Friday, August 17, 2012

Infinite Realities--Finite Investment

"First off, please don't call them 'Imaginary Stories'! That's not what they are." Those words were written by Marvel Comics writer/editor Roy Thomas, who right off the bat tried to deflect the inevitable comparison between Marvel's new book, What If with DC's popular imaginary stories format. His answer was to have each story overseen by the Watcher, whose gaze of course could peer into other realities. You'd think the Watcher would have enough to look at in this universe, but no.

The What If series has been around awhile, in one form or another--most recently, as special follow-ups to series like House of M or Avengers: Disassembled. But I came into the series with its original 47-issue run, spearheaded by Thomas himself--who for some reason thought Spider-Man becoming a member of the Fantastic Four was one of the great unanswered questions in comics. Ah, well.

Many of the issues were lemons, unfortunately--not given any real depth or effort by those involved. Yet a few of them were exceptional, and they made an impression on me:

What If #3
What If The Avengers Had Never Been?

Some have not had kind things to say about Jim Shooter's position as Editor-in-Chief at Marvel, but I've always liked his stories. In his days writing The Avengers, he even created the first rift between Iron Man and Captain America, in the time before Iron Man revealed that he was Tony Stark. Cap, at the time, strongly disapproved of Iron Man's leadership of the team, mostly because Iron Man split his time between the team and his duties at Stark Enterprises--treating his Avengers chairmanship, as Cap put it, "as a part-time job!" The two eventually worked out their differences--but of course it wouldn't be the last time they came to blows.

Cap probably would have been surprised to see how important the Avengers were to Iron Man, as seen in this story. It picks up at the pivotal moment when the Hulk leaves the team in anger--and instead of going on and coping, all the other members decide that forming the team was a mistake in the first place, and take off despite pleas from Iron Man to stay. But to combat the new threat of the Hulk and Sub-Mariner team-up, Iron Man forms a new team based on his own armor, with less than ideal results. Shooter's strong point in his stories is characterization, and this book doesn't disappoint in that respect. Iron Man carries a heavy burden, and you feel it in just about every panel. His shining moment comes when he's forced to go it alone against the Hulk and Namor--and it's the beginning of what in any other "real world" book would be one of the most classic battles in Marvel's history.

What If #15
What If Nova Had Been Four Other People?

I'm afraid I've never been a fan of Nova, not even as a guest character. So you can imagine how I wasn't looking forward to him headlining a full book of stories. Yet this book surprised me. It explores what happens when the Centurion from whom Richard Rider gained his powers instead transfers those abilities to four different people. Consequently, the book contains four different stories. Marv Wolfman writes each of them, but the artwork is split between Walt Simonson, Carmine Infantino, Ross Andru--and George Perez, in one of his earliest jobs at Marvel. So there's a little something for everybody here.

Two of the four stories stood out for me. One was where the recipient of the Nova powers was a woman who set out to avenge her husband's murder--by viciously attacking one criminal after another to get leads on the murderer. She thus becomes a vigilante, and a danger to not only criminals but innocents--and in her consuming grief, she doesn't care. The other story has the powers adopted by an unscrupulous man who joins forces with a cabal of super-villains to eliminate every super-hero on Earth. Of course, with Marv Wolfman as writer, each of the stories is tinged with irony. He does a capable job of making Nova more interesting as alternative characters than Richard Rider ever was, at least to me.

What If #21
What If Invisible Girl of the Fantastic Four Married the Sub-Mariner?

Classic artist Gene Colan was of course no stranger to drawing the Sub-Mariner, but I believe this was some of his first work with the Fantastic Four. The story is a sequel of sorts to issue #1 of the book, where Spider-Man joins the FF. But because of his added abilities, Sue's position on the team is eclipsed--and when Namor extends an offer to Sue to join him, in this reality she accepts. As a result, Reed becomes slowly unhinged, to the point of eventually driving Spider-Man off the team.

But things really kick into high gear when Sue, now Queen of Atlantis, is expecting the imminent birth of her child with Namor. She asks Namor to invite the FF to join with them in celebration. Reed and Johnny only see the invitation as Namor throwing it in their faces that Sue is now with him; but after Namor leaves, Reed attempts to convince the United Nations that the world must make a preemptive strike on Atlantis in order to end Namor's threat to the surface world. Thanks to Ben, the U.N. sees through Reed's ploy--but later, Johnny goads Reed into invading Atlantis themselves, and perhaps winning Sue back in the process. Reed and Johnny sound a little two-dimensional here, but writer Bill Mantlo gives both of them excellent treatment--particularly Reed, who makes a good showing of himself by story's end.

