Last year I read every Fantastic Four comic and posted four thoughts about each. Or so I thought. Turns out I missed a couple. Let’s finish them off quick.
What If? #114
… from November 1998. A comic in which Secret Wars was a one way trip.
Written by Jay Faerber. Pencilled by Gregg Schigiel. Inked by Jose Marzan, Jr. Lettered by Chris Eliopoulos. Coloured by Paul Tutronie. Edited by Frank Pittarese.
Secret Wars I: 1984 miniseries/action figure tie-in in which loads of heroes and villains went to a composite alien world to beat each other up.
The Marvel Universe: Fictional construct originating in Fantastic Four #3
Snake Mountain: Skeletor’s gaff.
Hamilton and The Descendants: Historically revisionist musicals.
J2: The son of the original Juggernaut.
Why do I think the Marvel Universe is a story about the Fantastic Four?
Is it because they’re its starting point, the root which all has either grown from or been grafted to? I don’t think so. Fairly often in these pieces I will pretend that that is the reason but each time it will be a fib. Because I’ve always thought the Marvel Universe was a story about the Fantastic Four and I was neither there for the sixties nor born knowing any of that stuff.
My sense of what’s central in the Marvel Universe, like anyone’s sense of what’s central in a massively multi-authored, multi-decade continuity, comes from my formative readerly experiences of it. There are people out there somewhere who, in their bones, feel that all Marvel History exists to provide deep lore for Comet Man. There are people out there somewhere who privately divide all Marvel’s characters up into Werewolf by Night, Werewolf by Night’s supporting cast and Werewolf by Night’s extended supporting cast. Those people don’t have the luxury I do of being able to pretend their focus is based on the facts of the text’s generation, but they’re not wrong.
It is easy to explain why I used to think the primary function of the DC Universe was so that Barbara Gordon had a place to keep her stuff. On the two occasions in my life I’ve been most invested in the DC Universe, the late nineties and the mid 00’s, Barbara Gordon was the most central and most interesting character. Oracle, Oracle’s supporting cast and Oracle’s extended supporting cast felt like the natural and obvious division of the DCU.
Yet, with all the love in the world, it would be hard to think of the Fantastic Four as having been consistently the most central or interesting characters though most of my time reading Marvel. We’ve established that I wasn’t there for the sixties. Why do I think the Marvel Universe is a story about the Fantastic Four?
It goes back to “Why do I think there is a Marvel Universe?” I suppose. I didn’t always. For the first eight years of my life my imagination was like one of those bootleg action figure blister packs you see nowadays, or like the LEGO Batman movie.
Everything was part of everything and I was genuinely confused as to why Superman wasn’t in my Marvel Super Heroes Top Trumps deck. I lacked the conception of it being a Marvel Super Heroes Top Trumps deck that would have guided me to an answer. It was a super heroes Top Trumps deck. So where was he?
Back in a 2004 ‘Basement Tapes’, Matt Fraction told Joe Casey an anecdote, the horror of which has stayed with me.
I knew a kid, he was seven or eight when I met him, and when he’d draw pictures of his favorite cartoon characters, he’d always drop the character’s respective logo bug into the lower right hand corner of his drawings. So his drawings of Batman had a WB shield on it, etc. It was disturbing; Warner Brothers had branded the kid’s imagination.
That kid’s less unusual now. Watching my nephew’s engagement with superheroes then he seems to have been born with the belief that the species divides up into ‘Marvel’ and ‘DC’ and that the nature of the division is something called a ‘universe.’ There is no question that his imagination has been branded, the only question is whether that branding was inflicted over the course of his lived cognitive experience or is some sort of epigenetic inheritance.
The strength and power of those umbrella brands is a big part of what many kids are currently playing with when they get excited about superhero media. There’s a relish to how they negotiate these limits. My own daughter also arrived at a separation of superpowers early in her life, but she did so by dividing them up into “Heroes with Superpets” and “Heroes with no Superpets and consequently no value or interest”, a system which might have fairly accurately divided them into DC and Marvel for her had not Magical Girls got swept up in it.
