Wednesday, September 20, 2017

One Life To Change The World

The 2007 series Bullet Points, while squarely falling into the category of a What If tale, has the advantage of being presented as a five-issue limited series, allowing it to take its time as it makes its way through four decades of Marvel history--a method of presentation which avoids cramming a dizzying number of alternate events into one issue and, in the process, reducing their impact on the reader. The story is definitely a notch or two above the typical What If tales that were released in the late '70s and '80s; yet while there is no Watcher who narrates the story and guides us through this book's startling developments, you'll find that it eventually takes on the same characteristics of its predecessors by the time it reaches its conclusion, as it suddenly turns to make its climax a spectacle of elements that had, up to that point, been so carefully and sensibly presented. That said, the bulk of its story is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read that is so well-handled in both story and art that it's a pleasure to simply take your time with it and allow it to do what most stories strive to accomplish: to hold your attention and make you feel for its characters.

Written by J. Michael Straczynski with art by Tommy Lee Edwards, Bullet Points follows the lives of four individuals--Steve Rogers, Reed Richards, and Peter Parker, and, to a certain extent, Bruce Banner--whose histories are radically different from what seasoned readers may be familiar with, all due to a single incident from the past. As for the series' unusual title, it's understandable if your first thought is of the bullet points commonly used in documents to list key points of a subject or discussion, followed by finding yourself perplexed as to how that relates to a comic book story. Instead, Straczynski uses the deadly efficiency of a bullet striking its target as a lead-in to illustrate how bullets--in some cases a single bullet--have been used throughout human history to cause death as well as change, with many of those deaths leading to unexpected historical consequences.

For instance, there likely aren't too many people familiar with Captain America who are unaware of Project: Rebirth and Abraham Erskine's assassination by a Nazi agent, thereby causing Steve Rogers to be the only person to receive Erskine's super-soldier serum. That agent fired a number of bullets in that hidden chamber that day--but Straczynski needs only one to make his, er, point.

It's Erskine's death--or, rather, the date of Erskine's death--that becomes this story's point of divergence from actual events in our reality and thus sets the tone for what's to come. As for how the plot ties into the series title's origin, the association with the bullet points of a document seems intentional, perhaps as a hook of some sort that takes advantage of the phrase's familiarity--though Edwards' graphic of a slumped body in someone's crosshairs on the first issue's cover, as well as what appears to be a gunshot impact in the masthead, completes the picture well enough.

Soon enough, it becomes clear that Erskine meets his death just as he did in the original story. But this time, he'll have company.

As Straczynski teases in the story's prologue, timing is everything. In this case, the clock is moved up twenty-four hours, as a plane at a New York City airport revs up to take Erskine to his destination in Washington, D.C., where history awaits. Only this time, his assassin is closer at hand, and he strikes with the same deadly efficiency. Here, though, one other is caught in the exchange of fire--a young M.P., whose death will trickle down through the years and bring greater tragedy to come.

Word reaches those in Washington soon enough that Project: Rebirth is over before it began, since Erskine's death means that the formula for his serum died with him. In the waiting area of the Washington lab, a dejected Steve Rogers, now informed of the tragedy, realizes that he's seen his last chance to take part in the war effort disappear. One of the officers leaving the scene can't help but notice Rogers lingering--and when Rogers once again makes his plea to be allowed to do something to help, despite his 4F status, the Colonel who listens to him directs him to another address the following day, where a high-ranking meeting is taking place to discuss what options remain that will give the United States an edge against the German forces.

It's easy to see why this project was put on the back burner, considering the risk and personal cost to the man who volunteers to undergo the gruesome preparations involved. But it's become clear that Rogers, a driven young man who simply wants to do his part, will grasp at any straw that will clear him for active duty, even after being made to understand that this commitment will bind his heart to a metal shell for life. And despite the shocking sight of what appears before him when a curtain is drawn, there is really no doubt what his answer will be.

Rogers' connection to the "iron man" armor is somewhat similar to Tony Stark's original situation, where Stark was at first faced with the prospect of having to wear a metal chestplate for life in order to keep his heart from failing due to his injury. In Rogers' case, because of the military's fail-safe configuration, his own chestplate, which powers the armor, has been surgically connected to his heart--a design that would be somewhat duplicated in the film adaptation of Iron Man, which would coincidentally hit theaters a year later. (There was a point in this part of the story where I was under the impression that Rogers would have had to wear the entire suit of armor for life, which would have been truly shocking.)

As work on Rogers proceeds (there's really no other way to put it), the conflict that began overseas escalates with the attack on Pearl Harbor and America's entry into what is now World War II. With the U.S. suffering heavy losses in the first months, pressure increases on Rogers' team to step up the integration process, which is already painful enough for the young would-be soldier. But Rogers, frantic to join those risking their lives, insists on complying, and Straczynski provides an appropriate quote from an author who wrote of the war after the fact: "The miracle wasn't integrating the iron man suit into Private Rogers's body... the miracle was how God managed to fit a heart that big into such a small body."

