Saturday, June 13, 2015

Retro Reading: What If? (1976)

If you're relatively new to comics, you might not know that some of the ideas pouring out of Marvel these days had their roots in a whimsical, alternate-reality anthology series the company introduced nearly 40 years ago.

The first series of What If? featured Uatu, the Watcher, as host, introducing tales of how certain events in Marvel history might change due to a minor twist of fate. For example, Jason Aaron's reimagining of Thor, particularly Jane Foster, might not have surprised as many folks as you think, as I noted before in discussing the big reveal of Foster-as-Thor. Aaron did his homework, having read the original concept in the archives. In the What If? version, it is Foster, and not Donald Blake, who finds the walking staff that houses Mjolnir, and turns into what she calls Thordis. Unlike Aaron's version, which has Foster suffering from cancer, Jane is perfectly healthy in the original story, published in 1977 or so.

A couple of issues prior, writer Don Glut imagined three possible alternate futures involving Spider-Man, all of which factored into the initial Spider-Verse event published last year. Flash Thompson, who'd later house Venom in more recent times, simply shoved Peter Parker out of harm's way, letting his ego (since he was surrounded by two girls) get in the way of fate. Daily Bugle secretary Betty Brant, whom Peter was pining for in early issues of Amazing Spider-Man, was Marvel's original Spider-Girl, but, faced with the murder of Peter's Uncle Ben, gives up the webs, and walks into the sunset happily ever after with Peter. Of course, some 20 years after this story, writer Tom DeFalco revived the concept in an alternate future involving Peter's daughter.

Finally, John Jameson, otherwise Man-Wolf in regular Marvel books of the period, swapped his NASA gear for the webs, much to the chagrin of father Jonah, whose outlook changes in this continuity for obvious reasons.

What If? also allowed for some lighter, goofier ideas, such as the Marvel staff of the 60's (i.e. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby) being granted the powers of the Fantastic Four in one of Kirby's last works for Marvel, a little self-iindulgence, if you will. Speaking of goofy, writer Jeph Loeb wouldn't have gotten the inspiration to expand the Hulk universe if he hadn't read an earlier tale of how Rick Jones became the green goliath instead of Bruce Banner. Rick, now A-Bomb, was Marvel's answer to Snapper Carr (Justice League of America), but with a dash of Kookie (Edd Byrnes, 77 Sunset Strip) thrown in. All Loeb's done in recent years in downgrade Jones' intellect to that of an imbecile. No wonder Hulk & the Agents of SMASH is despised by fans.

I've read a few issues over the years, and What If? ran out of steam in the late 80's, only to be revived a decade or so later in a shorter run. Some stories were good, others not so much. Anthologies are like that.

Rating: B.

Speaking of Jeph Loeb, he and artist Tim Sale collaborated on a number of projects for DC & Marvel before Loeb went Hollywood. He cited Norman Rockwell as inspiration for the DC miniseries, Superman For All Seasons. Sale's Superman looks a little bigger than he has any right to be, taking liberties with the phrase, "larger than life". Each chapter is told from a different perspective, be it Jonathan Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, or Lana Lang. Unfortunately, after getting the trade paperback on a lark last week, I came away remembering why I didn't get it the first time (1998). Sale's Superman does not register with me. Period.

Rating: C-.

More Convergence: Speaking of larks, I went out and snagged two more miniseries tie-ins to Convergence the last couple of days. I finally found a clunker among them.

I begin to see why people are down on Marc Andreyko as a writer, particularly his handling of Batman & the Outsiders. His story posits Rex Mason, aka Metamorpho, as human once more under the dome that was created in the Convergence series, and shacking up with his girlfriend, Sapphire Stagg, only to revert to the Element Man once the dome breaks and he gets his powers back. I didn't like the artwork overmuch, but Andreyko's script felt like the former Marvel scribe borrowed from an old Fantastic Four script, and expected us not to notice. More fool he.

Rating: D.

Meanwhile, Shazam! was a pleasant trip back to the days when comics were really fun, though we could do without the Gotham by Gaslight-era Batman and some of his rogues. Can we hope, now that everything is supposedly back to normal, that we get a new Shazam! with Billy Batson as Capt. Marvel, offsetting one of Geoff Johns' stupider ideas?

Rating: A-.

Another Secret Wars tie-in from Marvel offers a different take on The Inhumans. In Attilan Rising, writer Charles Soule actually did something different with Black Bolt. He allows Bolt to talk without risk of galactic disaster! Maybe he's on to something here, although I'm not so down on the redesigns of familiar faces like Karnak (who apparently is now blind), who was one of my favorites back in the day. Hmmmm. Possibilities.

Rating: A-.

Archie Comics has delayed the relaunch of Archie to next month, with the final issue of the current series now available, and written by ex-Marvel writer/editor Tom DeFalco, who encapsulates years of Archie history in one tidy package---and ignoring what's been going on with Betty & Veronica over in their book by including them in the story, which is rather appropriate, really. Now, Archie has to find something for DeFalco to do on a regular basis. Meanwhile, a 4th Dark Circle book is on the docket, featuring The Hangman. All we can see now is a house ad, promising the series is "coming soon". Probably October. Creative Director Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is pushing the revival of Madam Satan awfully hard. In addition to being the villain in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, she also appears in The Fox's current issue, and the 3rd issues of both books came out within a week of each other. Don't be surprised to see a Madam Satan book, either from the Archie Horror line or Dark Circle, within a year's time, depending on fan reaction. If so, I'd expect Mark Waid to write it, but he's already got a heavy workload......

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't include a hardcover trade volume I acquired recently.

While The Three Stooges were routinely presented as being ill-educated but resourceful, Moe Howard was also a smart and intuitive businessman. After seeing some sketches by his son-in-law, writer-artist Norman Maurer, Howard decided to let the Stooge franchise branch out into comic books. St. John Publishing obtained the initial license in 1949, then got it back in 1953, with Maurer and his business partner, comics icon Joe Kubert, at the controls of a Three Stooges comic. The St. John series featured Shemp, but when Dell gained the license a few years later, when the Maurer-produced movies with Joe DeRita were being made, DeRita made his comics debut.

Papercutz obtained a license to reprint both series, and issued a hardcover volume in 2012, in addition to a brand new series, tied in, of course, with the feature film that starred Will Sasso and Sean Hayes. I obtained it from a mail order discount house, and I'm glad I did. Maurer's run included the introduction of a regular nemesis for the boys in bumbling swinder Benedict Bogus, whose scams always backfired when dealing with the Stooges.

Maurer, meanwhile, would also produce the 60's animated series through his Normandy III production company, then took the Stooge license with him to Hanna-Barbera in 1977 to create The Robonic Stooges, repositing Moe, Larry, & Curly as a trio of bionic bumblers, crossing The Six Million Dollar Man with Get Smart.

The Three Stooges hardcover gets an A.

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