Wednesday 14 June 2023

John Romita 1930-2023

 I have just seen the sad news that John Romita Sr has died, broken by his son.

He will be much missed but his legenedary artwork will live forever. Courtesy of Jonathan Ross, I especially like this self-portrait with so many of the Spider-Man cast:

Thursday 23 December 2021

What If...? 39 - Timequake

What If the Watcher saved the Multiverse?

What If...? #39
Writers: Roy Thomas & Jean-Marc Lofficer
Penciler: Gavin Curtis
Inkers: Ian Akin with Don Hudson
Letterer: Janice Chiang
Colorist: Ed Lazellari
Editor: Craig Anderson
Editor in Chief: Tom DeFalco

The Watcher visits the Deputy Secretary of the Time Variance Authority and learns that his cosmic oath to not interfere has been suspended amidst the emergency. Immortus has become a quantum wave infiltrating a succession of alternate realities and will eventually reorder the multiverse. The Deputy Secretary relates the origins of the Time Keepers by the TVA's last director, "He Who Remains," at the end of the universe to teach the next universe how to avoid this one's mistakes but his first creations were flawed and became the Time Twisters, who went destroying multiple eras until "He Who Remains" negated their existence and created the Time Keepers instead. With the timelines at risk the TVA acts decisively by... holding a meeting of the board to discuss multiple matters then launching an "Anti-Immortus Campaign" of posters, leaflets and T-Shirts. Another proposal is to change Immortus's origins and so far the quartet recruited from the different timelines has been sent into Limbo where they face various guardians such as Tempus, a squad of robots and the Space Phantom's race. However the quantum wave keeps resetting events. The Watcher proposes going back to the very early days of Immortus before he was Rama-Tut or Kang, when he was just Nathaniel Richards, inhabitant of an alternative Earth where his time travelling ancestor of the same name (and Reed Richards's father) had helped rebuild the planet after an invasion. The younger Nathaniel had explored his ancestor's fort and the Watcher sees this as the key point. However the TVA are obsessed with using the "Saturnyne Symbiont" that when implanted will make it impossible for Immortus to store much Nexus energy but don't know how to get it into him. In Nathaniel's youth he explores the fort and discovers his ancestor's time machine when the TVA transport in the Fantastic Four of another timeline where they had different powers and Reed's mind now occupies Dr Doom's body. However they are too aggressive and Nathaniel suspects a trick to prevent him gaining the time machine so activates the fort's internal weaponry, killing them. In Limbo Irondroid and Dr Doom are killed and not reset when the next Immortus wave sweeps over. The Watcher suggests an alternate Fantastic Four who can convince better - a version of the team who never gained super powers. This team's Reed Richards operates a dampening field to neutralise the weapons and then tries convincing by producing a DNA analyser to prove they are related. Nathaniel is convinced and let's Sue administer the Symbiont. Things to reset with everyone returning to their timelines whilst Immortus cannot contain the power and explodes. At the end of time Immortus meets the restored Time Keepers and then a second trio appears. It becomes apparent the Watcher was actually dealing with the Time Twisters and there are two alternate realities at the end of time, one where He Who Remains replaced the Twisters with the Keepers and one where he did not. The Twisters melt away into pods and the Keepers return to watching over the timelines. Back at the TVA the Time Zone Manager returns from his holiday and the Deputy Secretaries all try to take credit. The Watcher leaves and reflects on how the threat was defeated by four special humans with no power at all.

After four chapters largely serving to recruit characters from individual timelines and set up the threat we now get a very heavy final issue with a strong dose of the comedy as the Time Variance Authority is a satire on how big organisations work or rather don't with the added gag of all the ranks of middle management looking identical and being drawn as Mark Gruenwald, Marvel's then-Executive Editor and continuity cop. There's a lot of continuity to this issue with the origins of the Time Keepers, the Time Twisters and Immortus all proving relevant to the plot whilst we also get appearances by just about any character or race ever connected to Immortus's Limbo (though, seemingly, not the Limbo of Inferno) as well as appearances by two different Fantastic Fours from the original What If...? series (issues #6 and #34 and there's nothing contradictory here that stops this being a later adventure for either team). But at it's core the narrative flows smoothly and never gets confusing in spite of the umpteen timelines, flashbacks and time travel involved.

