Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Imaginary What Ifs, Part 2

It wasn't until 1976 that Marvel Comics got into the Alternate Continuity business in a significant way. This is understandable. When DC did Imaginary Stories in the 1950s/60s, they already had a couple of decades of continuity to work with. Even during the 1950s lull in superhero comics, DC continued to produce Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman books, so there was a lot of history to work with.

Marvel, on the other hand, essentially started from scratch with the Marvel Universe in 1962. Of course, this universe had a history running back to the 1940s, but there had been a pretty significant gap during wish nothing was being added to the universe. But by the 1970s, there was quite a bit of newly established history to work with.

The What If? series worked on the premise that one event within the Marvel Universe happened differently than it had in "real life," then imposed the Butterfly Effect to show how that had made everything different. For instance, the first issue (February 1977) took us back to Spider Man's first issue, in which he tried to join the Fantastic Four. What would have happened if he had joined? The answer, according to this well-constructed story, is actually rather surprising.

The second issue (April 1977) is the one we'll be taking a close look at. The question here is "What if the Hulk had always had Bruce Banner's Brain?"

We'll get a slight continuity glitch out of the way first. The Hulk was originally gray, but in this story he's green from the get-go. I suspect this was done on purpose, since it doesn't otherwise affect the story and it relieved writer Roy Thomas of the need to explain the color change to newer readers.

Anyways, just as in real life, Bruce Banner gets caught in a gamma bomb explosion while saving Rick Jones. But when he becomes the Hulk, he retains his own intelligence and personality.

At first, this is a good thing. He doesn't have to hide his identity--he makes friends with Thunderbolt Ross--and he soon marries Betty Ross while continuing his work as a research scientist. Remember that Bruce originally became the Hulk during the night, so he's able to adjust to his double life with little trouble.

But then the Butterfly Effect goes into full gear. The Avengers never form. Reed Richards asks Bruce's help to find a cure for Ben Grimm. They do so, turning Ben human. Ben marries Alicia Masters and the Fantastic Four (down a member) breaks up. Professor X never forms the X-Men, because he chooses to work with Reed and Bruce instead.

The story kind of glosses over who is fighting the various villains that were originally handled by the Avengers, FF and X-Men, but that's okay. There are still superheroes out there and we can assume they are still taking care of business off-screen.

But then Galactus shows up. (There's no Silver Surfer---probably another decision to prevent the story from growing confusing or being too long.) Since the FF never met the Watcher, there's no advance warning.

The excitement of the ensuing events turns Bruce into the Hulk even in the daylight, but even Hulk-level strength can't do much against the Eater-of-Worlds.

But maybe strength isn't the answer. When the three smartest smarty-pants in the Marvel Universe put their heads together, they just might come up with a way of defeating Galactus.

They do, of course, but there's a tragic consequence to their actions. Residual energy from their fight strips Bruce, Reed and Charles of their powers AND turns Ben Grimm back into the Thing (but now with Hulk-level strength) AND alters Ben's mind to make him a brutish monster. Soon, General Ross is put in charge of defeating Ben and bringing him in.

It's a great story, with the changes in Marvel history following logically from the initial change.

One interesting thing about the What If? stories (especially when compared to DC's Imaginary Stories) is how often there was a tragic twist or an unhappy/bittersweet ending. I've often thought that perhaps the writers in the Marvel Bullpen used the What If? stories to vent--to get away from the necessity of the bad guys always being foiled and the main characters always surviving.

And I don't have a problem with that. I think superhero stories should--above all else--simply be fun. But angst and tragedy still have their part in any storytelling genre. As long as the stories are well-told and the tragedy dramatically effective AND as long as the regular Marvel Universe remained an over all fun place, then I'm okay with an occasional tragic What If? story.

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