Sunday, January 6, 2013

From Secretary to Queen


After an adventure where the Fantastic Four confronted the Sub-Mariner in order to rescue his hostage, Sue Storm, the FF discovered that Namor's actions were being controlled by the Puppet Master. And once that control was broken, Namor again asked Sue to make a fateful choice:



Yet this scene played out differently when What If? #1 was launched, and Spider-Man joined the team as its fifth member. Sue was able to make her choice as to who would hold her heart, and it wasn't the brainy scientist who had been looking for her earlier in the day so that she could type a report for him:



And to seal the deal, Namor adjusted Sue's physiology to make her a water-breather like the rest of his race. I think most girls would have preferred an engagement ring:



It took almost two years for this story to be followed up on, but it was well worth the wait because it's one of the stand-out stories of this series--and by that I mean that it's not the usual "what if" fare which simply wraps a phoned-in story around a provocative query. Which is fortunate, because the title isn't even all that provocative:




I mean, so what if Sue marries Namor? There doesn't seem to be much drama associated with that, at least on the surface. Except that the surface is literally where we're going to find that drama, since there still remain loads of material to be mined from how the rest of the FF deal with both Sue's absence as well as her decision. With Spider-Man having come on board as a fifth member but now making the group a foursome again, the FF seem to be adventuring as usual just fine without Sue. In fact, Spider-Man's more assertive and self-confident posture helps to make the team a more vital fighting force. Yet Sue's absence is felt in other ways--in this case, a growing resentment of Spider-Man from both Reed and Johnny, who play the comparison game:



It's especially interesting to see this bitterness grow in Reed, since he probably can't help but feel that Sue's choice of Namor had more to do with her lingering feelings for the Sub-Mariner which had never been fully resolved. He may tell himself that it was just the timing of Spider-Man's integration with the team that made her choice easier--but in the back of his mind he may simply feel that Sue rejected him. Whatever the truth is, Johnny's own feelings about Namor being responsible for his sister deserting their second family have him piling on Spider-Man with Reed, resulting in Spider-Man quitting the FF.

As for Namor and Sue, a lot has happened in the year since Sue took her place by Namor's side. Sue, in particular, has chosen not to dwell on the past but instead look forward to the future. And in that regard, she and Namor have been of one mind:



Along with the development of Sue's impending childbirth, Atlantis has thrived with this joining of Namor and Sue. Namor has obviously located his missing subjects at long last. The Warlord Krang, who once conspired to steal both the Lady Dorma and the throne, is now Namor's most trusted and loyal countryman, and has found Dorma to be his willing consort. And in this time of peace as well as a new prince on the way, Sue makes a request of Namor regarding the family she long since left behind:



Unfortunately, even as Namor swims for the surface, the "family" he seeks to unite is becoming even more fragmented:



So at this point, Namor has no way of knowing the festering bitterness that's now swelling to the surface of both Johnny and Reed, who have effectively driven away their friends but are in serious denial about being responsible for it. And when the Sub-Mariner arrives with glad tidings, Reed and the Torch have only stinging words for him. There are times when writer Bill Mantlo tends to rush his pacing in a story, with his characters' dialog trying its best to keep up with the abrupt shifts in settings and situations--and though I feared the cut-to-the-chase format of typical What If? tales might make Mantlo approach this story much like he did the frantic Iron Man Annual #4, the progressions from scene to scene are believable, with Mantlo at the peak of his talent for characterization. He proves most knowledgeable of the no-love-lost history between the FF and Namor, as he demonstrates in this beautiful two-page confrontation:



Gone are the stabs at diplomacy which the FF showed Namor in the past. Reed and Johnny tell Namor exactly what they think of him and his way of life--but more importantly, clearly they continue to delude themselves by pressing the point that Sue is only with Namor out of a sense of duty. As for Namor--not exactly the prince of tact--he responds by rubbing salt in the wound and speaking truths to Reed about his negligence of Sue that he knows the other man will grit his teeth at hearing.

This issue made it into my top favorites from the first volume of What If? comics, with the thanks for that probably due to Mantlo's handling of Namor. After the revolving door of writers on the first Sub-Mariner series, I would have been curious to see the direction he might have taken Namor (as well as Atlantis) in his own book.