(Immortus's original timeline is called "'Warlord's Earth' for the sake of brevity" by the Watcher, which now stands as a reminder that all the numbering of various different timelines was not used by Marvel at this time outside of Captain Britain and Excalibur.)

What's also notable is the way the threat is resolved. The Watcher may have broken his vow to not interfere rather more than he might care to remember but he's not one to get actively involved himself. Instead he uses his knowledge and travel abilities to help others reach solutions. This may be the first comic story in which he's been the headline character (the earlier comedy issues in both series don't count) but he's not going into action all powers blazing or trying to confront Immortus directly. Instead he observes and recommends, staying completely in character. However the Time Variance Authority is played for laughs and one has to wonder just how such an organisation could ever have come to play a key role in the multiverse unless there's a highly competent frontline staff. Instead salvation ultimately comes through a version of the Fantastic Four.

Normally the idea of travelling back in time and stopping a disaster through changing history is a bit of a cop-out in time travel stories. Here it seems to work that by introducing an element into a character's past it only takes effect in the relative present which is probably best not thought about in detail. But what does stand out is the way that salvations ultimately comes not through the exercising of powers but by thinking through the situation and convincing. The Fantastic Four are the foundation stone of the Marvel Universe and so it makes to sense to use a version of them to bring resolution but here we have the twist that they are without powers. And so we get an affirmation that what makes them fantastic isn't stretching or flaming on or turning invisible or rocks or for that matter having wings, stretching, having a robot body or being a super powered mind occupying another. No it's good will and knowledge that saves the day and shows how these four are special people cosmic rays or no cosmic rays. That really is the sort of insight into characters that What If...? stories can often give.

As a whole Timequake has been a rather awkward story. It's refreshing to see the series trying something a bit different and presenting a saga with consequences but it's been let down by awkward choices of alternate worlds that have required some heavy resetting to get the characters to where they're needed and several of the chapters haven't done a good job of providing a substantial story with a clear difference from the regular Marvel history. It's also been complicated by the Time Keepers and the Whisperer introducing elements into the timelines that have shifted them away from how things would otherwise have panned out. But this final chapter instead focuses upon how disruption is responded to and how the Watcher calmly finds a solution.

Although the storyline as a whole has been a bit disappointing this final chapter is easily the best. It presents a very different take and approach from a traditional super comic, reflecting how different a character the Watcher is. It also makes good use of a couple of classic What If...? stories without having to make changes of one kind or another to get the characters to where they need to be. Instead it gives us an opportunity to see how the characters respond in different circumstances whilst still being true to themselves. The series is at its best when it does this. It also gives the Watcher the opportunity to do more than merely narrate or observe and Uatu comes out the stronger. The whole story may have been weak but this is a fantastic conclusion.

(There is also a one page gag strip entitled What If Magneto Was Stuck in an Elevator with Colossus, Iron Man and Doctor Doom? credited to "Cullen Montano Going Joyce". It's a silly premise and the punchline just doesn't come off.)

Wednesday 22 December 2021

What If...? 38 - Timequake

What If Thor had become a thrall of Seth?

What If...? #38
Writers: Roy Thomas & R.J.M. Lofficer
Pencilers: Marshall Rogers & M.C. Wyman
Inkers: Sam Delarose with Rod Ramos
Letterer: Janice Chiang
Colorist: Renée Witterstaetter
Editor: Craig Anderson
Editor in Chief: Tom DeFalco

As a second Time Keeper vanishes from existence attention turns to another timeline. Here Seth triumphs in his assault of Asgard, capturing Odin whilst his forces slay many of the prominent warriors including Sif. Thor is thrown in a dungeon alongside Karnilla and learns that Loki as allied with Seth whilst Grog declares his intentions towards Karnilla. Seth turns his attention to attacks by other pantheons with the Celtic Gods attacking whilst the leaders of other pantheons meet with Mephisto and plan a liberation attack. The Watcher notes this would destroy the Earth but the Time Keeper says the only alternative is to rescue Odin who is the Nexus. The Watcher departs. A drunk Grog goes to visit Karnilla when he is attacked and killed by the vampire Wolverine whilst Thor is released from the dungeon by Dr Doom and Irondroid. The Whisperer appears and explains the need to save the reality. Observing, the last Time Keeper notes he will soon have to intervene. Thor and his cross dimensional allies invade a chamber where Odin is being drained of his power and attack Seth and Loki with the Time Keeper sending in a Protectdroid robot who mimics a combination of the four's appearance and powers. The battle rages until Loki flees, the Protectdroid is destroyed, Seth subdued and Odin released. The last Time Keeper vanishes from existence as the Whisperer appears and reveals himself to be Immortus, having escaped as his own realm of Limbo was a poor prison and he could use the Nexus power for his own ends. He now plans to become the master of time and leaves. Wolverine realises he has been used. Meanwhile the Time Variance Authority realises the danger of Immortus conquering all timelines but the Time Zone Manager is on holiday and none of the hordes of Deputy Secretaries has an idea what to do.

