Reviews Of Old Comics: What If? #11
Today of all days, we need to review a comic that might have had the best of intentions somewhere, but was obviously created with the intention of having fun with a story. Therefore we give you a What If? story created by Jack Kirby, proving that while fandom may hold the original Marvel Bullpen with awe, one of them can have a little fun with their roles.
The Watcher introduces us to a version of the Fantastic Four that while different, is still familiar, the original Marvel Bullpen: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Sol Brodsky and Flo Steinberg. They are fighting an ogre-like creature whose weapon takes out everyone bu Flo, the Invisible Girl. She lets him defeat himself by surrounding him with a force field while he fires his weapon. She then realizes that he’s the reclusive scientist that they came to meet.
In his laboratory they find what the suspect changed him a box-like device that erupts in Cosmic Rays. Sol, the Human Torch, destroys it and the Four ponder how the mysterious “S People” are one step ahead of them. This sparks a flashback to their origin.
In the Marvel offices of the early 1960s, a group has let Stan Lee know that they are using Marvel comics as the basis for a grand experiment. Sol Brodsky and Jack Kirby are piling more work on Stan Lee when his secretary, Flo Steinberg brings in a package from the mysterious “S People” that contains a device that once handled erupts into a barrage of cosmic rays. Jack Kirby destroys the box but the four find themselves transformed, with powers very similar to what we recognize as the Fantastic Four. Jack Kirby as the Thing, Flo Steinberg as the Invisible Girl, Sol Brodsky as the Human Torch, and Stan Lee as Mr. Fantastic.
The Watcher explains that the four became a real life Fantastic Four and translated some of their adventures into stories for the comic, but always turning up missing from the Marvel offices to chase after the mysterious “S People.” Jack Kirby learns to change into the Thing at will, which eases the stress on the team. Their search takes them to the undersea kingdom of Atlantis, where the Sub-Mariner captures them, thinking they have something to do with a strange box found in his chambers. The misunderstanding turns into a battle, but after Namor is convinced that the Fantastic Four did not plant the box, they compare suspicions that the S People may be extraterrestrial. Namor’s machinery discovers that his very own guard is an alien shape-changer, one of the “S People,” otherwise known as Skrulls who easily renders Namor and the Fantastic Four unconscious.
The Skrull escapes to his ship, and Namor informs a reviving Fantastic Four that he was not unconscious and saw the Skrull reveal himself. They chase the Skrull ship with Namor and Jack Kirby destroying it, killing the Skrulls and destroying the boxes that would have been used to transform millions of humans. Namor and the Fantastic Four then vow to use the Skrull’s secrets of Cosmic Rays to one day restore themselves to stability.
As I mentioned in the introduction, Jack Kirby is obviously having fun here. The letters page reveals that the idea was actually spawned by Roy Thomas, who, because of work load, gave the story to Jack Kirby, who created what is this story, with some slight re-writing by Thomas and Mark Greunwald to make it fit the alternate worlds concept of the series. Kirby recaptured the fun of his Fantastic Four series, something that the series lacked for many years, albeit with a shining moment or two.
Kirby’s art is Jack really showing what has been missing from the Fantastic Four. Advanced machinery that looks so complex and advanced that there’s no way to discern what it does. Even with his heavily stylized rendering, which is consistent in its exaggerations, action is discernible and flows nicely. My favorite scene is the escape of the Skrull, which should be textbook on how to tell a story with shifting camera angles. Jack also makes the Marvel offices a real place, complete with a crowded feeling, and treats the amazing environments like Atlantis the Baxter Building, and Doctor Morrow’s laboratory with the same care.
His watcher seems to be lacking in visual consistency to other translations of him, but is much more personable, as a welcoming narrator. His likeness of Stan has moments where it doesn’t have that same visual quality that Stan Lee had in the 1970s, but again, he is always recognizable as Stan Lee, probably due to his iconic mustache. In the flashback scene without it, Stan is unrecognizable without everyone calling him by name. This is still textbook comic art, with examples of almost every method of dynamic storytelling.
This issue has been collected in What If? Classics Vol 2 (ISBN: 0785118438). If you want a copy of just this issue, you shouldn’t have to pay more than a few dollars to get a copy, even in the best of conditions. You can also get it on comixology, who also has the first dozen issues of the series available.
FINAL RATING: 8.7 out of a possible 10. It’s a little dated and really self-serving by Marvel to insert the most iconic people in their Silver Age into a series, albeit one that allowed for such bizarre notions. With extremely interesting notions of alternate realities like Gwen Stacy surviving, Uncle Ben living, and the Kree-Skrull War not yet explored, this seems like a bizarre concept, even today. It is a darn fun read, though, and it’s some of Kirby’s best art.