Marvel’s superhero comics are struggling to sell like they used to. The X-Men have recently relaunched but haven’t quite found their footing yet. The company stays afloat primarily on the sales of Star Wars comics. The first issue sold over a million comics and was shockingly successful. They’ll need an internal shakeup soon, whether it’s in creative or editorial. Fan wisdom thinks it’s one of the worst periods in Marvel’s history (but that’s debatable). Marvel begins an overpriced anthology series to appeal to nostalgia for the good old days. It won’t change anything and it doesn’t look to the future, but maybe it’ll appease some old cranky fans. This description could equally apply to Marvel Comics in 2017 and 1977. Currently, Marvel is releasing “Generations”, a series of single stories highlighting team-ups between new and classic heroes. In the same situation 40 years ago, Marvel launched the anthology series What If? centered around reimagining classic Marvel moments and characters.
What If? hasn’t had a successful ongoing in almost 20 years and there are no in-print collections of the classic series. Yet, it’s easy to see how the series succeeded in 1977. In an era where comics were sold much more based on covers, the first issue gets to feature Marvel’s two most successful superhero properties. It also depends on wacky standalone one issue stories with no continuity to each other. These stories depend on a good cover and title to sell them much more than a regular ongoing series. For a series all about continuity, its premise guarantees almost no internal continuity.
The only reoccurring element between stories is the character of the Watcher. Whether it’s the crypt-keeper of EC Comics/Tales From The Crypt, Alfred Hitchcock in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone, the narrator is a classic mainstay of the anthology series genre. The Watcher serves this role in the original What If? series. His presence gives the series an excuse for many of the stories having absolutely no structure. He can see everything past and present, but he only shows the reader the important stuff. These aren’t so much complete stories but a slideshow presentation of iconic moments. His presence is charmingly strange and out of character and roots the series in the past. He leaves the series in the 90s for ostensibly continuity reasons, but that’s also a huge part of modernizing the basic concept. I haven’t read much (almost any) of the later What If? stories but The Watcher is a huge part of the Silver Age throwback charm and it’s not the same without him.
The first issue of What If? promises a reimagining where Spider-Man joins the Fantastic Four and it somewhat delivers on that. The issue revisits key moments from early issues of both Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four. Unfortunately, most of these moments are barely changed by the “what if” scenario. Below is a scene from What If? issue 1 (left) and the same scene in Fantastic Four issue 14 (right). The Puppet Master’s dialogue is different (he mentions “Fantastic Five”!) but Reed, Johnny, and Ben all have almost the exact same dialogue. Spider-Man doesn’t even show up in this scene because then Roy Thomas would have to script new dialogue and art.
This is typical for What If? issue 1, which is a lazy mashup of early Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four stories. The main differences are slightly changed fight scenes, more modern character and page designs, and the O. Henry ending. The twist ending is another element of classic anthology series. The ending is the one surprising element for many of the early stories. The second issue’s cover proudly touts “We dare you to guess our startling shock ending!”.
In a strange way, What If? is more appealing for its sameness to classic stories than its differences from them. At the time, readers couldn’t read (or reread) classic issues in collected editions or digital copies. What If? gave many readers the chance to experience these stories for the first time with a slight twist. The first series of What If? focuses almost exclusively on superhero origins, although most of them are more imaginative than the first issue (but not much more). Many people complain today about an over-reliance on revisiting origin stories, whether in superhero comics or movies. What If? proves this has plagued many of these characters for almost as long as they’ve existed. This format also allowed Roy Thomas to regurgitate stories he knew by heart and squeeze them together into a double-sized and double-priced comic. At a time when the best Marvel series were strange things like Howard the Duck, Tomb of Dracula and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Marvel needed to appeal to their core superhero market. What If? obviously fulfilled that aim for many readers, lasting forty seven issues in its original run.
Despite its faults and general laziness, What If? does feel innocent, cheesy, and nostalgic. Maybe I’m just easily sucked in by the Lee/Kirby/Ditko nostalgia the series depends on. I have read many of the original Marvel stories and have fond memories of them. With that background, What If? is a breezy quick read. It’s very wordy in typical Roy Thomas fashion – It’s often wordier than the Stan Lee issues it plays off of with the Watcher’s narration added overtop iconic scenes. But for a classic Marvel fan, the iconic scenes can be quickly flipped past on motor memory. Occasionally there’s a fun Easter egg or change to classic scene that causes a moment of pause but it doesn’t happen often. What If? would get more adventurous in its concepts later on, but the original series is pure nostalgia fuel. I doubt that’s worth double the price of an average 1977 comic or double the time reading an issue, but oversized and overpriced comics rarely justify their price.
The series even plays on nostalgia for the creators directly. Issue 11 asks “What if the original Marvel Bullpen had become the Fantastic Four?”. It recasts Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Sol Brodsky, and Flo Steinberg as Ben Grimm, Reed Richards, Johnny Storm, and Sue Storm. Not only does it appeal to creator nostalgia in the plot, it was drawn by Jack Kirby himself. This may have fueled many of the later comparisons of Jack Kirby and Ben Grimm. This premise lets him redraw the Fantastic Four origin story in his later trippier weirder style while also drawing somewhat historical scenes of the classic Marvel Bullpen. This appeals to reader nostalgia on every level – Remember when these creators worked here? Remember when these characters were impressive and important? Remember when Marvel comics looked like this? In typical Kirby fashion, he managed to have fun and get weird while doing a cynically designed single issue story.
In drawing the opening comparison to current Marvel, there’s a few points to make. 1977 still had some great Marvel books, mainly in the small corners carved out by Marv Wolfman, Steve Gerber and an aging Jack Kirby. Still, interesting things were happening elsewhere (2000 AD launched in 1977) and Marvel and the larger comics community were on the verge of big changes. In December of 1977, John Byrne drew his first issue of Uncanny X-Men and Dave Sim released the first issue of Cerebus. Jim Shooter would take over as Marvel editor-in-chief in less than two years. Alan Moore and Frank Miller both hadn’t released any published work yet. These periods of rise and fall happen cyclically. Marvel may have been at its 16 year low, but they were also hedging on some of their best years of all time.