What is the most thing you ever answer about? No peeking! Those are cheating!
Jennifer Lawrence in Madonna’s party.
What is the most thing you ever answer about? No peeking! Those are cheating!
What If -?
I didn’t collect many Marvel titles when I was a wee’yin - I read any comic I could get my hands on, of course, but I’m thinking of “collecting” in the terms of a deliberate and knowing pursuit of books which preceded the age of my curated interest (or, to put it less like a smartass douchebag, “which came out before I was born”). There were only so many books for which I’d spend the time perusing the longboxes and on which I’d spend my allowance - Daredevil, a pretty specific era of X-Men (Claremont/Byrne onwards, specifically), and, oddly, the original volume of What If -?
It’s odd because I didn’t really know anything about most of the stories to which the series was proposing alternate resolutions - whether the mighty Avengers chose to serve or defy the time-travelling Scarlet Centurion or if Spider-Man’s clone (whose mere existence was news to me) survived or died, this was terra incognita. I hadn’t even been aware of these stories in the first place.
Then again, “What If” behaved as a Cliff’s Notes version of key Marvel Universe events - Uatu the Watcher would always take great pains to explain the backstory as the source material originally documented it, before we’d launch into the alternate history. To some degree, I’m sure the title appealed to me because it fed the information-junkie element inherent to diehard comic fans.
Besides that, though, the appeal of the title may have been that the stories were almost unrelentingly grim - even the covers are awash in secondary colors; purples and green, orange fire trimmed with sick, shocking yellow, drenched in black shadows, bold blood-red backgrounds framing distraught faces and twisted bodies – bad guy colors. Ominous business, that. Other comics of the era depicted their heroes in moments of action or reaction, while the “What If” covers depicted chaos, familiar bodies decked out in unsettling new context, some dead or dying - and you knew, by the nature of the book, they may truly die inside! The chief rule of comics, violated - no one returned from the dead in “What If”, they merely died and the universe adjusted itself to ignore their mortal absence …
DC’s old imaginary stories - the ones from the 60s, which preceded the Elseworlds line * - seemed to be stories designed to reassure children that their parents would still love them even if they had been born somewhere else, or a hundred years earlier or in another country, or if they died, or if they’d never been born in the first place. Children ask themselves these existential questions, when they’re first coming to grips with their identity independent of other people, when they first begin to realize that other people are just as real and distinct as they are - “Why am I me, and why not you? / Why am I here, and why not there? … How can it be that I, who I am / didn’t exist before I came to be / and that, someday, I, who I am / will no longer be who I am?” **
In those stories, Superman lands on another world than Earth, is never adopted by a kindly Kansas farm couple, never meets Lois Lane, never becomes Clark Kent - but still gains superpowers, becomes a hero, protects a world from danger. Batman’s parents never die, or they die later, but he still becomes Batman, or Nightman, or Owlman, or some other sort of nocturnal guardian keeping all those body-horror nightmares at bay - leering clowns and waddling dwarfs, all those terrifying not-moms and not-dads who threaten the brooding pre-adolescent emotional mind for which Gotham City is a metaphor. It all works out, your parents would still love you even if you were never born, believe it, kid.
Marvel tended to seek its audience in high school and college, but “What If” seems to still be speaking, if not to children, then to adults who have yet to fully complete their emotional education. I hate to lean so heavily on the stereotype, but I think it’s fair to suggest that someone still reading superhero comics in their late teens and twenties is searching for some component of an emotional armament which they’d been denied or had been absent in their upbringing (or, I suppose, for which superhero stories have become a sort of prosthetic stand-in). ***
What “What If” seems to be providing is reassurance that, no matter how unfortunate and unhappy the outcome of a particularly sad happenstance, it’s for the best that it worked out that way. It’s sad, for instance, that Jean Grey sacrificed herself - she never asked for the powers of the cosmic Phoenix and was only ever a victim of its tremendous appetites, but if she hadn’t chosen to end her own life? Well, then, the world would have been destroyed, as would have been the entire galaxy, and uncountable lives and cultures, so, you see, it was really for the best.