But anyway, the point is that it would be remarkable nowadays for an eight year old kid invested in superheroes to not have a notion of ‘Marvel Super Heroes’ being a particular object. But it was not so in Gowerton, South Wales, back in Nineteen Eighty-Five. I had no idea! Not until Secret Wars I. Or, to give it its real title for once, Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars.
Here was a story, created to sell action figures, about a space god scooping up loads of superheroes and putting them in a box.
“Here is a box,” says the first page.
“Here are all the superheroes inside,” says the spread across the next two pages.
Here they are. These are the ones. These are the Marvel Super Heroes. Here is their box. Here is their universe.
It was a shock from which I don’t think I’ve ever recovered. In three pages then Spider-Man, the Hulk and the Wasp (my favourite Top Trumps card) went from being unbound imaginauts adrift on a sea of whimsy, allied only by their sense of right, to being components in a fixed structure. It was an act of violence. There and then, in Thomas News on Sterry Road, I felt like I’d been told a terrible secret. I felt like war had been declared.
But, for the moment, let’s put aside the consequent lifelong struggle between me and the idea that stories have limits. Let’s just focus on how I processed Secret Wars. Okay, so all these Super Heroes were components of a story, were they? What was that story? If the Marvel Universe was a thing, then what was it a thing about?
“I’ve been perfectly clear,” said the comic, “All the goodies and baddies have been taken from their homes and put on a big blank world to FIGHT!”
“Then nothing’s happened,” I thought, “That’s their natural state.”
Which it kind of was. Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars is a series that works to smooth away the difference between how the characters functioned in their published narratives and how they functioned in the toybox. A big blank world with a faction of goodies and baddies was what you physically held in your hands if you bought all the Masters of the Universe and Thundercats toys and those franchises’ televised strands constructed their own Battleworlds around that. A big blank world divided into goodies and and baddies was the game you were encouraged to play with Eighties toys. It wasn’t the game I played, Care Bears had tea parties round my Snake Mountain, but it was the game I understood I was supposed to. I understood that a Manichean desert was where Spider-Man and the Hulk were supposed to go.
“Picture all the Marvel Super Heroes, billions of miles from home!” said the comic.
“They are home,” I thought, “They are on a big blank world full of goodies and baddies. They are in the toybox, where such toys belong. Equilibrium has been found. All is at rest. There is no story here.”
“Shit! We’ve got to get out of here because one of us is back on Earth going through a rough pregnancy!” said the three members of the Fantastic Four.
“Oi oi,” I said.
Some of these recollections may not be exact.
But the important thing was that the Fantastic Four were unignorably neither at equilibrium nor in their natural habit. There were three of them! They were incomplete! Everything I understood about Spider-Man was fully present. He’d brought everything with him he needed to be Spider-Man. These three blokes had clearly not brought everything they needed to be the Fantastic Four. They were a concept in motion. They were in a state of becoming. They were a story.
Not only that, but their incompletion was due to one of them being pregnant. My Masters of the Universe figures didn’t do that. My mam did that and it was CONFUSING and WEIRD. Pregnancy was something that happened outside of the toybox’s Manichean desert.
“Picture all the Marvel Super Heroes, billions of miles from home!” said the comic.
I did, and I couldn’t understand how it would matter much to most of them. The Fantastic Four, though, could only be the Fantastic Four if they escaped. They weren’t a thing you could drop in a world. They were a motion between worlds.
Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, the first text to insist at me that ‘The Marvel Universe’ was an object of inquiry, was a text that I could only parse as a story by supposing it to be a story about the Fantastic Four. All the heroes and villains were there, in their boxes, and who they were was revealed to me; they were the FF’s supporting cast.
Although I’ve not mentioned it yet, all this has been a thought about What If? #114. Because all of this has been to say that my experience of every subsequent Marvel Universe story has followed from eight-year-old-me’s apprehension that the the Marvel Universe was about the Fantastic Four.