The fourth chapter of Timequake is the first to not be based on a previous issue of What If...? Instead it draws on a then-recent Thor storyline that took the Thunder God away from Earth around the time of the end of The Evolutionary War and the start of Inferno. Here the twist is literal with Seth's serpent form managing to overcome Odin followed by the almost stock gratuitous mass killing of regular characters such as Fandral, Hogun and Sif. But other than showing that Seth's conquest raises concerns amongst the other pantheons and their reluctance to act without the consent of their own death gods, this story doesn't really tell us anything new about the Asgardians or the Egyptian Death God. Instead the timeline soon becomes a proxy battle for the Whisperer and the Time Keeper as they each send in their agents to either rescue Odin or ensure his death. Again we have an issue that devotes a lot of time to fights rather than exploring the ramifications of the change to history or showing how the characters react to such circumstances.

The overall Timequake plot steps up a gear with the revelation that for all the grand powers of those trying to look after the timelines there is a lot of temporal stupidity going around. The Time Keepers are revealed to have used an utterly inappropriate prison to contain Immortus whilst the endless faceless bureaucrats of the Time Variance Authority are good at blaming each other but utterly useless at original thinking when a solution is needed. That the Whisperer is Immortus is actually a surprise as early chapters suggested that this was the Watcher taking discrete action but it would have helped if the summaries at the start of each chapter had included some other suspects Zarko the Tomorrow Man (who had recently reappeared in Thor only a few months before this was published) who was the antagonist in the Time Keepers' original appearance.

Overall this chapter has made a decision to focus on the Timequake plot at the expense of worldbuilding the alternate timeline seen and so the latter gets very little attention with the subplot of the other pantheons planning an attack going nowhere beyond explaining their absence at the climax. Instead it brings together a quartet of characters from across the different and shows they can work together despite their very varied origins as well as revealing the identity of the Whisperer. As a result it feels slight again. The underlying problem is that Timequake is a story being told in a single title but has the feel of a crossover between multiple series and so individual chapters are unable to advance it very much before the climax. As a result so far the whole thing has been disappointing.

Tuesday 21 December 2021

What If...? 37 - Timequake

What If Wolverine and his X-Vampires conquered the world?

(Yes I know that's not the title on the cover but often the stories inside vary a bit from the logo friendly cover titles. This one is more different than most.)

What If...? #37
Writers: Roy Thomas & R.J.M. Lofficer
Penciler: Mark Pacella
Inker: Panosian & S. Montano
Letterer: Janice Chiang
Colorist: Renée Witterstaetter
Editor: Craig Anderson
Editor in Chief: Tom DeFalco

The Watcher comments on how he previously observed a world where the X-Men were turned into vampires by Dracula and conquered Manhattan until they were killed by the Punisher with the spirit of Dr Strange. But there is another timeline where Wolverine killed the Punisher first and which contains the next Nexus, Jean Grey. In the timeline Mr Sinister seeks the Darkhold book to purge the vampires, fighting off the vampiric X-Terminators in underground tunnels, whilst Madelyne Pryor plots with N'astirh and S'ym and opens the link to Limbo. Wolverine learns of the demons and leads the X-Vampires against them, killing S'ym. Meanwhile N'astirh is killed by Dormammu who allies with Madelyne and brings the Mindless Ones from his realm to Earth. Many of the X-Vampires are killed and Mr Sinister offers the survivors magic power from the Darkhold to deal with the Mindless Ones and demons if they will agree to being exiled from the planet afterwards. In the final showdown Madelyne and Jean Grey fight when the Whisperer intervenes to pull Jean's spirit away and warn her of potential universal destruction. Jean summons up the Phoenix Force and defeats Dormammu. The X-Vampires go into exile but the Whisperer takes Wolverine with him. Mr Sinister announces plans to clone and recreate the X-Men whilst the Watcher tells the Time Keepers they have lost again as one of the trio fades from existence. Elsewhere the Time Variance Authority detect a massive timequake.