Spider-Man’s life is full of misery, but if someone else had been bitten by that radioactive spider? They would have died (#7). If he’d saved Gwen Stacy? He would’ve become a hunted criminal (#24). If he’d saved Uncle Ben? He would’ve become a heartless glory-hog (#19), or Aunt May would have died in his place (#46). It’s always for the best, it turns out - every death and disappointment, every frustrating responsibility, every apparent screw-up and failure, just imagine how bad it could have been. There is a reason, “What If” reassures us, for every tragedy, it is a way of telling young adults that there is some imperceptible greater good served by the seeming malice of maturity and the misfortune of spiritual disquiet.
I’ve only ever read a handful of issues of the second run of this series – from which the above book comes – and up until now every one of those I’d read had ended with the whole world being destroyed. My friend, Steve Ringgenberg, wrote one where Captain Mar-Vell of the Kree never succumbed to cancer and the last page is that the entire universe literally ceases to exist. No small stakes in the second run of “What If”, to be sure.
This issue might be typical for the series, for all I know, but it seems unusual in that it basically treads water. Speculating on an alternate history for the complicated life story of Simon Williams, the heroic Wonder Man, it’s basically a rejiggering of events: Williams is a villain, is redeemed, dies but has his personality preserved, which then powers the mind of a robot man sent to fight the Avengers, but he too is redeemed, falls in love, marries, Williams is reborn, falls in love too with the same woman, becomes her lover, and then all sorts of stories happen thereafter. This time around, Williams is a villain, is redeemed, doesn’t die, falls in love with that woman, marries, fights an android, dies, has his personality preserved, which then powers the mind of a robot man who falls in love with that woman and becomes her lover, and so on. Just literally mixing up the board and ending up back in the same place.
If I felt, as a reader, that my time might just have been wasted, I wonder if anyone responsible could honestly disagree. Some guys at Marvel owe me back five minutes of my life.
The best What If:
For the record, my favorite “What If” is the one where Conan comes to the future and becomes a pimp. To this day, when a cashier hands me back my change with the coins on top of the dollar bills, my first thought is ALWAYS the scene where Conan mugs a Wall Street trader in a three-piece suit and, clutching the guy’s money, throws away the paper bills because he assumes they must be nothing more than the worthless material in which the valuable coinage was wrapped. He gets away with like four-fifty in quarters.
* Elseworlds, by contrast, always seemed to me to be a series of books which had nothing in particular to say, but were by and large stylistic explorations. The dopiest volumes of that series seemed to rely on a philosophy of moving everything one hero to the left – Speeding Bullets simply decks out the Superman cast in a Batman skin, then Batman moves next door to the Green Lantern franchise. The most successful ones seemed to be creator showcases, far more than they were character or story showcases – Red Son, Dark Side, the lovely but daffy Kal, Gotham by Gaslight, Metropolis, Thrillkiller, the premises are paper-thin but the creators are showing off their skills unfettered by house styles and continuity.
** “Song of Childhood” by Peter Handke, familiar for its sing-song phrasing from Wings of Desire. Als das Kind Kind war / war es die Zeit der folgenden Fragen / Warum bin ich ich und warum nicht du? / Warum bin ich hier und warum nicht dort? …
*** I should add – getting out in front of this because nerd culture does love to play the martyr – that an incomplete emotional identity isn’t unique to superhero fans, and that millions of folks, regardless of their cultural pasttimes or lack thereof, enter their chronological adulthood still hampered by an inadequately stocked emotional larder. So, to clarify, I’m not saying that adults who read (specifically superhero) comic books are dumb babies, or that there’s anything wrong with it, OR that there’s not any other reason to read these books (academic and formal interest, as a for-instance), but I do stand by the assumption that folks primarily read this stuff into adulthood – myself included – because they hadn’t yet received a complete emotional nourishment, and superhero comics are how they make up for that.