Revisiting What If?
With Marvel Studios releasing a little bit of footage for the upcoming What If? series on Disney+, I wanted to draw attention to the original series that started it all. Well, there were “imaginary stories” from DC Comics in the Silver Age, but this was the first time that Marvel crafted a series around the concept of alternate earths. We highlighted a cover gallery some time back, but this time I thought we’d go a little more in depth on why these stories matter.
Essentially, these are mini-reviews of old comics. I’ll acknowledge that, but feel like most of these individual issues may not get a proper review.
In the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man tried to join the Fantastic Four to solve his money problems. In this story, they agree to help him out. He becomes such an asset to the team that the Invisible Girl finds herself left behind on missions. When the Puppet Master controls Namor to kill the Fantastic Four, the Sub-Mariner’s affection for Sue Storm allows him to resist. Sue Storm chooses to stay with Namor, jilting Reed Richards who has neglected her with the success of a larger team.
Roy Thomas captures the chauvinistic tone of early Fantastic Four stories. The Invisible Girl was often relegated to the sidelines, despite the immense potential of her powers. The art is a little underwhelming, but conveys the general purpose of the story. His Watcher is almost monstrous. He excels in montages, especially those illustrating the concept of a multiverse, as well as the Fantastic Five’s battle with the Red Ghost.
Despite the seemingly massive amount of things that happen, the events essentially take place over a few issues, Amazing Spider-Man #1 and #2 is covered. Also, the neglect of Sue Storm takes place over the stories depicted in Fantastic Four #13 and #14. Roy Thomas recounts the events as if they are taking a span of time longer than this. All in all, I find this to be a pedestrian comic. However, it is important for the series as it’s the first issue and sets the stage for future issues, including a sequel to this story.
The second issue has a twist not derived by a choice from a character, but by sheer happenstance. It could be said that it’s the result of a change in the choice of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Of course, It’s Roy Thomas writing this new history in the life of Bruce Banner.
Banner keeps his mind when he first transforms into the Hulk. Instead of mindlessly fleeing, he returns to his cabin. There he finds the traitor that sabotaged the gamma blast. While awaiting arrest, the spy contacts his superior, the misshapen genius known as the Gargoyle. When the Gargoyle fails to enslave the Hulk, Banner shows mercy.
Of course, this brings Banner and Betty Ross closer together. That relationship and Banner’s intellectual propensity for negotiation lead the initial confrontation between Thunderbolt Ross and the Hulk towards a different result. Banner becomes a trusted aide for Reed Richards. He helps cure Ben Grimm of being the Thing. His mind prevents him from being tricked by Loki, and thus prevents the formation of the Avengers. He’s working with Richards and Charles Xavier when Galactus arrives. Left with no choice, the three combine themselves into a giant, powerful entity calling himself the X-Man that drives away Galactus. When the X-Man reverts to the three scientists, they find that their powers are gone.
Unfortunately, the X-Man had been confronted by Ben Grimm, ignorant of the scientists’ plan. When the X-Man buried Grimm in a blast of energy, he transformed into the Thing, but with more power and affecting his mind. Thus, the Thing becomes like the Hulk of the “main” Marvel Universe. It’s a trend in alternate realities that somehow, a balance gets maintained by the new circumstances. The art is by Herb Trimpe, and while dated terribly, retains a charm. His Hulk is wonderful and fits in his environment, despite his size. The best page in this comic is the confrontation between Banner and Thunderbolt Ross.
Overall, this issue is a good story for a second issue and uses an introduction that features the Watcher prompted by observing someone. In this case, it’s the Hulk. It also features a Pyrrhic victory, for while Richards, Banner and Xavier successfully drive away Galactus, they lose their abilities and unleash a new threat onto the world, dooming a friend to life as a monster.
This one features art by the indomitable Gil Kane and a story not by Thomas but by future Editor-In-Chief Jim Shooter. It turns on the Hulk’s departure from the Avengers. This sparks a rift in the Avengers that cannot be mended. Giant Man argues that the Avengers can’t force someone to stay. Thor sees the reason and likewise leaves. without their two most powerful members, the team falls apart.
Iron Man’s failure to capture the Hulk on his own drives him to create armor for a new team of Avengers. When that doesn’t work, Iron Man super-charges his armor for one large battle against the Hulk and Namor. Rick Jones, Giant Man and the Wasp follow behind in the armor designed for them. The battle is intense with Iron Man sacrificing his life to save Giant Man’s.
The battle turns when Namor nearly kills Rick Jones. The Hulk turns on Namor, sending both off, their plan foiled. Giant Man, the Wasp and Rick Jones dedicate themselves to the memory of Tony Stark.
This is an exceptional issue, if for no reason other than Gil Kane’s art. The story seems to meander at times, but with this issue, it seems like the series is really finding it’s tone. This story kept a tradition alive of stories limited in their scope. Fortunately, the art of Gil Kane gives it all the importance it deserves.
This issue is an oddity among What If? This issue depicts a story that doesn’t stem from a changed result of an action. This is explained in the letters page as a “could have happened” rather than a “might have happened.” It tells what happened to the Invaders after World War II. At the time, Invaders was set firmly in 1942, giving this story no home. It is a successful story and flows in the pattern of the previous three stories.
It introduces a piece of Marvel history often overlooked. Captain America was thrown into the ice in 1945. Yet, Atlas continued publishing Captain America stories set firmly after World War II. This story addresses that by having two other patriotic masked men take up the shield, the Spirit of ’76 and The Patriot. Steve Englehart had established an anti-communist Captain America and Bucky in the era of McCarthyism.The story also established that the All-Winners Squad published after the War was what the Invaders transformed into.
There’s a history in the original What If? series that occasionally, trivial Marvel history would be explored. Many times it would be because it was important, and most of the time, it was because the stories were entertaining and had nowhere else to go.
This is getting a bit long in the tooth, so we’ll pick up next time with another four or five issues.