Book Marx: What If? Why Not?

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There are those who can explain why you shouldn’t use nitrogen-rich fertilizers during the autumn months. There are those who understand the importance of mastering the art of chain, single and double before attempting filet crochet. There are even those who can tell you that the water should be around body temperature when soaking stamps off envelopes (too warm and you run the risk of destroying the backing paper, the cancellation ink, or the color).

Comic book fans are just like other enthusiasts. But instead of growing flowers, knitting afghans, or collecting postage from various countries, we focus on what really matters. Ever wonder why the Hulk’s name was changed to David Banner for the television show, how Barry Allen died, or when Hellboy first appeared in comics? It’s simple. Network executives thought Banner’s real name (Bruce) sounded too gay, Barry (the second Flash) died destroying the anti-matter cannon in “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, and Mike Mignola’s creation was introduced in issue 21 of “John Byrne’s Next Men”. If you weren’t so busy weeding tulips, you’d know these things.

Let others drone on about the great Fauvist artists like Matisse and Derain. Comic book collectors understand what truly makes life worth living: a mint copy of “Incredible Hulk” 181 and a complete set of “Kingdom Come” action figures. But beyond the obvious necessities, there are three questions that haunt readers their entire lives. What are the exact parameters of each superhero’s powers? Who would win a fight between specific characters or groups? And what would have happened if things had gone differently in any given scenario?

The third question has always intrigued me personally. I think DC’s occasional Elseworlds projects are among the most inspired and exciting stories being published, and I still mourn the cancellation of the “Mutant X” series (the best X-Men spin-off ever released). Fortunately, Marvel released a new collection of alternate fiction a few weeks ago that was better than it should have been, and I’m glad.

If you liked either of the “What If” series Marvel published in the late seventies and the nineties, you might be interested in the new “What If? Why Not?” trade paperback. The compilation is definitely a mixed bag, with a couple outstanding stories, a couple interesting ones, and a couple major stinkers. But that’s a pretty decent batting average considering the fact that the first series had a story titled, “What if the Fantastic Four were the original Marvel bullpen?”, which featured Sol Brodsky as the Human Torch. And no, I have no idea in hell who Sol Brodsky is.

Since the stories in this book are unrelated and vary in quality, I can’t easily discuss the collection as a whole. Instead I’ll discuss the individual issues in the order they appear. And like always, I will be completely unbiased and extremely gracious with my compliments.

“What if Karen Page had lived?”

And what if no one cared? Karen Page is not a very memorable character even to Daredevil fans, so Brian Michael Bendis has to spend ten pages just setting up the situation. Once he begins the actual story, his bullet-point plot (Daredevil kills Kingpin, goes on trial, and spends fifteen years in jail) is stretched out so thin the remaining thirteen pages drag on like an all-day tour of a sewer plant.

Michael Lark, whose artwork here is often rushed and amateurish, has to draw a two-page spread and five full-page panels so the story can eventually limp to its twenty-third page conclusion. And as if things couldn’t get more pathetic, three of those full-page panels show people walking down the street. Seriously, that’s the focus of three full-page panels: people walking down the street.

One good thing, though. Since the pages aren’t too thick, you can cut the entire section out with relatively little effort and pretend the book starts with the next story. To preserve the cover of the Hulk story that follows, you’ll need to leave the final page of Karen’s story in the book, but even that works out better than you’d think. Along with a nice big picture of a man walking, there’s a four-word caption that sums up the entire crap festival perfectly: “It really didn’t matter.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Rating: 2 (out of 10)

“What if General Ross had become the Hulk?”

After the Page fiasco, an illustrated version of Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inauguration speech would look good in comparison. Instead we get the best Hulk story since Peter David’s other recent classic, the astonishing “Incredible Hulk: The End” book. Pat Olliffe and Sal Buscema do a wonderful job on the artwork, but honestly, this is David’s baby all the way.

The story has everything you could want. Rick Jones meets his final fate in an unexpected but hilarious way (let’s just say there’s squishing sounds involved). Betty ends up the tragic victim of her father’s mutation. The monster has a kick-ass walrus moustache. There’s action and drama to spare. And there’s an iconic shot of the Hulk throwing a tank into the air, which happens to be my friend Steve’s favorite scene from the otherwise lackluster movie.

Add a shocking ending, and the grade it deserves is obvious.

Rating: 10

“What if Jessica Jones had joined the Avengers?”