That raises the stakes here. What If? #114 purports to be asking “What if the heroes never came back from the Secret Wars?” but it isn’t really. It’s really asking “What if Secret Wars hadn’t been about the Fantastic Four? What if you’ve been wrong all along? What if they just never mattered that much?”
This world diverges from your actual Secret Wars a with confrontation between Galactus and the Beyonder in which not only they died, but Reed Richards carked it as well. Gods fought and he was collateral damage. “We have lost not only a man, but a vision,” reads his gravestone, and that seems to be an interesting insight into where his colleagues’ heads must have been at when they erected it.
All those superheroes left stranded forever on a big blank canvas. The X-Men and the Fantastic Four are all about changing worlds and the Avengers are all about protecting them. What do you get if you just leave them alone for twenty years and ask them to make a world?
Tony Stark would be well into that, if he’d come along, wouldn’t he? The Beyonder never invited him though, so we’re spared whatever well-meaning dystopia he’d have plucked from his ring binders. Xavier’s the only big social planner they’ve got with them (walking around in the Iron Man suit with no explanation of what happened to Rhodey) and his mind seems to be more on what might be happening back on Earth. The story’s called ‘Brave New World’ but it’s not obvious where any of the brave new ideas might be coming from.
They may be vision-light, but they’re resource-heavy. Battleworld is a vast jigsaw of different landscapes and biomes which appear to be maintaining their differentiation even without the sustaining will of the Beyonder. Anything one might wish to gather or mine is within the reach of this community’s several super-strong, super-fast fliers. Also on side are two people who’ve got the ability to control the climate and a couple of people who’ve got the ability to restructure matter.
They’ve got the time, the space, the materials and the workforce to build anything they choose. So what do they build?
A bunched up collection of apartment blocks next to a couple of bungalows with overlooked gardens. That’s weird.
Now, in your actual Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars then Battleworld eventually turned out not to be the purest form of the Manichean Desert. Love interests, innocent bystanders and neophyte combatants were all needed, so it was revealed that the chunks from which Battleworld had been assembled included a retro sci-fi alien village of the “we express our love for the universe through bongs and sensual touch” variety and also a suburb of Denver. The heroes speculated that there may have been other populated regions, but we never saw any so maybe the Beyonder thought that an alien village and a suburb of Denver represented the full spectrum of possible civilisations. So it’s possible that the heroes of this comic have built nothing in the twenty years since. Perhaps they’ve all just moved into a six square-mile suburb of Denver and left it at that.
This raises the question of where Denver’s civilians are. The aliens from that village too. Where did they all go? The superheroes and supervillains seem to have integrated to a point; they’re all living in the same settlement, they go to each other’s birthday parties and their kids are flirting. There are limits to this though – other than the Enchantress having had kids by both Thor and Doom they there’s no suggestion of any other intermarriage between Heaven and Hell. The goodies have bred with other goodies to produce little goodies. The baddies have bred with other baddies to produce little baddies. The Denverites and the “What is this thing you humans call monogamy?” aliens are nowhere to be seen. Towards the end of the comic a discussion of the possibility of a return to Earth is held purely in terms of repatriating the action figure people. There’s no talk of moving larger populations or of going anywhere except Earth.
Whyever we’re missing the two populations that might have staved off this little nation’s eventual descent into the horrors of inbreeding, missing them we are. We’re left with a community so tiny it doesn’t seem to have any apparent form of government. All the authority we see being exercised is parental, except for on one occasion. The Former Villains are escorting their naughty children away in chains, that’s normal, but then this parental authority is supplemented.
“Thanks Owen,” says Steve Rogers, expressing his gratitude to the Molecule Man for some secure child-chaining, “I’ll want to speak with them later.” Where law is needed then people defer to the idea that Rogers is that law. I think they just made him king.
