Sunday, 24 February 2013

Omitted material: What If? Classic volume 3

It's time for a further look at some of the Spider-Man related issues from the original What If? series.

#15: "What If Nova had been Four Other People?", written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by John Buscema, Walt Simonson, Carmine Infantino, Ross Andru and George Pérez, reprinted in What If? Classic volume 3

This was the same basic idea as issue #7, only this time with Marvel's then-newest star rather than it's biggest and also using different artists for each segment. However Peter Parker was the only one of the four people who was familiar to readers.

The origin of Nova is relatively easy to adapt to the What If? set-up - a dying alien transmits his power and costume by energy beam and it accidentally hits a human, giving them the Nova powers. Each story sees it hit someone else. In the first it hits Helen Taylor, an angry widow who has vowed to find the mugger who killed her husband. She launches a violent war on crime to find the mugger, killing many criminals in the process including the Kingpin. Eventually the Fantastic Four intervene and capture her, then are forced to exile her to the Negative Zone. Meanwhile a car is pulled out of the river where it has been for months, and inside is the drowned mugger. The second story is set in a world that has hitherto lacked heroes and so when the beam hits a homeless black man he doesn't immediately realise to use them. One snowy night he is given shelter at an orphanage but then a Skrull invasion force arrives and detects his power. To save the children and Earth he becomes Nova and lets himself get captured so the children can be saved. On board the Skrull flagship he attacks and destroys the ship's equipment, causing it to go nova and saving the Earth. In the final story the beam has hit a criminal who uses the centurion's spaceship as a base from which he assembles Dr Doom, the Red Skull and the Sphinx and the four steadily eliminate all of Earth's humans. However rivalries amongst the villains result in them turning on each other until the Sphinx is the only one left standing. He desires death and sets out to search every human's mind to find one with the knowledge he needs, not realising that the criminal Nova he atomised was the one.

But it's the third story that generates the strongest interest. We get an altered version of the start of Spider-Man's origin as here the spider absorbed far more radiation and so instead of gaining powers Peter succumbs to radiation poisoning. He recovers, though not before Aunt May succumbs to stereotype and has a fatal heart attack at the first sign of bad news. Peter is now unable to walk and descends into bitterness, believing himself to be cursed. He sends Betty away (in this reality she seems to have already been his girlfriend) and throws himself into science, hoping to find a cure. One night he's alone in the school lab when the beam hits him. Discovering he can walk and more, he flies off to tell Uncle Ben, only to arrive as a burglar breaks into the house. In the living room Peter Nova flies in and a bullet bounces off his skin, killing the burglar. Despite both Uncle Ben and a police officer telling him it was accidental self-defence, Peter vows never to use his powers again and walks off embittered.

With most of the alternative Novas entirely new characters it's interesting to see different takes on some traditional comic moments and show how the power could bring out the best and worst in people. Peter Parker's story may have an all too cliched approach to Aunt May's heart but otherwise shows how a complete run of bad luck and no realisation of responsibility could have made him a very different person.

#17: "What If Ghost Rider, Spider-Woman, and Captain Marvel Had Remained Villains?", written by Steven Grant and drawn by Carmine Infantino, reprinted in What If? Classic volume 3

Once again we get multiple takes on a single idea, told in separate chapters. The first chapter sees an alternate take on Ghost Rider whereby his adoptive father Crash Simpson survives both cancer and a record breaking motorcycle stunt, resulting in the Devil taking Johnny Blaze's soul without interruption. He accidentally causes Crash's death and then later Roxanne Simpson tracks him down, only to die in the confrontation. Finally Daimon Hellstrom the Son of Satan confronts Ghost Rider and exorcises him. The Spider-Woman chapter is an alternate take on her debut in Marvel Spotlight #32 where on this occasion she doesn't discover Hydra's treachery and instead kills Nick Fury. The rest of the story which is largely the story of her fleeing to Hydra's base then getting captured in a S.H.I.E.L.D. raid then escaping at her trial. He primary motivation is to find out the truth of her past and the epilogue sees her as a wanderer, searching the world with S.H.I.E.L.D. in pursuit. Frankly there's not much meat to this and it doesn't give us much insight into Spider-Woman or any other characters. The Captain Marvel story is pretty much all set-up as it presents an alternate take on Marvel's earliest adventures with his rival Yon-Rogg exposed and eventually dying, with Captain Marvel remaining as a loyal Kree commander. This one doesn't show us very much at all. This is a general problem with telling multiple stories in a single issue, especially when the unifying concept is so abstract forcing each tale to spend more time telling the story (whereas the earlier ones with someone else getting Spider-Man or Nova's powers each share an introduction). The Ghost Rider chapter is the strongest by default with the other two tales not really offering that much of an alternate take on the characters. A pity that once again Spider-Woman is lumbered with such poor material.

