Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Omitted material: What If? Classic volume 4

It's time for another look at some of the Spider-Man related issues of What If?

#21: "What If the Invisible Girl had Married the Sub Mariner?", written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Gene Colan, reprinted in What If? Classic volume 4

This was a sequel to issue #1's "What If Spider-Man Joined the Fantastic Four?". Following the departure of the Invisible Girl in that issue, the team has reverted to the name "Fantastic Four". However Spider-Man's approach is still very independent and early on in the story matters come to a head after the team defeats the Super Skrull. Following an argument Spider-Man resigns and swings off, leaving the story completely. Perhaps it's a sign that Spider-Man just can't be a team player, no matter how favourable the circumstances, or that the Fantastic Four just aren't good at accepting newcomers (though both these points would be challenged in later years).

The rest of the story is an alternate Fantastic Four tale as the remains of the team come to terms with the Invisible Girl's departure. It's a tale of anger and revenge that sees Mr Fantastic nearly wipe out the entire population of Atlantis in his attempt to reclaim her. It's quite a downbeat story that suggests Mr Fantastic has serious issues but it's not a Spider-Man tale in any way. On its own this can be ignored.

#23: "What If the Hulk Had Become a Barbarian?", written by Peter Gillis and drawn by Herb Trimpe,
"Untold Tales of the Marvel Universe: The First Celestial Host!" written by Mark Gruenwald and drawn by Ron Wilson
"What if Aunt May Instead of Her Nephew Peter Had Been Bitten By That Radioactive Spider?" written by Steve Skeates and drawn by Alan Kupperberg, all reprinted in What If? Classic volume 4

The lead story is another non-Spider-Man one so I won't cover it here. The second tale isn't even an alternate reality but rather the first part of a multi-part origin of the races the Deviants and the Eternals. But it's the third tale of interest to this post. We get another take on the radioactive spider biting someone else, though this time it's played for laughs and Peter never retrieves the dead spider or (as far as we know) eventually become Spider-Man. Aunt May adopts a costume which looks surprisingly like a version of Super-Gran's costume years before the latter hit the TV screens, albeit with the familiar red & blue design and a mask. As a weapon she uses her pastry decorator loaded with special dough and gets into a fight with Leap-Frog. She finally defeats him in her own backyard but not before Peter sees them and faints. As he recovers a now uncostumed Aunt May wonders if she can fairly divide her time between her responsibilities to her nephew and fighting crime.

This is another tale played primarily for laughs and doesn't offer a great deal beyond showing that Aunt May is tougher than we've often assumed (when this was first printed, it wasn't long since her last major round of heart attacks in the regular Amazing Spider-Man). It's either fun or irritating, I like it for its wackiness.

#24: "What if Spider-Man had Rescued Gwen Stacy?", written by Tony Isabella and drawn by Gil Kane
"Untold Tales of the Marvel Universe: The First Eternals!" written by Ralph Macchio and drawn by Rich Buckler, both reprinted in What If? Classic volume 5

The (Spidey-less) back-up story is more of the history of a then-new Marvel race, and frankly seems to have been run in What If? purely because it was the only available outlet to tackle some obscure continuity. However it's only five pages and this issue saw the page count for the series increased so it doesn't detract from the main feature.

Outside of anything to do with the origin, Gwen Stacy living is by far the most obvious and demanded of all the potential Spider-What If?s. As an added bonus it's drawn by the original artist so has the exact visual feel of Amazing Spider-Man c1973. However the writer is someone different and I'm unconvinced that this is how the series would have proceeded had it been decided that Gwen was to live.

This story sees Peter save Gwen from the Green Goblin, and on the age-old "What killed Gwen?" question, this story takes both sides. The opening few pages are set in the regular timeline and feature Peter remembering Gwen at the site of the bridge and commenting "I hadn't considered what the shock of that sudden fall could do to someone without my own spider-strength" (and there are no sound effects). However the alternate tale is based around her surviving that very fall when Spider-Man jumps after her and uses his own body to cushion the impact against the water. My best guess is that in 1980 Marvel truly didn't want to explicitly say it was the whiplash from being snatched by the webbing but was aware of their past statements on the matter.

Spidey has saved Gwen but in the process she discovers his identity. And rather than running screaming at her boyfriend being her father's murderer, she instead lets him speak then believes & forgives him. Even in 1980 the regular continuity was still reluctant to have any of Peter's girlfriends actually learn his secret, but this is a realistic take on how such a scenario could have played out. The two get engaged but first Spidey has to wrap up the Goblin. This is the less realistic part as first the Goblin reverts to his "I wanna be a crimelord and I'll do it by defeating Spider-Man" approach which hadn't been seen since Amazing #27 (although the Bart Hamilton Goblin did do a bit of this) and then we get yet another almost magic cure for his insanity when the sight of Harry standing up to Spider-Man to defend his father causes the old man to instantly be cured. Well okay this spins off an era when the Goblin persona had regularly been suppressed with equally silly methods, but it just doesn't ring true. The rest of the story sees Peter and Gwen's wedding day (organised amazingly quickly when you consider that Ned Leeds and Betty Brant took over a hundred issues to get from proposal to the big day) but suddenly Jonah bursts in, having been mailed proof that Peter is Spider-Man by the Goblin before he was cured. Once again Aunt May falls victim to stereotype "My Peter? That awful Spider-Man? It can't be! It just can't b... Uunnhh..." and collapses with a heart attack. Okay Peter spent years worrying that this would happen, but in reality two separate writers would go on to show Aunt May knowing the secret without an immediate collapse. To save her Peter bursts out a window as Jonah proudly produces the frontpage of the Daily Bugle with the revelation. Robbie resigns in disgust and leads Gwen away to first get help for May and then get the truth about Peter out there. The story ends with Peter stuck on a rooftop with neither costume nor webshooters, wondering if he's going to be hunted down or become the menace Jonah always claimed he was...

This whole ending brings a mixed reaction from me. It is true that Gerry Conway has stated several times that he felt if Gwen lived it was inevitable she and Peter would marry, but I don't think the series would have gone down that route quite so quickly. It's never made clear just what the actual proof Jonah receives is, nor why he doesn't subject it to any kind of test before rushing a potentially libellous headline into print. However Peter's reaction is more believable, hot-headedly showing off his strength rather than denouncing the accusation as lies and talking his way out. What If?s often end on a downbeat moment rather than show a scenario that the regular comic could have come to, but I think this one could have been made an exception to give Peter and Gwen the alternate happy ending they deserved.

The other tales in the fourth volume are:
  • #22: "What If Dr. Doom Had Become a Hero?"
  • #25: "What If Thor and the Avengers Battled the Gods?" & "Untold Tales of the Marvel Universe: The First Uni-Mind!"
  • #26: "What If Captain America Had Been Elected President?", "What If The Man-Thing Had Regained Ted Sallis' Brain?" & "Untold Tales of the Marvel Universe: Outpost on Uranus"

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