Finally, in August of 1942, at Guadalcanal, American soldiers on the beachhead get an eyeful when their air support is supplemented by metal boots on the ground--paving the way for the Iron Man soldier to plunge into the war in earnest and offer his help in turning the tide.

Finally, in May of 1945, Germany surrenders--and two months later, the Manhattan Project yields the atomic weapons which bring an end to hostilities with Japan.

From here, the story skips ahead to the 1960s, where Rogers, no longer on active duty, is a reservist acting as a consultant to the Pentagon on military technology, while Peter Parker is growing up without the steadying influence of his uncle Ben, a casualty of the assassination of Erskine. As a result, Peter has become directionless, mad at the world at the loss of his parents and falling in with the wrong crowd. We catch up with him when he ditches a field trip with two other classmates and hotwires a jeep, heading out on the desert highway. But when they run out of fuel in the middle of nowhere, Peter is sent to walk to find gas and eventually makes his way into a town--that is, what he thinks is a town.

(We'll have to just suspend the disbelief of Peter having walked so far from the highway that his two friends back at the jeep were safely out of range of a gamma bomb blast.)

The doctors who treat Peter afterward are naturally amazed that he survived the explosion with no apparent ill effects, though Peter is aware that something has happened to him. Released to his Aunt May, it isn't long before he begins taking the heat from his "friends" for the trouble they're in for their roles in what happened in the desert. But he's pushed one step too far--and they become the first to witness a transformation that would haunt all of them in the days to come.

This was well before the Golden Age heroes and their villainous counterparts would be reintroduced into the mid-'60s budding super-heroes titles, and certainly before the Invaders and their collection of super-beings hit the shelves--so this segment of the story offers an interesting look at just how this creature's appearance is met by civilians as well as the authorities who come face to face with it, a creature whose appearance is something no one has ever seen before. It's unfortunate that the first such being in their midst happens to be the most powerful--and the angriest. Peter's bottled rage has finally reached the breaking point--and the more who cross him, the more he lashes out at those who attempt to control him.

Yet there is one who arrives on the scene by chance who recognizes this creature, even as transformed as he is--and when their eyes meet, both of them suffer for it.

May is hospitalized, with the military taking an interest in her condition following statements taken from Peter's loser friends by police detectives, who have begun making the connection between this creature and Peter's appearance near an army base the night that a gamma bomb was tested--a fact that nervous military authorities want to clamp the lid on a.s.a.p. Accordingly, they decide to stake out May's hospital room, on the likelihood that Peter will return to check on her; and to cover their bases (so to speak), they decide to contact the one person who might be able to capture Peter, in whatever state he manages to be in when he's confronted and asked to surrender.

Currently, that person is meeting with an old friend, Reed Richards, who has been assisting Rogers with modifications on his armor as well as helping him with his endurance. But Rogers knows that his friend has been putting another project on hold for his benefit, and he finally cuts him loose to pursue his own destiny.

During this time, the army officer in charge of the situation involving Peter has met with Rogers and solicited his help. Rogers suspects the military hasn't been entire forthcoming with him on their involvement in what's happened to Peter, but he agrees to suit up and be prepared to take action should it be necessary.

As expected, Peter appears in May's room, and she warns him that he's been expected--but before he can leave, Rogers appears in the armor and asks Peter to come with him, though Peter refuses. When he begins to become angry and transform before Rogers' eyes, Rogers fires the special chemical darts he was supplied with that were expected to pierce Peter's skin and subdue him--but both objectives fail miserably, and what follows is a clash of the only titans currently in existence on this world.

The battle quickly goes against Rogers, with neither his sponsors in the military nor Richards ever having foreseen a threat the likes of which this creature poses. Unlike the situation with Bruce Banner, who avoided being revealed as the Hulk until much later after the gamma bomb explosion, Peter's identity as the creature was discovered almost immediately, with no time for his monstrous alter-ego to inspire a fearsome legend of his own--and so this creature would never have a formal name, or even anonymity for a time. Unfortunately, after this day, he'll have a reputation that will possibly damn him forever.

Rogers' death in the creature's grip has of course triggered his chestplate's self-destruct, though the explosion has no effect on Peter's brutish and powerful new form.

But while the soldiers at the scene rush forward in grief to the fallen hero, another drama is taking place in space, where Richards' rocket prepares to enter orbit. Unlike on our world, where this project simply involved, in his words, "just the four of us and a credit line," here the project is financed by the government, with its purpose to explore and harness the power of cosmic rays--and Richards and his launch have become big news, with other governments possibly vying to become the first to harness such power. Consequently, unknown to Richards and the rest, his ship has been sabotaged--and, never having reached the cosmic ray cloud they were on course for, their crash landing will have a much different outcome for these four people.

