Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Omitted material: What If? Classic volume 7

And now for the final look at the relevant issues from the original What If? series.

#44: "What If Captain America Were Revived Today?", written by Peter Gillis and drawn by Sal Buscema, reprinted in What If? Classic volume 7

Before reading this, I'd heard multiple thing about it. To some it's the greatest Captain America story of all time. To others "this reads more like an anti-Ronald Reagan diatribe than a story". Spider-Man has a partial role in this story as part of a resistance movement and it's a reminder of his basic values of decency and also how compatible he is for team-ups with Captain America.

If this story had been published just one month later it could have had an even more spectacular title - "What If Captain America Were Revived In 1984?" The premise is straight forward - with the original Captain America never having come out of the iceberg, when his replacement from the 1950s was revived in the 1970s there was nothing to challenge him as he emerged as an influential political figure pushing a hard right message that labelled protesters and minority groups as helpers of communism. With the support of shadowy figures in the Committee to Regain America's Principles ("CRAP" - how on earth did that get past the editors?), the 1950s Cap is able to successfully push authoritarian candidates and legislation through, all in the name of putting America right again.

Then in the present day an iceberg containing a man is found floating by a submarine and the man is revived. The captain of the submarine is a veteran of the war who realises this is the true Captain America (many rumours circulate that the other one is an impostor). He is brought home to a New York very different from the one he remembers. The people have accepted "Fear of the unknown, some glib words -- and the American need to believe in a hero". Racist, anti-Semitic armed guides walk the streets of New York in helmets designed after Captain America's cowl. Walls have been built to divide communities, with black Harlem a land of poverty and despair. The press is censored into the token dissent thanks to lip service to free speech but J. Jonah Jameson is using the Daily Bugle crossword puzzles to inform a resistance movement. And that movement contains the likes of Nick Fury, Spider-Man (who wasn't duped thanks to Jonah!) and "Snap" Wilson (the counterpart to Sam Wilson aka the Falcon). Looming soon is the national convention of the "America First Party" and CRAP plans to use it to nominate candidates to completely take over America, and permanently install themselves, shredding the last constitutional rights.

At the convention the real Captain America leads the resistance movement against the fake, and the two images of very different visions of America square off. Inside the convention hall Spider-Man and other resisters take down Cap's allies (the Freedom Five - the other members are the 1950s Bucky, an actress playing the Golden Girl, Hawkeye and the Hangman!) and ensure the cameras keep showing the country what happens as a second revolution rises to tear down the walls. Meanwhile the two Caps trade their philosophies as one dismisses the other's outlook as "War is Peace! Freedom is Slavery! Ignorance is Strength!" After defeating the impostor the real Captain America addresses the convention and the country: "I say America is nothing! Without its ideals -- its commitment to the freedom of all men, America is a piece of TRASH! A nation is NOTHING! A flag is a piece of CLOTH!!" He goes on about the need to bring back freedom, to heal the divisions in society and find America once again, but also to not succumb to leader-following. The story ends with a singing of the patriotic song (and peaceful alternative to the US national anthem) "America the Beautiful".

To many outside the US it's often extremely hard to understand its brand of political patriotism and the way the constitution and flag are elevated to almost religious levels. It's very different from the way things are done here where rampant flag waving is normally detached from political affairs and where there isn't really an "idea" of the country and a "British way" to appeal to. Such an approach just isn't the erm British way. So it's harder to relate to some of the core philosophical battles that underpin many Captain America adventures, and this is the ultimate one, pitting the embodiment of one vision of America against another. Also at a distance of nearly thirty years it's harder to immediately recognise parallels with early 1980s American political debate, so it's difficult to tell if the subliminal message of the story is "Don't Re-Elect Ronald Reagan!" However there always seem to be some who absolutely despise the current American President and want him defeated or impeached, and some conspiracy theory or other. Reagan (like Thatcher) did in part come to power after some very turbulent years in which people questioned whether or not the country could still be governed and there were certainly accusations thrown across the political spectrum that well-meaning radicals playing into the hands of shadowy forces. There was certainly a backlash against the protests of the 1960s. So I can well believe those who read into this Orwellian vision a political parallel with where they thought the US was heading in the early 1980s, with the 1950s Cap in the role of Reagan. As a story in its own right it has a particular problem of spanning a rather lengthy timescale, with the result the real Captain America doesn't get revived until halfway through and has limited time to establish himself before the showdown. But it's certainly a compelling tale that is almost 1984 in more ways than one.

Although limited in their roles it's good to see both Spider-Man and Jonah playing key parts in the resistance movement. For all his faults, Jonah is persistently portrayed in the regular universe as both a strong supporter of civil rights and a strong defender of the freedom of the press and it's unsurprising that he would do what he could to help the resistance. And I can see Peter Parker following Jonah's lead in politics, for all the hatred of Spider-Man. We get glimpses of a harder-edged Spider-Man who wears a huge cartridge belt, carries a gun and is willing to gun down a man if Nick Fury orders it. (Remember this was some years before the explosion of hard-edged gun carrying heroes in comics that came in the 1990s.) If there's one hero who the authorities could never relocate or take down other than Cap, it would be Spider-Man. 