Okay this is an improvement on the first two chapters by presenting an alternate timeline that stands on its own even if it branches off from an earlier What If...? story (issue #24 of the second series) and also avoiding having any interference by the Time Keepers so we can see how things flow without artificial alteration, at least until the Whisperer steps in at the end. It's a refreshing change and makes for what feels like a more regular issue of What If...? rather than a confused mess caused by the Time Keepers diverting foes in an already diverged timeline.

However there isn't any substantial explanation for how this timeline branched off from the main one in the first place or for that matter why the X-Vampires (made up of both the X-Men and X-Factor) and X-Terminators are largely drawn from the late 1980s with costumes and mutations when the original X-Men and Dracula story was from 1982. Or how Jean is able to summon up the Phoenix Force when the point of divergence is from a time when she was presumed dead and she only encountered the remnant of the force in the regular Inferno. The story presents the X-Men almost as they were appearing in contemporary comics with no real regard for history and continuity and it shows in what's not a particularly substantial story. Notably absent from the story are the New Mutants even though reference is made to S'ym wanting the "Sword of Illyana". Instead Madelyne alone appears to be the sole women whom N'astirh and S'ym use to open the portal and there's also no sign of Nathan Christopher. One thing the story does try to do is to establish the demons' Limbo and Immortus's Limbo as being the same dimension although this goes against the way both have been portrayed over the years.

Mark Pacella was taking over pencilling X-Force from Rob Liefeld at this time and brings that style here with this issue featuring lots of dramatic awkward poses and excessive liney faces in a story that's full of endless fights. There isn't a great deal of substance to this tale beyond a succession of foes offering alliances and battles between a succession of different monsters. Even though this was written and edited outside the X-Men family of titles it feels like it shows how radically things had changes in the books in just over three years. Also annoying is a panel near the end that requires the book (or the reader's head) to be turned on its side to be read, something that was again happening more and more as the decade proceeded.

Overall this chapter fixes the problems of the first two but succumbs to the problems that were besetting the X-Men titles and the wider industry in this period. There's a case that this issue is actually a good alternative reality take on what contemporary titles were like but that's pretty damning of the wider industry. However it is the best chapter of Timequake so far.

Monday 20 December 2021

What If...? 36 - Timequake

What If the Cosmic Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy had been defeated by Korvac?

What If...? #36
Writers: Roy Thomas & R.J.M. Lofficer
Penciler: Dave Hoover
Inkers: Ian Akin & Michael Bair
Letterer: Janice Chiang
Colorist: Renée Witterstaetter
Editor: Craig Anderson
Editor in Chief: Tom DeFalco

The Time Keepers recap their plan to the Watcher who is secretly aware of the involvement of the being known as the Whisperer. The second nexus is found in a timeline where the Vision took over Earth's computers to become a benevolent dictator and by the 22nd century had led the Earth to galactic victory over the Kree and Skrulls. The Vision himself is the Nexus and the Time Keepers thus divert this reality's Korvac on his journey back in time from the 31st century to arrive in the 22nd. Korvac is intrigued by the Vision and pops back to his own time where he captures and mesmerises the Guardians of the Galaxy. Returning to the 22nd century they capture the Cosmic Avengers - consisting of Commander America, Jhen the Gammazon, Irondroid and Tachyon Torch, generally descendants or genetic constructs of the 20th century heroes - and use them to infiltrate the moon Deimos where Korvac interfaces to battle the Vision in Cyberspace whilst the two super teams secure the complex there. One of the Vision's sub-routines contacts Earth and a ship is dispatched containing Captain John Fury Jr and the Space Commandos. On Deimos they battle the heroes when Fury is briefly visited by the Whisperer who tells him that if Korvac wins the result will be intergalactic destruction. Fury uses an ultrasound setting on his gun to release first the Cosmic Avengers and then the Guardians from Korvac's control. They discover that Korvac has beaten and destroyed the Vision and now controls all the galaxy's computer systems. Whilst the others battle endless robots Yondu has an idea and takes Irondroid to Korvac's physical form where Irondroid duplicates and reverse Korvac's mental patterns to transmit a cancelling wave into the system destroying Korvac. However the Vision is dead. The Time Keepers tell the Watcher that now the Nexus is gone and the timeline is unlikely to sustain itself for long and turn their attention to the next timeline. Meanwhile the Whisperer takes away Irondroid.