Richards, the only survivor, having lost an eye in the crash, has not only seen his closest friends sacrificed, but must now attend the service for his friend Steve Rogers--and in his own way, Reed now finds himself as alone as Peter, who huddles in a cave and wishes only to be left alone, a desire which should sound very familiar to Hulk readers.

But Reed's life is about to take another turn, when he's approached with an offer that would allow him to withdraw from a world grown too painful for him to live in and instead apply his skills and knowledge behind the scenes.

For all intents and purposes (to borrow the phrase from that last scene), you've seen the most dramatic elements of this series. Up until now, it's been fairly easy to live with the alternate histories of the characters involved, as well-presented as everything has been laid out and how smoothly it all reads from page to page. (Though Reed's passing resemblance to Nick Fury coinciding with his segueing to a position in S.H.I.E.L.D. may be a bit much.) From here, however, Straczynski's story pushes the envelope and unfortunately begins supplying developments that read as if they're being added on a whim. It seems appropriate to present them as bullet points:

  • Stephen Strange, about to depart for Tibet to check out stories of one who might be able to heal his injured hands, decides to instead accept an offer from Reed to provide his expertise in medicine to SHIELD, and in the process receive treatments that strengthen his hands (including a glove which extends claws).
  • Baron Mordo ascends to becoming the Ancient One's chosen disciple (though Straczynski bumps him to the "rank" of Sorcerer Supreme), but dies at the hands of Dormammu since he lacked the moral clarity that would have allowed him to truly master his power.
  • As on our world, a host of other beings with enhanced power begin appearing, such as Thor, the X-Men, the Sub-Mariner, Daredevil, and Dr. Doom, a segment which seems geared to make the distinction that this story isn't simply tossing these characters into the mix for appearances' sake: "...not every stone thrown into a pond produces ripples that touch every shore. Many lives proceeded untouched, unaltered... unaffected by the events of the single bullet. As is always the case."
  • Tony Stark approaches SHIELD in the hopes of being granted the Iron Man contract--specifically, to volunteer to be the human test subject for the next Iron Man. But in light of the agony that Rogers endured, Reed is adamant about making sure the next test subject is fit, and Stark's heart condition rules him out. Instead, an older subject--James Barnes ("Bucky" to his friends) is chosen, a volunteer who seeks to repay a wartime debt to Rogers for saving his platoon in combat.
  • Bruce Banner and a team are sent to collect samples from the gamma bomb blast site in an effort to determine what happened with Peter. Banner insists to Reed that he might be able to cure Peter if the creature could be captured and studied, but Reed rejects the risk factor; however, Banner experiments in secret on insects and other lower creatures collected from the site, and is bitten by a spider he believed to be dormant. The irradiated venom basically turns Banner into a human spider, who breaks out of SHIELD but is recovered after two years and returned to custody, followed by several years of research to bring him under control. Eventually, he's made an operative--and you can probably make a good guess as to his costume's design.
  • Galactus and the Silver Surfer arrive on Earth and descend to New York, with military resistance proving useless against their threat. Reed, through SHIELD, issues a clarion call to anyone able to help, which results in a scenario we've often seen before: all costumed heroes and villains putting aside their differences and joining forces against their common foe.

Though Straczynski provides some variations. Stark, for example, decides to confiscate the Iron Man armor and use it himself, though Reed isn't about to turn down his help at this point. Thor, currently in Asgard, is certainly out of range of SHIELD's transmissions and remains unaware of the situation. Peter, who has secluded himself in the cave he's taken refuge in, changes to the creature and heads to New York. Eventually, we're presented with a scene which often seems inevitable in such confrontations:

(Though I couldn't withhold a chuckle at seeing the Green Goblin swooping in to challenge Galactus. Presumably even the Kingpin and the Molten Man are down there somewhere taking their shots at Galactus' toes, each of which must take up several blocks.  Good lord, Galactus grows more mammoth with each appearance.)

Despite the show of force, Galactus and the Surfer begin slaughtering the opposition. The situation looks hopeless; but the story places a great deal of its stock in the arrival of Peter, who as the creature receives over five pages of exclusive exposure, withstanding and advancing against the power of Galactus. Finally, he indeed falls--but his example serves to sever the Surfer's loyalties toward his master and subsequently attempt to destroy Galactus' conversion equipment, efforts which cost him his life.

In the aftermath of that act, what survivors there are discover that Galactus has vanished--departed to seek other worlds that offer less resistance. In the debris lie many casualties--including Peter, whose grave joins Rogers as well as the others at Arlington Cemetery.

