My Misspent Youth — What If? #35 by Frank Miller

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.

There have been several previous instances when I enthused about What If?, the mighty Marvel Comics series that regularly reimagined pivotal moments from the long, interlaced odyssey of the costumed characters who swung and slugged their way through Manhattan. Those alternate continuity threads were usually plucked from fabled issues published many years earlier, and the new, twisted stories were likely to be rendered by entirely different creative teams essentially paying homage to the work of their predecessors. In 1982, though, What If? #35 featured a very different approach. Frank Miller took to the pages of the publication to posit a different outcome for a story he’d delivered a mere six months earlier, as the writer and artist of Daredevil. A storyline that had already picked up the nickname reached its apparent conclusion with the death of the sai-wielding assassin from Daredevil’s past, a woman who was presented in the story as the hero’s one true love. Miller asked and answered the question “What if Elektra had lived?”

Miller got the story underway by immediately subverting one of the key tropes of What If? The series was built around the conceit that Uatu, the otherworldly Watcher who passively observed the passing of the universe from his hidden base on Earth’s moon, was conveying the distinctly different succession of events that took place in a parallel universe. The typical approach was to use this as little more than a framing device to the main story. In Miller’s conception, Uatu instead travels from his distant domicile to communicate directly with Matt Murdock, Daredevil’s alter ego, as he mourned at Elektra’s rain-soaked grave.

Tonally, the story is markedly different from what usually showed up in What If?, in much the same way that Miller’s moody take on Daredevil put it at odds with the other Marvel titles with which it shared the spinner rack. Rather than racing through events familiar to most Marvel fans on the way to freewheeling narrative transformation, Miller really homes in the story as it might have taken place with one key change that spared Elektra the particular battle that ended her life. The story progresses deliberately, Miller properly thinking through how characters and situations would have gone differently with the shift in fortunes. That includes Elektra being otherwise tested by a onslaught of assailants when the city’s main crime lord, the hulking figure known as the Kingpin, puts a price on her head.

As Elektra’s beset by these thugs, her ex attempts to fulfill his duty to bring criminals to justice by going after her, too. He doesn’t require as much stealth detective work, though. Wounded and aware of the continuing danger she’s in, Elektra seeks out the one person she can trust.

A recurring gimmick in What If?, its version of a final, Serling-esque twist, is that the final result of a potential promising turn for our heroes is a worse outcome than they experienced in official continuity. Captain America gets elected U.S. President? That’s great, until it most certainty is not. In a way, Miller deviates from that norm. Presented with the opportunity to rescue Elektra, Matt Murdock does exactly that. The last glimpse of the duo is one of resplendent bliss.

The grim conclusion, then, is not that Elektra’s survival precipitates a worse trajectory for her and her beloved. Instead, it is that the alternate timeline is not shared with only the dear reader. Back to Miller’s initial shift of common story structure, the turn of events is yet bleaker. The Matt Murdock of the Marvel Universe proper — the real Matt Murdock — knows that he could be living a better life than the one he is in. In its general state, What If? is a silly diversion. For Miller, then at the peak of his comic-book craftsmanship, What If? was another means to ply his speciality of delivering emotional roundhouses to the characters he knew best.

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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