Iraq War vet helped Marvel give its amputee superhero prosthetic legs
By MICHAEL CAVNA | The Washington Post | Published: January 27, 2016
Dan Nevins knows the little things that only an amputee would know -- like what it does to your mind when you no longer sense the Earth beneath you.
Which made Nevins -- who was wounded in Iraq in 2004 -- the perfect person to inform an otherworldly new story.
Wednesday, Marvel Comics will release "Venom: Space Knight #3," the latest space tale of Flash Thompson, a veteran and double amputee, who now, finally, gets prosthetic legs. And to make sure the character's change had the ring of realism, Marvel reached out to Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit that helps veterans, which brought Nevins on board for this sci-fi ride.
Thompson has undergone many creative transformations since debuting in 1962 from the minds of Spider-Man co-creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. In the past, for mobility, he has relied on his symbiote -- an alien parasite in the Marvel universe that bonds with its host.
"When we were approaching this story, we wanted to make sure this wasn't just a throwaway beat," says Marvel associate editor Jake Thomas, whose resume includes the X-Men, the Avengers and Hulk, of the prosthetics storyline. "Flash Thompson is one of Marvel's most dynamic and redemptive characters -- he means a great deal to a lot of people -- and we wanted to do right by both the character and the fans."
Jeremy Chwat, Wounded Warrior Project's (WWP) chief strategy officer, says that the organization "sees this opportunity with Marvel Comics as a chance to reach a unique audience with the challenges wounded veterans face every day."
The group connected Marvel with Nevins, a retired Army staff sergeant who serves as a WWP spokesman.
Nevins added the less-than-obvious details. Like the disconnection to the ground he felt after his left leg was amputated below the knee from damage caused by an IED that detonated beneath his vehicle on Nov. 10, 2004. That came nine months after he was deployed to Balad, Iraq, as an infantry squad leader. More than three years after the blast, Nevins had to have his right leg amputated below the knee as well; in all, he spent about two years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"We take the experience of being grounded for granted," Nevins says. After his amputations, though, "every step becomes a thought."
"And for a shoe whore like me, it's a (real) pain," he adds with a laugh.
Missing that sensation of groundedness, Nevins felt uncentered. Then two years ago this month, Nevins discovered yoga, and that has made all the difference. "It was something inside -- the yoga experience was a reconnection," says Nevins, who now teaches yoga -- nearly eight years after he received the Lang Award for Courage, the Wounded Warrior Project's highest honor.
Venom writer Robbie Thompson (who teams with artist Ariel Olivetti) relished the idea of Flash getting prosthetics. "He's a combat veteran, and there's more to dig into" with how war has changed him, the author says of the new storyline. (Marvel won't reveal more about the longer story arc before release.)
The writer's mother was a rehab nurse, and so he grew up witnessing the reality of injury and recuperation up close. But talking with Nevins allowed him to ask even the smallest of questions, and made the writer hyper-aware, he says, "of even the simplest things" -- like how even a fine hair can irritate a prosthetic's fitting, and why an amputee "might take a hard pass on swimming."
Thompson says that Nevins's inspiring words and buoyant attitude made an impact on him. "Not just for writing the character of Flash, but for me, it's incredible hearing his stories, and his attitude toward all of this," the writer says. "It's an awakening."