Once Namor has left the Baxter Building, Reed--with Johnny supporting him 100%--attempts to deceive the United Nations into thinking that Namor is an imminent threat and must be aggressively dealt with, using a recording of Namor's visit that he's heavily edited to make it seem like Namor is on the verge of declaring war. But the Thing averts catastrophe when he arrives with proof of the recording's tampering, which leads to the ejectment of Reed and Johnny from the assembly and further estranges Ben from his former friends.

But while Reed starts to think that he's totally going down the wrong road here, Johnny becomes even more angry at being stymied, intent on making Namor pay for his transgressions. And like a devil figure on Reed's shoulder, he convinces Reed to apply his scientific genius into planning an attack on Namor, and in doing so perhaps getting Sue back in the process--the last part being the rope that reels in Reed to the Torch's irrational course of action.

And not long after, their two-man war on Atlantis begins:



When an angry Namor emerges and engages Johnny, Reed uses the planned distraction to submerge and install a deadly weapon near the city. And even though Namor manages to eventually subdue the Torch, he realizes where the true danger lies:



We're now about two-thirds of the way through this forty-five-page story, and Mantlo is cooking on all cylinders--because despite the battle-drama taking place, much of the more intense drama is about to come into play, with Reed confronting Sue as well as discovering that she's carrying Namor's child. And in this full-page introduction to the last chapter, it's clear that Reed expects to accomplish two things he's always excelled at: carry out a carefully-laid plan to success, as well as once again be the voice of reason to a woman he still thinks is susceptible to his influence:



But Sue has gone into labor, a complication which Reed hasn't prepared for--especially since her pregnancy is an additional element ripping her further away from him. Add to the fact that Namor is speeding to her side, and Reed runs out of time. But not out of options, as he chooses the moment of Namor's arrival to play his trump card:




Sue's attack hits Reed like a bucket of cold water. (Or at least it would if he weren't already underwater.) And it's then that Dorma advises him of the one flaw in his otherwise clever plan:



Namor's words help to finally bring Reed to his senses, and he rushes to successfully disable his deadly weapon, which has already caused the death of Warlord Krang. Yet after the matter has been resolved, all the Torch sees is betrayal by Reed as well as a humiliating "defeat" rare for a member of the Fantastic Four, particularly when he felt their mission was so clearly in the right. And his lasting bitterness is well on its way to consuming him:




As for Reed, it seems only fitting that he be witness to this scene, which acts in his mind to seal the reality of the life Sue now shares with Namor forever:



In this story, it's interesting how Sue's actions parallel those of her counterpart in our own reality. Here, Sue attempts to use the occasion of her child's birth as an olive branch to establish peaceful relations between Atlantis and the surface world; and in our own reality, where Sue has gone on to marry Reed and remains a member of the FF, she's often been instrumental in smoothing relations between Namor and the FF, while Namor has come to her aid when needed. Mantlo could have perhaps given more focus to Sue, given that she's the "Helen" who sets these events into motion; but since it's made clear to us where her loyalties and her love lie, the real story is to be found with Reed--who, despite the mistakes he's made in this entire affair, proves his heroism in the end by pulling out of his downward spiral and overcoming his own flawed nature.

If you read issues 1 and 21 back-to-back, you'll perhaps find yourself more engaged in the latter story, as it's less a summation of changed events and reads like more of a smooth progression of them, a style I much prefer since it avoids the constant "shock value" revelations that drive the original story. There's also less of a dependence on the Watcher's narrative, while overseeing key event segments--here, it's the characters who lead us through the story's developments, with the Watcher only making the occasional appearance to offer an opinion. Essentially, where the original issue bases its developments on the digression of events from existing FF and Spider-Man stories, this is a brand new story you'll be reading. The only coattails it's riding on are those of the ending from the first What If? issue that put this ball into play.

Of course, the Watcher can't let well enough alone, so we still need to be reminded in the last panel that we haven't necessarily seen the last of his backseat driving:


What If #21

Script: Bill Mantlo
Pencils: Gene Colan
Inks: Bob Wiacek
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski

2 comments:

Kid said...

Well done - now I want to read that comic. Must keep an eye out for it.

Comicsfan said...

I know the first What If? series is available in TPBs, if you want to go that route--this story is in Vol. 4 of the TPB releases of that series, I believe.

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