#46: "What If Spider-Man's Uncle Ben had Lived?", written by Peter Gillis and drawn by Ron Frenz, reprinted in What If? Classic volume 7

This is yet another alternate take on Spider-Man's origin, with the premise that instead of Uncle Ben it was Aunt May who was killed by the Burglar.

The story briefly retells the events of the fateful night in the regular universe, showing more of what happened inside the house than almost any other telling that I'm aware of. And unfortunately it clashes with at least two other versions of that night, although only one had been told when this story first saw print. Here May was asleep when Ben, awake due to a backache, heard a noise downstairs, went to investigate and was shot dead in the living room. There's no argument where he walked out and got shot in the street (as happened in the 2000s) and equally May doesn't experience the direct horror of seeing her husband shot before her eyes (as first told in Amazing Spider-Man #200). This is the problem when the original story omits what can seem like mere details and no other retelling becomes the complete canonical version.

In this alternate version, Ben lacks the backache and so is asleep when May is awoken by a noise and goes to investigate, getting shot in the process. The story then follows through parallel to the first few years of Amazing but with the twist that with Ben alive the Parkers don't face financial problems, though Peter still takes photographs for the Bugle to supplement his income. Ben soon discovers that Peter is Spider-Man and we get to see the first take on Peter admitting his guilt to his surviving family - and Ben's response is that he feels even more guilty for being asleep when it happened. Ben rapidly becomes actively supportive of both Peter & Spider-Man, standing up to Flash and then Jonah and pulls off a trick that gives the Bugle greater circulation, Spider-Man more publicity and Peter a greater salary. He gets Spider-Man to unmask in front of Jonah.

Again this had never been done before and Jonah's reaction is shock but he soon realises how difficult it is for him to go public. So instead he makes use of Spider-Man to get extra tips on crime and boost circulation. At first this goes well but then Ben suggests to Jonah that Spider-Man should shadow Betty Brant to investigate her brother and this infuriates Peter who had angry confrontations with both men and storms off. Determined to prove them wrong he shadows Betty and saves both her and her brother Bennett in this version, but then angrily tuns on Bennett for his associations with gangsters. Spider-Man briefly withdraws from his life as Peter, staying behind the costume as Spider-Man (again before this was tried in the regular continuity) until he's lured back by Jonah threatening to out his identity. Meanwhile the Green Goblin deduces that Jonah has a hold on Spider-Man, whilst John Jameson returns from space having been infected by spores. When Jonah visits his son in hospital, with a photo team in escort for publicity, the Goblin attacks and kidnaps the publisher. Then John's body grows due to the spores and he storms off to rescue his father. Peter is at first willing to let both Jamesons potentially die, and also almost wishes Ben had died instead of May, but then suddenly snaps to his senses and realises he cannot let another person die because he stood by and did nothing. John defeats the Goblin but he is so enraged he doesn't recognise his father and is about to strike when Spider-Man arrives and confronts him. In the event John is subjected to an electric shock which cures him. Jonah is stunned at the way his son didn't seem to know him, hated him and wanted to hurt him, and Spider-Man notes how these things happen between father and son. The next day the Bugle has written up John as a hero whilst Peter and Ben reconcile.

It's another story with an upbeat ending and it's possible to imagine this as the nucleus for an alternate series of Spider-Man stories in which the character has the burden of responsibility but also a supportive father figure. When first printed Uncle Ben hadn't really been explored much as a character in the regular comics but here we get a portrayal of a man who tries to understand and support his teenage "son" but both can make mistakes leading to anger without meaning to. There are elements of the relationship here that would be used in the 2002 Spider-Man movie. We also get to see how Spider-Man could have developed with a confidante and supportive figure from the outset who tells him to have more pride in himself, and then we get the cycle of Peter's angry break with Ben and reconciliation at the end. And there's the moment where Jonah finds out and his reaction, again done for the first time. Some of the best What If?s are those that really expand our understanding of key characters by showing them in particular circumstances and here Ben truly gets to shine.

And the artwork is incredible. A number of the What If?s appear to have been prepared some time in advance and used on an inventory basis so I don't know where this story slots in order of Ron Frenz's work on Spider-Man, but it came out the same month he began a regular run on Amazing Spider-Man (which we'll come to when Essential Spider-Man volume 12 is released). Even more than his work on Amazing and Marvel Team-Up this work is a strong homage to Ditko's artwork, and makes for a refreshing variation after many years of following John Romita's take on the character. Short of achieving the impossible and getting Ditko to draw the character again, Frenz was the best choice imaginable for such a retelling of those early days.

The other stories in the volume are:
  • #40: "What If Dr. Strange had not become Master of the Mystic Arts?"
  • #41: "What If Sub-Mariner Had Saved Atlantis from Its... Destiny?"
  • #42: "What If the Invisible Girl Had died?"
  • #43: "Behold..." (This is just the back-up story)
  • #45: "What If the Hulk Went -- Berserk?"
  • #47: "What If Loki had found the hammer of Thor?"
Once again excluded due to rights issues are:
  • #39: "What If the Mighty Thor Battled Conan the Barbarian?"
  • #43: "What If Conan the Barbarian... Were Stranded in the 20th Century?" (Just the lead story)
And after issue #47 that was it for several years. The last letters page promised some future specials in place of regular publication but it was four years before even one of these materialised. Then in 1989 a second series began. Maybe one day we'll see that on the bookshelves.

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