What If #25
What If Thor and the Avengers Battled the Gods?

In the What If series, you'll find a lot of stories featuring the Avengers and the X-Men. But most of them lose the feel of the individual team members, because the writer (a) usually isn't their regular writer, and (b) has a lot of characters to deal into a one-time story, and can't spend a lot of time on individuals. Unfortunately, both of these hold true for this story. Yet this story really focuses on Thor--or more accurately, Thor and Odin. It's also a sequel of sorts, though you have to go back a ways to find the lead-in--to Thor's love of the mortal Jane Foster, and how Odin granted Thor his heart's desire, only to seemingly rip it away again.

Readers of the original story know there was more to it than that--but I always thought that Thor's anguish was too quickly sapped and the storyline too quickly wrapped up. Thor had been pining for Jane ever since the beginning; yet he gets over Jane and begins to know his future love, Sif, all in the same issue. This What If story proposes a different ending--one where Thor's anguish and anger instead escalate. Finally having it up to here with Odin, he enlists the Avengers' aid to assault Asgard and take vengeance on his father (though he phrases it a little differently to his comrades). Despite what I said before, the Avengers are given decent enough treatment, even though they take a back seat to the real conflict here--the one between Thor and his father. When they finally have their reckoning, the damage has been done.

What If #27
What If Phoenix Had Not Died?

Mary Jo Duffy and Jerry Bingham helm this story exploring the scenario of Jean Grey surviving her encounter on the moon with the Shi'ar. Oh, the X-Men are still defeated; but this time, Jean is taken out before the Phoenix force manifests, and the Shi'ar perform surgery on her brain that effectively destroys her telepathic abilities, thereby effectively separating Jean from the Phoenix. However, this story wonders what happens if Phoenix doesn't die, so the fix turns out to be a temporary one--and Phoenix manifests again when Jean comes along on a mission and sees Scott about to be killed by Terrax, Galactus' herald. Yet the treatment has worked on at least one level--only Phoenix appears, not Dark Phoenix. Apparently, the Shi'ar have succeeded in eradicating her threat. (Though you've probably correctly guessed otherwise.)

Duffy is no Chris Claremont in his prime; thus, the writing mostly "goes through the motions" of characterizing the various X-Men, but enough to pass muster. That lack of depth is apparent, though, when Phoenix regains her active place with the X-Men and makes the team virtually unstoppable. Storm, Wolverine, and the other X-Men become little more than window dressing, as Duffy concentrates on Jean, and to an extent Scott. But the sequence of events is believable, and entertaining for those of us who always wondered about this scenario.

What If #32
What If The Avengers Had Become Pawns of Korvac?

This story spawned from an excellent plot written by Jim Shooter on Korvac featured in The Avengers (a storyline which, aside from the lack of a consistent artist on the run, I highly recommend). Mark Gruenwald's alternate ending to that story robs the original of its poignancy--but Gruenwald manages to pen an equally enthralling and powerful story, and features just about every cosmic heavy-hitter you can think of. And the Avengers--though killed off completely with Korvac's victory--still play a major part in Korvac's plans.

By the time you reach the end of the story, every character is accounted for--and I mean everybody. No less impressive is the artwork of Greg LaRocque, who establishes a splendid pacing of a huge cast of characters, embellished by a virtual army of inkers--Bob Layton, Dave Cockrum, Herb Trimpe, John Byrne, and John Romita Sr., to name just a few. People were very busy on this book. Every time I've picked it up I've enjoyed reading it, because there's so much going on, so much eye candy for the comics reader.

Subsequent What If series were no longer in the original double-sized format, so even less time and effort could be given to each story. The first series was a worthy experiment; in some respects, it worked. But too often it explored preposterous concepts that made more eye-catching covers than the stories which were inside. And in the runs that followed, it didn't seem that Marvel really wanted to invest the talent to truly have these stories, and the book itself, make an impact. But if you come across the original books, do give some of them a read. We could very well ask ourselves, "What If Marvel Hadn't Lost Interest in What If"?

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