Monday, February 29, 2016

Where Waits Death!

In a way it feels strange to follow up on Fantastic Four Annual #6 with a tale that never actually happened (though the Watcher would no doubt claim otherwise). In the annual, we were provided with a happy ending at being witness to the successful birth of Sue Richards' son, with Reed, the proud father, greeting both mother and child with a mixture of joy and gratitude (and probably a little relief mixed in). But since the story avoided the death of Sue by the slimmest of margins, there was perhaps another story waiting to be told which would reveal a more tragic ending to this tale--where the male members of the FF, in a race against time, were too late in returning from a crucial mission with a control element which would have increased Sue's chances of survival. And fifteen years later, in Marvel's popular What If title, we see that story come to fruition.

Thanks to the dire nature of this tale, we see some ground covered (sorry, an unfortunate pun) that the original story, in its breakneck pace to obtain the necessary element to save Sue's life, wasn't able (or willing) to spend time on. You might even say that the What If version serves as the "director's cut" of the original story by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. As is the case with such cuts that offer added material, some of the additional scenes in the newer story don't necessarily fit well, with a few of them dependent on context--while others add considerably to the drama and fill in the conspicuous gaps in the original story, scenes that were never addressed but perhaps should have been. For the most part, though, the story is an opportunity to see the members of the FF brought to their lowest point by the loss of one of their own, and through no one's fault in particular--though as we'll see, that's an assessment that Reed Richards will flatly reject.

As with most What If stories, things begin fairly quickly here--and when adapting your tale from a story which hit the ground running in the first place, some details tend to get lost jettisoned in the shuffle. Yet there is a balance which writer Peter Gillis strives to maintain, by supplying important details that were lacking. For instance, in these opening scenes, Gillis somewhat clarifies the reason why the cosmic energy in Sue's system is endangering her life, and why it would necessitate the need for a control element.

As for Sue, we see much more of her in this story--mostly to establish the fact that in any normal medical care scenario where the life of a mother and/or her child was in danger, Sue would have been fully informed and kept apprised of the situation by her physician, despite Reed feeling it necessary to withhold the seriousness of the matter from her.

Good heavens, "video cassettes"--you'd think Reed would have been ahead of that curve!

Yet because Sue is going to perish--we already know what this story has planned for her, after all--Gillis spends a good deal of story space beforehand reminding us of Sue's presence and the history she's shared in the personal lives of Reed and Ben, even detailing how Sue met both of them while she was attending Columbia University (presumably after the war, well after Reed and Ben attended State U.). The timing feels strange in these scenes, as if Gillis is piling it all on too much. Such scenes might have had more authentic impact in Lee's story, had he also taken the route of ending Sue's life--but here, it's as if she's giving her own eulogy and writing words of farewell to everyone.

Fifteen years after the fact, it's possible that Gillis felt the expanded scenes with Sue's reminiscences were needed to garner sympathy for Sue at the proper time--that a newer reader might not have been able to get there on their own.

Meanwhile, the FF's encounter with Annihilus occurs in mostly the same series of steps. First, we get a well-done "all you need to know about Annihilus in two panels" scene:

Followed by the FF being captured by Annihilus and barely making it out of his stronghold alive. It's here that the diverging point between the two stories occurs, as Gillis condenses Annihilus' pursuit to rearrange events as we remember them in order to craft the scenes that will lead to tragedy--or, put another way, the scenes that will have the FF returning to Sue too late. Interestingly, Gillis dispenses entirely with Lee's scene where the lives of the FF are threatened by contact with an area of space containing an exploding atmosphere, and, as a result, gets his facts a little jumbled in the process.

Gillis could have simply said that the FF were recaptured by Annihilus and left it at that; the delay that he was looking for would still have occurred. It's a minor discrepancy between the two stories, regardless--because the more important difference for us to note that we might otherwise overlook in the process is that, in the revised version, Annihilus' cosmic control rod is never returned to him.

But such observations pale in light of the critical moment that has been building up to this point.

There is a full four pages--crammed with over 30 panels--featuring Sue's funeral proceedings, where first Johnny and Ben, and then finally Reed, speak of her character and her kindness. And yet it's Reed's testimonial which rivets our attention, his words spoken solemnly but, disturbingly, somewhat disconnected, as if he were there fulfilling the requirement of his appearance and nothing more. The words are there, correct in tone and demeanor--but with little feeling behind them. It's an observation that doesn't escape the Sub-Mariner, who subsequently--and unexpectedly--arrives at the Baxter Building and offers to stay awhile and provide company to the grieving.

As we can see, the time has come for the story to pivot to Reed, who cannot face the loss of his wife and sequesters himself in isolation. It's curious that Gillis gives no further story space to Reed's son, who has survived his mother's death but whom no one makes mention of from this point on, not even to Reed; stranger still that Reed has felt no urge to see him, the closest thing he has right now to the presence of his lost wife. Yet for what Gillis has in mind, the child would be an inconvenient subject to bring up, since he would serve to refocus the rest of the FF and distract from their grief--and for Reed, simply holding him would help to begin the healing process. With all of the other bases Gillis has made a point of covering, it seems odd that he's made little to no provision for a character as important to this story as the newborn child. Sort of the reason we're all here, isn't it?