This second chapter is a sequel to a less well-known What If...? story from issue #19 of the second series. Little of that story is recapped with the detail of the Vision having become a supercomputer dictator generally sufficient but one consequence is that the Cosmic Avengers are not introduced too well and it's only through dropped dialogue moments that it becomes clear what their various relationships to the present day heroes are. The Guardians of the Galaxy are also not detailed too well until their fight with the Avengers towards the end of the issue and when characters have been mesmerised from their first appearance it's hard to tell what they would normally be like.

This story is inadvertently extremely of its time with the battle between the Vision and Korvac taking place in "cyberspace" and reflects the absolute obsession with virtual reality in so much science fiction and fantasy in the early 1990s. At least here the Vision tells Korvac it is primarily a simulation in their minds' eyes but this bit really dates the story which is surprising for something already set in a different time. But it's also curious that for all the advanced technology Korvac still has to interface with the Vision through plugging into a physical socket.

Also awkward to understand is the precise relationship between this timeline and the future from which Korvac comes. A lot of time travel stories in Marvel have complicated things further by having the different time zones be alternate realities with no direct relationship to each other but this is rarely explained and so it's not clear how Korvac's time can be the future of both this timeline and the regular timeline or just what the impact of the Time Keepers' intervention in diverting him is. Nor is there any real exploration of the consequences of the Vision's death. Though John Fury Sr talks about the human race taking back control of things and the Watcher suggests the timeline will survive, nothing is shown of what happens when a super computer running everything is suddenly no longer there. That's a pretty big blow for such a society.

Instead this issue ultimately boils down to multiple fights that are all the consequence of the Time Keepers interfering to send Korvac into the era. There's no real exploration of the implications of the alternative timeline or to do much with the Cosmic Avengers. This issues feels rather decompressed to cover up a thin set of events and just an excuse to have an unusual combination of characters fighting. Timequake continues to disappoint.

Sunday 19 December 2021

What If...? 35 - Timequake

What If the Fantastic Five had invaded the Negative Zone?

The last Inferno What If...? issue is part of an unusual experiment for the title. Rather than a simple standalone tale it's part of a five part saga entitled Timequake which I'll look at in whole.

What If...? #35
Writers: Roy Thomas & R.J.M. Lofficer
Penciler: Joe Phillips
Inker: Sam Delarosa
Letterer: Janice Chiang
Colorist: Marie Javins
Editor: Craig Anderson
Editor in Chief: Tom DeFalco

In contrast to the usual opening, rather than simply explaining the original history and the point of divergence of the story, here he explains about individuals called a "nexus" who have the power to affect probabilities and the future. Amongst them are the Time Keepers at the end of time who appointed Immortus as Custodian of the Time Stream with the task of pruning alternate realities that threatened their existence. However Immortus tried to use the Scarlet Witch to control all the Nexus Power and so the Time Keepers immobilised him and focused all the Nexus Power through him to preserve the timeline. But now they have discovered four nexuses in realities that escaped the pruning who must be destroyed. The Watcher observes their efforts...

The first reality is one seen before where Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four early in both their careers. Sue is soon to give birth but she and the child are in danger because of the cosmic rays that gave the original four their powers so Reed leads the rest of the Fantastic Five in the Negative Zone to find an anti-matter element to save her. Observing the Time Keepers identify the unborn child (Franklin) to be the nexus and seek to prevent his birth through an agent - Annihilus. Spider-Man is captured but breaks free, taking Annihilus's cosmic rod with him not realising it is what the Five are searching for. The Time Keepers turn to another pawn - Dr Doom. As the Five journey to leave the Negative Zone they are attacked by Doom who seizes the rod but then a pursuing Annihilus intervenes and the two villains fight. Then Doom's spirit is drawn out by a being known as the Whisperer opposed to the Time Keepers who explains they have lied to Doom and how if Sue and her child dies it will lead to Reed going insane and a nuclear war destroying the world. Doom concludes he is being told the truth and throws the rod to Reed telling the Five to flee. Doom and Annihilus battle until consumed in an explosion whilst the Five make it home and save Sue and her child. The Time Keepers comment that one loss is unimportant and they intend to destroy the other three timelines but wonder why Doom helped Reed. They are unaware that Doom was rescued by the Whisperer.

