My Misspent Youth — What If? #30 by Bill Flanagan and Rich Buckler

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

Starting to read superhero comics in the early nineteen-eighties posed a strange challenge, mostly because I emerged into my fandom with an immediate and furious desire to understand all the fictional history I’d missed. Collections of earlier stories were rare and hard to come by. Monthly reprint titles shared the spinner rack with new adventures, but those could hardly provide to big gulp of established continuity that I craved. So I wound up taking glimpses of the titanic tales that predated my regular reading wherever I could get them. Probably the most peculiar iteration of this scrappy retrospection was delivered by the pages of What If?

As I’ve explained previously, What If? was the series that allowed creators to posit the outcomes if signature events in Marvel Universe continuity had gone a different way. The counternarratives could be more general, but it was more likely that a major event was spun on its axis, as was the case with the issue I snatched up because it was going to provide some exposure — even if viewed in a funhouse mirror — of one of the more notorious story lines from the middle of the nineteen-seventies story, a time when the publisher was notably indulgent of bonkers ideas. Written by Gerry Conway, the strange saga in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man brought the title do-gooder face to face with a clone of himself that had been created for nefarious purposes. Less than a decade later, writer Bill Flanagan and penciller Rich Buckler (with significant art assists from Jim Mooney and Pablo Marcos) decided to turn the story around with some junior league Philip K. Dick identity slipperiness.

The original story ended with the real Spider-Man teaming with the clone to dispatch the bad guy and matters settled tidily enough that the whole affair could go with barely a mention in the years that followed. In the What If? version, a bit of wholly understandable doubt creeps in and sets the characters on a different path.

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The good guys still prevail in this alternate universe, but there’s a whole extra Spider-Man lying around. Luckily, there are some high tech clone incubators available for quick, easy storage of fully grown super-humans.

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The unheard suspicions of the carbon copy Gwen Stacy prove to be quite founded. As Spider-Man tries to settle back into his routine as ace photographer Peter Parker, he finds that a lot has changed from the world he remembers. Initially, he suspects the cloning process kept him knocked out for a long time, and then a strange bout of amnesia is the rationalization. Eventually, the evidence mounts to such a degree that there’s no denying the awful truth.

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The What If? stories tended to take darker turns, leaving heroes dead or miserable, as if serving as justification for whatever in-continuity events might have rankled the readers. Didn’t like it when Phoenix met her sad fate? If she’d survived, the whole universe would have been wiped out. Doesn’t seem so bad now, right?

Initially, it seems that the revised clone story might follow the same trajectory, with the replicated interloper letting our beloved wall-crawler stay on an eternal simmer in his DNA crockpot. But that not what heroes, even cloned ones, do. The clone retrieves the original and the pair team up — one in costume, and one in civilian clothes — to best rotund crime boss the Kingpin.

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The perpetual loner Spider-Man finds having a partner surprisingly agreeable, at least when the handy teammates is so like-minded. Like a handshake to seal it, the two agree to continue operating as a clandestine duo, standing in for each other as needed. The story ends there, but presumably lots of “Two Petes in a Pod” hijinks ensued.

That alternate universe story, presented in a lower tier Marvel title that was widely understood to be purely an outlet for silly storytelling exercises, probably should have been the end of any and all mentions of Spider-Man’s clone. It wasn’t.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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