#19: "What If Spider-Man had Never Become a Crime Fighter?", written by Peter Gillis and drawn by Pat Broderick, reprinted in What If? Classic volume 3

Or "What If Spider-Man has stopped the Burglar who killed his uncle?" This is probably the most obvious Spider-Man What If?, with its closest contender coming in issue #24 (reprinted in the next volume). Here Spider-Man heeds the call for help and catches the burglar - but not out of altruistic responsibility. No he's spotted the potential for some good publicity. As a result his public standing soars and Peter becomes ever more swollen headed. He reveals his identity to Aunt May and Uncle Ben, but this leads to an argument about his pursuit of entertainment over science and he deserts them. He guest hosts the Johnny Carson show (now what would be the equivalent of that role in the UK?), stars in a blockbuster movie and then becomes a film producer, signing up many other heroes with the offer of favourable publicity. Meanwhile J. Jonah Jameson's world starts crashing around him. His son dies when his space capsule crashes, and Jonah becomes ever more embittered about the attention celebrity "heroes" get compared to what he sees as "real heroes" - policemen, firemen, astronauts and the like. This leads to him taking on Spider-Man by getting Ned Leeds to work out his identity. In retaliation Spider-Man shows up in Jonah's office with several gun toting men, but turns the tables by pretending to be a stunt to give Jonah an award for journalism. When the Daily Bugle attacks Spider-Man for signing the vigilante Daredevil, Spidey retaliates by discovering and exposing the Bugle's crime reporter Frederic Foswell as the crimelord the Big Man. Here the resultant negative publicity results in Jonah being asked by his board to take a step back from running the paper and he instead resigns. Having lost everything he succumbs to temptation when the jailed Foswell asks him to be his outside man to run the mobs in exchange for using the organisation for revenge on Spider-Man. An initial attempt to have Kraven the Hunter scratch Peter with poison claws fails due to the intervention of Daredevil. Then Peter and Daredevil meet with their writers - only to discover it's a trap and the writers are really several super-villains in disguise. Daredevil dies in battle and Peter realises he must use his powers for real, overpowering the remain foes. He pulls off the ringleader's hood to discover an insane Jonah, ranting about how his life has been destroyed and how Spider-Man is a villain. A remorseful Peter realises how his failure to use his powers for good has caused all this.

Pretty much everyone is in character and this is a particularly good character study of Jonah that really digs into just why he harbours such hatred of Spider-Man and other superheroes. It's a far cry from the caricature he sometimes descends to. As for Spider-Man himself, we have a good continuation of the swell-headed teenager from Amazing Fantasy #15 but also an insight into his imagination. It's quite possible he may have performed some good, particularly by signing the X-Men to give mutants good publicity, just as many real world actors and producers have helped good causes. But his arrogance and selfishness brings destruction in its wake - and he's not always the worst to suffer for it.

The other tales in the third volume are:
  • #14: "What If Sgt. Fury Had Fought World War Two In Outer Space?"
  • #18: "What If Dr. Strange Were a Disciple of Dormammu?"
  • #20: "What If the Avengers Fought the Kree-Skrull War Without Rick Jones?"

Issue #14 was one of the more outrageous concepts yet seen, but as the cover acknowledged it was riding a wave at the time launched by Star Wars.

You will have noticed that two issues are missing. These are:
  • #13: "What If Conan the Barbarian Walked the Earth Today?"
  • #16: "What If Shang-Chi Master of Kung Fu Fought on the Side of Fu Manchu?"

Marvel no longer holds the rights to either Conan or Fu Manchu and so can't reprint their appearances. Shang-Chi is a Marvel originated character but with a setting a supporting cast drawn from the Fu Manchu stories it's only possible to reprint some of his appearances.

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