There's a lot going on in this issue and comparatively little is focused on the headline characters. And there's a lot of confusion even in the narration about the relationship of this story to what was seen previously. The very first issue of the original What If...? series (which was written by Roy Thomas and reprinted in The Best of What If trade paperback just a couple of months before this issue hence the limited recap) had focused on Spider-Man joining the Fantastic Four with an effect on the dynamics of the team that ultimately led to Sue leaving the team and marrying the Sub-Mariner. A sequel in issue #21 of the original series (which wasn't written by Thomas or reprinted in the trade paperback) saw the rump of the Fantastic Five steadily break up in severe acrimony to the point that Reed and Johnny launched an attack on Atlantis. Reed ultimately saw the error of his ways and devoted his life to peace between the surface and undersea kingdoms but Johnny was left angry for a future attack. Here the Watcher initially speculates that this isn't actually the reality he observed before but later he hears Reed commenting on how Sue had returned to him and Namor had generously reversed the process that made her breath underwater and the Watcher concludes this is the reality he observed before. However whilst this is credible for a sequel to the events in issue #1 it is not for #21 given the way the Fantastic Five had fallen apart in acrimony and Reed's eventual acceptance of the situation. It is probable that either Thomas had forgotten or was unaware that the original series had had a sequel to the first issue or else this is the comic equivalent of one of those years later film sequels that is a selective sequel to the early movies but deliberately ignores or even contradicts the later movies that are not held in such high regard.

The idea of doing a story based around multiple alternate realities with cosmic entities having an interest in them isn't bad in itself. But it's somewhat at variance with the core principle of What If...? to tell a story of how things might have happened differently if one key element had changed. And with so much explanation at the front the actually reality itself is not very well explained to the point that even the Watcher is confused whilst the story is little more than a retelling of the events of Fantastic Four Annual #6 (the credits even call out the Lee-Kirby issue) with added Spider-Man but ultimately follows the same course until the Time Keepers intervene to add Dr Doom to the equation only for the Whisperer to convince Doom to help the Five. The only real suggestion of dramatic changes comes with the Whisperer explaining how the death of Sue and her child will send Reed over the edge. But this is far from the first What If...? story to show Reed losing first Sue and then his marbles and it is a little hard to credit the idea that he's only one woman away from bringing about the destruction of the planet.

The wider Timequake plotline is also a bit hard to get excited about as it feels rather abstract at this point. The Time Keepers are trying to preserve their timeline but it's really unclear how the nexus beings in alternate timelines threaten it. Instead he have some obscure cosmic entities trying to do something unclear whilst a mysterious being is secretly working against them and scores an initial victory.

Ultimately this is unsatisfying on all levels. Despite presenting an alternative version of the Fantastic Four with Spider-Man as a member it does absolutely nothing more than just retell a classic plot a quarter of a century later. Nor does it make the outside forces intervening sufficiently interesting to care about their effects. And by presenting the story as a sequel to a previous What If...? but ignoring a previous sequel and reversing the changes in those issues before this one even begins the result is an unsatisfactory continuation. All in all forgettable.

(There's also a brief piece entitled What If... Lady Deathstrike got a hangnail? but it's a single one panel gag cartoon and not very funny.)

Saturday 18 December 2021

What If...? 6

What If the X-Men had Lost Inferno?

What If...? #6
Writer: Danny Fingeroth
Penciler: Ron Lim
Inker: Keith Williams
Colorist: Tom Vincent
Letterer: Gary Fields
Editor: Craig Anderson
Ed-in-Chief: Tom DeFalco