This story is also written by Brian Michael Bendis, it features a character more obscure than Karen Page, and it has the nerve to suggest the entire “Avengers Disassembled” story line wouldn’t have occurred if a character more obscure than Karen Page had been around. So why is this one of my favorite issues?

Maybe it’s because Michael Gaydos is doing the artwork. The “Alias” title (which introduced Jessica to the world) was one of my favorite series ever, and while I still buy the sanitized (and lifeless) “Pulse” TPBs which replaced it, I sincerely appreciate the affectionate tribute to a series that ended far too soon. The story has a nice flow, and unlike the lead story, Bendis’s uncanny gift for great dialogue is on full display here. Besides, I’m a sucker for happy endings.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t regret excising the unbelievably boring Karen story that dares not speak its name (okay, it can speak its name but I ain’t listening). Still I’m glad that a more representative Bendis story was also included in this collection, since the guy is pretty damn impressive normally.

Rating: 8

“What if Magneto and Professor X had formed the X-Men together?”

This is more of an alternate take on the X-Men than a genuine “What If” story. It doesn’t read like a one-shot; it’s more like the debut issue of a new series. And while the artwork by Tom Raney and Scott Hanna is good, it’s somewhat generic.

Yet in many ways this reminded me of the late great “Mutant X” series (the one series I can guarantee you it’ll never sell, even if Marvel collects it eventually). I liked Kitty’s frequent hair-color changes, her habit of forgetting to phase her clothes, and the expressions on her pet dragon’s face. I also liked the various line-ups and scenarios introduced. And the Marauders version of Cyclops is much better than the real thing.

But there is absolutely no explanation regarding how Magneto’s change of heart made everything different. There are many plots introduced, but none are resolved. This is more a “wouldn’t it be cool if” than a “what if” tale. And this isn’t the debut issue of a new series. 

Rating: 6

“What if Doctor Doom had become the Thing?”

If the Hulk story was a tribute to the Silver Age monster, this is a tribute to the entire Silver Age universe. The artwork by Paul Smith is a wonderful compliment to Karl Kesel’s writing, mixing the cartoonish style of the Sixties with modern influences, and it works better than you could reasonably expect.

Instead of Ben going on the rocket ship and mutating into the Thing, Victor ends up being the doomed pilot. What follows next is action galore, the appearance of another Marvel legend (albeit in a different form), and one of the best “What If” stories I’ve ever read. I’m not saying Stan Lee and Jack Kirby should had done it this way instead, but if this had been the Sixties origin story, I might have been a Fantastic Four fan all along instead of waiting until Mark Waid took over the title.

Rating: 10

“What if Aunt May had died instead of Uncle Ben?”

Unlike the opening, this Ed Brubaker story has action, a nice character arc, decent artwork (thank you Andrea DiVito), and some interesting ideas. It also has the most excruciatingly horrible framing device I’ve ever seen. It’s bad enough that Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” are used to introduce the concept and narrate the story, but Brubaker keeps having them pop up every two or three pages to make incessantly lame comments that destroy the flow completely (along with any possible chance of enjoyment). Suckage, thy name is “What if Aunt May had died instead of Uncle Ben?”

And could someone please explain to me why the two worst stories in the book revolve around characters escaping death, yet both stories quickly make the resurrected loved ones disappear, ensuring that their renewed chance at life has absolutely no effect on the protagonists? What is the use of letting Uncle Ben live if you send him to prison hours later? Doesn’t that kind of defeat the premise?

In the end, this wasn’t a very well-written story. It wasn’t quite as bad as the Karen Page story. But that’s not really saying a lot.

Rating: 3


If you enjoy “What If” stories and prefer trade paperback collections of your favorite comic books, I’d recommend this, but only at a discount. Forget the $16.99 suggested retail price. Amazon sells it for $11.55, and if you can find it cheaper on eBay, all the better. If you’re not much into TPBs though, I’d still recommend tracking down the one-shots of General Ross and Dr. Doom. They’re both great stories.

One final comment: “What if Karen Page had lived?” was originally solicited by Marvel as a collaboration between Kevin Smith and Brian Michael Bendis, with artwork by Alex Maleev. It seems obvious that things didn’t go as planned, and as a result Bendis and Lark had to come up with something on the fly. The issue doesn’t deserve more than a 2. But perhaps there’s a reason this particular story doesn’t live up to the usually high Bendis standards.

That and the fact that Sol Brodsky is a more fascinating character than that Karen Page tramp could ever hope to be. And yes, the “doomed” pilot comment earlier was intentional.

- Tommy Marx

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