Shiny Shelf

What If…

By Mark Clapham on 03 January 2005

As a fluffy holiday diversion, Marvel has published five ‘What If…’ one-shots, exploring alternate histories of familiar characters. The four reviewed here are strangely grim but lightweight, dealing with dark stories in a fluffy and inconsequential way.

At least this means the creators are aware of how disposable their stories are, instead of taking a bit of continuity speculation deadly seriously. There’s nothing special here, but all titles are fairly well done – if nothing else, these issues haven’t been farmed out to lesser talent in the way so many ‘fifth week’ events have been in the past.

Two of the titles are written by Brian Michael Bendis, and expand on themes in books he regularly writes. ‘What If… Karen Page Had Lived?’ and ‘What If… Jessica Jones Had Joined The Avengers?’ both take an inordinate amount of pagecount to recap what happened in the Marvel universe ‘proper’, and are framed by Bendis himself sitting in a caf?, speculating on what might have been. Even compared to, say, the recent issues of ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ guest starring Wolverine, this is Bendis at his most self-indulgent. Aside from the conceit of writing himself in as narrator, he’s mostly re-writing his own stories, and bigging up his favourite characters.

In the case of the ‘Jessica Jones’ issue, he’s even elevating one of his own creations to the big time, a promotion that ends up with the star of ‘Alias’ and ‘The Pulse’ saving her fellow heroes from a whole lot of heartache. As I said, total self-indulgence, an author’s love for his creation. What redeems the book is the chatty, knowing tone of Bendis’ writing, and great art from ‘Alias’ artist Michael Gaydos. Nice cover as well.

The ‘Karen Page’ book is a bit more serious, and more disappointing. DD ruins his life for reasons not convincingly connected to Karen’s survival, and ends up in a miserable state. The End. This would be a complete waste of time if not for Michael Lark’s lovely, lovely artwork, which is pleasingly similar to regular ‘DD’ artist Alex Maleev, while having unique qualities of its own. This is the first fruit of Lark’s deal with Marvel, and as such is a tasty preview of things to come. Without him, this would be nothing.

Ed Brubaker isn’t conceited enough to have himself narrate ‘What If… Aunt May Had Died Instead Of Uncle Ben?’, but that doesn’t mean he’s playing it straight. This alternate take on the life of Spider-Man is framed as a discussion between two geeks in a comic shop, and takes itself exactly that seriously – this is pure fanboy wish fulfilment, changing key details of Spidey’s life while essentially retaining the character’s key qualities. As one of the geeks admits, he’s basically made Peter Parker a slightly ‘darker’ and more violent character, but otherwise the same. It’s a pleasing enough conceit, and at least has the decency to dive into the story quickly. Andrea DiVito’s art is as solid here as it was on the final few issues of ‘Thor’ last year. Ultimately, this book has even less of a unique selling point than the two Bendis issues, but it’s a fun enough bit of fluff.

Last in this round-up is ‘What If… General Ross Had Become The Hulk?’ by long-time ‘Hulk’ writer Peter David, penciller Pat Olliffe and inker Sal Buscema. Of the books reviewed here, this is simultaneously the most radical, the straightest-played and the one with the silliest conceit. Making Ross – moustachioed, bluff nemesis of Bruce Banner – into the Hulk (with moustache still intact!) is pure comedy, enhanced by how seriously David scripts it. The artists are of the old school, and there’s even a framing sequence by Uatu the Watcher. Very traditional. This is black comedy, with a plot as bleak as it is silly, ending with an archly downbeat ending. This is a really quite amusing book, primarily because, compared to the other titles reviewed, it drifts furthest away from established continuity.

Of these four books, none are in any way essential, but neither are they a complete disaster. Each is a fun enough read. If you’ve got some spare cash or time to kill, you might find them entertaining enough. If not, don’t bother. There are far better comics out there right now, from all of the creators on these titles.

Oh, and the fifth book in the event? That’s an alternate take on ‘The X-Men’, by writer Chris Claremont, and however many alternate histories you may suggest, there’s no world in the multiverse where you’ll catch me buying a new Claremont comic. Some things just ain’t plausible.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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