In this alternate reality S'ym and the Soul Sword were returned to Limbo simultaneously and so he was able to grab the sword and return to Earth where he joined with Madelyne Pryor and slew all the X-Men and X-Factor, bar Wolverine whose demonic form was kept as a pet, then sacrificed Nathan Christopher to open the dimensional rift permanently with the whole of Earth invaded. Dr Strange organises a group of sorcerers including his arch enemy Baron Mordo supported by surviving heroes. Wolverine, the Hulk and S'ym lead an attack from which only Strange, Mordo, Shadowcat and the Human Torch escape. S'ym plans to expand Limbo across the Multiverse and then will be powerful enough to resist the Living Tribunal when it shows up to judge the Earth but time is not on his side. Dr Strange discovers the mannequin of Rachel Summers and frees her. Strange plans to use the Phoenix Force to purge the Earth of all demonic influence though it will kill many humans as well. S'ym, Madelyne and Wolverine attack with Mordo revealing he has betrayed the resistors. In a brutal fight all bar Strange and Rachel are killed with multiple betrayals. Rachel summons Phoenix who engulfs the planet just as the Living Tribunal arrives and allows Earth to live. The survivors of humanity are reduced to starting again in caves. Nine months later Alicia Storm gives birth and names her son after Johnny.

Just eight months after Inferno had ended came this alternative take (don't be fooled by the cover dates; this was slap bang in the middle of Marvel bringing them closer to publication). It's a good idea in principle but it falls into the traps of a lot of What If...? stories that feel the need to show a whole legion of characters from across the Marvel universe even if not strictly necessary - Reed Richards and Dr Doom working together for S'ym is the most obvious needless appearance - and taking a bit too long to explain both the events in the regular universe and the point of divergence in detail that limits the amount of space to tell the story in which is thus limited to Dr Strange rushing around trying to find the magic or power that will stop the demons. Also far too many What If...? stories go for gratuitous killing of popular characters in general fight scenes with many deaths failing to advance the plot. Here at least some of the deaths drive the plot such as Shadowcat's.

The general premise of What If...? is that one thing is changed though here there are actually two changes from regular continuity. The big one is S'ym getting the Soul Sword and returning to Earth in time but other details include Alicia Storm being pregnant when she was not in the regular reality (nor was she actually human but that is a later retcon). Also Dr Druid is shown amongst the group of sorcerers when at this point he was lost in the time vortex though it doesn't affect the flow of the story.

Overall this What If...? focused on characters but doesn't really tell us very much about them through placing them in alternative circumstances. Wolverine is shocked out of his demonic nature when he kills Kitty but his friendships with a succession of young girls have done much to provide the innocent contrast and this reveals little. Dr Strange is shown battling the Inferno demons when he was otherwise engaged during his own series (including being temporarily in the body of a female rat) but again we get little insight into him. Baron Mordo, S'ym and Madelyne Pryor all turn on their respective allies but none was exactly trustworthy. The Human Torch dies heroically but again that's not surprising for the Fantastic Four. When the biggest "revelation" in an issue is that a character then assumed to be human is human and giving birth to a human instead of being a Skrull in disguise who lays eggs and all that is only a revelation because of a retcon a few years later then the story has a problem. This was the very early days of the second series of What If...? and it still hadn't found a workable formula to explain the moment in history that is changed and how, build an altered world, and tell a strong story all in 28 pages. All this really offers is just the chance to see Dr Strange fighting demons and little more of interest.

Friday 17 December 2021

Power Pack 63 - Inferno

Katie writes about the time the Bogeyman attacked her family.

(This one-shot was released in 2017 as part of Marvel Legacy, a big relaunch focused on the classic characters which included a number of one-shots for series no longer being published with most continuing the classic numbering.)

Power Pack #63

Note confiscated from: Devin Grayson
Margin doodles by: Marika Cresta
Demonstrating perfect penmanship: VC's Joe Caramagna
Caught coloring outside the lines: Chris O'Halloran
Graded by: Sarah Brunstad
Cover Artists: Mike McKone and Rachelle Rosenberg
Variant Cover Artists: June Brigman and Nolan Woodard; John Tyler Christopher
Executive Editor: Tom Brevoort
Editor in Chief: Axel Alonso
Chief Creative Officer: Joe Quesada
President: Dan Buckley
Executive Producer: Alan Fine

(Oh for the days when credits were simple!)