As Gillis focuses on the more private moments of Ben, Reed, and Johnny, he makes a point to briefly mention Annihilus' role in all of this. In Lee's story, Annihilus was the villain to overcome, the one who needed to be dealt with in order to save Sue, pure and simple; but while Reed's grief causes him to shift the blame for Sue's death to Annihilus, Johnny more calmly reflects on that fact that Annihilus' actions weren't responsible for what happened to Sue. That doesn't excuse the twisted and deadly aspects to his character--but battling the FF held no ulterior motive for him beyond an irrational preoccupation with his own mortality and a fierce effort to prevent them from escaping with the device that, in his possession, would ensure he would live forever.

But try telling that to Reed, who has rifled through the FF's armory and made his way back into the Negative Zone on a mission of vengeance.

Fortunately, Namor had been keeping an eye on Reed, fearing the worst--and he alerts the rest of the FF, who are quick to follow. Namor is an odd addition at this stage of the story--and it's particularly puzzling that we haven't seen a more visible indication of his grief, given his feelings for Sue. But aside from his grudging respect for Reed, as well as his sympathy, we discover that Namor's reason for demonstrating such concern for his former rival is quite justifiable.

As for Annihilus, his character has changed in an interesting way, as well. Previously, we've seen how ruthless and deadly he can be in the pursuit of his goal of bringing death to all who live; but now that he's no longer in possession of his cosmic control rod, and death is now an all-too-real threat to him, his attitude has changed to one of paranoia, fearing the approach of any object, whatever its purpose. In this case, his fear is well-justified--for he is most definitely this object's target.

Since we know that with the loss of his control rod, Annihilus has already been deprived of his immortality, it's unclear why Gillis still has him reacting as if he's in danger of losing it. Gillis could have simply lost track of things; but I prefer to think that Annihilus has become so fearful to face the truth of his state of mortality, so afraid of admitting what's happened to him, that he's lying to himself and acting as if nothing has changed for him.

Of course, taking into account how well Reed crafts a plan, and the fact that he's already familiar with this planetoid, Annihilus is about to find his options reduced to one: begging for mercy that isn't likely to be given.

Ben's instincts are of course dead-on--and we reach the point where this story comes down to not only how Reed deals with his overwhelming grief, but what his methods will accomplish. For Reed, perhaps they both add up to the same answer, since it's become apparent that he no longer has any interest in living. As the dramatic scene plays out, Gillis also takes the opportunity to drive home the point that Annihilus, whatever his crimes (and they're considerable), is innocent of what Reed accuses him of--something that Reed, in his present state of mind, has no interest in hearing, though the anguish he expresses perhaps indicates that on some level he realizes the truth.

Namor's plea is well-spoken; in his rages against the surface world, we tend to forget the losses that Namor has suffered in his life. Yet how stoically he expresses these thoughts, as if Gillis strives to balance Namor's chosen role on this mission with his status apart from the lives of these men--from all surface men. We would need to hear Namor's voice, his inflections, to appreciate this scene on the level that we're perhaps meant to. But we all probably realize that Reed's course is set--and this story is, after all, meant to take a different turn than the one we remember.

As tragic endings go, the end that Gillis brings to this story is quite well done, given how over-the-top these scenes could have been handled. In fact, all things considered, Gillis has treated this alternate tale--which, for all intents and purposes, brings an end to the Fantastic Four--with a good deal of respect for the characters involved (well, with the exception of the child, who was swept out of the story without much regard for what he could have contributed to it and what he would have represented to the parties involved). As with many What If endings, the door is shut on the story at this point rather abruptly; yet if story space had allowed, an epilogue featuring Johnny a few years later, with custody of his nephew, filling him in on his famous family and the FF's brief history would have provided some fine closure.

What If #42

Script: Peter Gillis
Pencils: Ron Frenz
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: Janice Chiang


Anonymous said...

In the early '80's, I made a point of picking up WHAT IF on a regular basis. It was a great series that promised the unexpected and delivered it.
As we all know, in comic books, characters only change so much, and consequences are rarely permanent, which makes it difficult to write dramatic stories with much emotional impact. Comics like WHAT IF and D.C.'s ELSEWORLDS line gave creators a chance to get out of that box. You never knew what was going to happen.
Great issue, and it's cool to see some early Ron Frenz art here. I loved his work on Thor, which got better and better over time. He drew a mean Annihilus!
Also, I think you're right, C.F., Annihilus must have lost that cosmic control rod, which would explain why he was defeated so easily.
Have you reviewed the Korvac WHAT IF yet? Boy, that was a wild one.

Comicsfan said...

As a matter of fact, yes, M.P.--you can find the Korvac story reviewed at this link.

david_b said...

I picked up a few back in the day, like the Vision/Wonderman one (can't recall the premise off hand..), but this one looks pretty awesome.

'Cept the cover. Reed's expression is drawn pretty crappy.

And the Frenz interior art is pretty 'Al Milgrom-ish', luckily Joe Sinnott's inking saves it most of the time.

But the story is certainly intriguing.