My Misspent Youth — What If #1 by Roy Thomas and Jim Craig

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.

Not too long after Roy Thomas stepped down as editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, a position he took as the first successor to Stan Lee, he decided he wanted the freedom to write stories featuring the publishing house’s characters that didn’t need to adhere to the vaunted continuity. A fervent fans of the earliest Marvel stories, Thomas also had a keen interest in playing around with the detailed fictional history at his disposal. Thomas had an idea for a new series that provide an alternate history of the Marvel universe, imagining turning point moments from earlier comics with different outcomes. To heighten that chance that his pitch would earn approval from Lee, operating as the publisher at the time, Thomas chose a title that corresponded to the way the Man himself often introduced his once fanciful narrative proposals. Thomas correctly figured Lee would be delighted by a series using the title What If?

For his first story in the new double-sized, bimonthly periodical, Thomas posited an alternate series of events stemming from one of the titanic tales in the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man. In the original comic, ol’ web-head decided one way to earn a little extra scratch was to secure employment with Marvel’s first family, the Fantastic Four. When he found out it wasn’t a paying gig, he lost interest. In Thomas’s new version, featuring pencils by Jim Craig, the blue-garbed do-gooders decide Spider-Man would be enough of an asset that they scrape up the funds to bring him on board.

Now operating under the name the Fantastic Five — because accuracy is a virtue — the super-team zips through a set of adventures, Thomas freely drawing from, and reimagining, several seminal stories from Marvel’s early days. In general, the fearsome foes are dispatched with greater ease than in the corner of the multiverse most familiar to devoted readers. As a result, there are times when the quintet decides that not all the members are needed on a mission. Usually, it’s Sue Storm, the illustrious Invisible Girl, who’s left behind to mind the Baxter Building. That circumstance is exploited by the mind-manipulating fiend known as the Puppet Master. He takes control of another FF bad guy who is sure to entice Sue’s interest.

In addition to ruling a kingdom in the briny depths, and bedeviling the FF with his animosity towards surface-dwellers, Namor, also known as the Sub-Mariner, was the primary competitor to Reed Richards for Sue’s affections. Even without the handy hypno-fish to put her into a compliant trance, Sue might have been inclined, or at least tempted, to go where Namor led. In this divergent timeline, she becomes his prisoner, requiring rescue from her teammates.

As the conclusion nears in a titanic tangle in the mighty Marvel manner, Sue forestalls the final blows with a shocking announcement. Feeling like an unneeded fifth wheel in the group she helped form, Sue would rather remain with Namor than return to the Fantastic Five. In a shift more shocking than Spider-Man’s membership status that set the fiction in motion, Sue binds her heart, and the rest of her life, to Namor rather than Reed.

This was a typical rueful turn for stories that appeared in the pages of What If? The different route that fulfilled a certain bit of Marvel maven pining — an early version of fan service, before that term really exited — proved to be far worse for the heroes overall. The series seemed to be implicitly telling its readers to quit asking for things to be different, because we didn’t appreciate how good we had it with how things went in the first place,” Alan Sepinwall astutely writes in his review of the new animated iteration of the old Marvel comic.

As I’ve acknowledged on many, many previous occasions, I couldn’t get enough of this stuff. I was delighted by every bit of these issues, including the somber pontificating of Uatu the Watcher, serving as a fourth wall–breaking host. The Marvel saga was already vast. What If? proved it could always grow yet vaster.

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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