Katie stays behind after a class to discuss her essay for a speculative fiction assignment. The first draft tells how during a heatwave she and her siblings were suffering from a fever when her father's old bass Mr Carmody came into the apartment and the whole family fled to the lift where Carmody went off with the parents. The children agreed to go after them but Katie ran off on her own and hit Mr Carmody. The teacher finds the story hard to follow as it's not clear why the parents leave the children in a lift or why Katie hates Mr Carmody. Katie is told to try again with a greater focus on horror and super heroics. She makes Carmody into a real Bogeyman who can possess people and wants to destroy four siblings called Power Pack who he blames for his downfall. He invades their flat and possesses Alex leading to a battle in the street with the other three siblings. As the battle rages she confronts her possessed brother and tells him Carmody can't make her blast her brother and can't make him squash her. The teacher comments how this is a better draft and asks how it ended but Katie just says, "I'm here, aren't I?" The teachers notes how Alex is clearly a source of security for Katie who says her brother is now travelling and suggests she call him.

Okay there's some pretty major continuity errors that stand out when this issue is read in close proximity to the original stories. And that's not just because I chose to include it in this look at Inferno but also because it's included in Power Pack Classic Omnibus Volume 2. For starters just how old is Katie meant to be in the present day? She's at PS 87 Magnet School which in the original run was the number designated to the elementary school (first/lower/primary) she started at just after the events of Inferno (and Julie finished as Katie began with Jack overlapping on both his sisters' times there). In the original run Katie was two years younger than Jack who was three years younger than Julie who was two years younger than Alex. The intro page here establishes that Julie is now in college (university) and Jack in high school so Katie is presumably at least 13 (and even if Julie and Jack are especially young prodigies, the teacher calculates that Alex would be in college by now). Katie and her classmates are certainly drawn looking older than 11. Other latter day appearances of the Pack from the mid 2000s onwards also have her siblings older than the equivalent ages if she was 11. Also her teacher remembers Alex but in the original series he was already in junior high school (middle) when the family moved to New York. Then there's the Pack themselves. Alex is using the codename "Zero-G" for a story set during the original run but he did not adopt that name until the 2000 limited series (the same would happen in the 2019 one-shot Power Pack: Grow Up! which explicitly states it is set around issue #18). More notably the Pack are all using their original powers when Inferno was set after the first swap around. And for a retelling of a story in the original of which their parents learnt about their powers, it appears in both versions the parents already know, having been told by Carmody on a previous occasion. Oh and Katie is blonde like Alex whereas in the original stories she was a redhead like Julie.

I suppose one could explain that the teacher has transferred from the junior high school to the elementary school and so knew Alex from there. Or that there's been some reorganisation of the New York schooling system that has merged the elementary and junior high into a combined/combination school. Or that New York is just very confused as to how the school numbering system works. And perhaps even Katie's first draft has rewritten the Pack's powers so that she's able to hit back against Carmody with the energy powers rather than just chase him with the flight powers. But it does all point to a rather casual approach to continuity which is especially surprising for a one-off special in a line that was pitching a more classic approach and even using the traditional numbering for the series.

Part of the problem is that it is very difficult to bring Power Pack back as they were in the here and now. Appearances by the characters in the 1990s and 2000s saw their ages creep up such that the 2000 limited series was probably about the last time it was possible to have the story of four children together in regular continuity. Since then both Alex and Julie have been shown growing up on other teams, with Alex actually ageing even faster due to his work across time for the Future Foundation, and, as Katie sadly remembers, is now off in space. Nothing is impossible in comics but finding a way to de-age the characters and put them all back together as they once were is too great a task for a one-shot which is why both the 2010s one-shots have instead gone down the route of telling stories set during the classic run. Or not quite.

As well as the wider continuity errors Katie's telling of the story is somewhat distorted from the original. There's no mention of the wider events of Inferno beyond the heatwave and the streets seem normal. I suppose it's possible given the reference to Carmody possessing Luke Cage that the second version could in fact be a later encounter set after the original series (and after Carmody's apparent death in Cage's series though it wasn't the first time he seemingly died) but the implication is that this is Katie rewriting the original events. As a result of all this we get a rather condensed fight scene that climaxes in a showdown based on how two of the siblings care about each other... and no actual conclusion.

It's nice to see Power Pack got revived and this probably led to two more recent projects but this one shot is just not the way to go. Either a reunion years later or a flashback to the old days is workable. This format results in a confused retelling and then rewriting of a past tale with no clear conclusion. And the Inferno connection is so slight that this issue does not need to be included in any future collection of the crossover; indeed including it alongside the original issue #44 would make the discrepancies stand out the more.