Given all the comics I must have read over the decades I've been collecting, I don't think I've ever had the courage to sit down and compile my own top 10 list of favorite all-time Marvel comic books. If I did, I feel almost certain that this one would have to be dealt into that list somewhere:
Written by Jim Shooter and illustrated by Gil Kane and Klaus Janson, this issue of What If? takes a look at the pivotal events at the end of The Avengers #2, when the Hulk decides to bitterly leave the group he became a staunch founding member of in just the prior issue:
Afterward, the Avengers conduct a search for the Hulk and end up battling him, though the Hulk escapes and later agrees to join the Sub-Mariner and team up against the Avengers. (Though it baffles me why the Hulk would want to form yet another alliance so quickly, especially given how badly the first one ended.) That battle ends in a technical victory for the Avengers, having driven off both Namor and the Hulk--and the team of course would go on to greater heights.
In this What If? story, Iron Man is once again determined to find the Hulk in order to ascertain his threat potential and presumably deal with him decisively if need be. But instead of returning to Tony Stark's mansion and planning their hunt, Giant-Man brings up a valid point that unfortunately results in severing the ties of the remaining members, effectively bringing the new alliance between these powerful individuals to an end:
And so, where it was a much greater compliment of Avengers that went after the Hulk and, subsequently, the Hulk/Sub-Mariner dual threat, Iron Man carries on by himself. His sole meeting with the Hulk ended fruitlessly, with the Hulk again escaping, though Iron Man managed to convince Rick Jones to return with him in order to assure his safety. But when the Sub-Mariner contacts "the Avengers" and makes his challenge to them on behalf of himself and the Hulk, Iron Man accepts but finds himself in an untenable position and is forced to improvise:
Thank goodness the thought of cloning the other members didn't occur to this guy, because we know from Civil War that Tony Stark's cloning technique is a little rough around the edges. But Stark is a pretty decent engineer, so he contacts Rick, Henry Pym, and Janet Van Dyne and makes a strong case for stopping a deadly threat like the Hulk teamed with the Sub-Mariner, and then pitches a plan that might succeed even without the power of Thor to help them:
But Stark doesn't stop to think of his own experiences with becoming Iron Man--specifically, the initial difficulty of maneuvering and operating in powered armor, even for the guy who made it. Also, being the designer and the builder, Stark isn't the most patient instructor, probably thinking that anyone should be able to step into his suits of armor and require only a small amount of time to acclimate to their usage. So it doesn't take long for tempers to flare, and for the "Avengers" to conclude that it was probably for the best that they disbanded in the first place.
That leaves Iron Man on his own, with the prospect of going up alone against two powerhouses like the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk. But even knowing the strain such a battle would put on his injured heart, he decides to go for broke, and make sure that Namor and the Hulk get a fight they won't forget:
And with the beautiful pacing and wizardry of Gil Kane, you're about to see Iron Man make this fight one for the history books.
Were he still flanked by the original Avengers, Iron Man's fighting ability as demonstrated here would have enhanced their power as a group considerably, far more than we were privileged to see when artist Jack Kirby drew the series. Iron Man proves himself to be a strategist who's able to get the most from his remarkable suit of armor, considering the odds against him--and he's every inch the Avenger. But even with the precautions he's taken, he's fighting foes who are more physically suited to a prolonged battle in that they only need to recover instead of recharge:
Aside from the tragedy of Iron Man's decisive defeat here--as well as, perhaps, his death--it bears noting that, with no further intervention from the Avengers, this alliance between the Hulk and Namor might well have been strengthened by this moment, where in our own reality they instead turned against each other and went their separate ways. But here, they stand to present a formidable and dangerous threat to any force(s) that oppose their demands from this point on. Yet help arrives in the form of Stark's armored protégés, who have reconsidered and followed Iron Man to the battle site--and seeing him lying so broken and still on the ground, they find themselves ready and willing to embrace the word "avenger":
Still, having no real experience with this new armor, all that Rick, Hank, and Jan have in their favor is the element of surprise, against two ruthless opponents who are deadly enough separately. And while Namor pulls himself together, the Hulk, who has proven a savvy and very able foe against the original Avengers, is more than capable of carrying on this fight to the end:
At this point in the fight, I'm absolutely thrilled that Shooter is presenting this battle more realistically than the way it played out originally, where a lot of punches were swung but no real harm was done to either side. Here, the stakes are clearly life and death--with these nascent Avengers, lacking the assistance and expertise of Iron Man, on the verge of being destroyed by these foes. The fight has been long and brutal, with no quarter--nor do either Namor or the Hulk seem inclined to offer any mercy. But they've failed to reckon with the determination and experience of Iron Man, who sees one last hope for victory but at a price:
As for Namor, he's finally recovered from the Wasp's drugged darts and gone after Rick, who simply lacks the ingenuity to discover and use his armor's offensive capabilities. Making him easy prey for the Sub-Mariner, who retaliates mercilessly:
But on the battlefield, sometimes the smallest mistake can turn the tide. And for the Sub-Mariner, the Hulk's recognition of Rick's voice as the boy hurtles to his death has turned Namor's imminent victory to defeat, as his bestial partner turns on him in an instant:
Here, their clash plays out as it did in our reality, with their mutually dissolved alliance and departure from the site. But for the "Avengers," their greatest victory to date has been marred by the tragic fate of the man who forged them back together:
Given the format of this book, it's easy to let yourself wonder about where the Avengers go from here, if they go anywhere at all. They could remain together and keep using the suits of armor, continuing to learn its capabilities--but without Stark, who's going to replace them if they become damaged? Hank Pym is a biochemist, not an engineer--with his proclivity toward tinkering, he might end up turning them into a group of Ultrons. And given the cost of this battle, would they want to carry on? Without the armor, they're basically in the same position of depleted strength they were when they decided to disband, only this time without even Iron Man.
In any event, no sequel to this story occurred, and perhaps just as well--it stands out so well on its own. This particular tale was more the exception than the rule for What If? stories. For one thing, the story plays out smoothly from beginning to end, with practically no narrative or observations from the Watcher to cut from this point of divergence or that--and as a result, you're able to be much more engaged in the story and its developments. Also, there's no back-up tale or filler--this puppy packs the issue with 46 pages of original story, which even most of Marvel's "king-size" annuals were hard-pressed to do even with a year's lead time. Most notably, though, the quality of both writing and art is absolutely first-rate--nothing phoned in, with Shooter and Kane giving it all they've got. We readers wouldn't always be so lavishly treated--though there were many stories of note in this title, this one was above the norm. Do pick it up sometime and read it in its entirety--it'll certainly go down as a classic.