comics due to petty bullshit over movie rights, which meant that Johnny was essentially abandoned by his family and Ben Grimm in the wake of Secret Wars. Then he was stuck on the Unity Squad, a team that ultimately accomplished nothing and had a brief fling with Medusa before the Inhuman queen got back together with Black Bolt. Oh, and then he lost his powers while searching the multiverse for his family, which, while being incredibly well-written, is also incredibly emotional, and Chip Zdarsky is very good at tugging on those heartstrings. (Thanks, Chip!) We still don’t know how that’s going resolve itself, although we have to assume it does based on the fact that both Johnny and Ben are back on Earth and have their powers in the new Fantastic Four #1 that came out last month.
So when we say that what happens to Johnny (or more to the point, what does not happen to Johnny) in The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 that came out this past Wednesday is the worst thing we’ve ever seen, we want you to understand that, as longtime Johnny Storm fans, we have a lot of experience in putting up with poor wardrobe decisions, poor characterization, and some pretty intense mockery. It’s not great, but at least he’s there. Turns out, as Johnny Storm fans, we’re prepared to suffer all sorts of indignities, except one—inexplicably deciding to make sure he’s not there, and rewriting canon to do it. In Saladin Ahmed’s The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 that just came out, Johnny, who played a significant role in the original story of Venom, has been written out of the story.
So, let’s break down what happened, shall we?
In the original story, Amazing Spider-Man #258, when Spider-Man is plagued by a mysterious sleeping sickness related to the slimy new spider-suit he picked up in space, he goes to Reed Richards and Johnny Storm for help. Johnny’s pyrokinetic powers make him the perfect match against Peter’s new suit, which turns out to be both sentient and malicious.
(He’s also instrumental in rustling up a new costume for the newly naked Spider-Man after the alien symbiote is removed from his body. Everyone say hello to the bombastic Bag Man.)
While The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1, which is told from the point of view of the symbiote, takes pains to establish that the suit is afraid of fire, when it comes time for Peter to visit the Fantastic Four, Johnny is conspicuously absent and only Reed is shown on the page.
When you realize that not only is Johnny flaming in the background as a precaution, and that Johnny’s flame is what ends up containing the symbiote once it’s off of Peter’s body, his absence from the scene that is supposed to be from the symbiote’s point of view is nonsensical. If the symbiote is a biased narrator, and it’s established that the symbiote is afraid of fire and not of people who can turn themselves into a pretzel, it would make more sense for it to focus on Johnny instead of Reed. The art throughout the comic establishes the omniscience that allows us to see a reinterpretation of events from the symbiote’s perspective, so if anything, Johnny should have been even more central to the symbiote’s story than Reed. Erasing Johnny’s presence in this scene serves no narrative purpose, and there are plenty of panels that demonstrate that the art is not strictly tied to the symbiote’s point of view. So why do it? Why make this narrative choice?
We’ve scoured our pretty extensive memories of retcons in comics, and this is the first one we can think of where a character is actually written out of a story. Most of the time in retcons, characters are written into a story in order to add a different dimension to the story. Ahmed writing the Venom story from the symbiote’s perspective is another way of adding more details to the story. And in a recent interview, Ahmed talks about why he enjoyed writing this story so much:
That period of Spider-Man history in the 1980s—with him having just come back from Secret Wars and the “Gang Wars” storyline and the stuff with the black costume—that was my era of Spider-Man. That was the era where I became a Marvel fan and a diehard Marvel reader.
I could talk about all sorts of thematic stuff that’s internal, but to me is more like a fanboy, “squee” moment. [laughs] I get to explain this moment that I read back in the day that hasn’t been explained. That’s the thrill of working at Marvel. It’s pretty exciting.
Which is why we can’t help but be confused about why such a self-confessed Spider-fan would omit one half of the characters who participated in an iconic origin story. The omission is particularly glaring in the context of Marvel’s push to reintroduce the Fantastic Four to the comics, and the prominence of writers who will use any excuse to put Peter Parker and Johnny Storm into the same scene together. (Thanks again, Chip!) Because if there’s one member of the superhero community that Peter Parker’s been close to over the years, it’s Johnny Storm. Erasing Johnny from this scene doesn’t just impact Venom’s origin story. It impacts his relationship with Peter Parker, and that’s why his absence is significant.
And let us just add that you don’t have to be a shipper to know that the relationship between Johnny Storm and Peter Parker is one of the longest friendships in comics history. There was also that time, pretty recently, when after Johnny died sacrificing himself for the good of the entire universe, he asked Peter to take his spot on the team, essentially leaving him his family in his will.
Whether you ship it or not, if that’s not love, then honestly, what is?
So, viewed in that context, what is there to gain from removing Johnny from this scene? While not every writer appreciates Johnny Storm (in a not entirely dissimilar way to the way that Dick Grayson tends to be viewed by different writers, compared to his fans), it’s not like this is the first time Johnny’s importance has, in many points in Marvel history, been downplayed, or his personality has been played up as the punchline of a joke. And the other things is: there’s plenty of room to get a little weird, in true Venom fashion, when it comes to Johnny Storm, who Venom threatened to spank in Amazing Spider-Man #362, when Spider-Man specifically brought Johnny Storm to an island with him to help defeat Venom.
Talk about a missed opportunity.
But all that said, this is the first that we’ve ever seen him written out of canon. So why was this allowed to happen? Was this a preference of the writer or a directive from editorial? And what was it supposed to accomplish, other than infuriating longtime fans? That’s what we’re left asking ourselves. And we’re also left feeling the absolute conviction that Chip Zdarsky (or even Dan Slott) would never have wronged Johnny, or his fans, in this way. Just saying.