Straczynski's closing narrative, which takes the form of Reed's eulogy for those who fell in battle, touches on the general theme of Bullet Points--that "the fate of even one life can change the world," which is a more elegant way to capsulize the foundation which just about any What If tale rests on. Yet Straczynski appears to strive to bring more meaning to those lives than the short shrift they receive in other such stories, and for the most part he succeeds--perhaps more with Reed Richards and Steve Rogers, arguably the heart of this series, than with Bruce Banner or even Peter Parker. The series was a fine gem to come across in the early 2000s, tucked within a decade where such "imaginary stories," still in production, were being churned out with far less diligence.

Bullet Points (5-issue Limited Series)

Script: J. Michael Straczynski
Pencils: and Inks: Tommy Lee Edwards
Letterer: John Workman


Jared said...

I haven't ever heard of this. I stopped reading Marvel in the late 90s. A few years ago I bought Marvel Unlimited and have made it through alot of what I missed. I have found that I like most material from about 2003 through about 2012.

I stopped reading your post after I realized this is something I want to read. Might make it my weekend reading. Thanks for turning me onto something I might have otherwise missed.

Comicsfan said...

My pleasure, Jared--be sure to swing back by and give us your thoughts on it!

-3- said...

I hope you take it as a compliment when i stop reading your post partway through because you've made it sound like i need to go read this, so i don't want to know any more just yet.

Comicsfan said...

Ha ha, don't worry about it, -3-, we'll be here when you get back! Take your time and enjoy the tale.

Rick said...

As I had given up on Marvel in the mid-80's, I was unfamiliar with this series. I, too, stopped reading your article to find and read the series on-line. I found it rather enjoyable, but was saddened by the exclusion of the Fantastic Four. Just like today.

Comicsfan said...

Rick, I think Straczynski's handling of the FF might have been reasonable where this series was concerned. For one thing, assuming Reed hadn't delayed his project so that he could tend to Rogers, the FF would have likely been around to deal with the creature's rampage, rather than Rogers stepping up to do so and subsequently suffering a tragic fate. Instead, tragedy strikes twice, both instances coinciding with Straczynski's domino effect that stemmed from Erskine's assassination. I was moved by Rogers' sacrifice, whereas the FF battling the creature would have had less impact overall (depending on how Straczynski would have chosen to handle it--we'll never know).

In addition, the FF being present might have shifted focus from not only Rogers but perhaps others, as well--and it was probably no accident that Straczynski chose to only bring that focus to those characters whose histories were very different from what we're familiar with.

Rick said...

Point taken. I agree from a story-telling sense that the exclusion of the Fantastic Four works. Especially in the world Staczynski is weaving here. I just like me some FF is all, and am willing to tolerate their absence in this instance. Seems a bit prophetic, though, doesn't it?

Jared said...

OK, I managed to read this over the weekend. It is outstanding. I still think the first half of his Amazing Spider-Man run is JMS's best work at Marvel. But this is probably a better suited work to JMS's strengths as a storyteller. If you are a fan of JMS's Rising Stars, you will like the pacing of this series as well as how he works seamlessly between characters.

Imaginary stories is one of the few things DC has generally done better than Marvel. This is on par with the great examples of Elseworlds.

I think we haven't heard of this because Marvel generally has distanced itself from JMS since his exclusive contract ended. I don't think they ended things amicably. No real reason, just an impression. The only thing I have ever seen him say about it is that he wanted it clear he had nothing to do with the plot for One More Day.

Comicsfan said...

Gosh, it's been years since I read Rising Stars--I think I'd picked up two or three TBPs of it. Excellent series.

-3- said...

Well, finally managed to kick back and read this through.
Thanks for the write-up making me aware of it. Much as i love JMS's work when he's good, there are horrors lurking in his body of work that make me avoid his writing until i know i want to read it.
And your piece did exactly that. A very enjoyable read, well crafted and told.

I agree on the Bruce Banner bit especially - seems a very whim/wouldn't-it-be-cool type insertion to the story. But the final Galactus confrontation seemed like a natural place to work the climax since he eliminated the Fantastic Four. (Much like modern Marvel comics)

One thing, though - did we ever see who was responsible for the sabotage of Richards' rocket? Or was it just a now that they know there were many who would want to stop it anonymous bombing?
I kind of thought it would come up again, but maybe i just missed it on the first read through.

Comicsfan said...

-3-, yes, I had the same impression about the sabotage of Reed's rocket; in fact, I found myself appreciating the fact that the identity of the saboteur was never delved into, since it would have overshadowed the more dramatic aspect of the mission's tragic end and the loss of Reed's friends. (And frankly, I wouldn't have wanted to discover that the saboteur just happened to be named Igor Drenkov or someone else with a coincidental connection to the Marvel universe!)