There’s certainly some sort of shared understanding of a social order, as Vinnie, Doom and the Enchantress’ weird kid, is looking to ‘restructure the planet.’ The Doom family is always interesting in this sort of scenario. Just look at what Papa Doom’s been up to. He’s the one person who has built something on this planet – a replica of his Latverian Castle. A castle with a library, pulled from Ultron’s data banks, where he directs his son to the study of history and tells him tales of his youth. Disinterested in ruling this micro-society, Doctor Doom’s not engaged with trying to build a Brave New World, but he has a social agenda, one about the transmission and survival of heritage and culture. As he would also be in Secret Wars IV, Doom is a force for preservation.
So, who comprises this New Generation of Heroes and Villains? Nine issues before this, What If? introduced Spider-Girl and the MC2, but I’m afraid there are no Mayday Parkers here. There aren’t even any J2: Son of the Original Juggernauts. Let us give them their due though, and introduce them all. We won’t get another chance unless they’re in ‘Avengers Forever’ or something.
The child of Steve Rogers and… well, now. Her mum looks like Rogue but answers to the name ‘Carol’, so presumably the Danvers personality has overwritten Rogue’s and got together with Steve. A bit dark that, do you think? Or maybe I’m always just a smidge touchy about that sort of thing. Did I mention Monica Rambeau’s dead in this timeline?
Anyway, Crusader. Or Sarah Rogers. She seems nice enough. Cheerful. Supportive. Her character box on the intro page says she has “mild super-strength.”
Like Superman will years later, she wields Thor’s hammer and Captain America’s shield. Is she the first to have done that? That’s quite cool.
The child of Johnny Storm and Janet Van Dyne, an unlikely pairing that can only have occurred as some sort of selective breeding program to deliberately derive a ‘Firefly’ from someone with fire powers and someone with bug powers. Johnny and Jan, indeed! The very idea! What would they even talk about of an evening? Not parenting, that’s for sure. Because they’ve done a lousy job on Firefly.
His introduction is him spitefully bullying Molecule Man’s kid to impress an unnamed girl.
“Ha ha, you’re ugly,” goes Firefly.
“Sob sob,” goes Molecule Man’s kid.
“Oh Firefly, you’re so witty and charming,” goes the unnamed girl. I don’t know what her problem is either.
He gets two other character moments. One of which I’ll come to at the very end and the other of which is just him calling Molecule Man’s kid ugly a second time and then calling his mother ‘cheap.’ What a little shit.
Johnny’s had a rough twenty-five years of it, I think. Ben is missing with no explanation given and Peter, absorbed by the symbiote, is now just a skeleton in some soup. No excuse for this though. Have a word with your kid.
With the initials ‘FF’ on his costume then Firefly is the last surviving symbol of Fantastic Fourness in his generation. An ignominious end.
The child of She-Hulk and Hawkeye. Eh, okay.
From his mother he’s inherited ‘Green’ and from his father he’s inherited ‘Arrows.’ I am genuinely only now noticing what they did there. His character box also says he’s inherited some of his mother’s super-strength but I don’t think we see enough evidence of this to determine if it’s mild or spicy.
He seems to be the official Fun Guy of the group, based on his jovial affect and little beard. But the most remarkable thing about him is his attitude to the Hulk. Twenty years ago the Hulk walked off into the wilderness and entered legend, becoming a fairy tale to this new generation. A myth of a super-strong green man somewhere in the distant beyond. That’s certainly how Mustang views him, as an incredible tale his parents used to tell that may or may not have held some truth. Putting myself in his place, if I was a super-strong green man with a super-strong green mother then, were that mother to tell me that my uncle was a super-strong green man then I’d probably be more, “okay, sure” than “A super-strong green man? What a fanciful yarn!”
The child of Thor and the Enchantress. Lot of issues going on with this kid. Self-worth stuff over not being able to pick up his dad’s hammer. Anger stuff over Doom having killed his mum. All of that.
The fun thing though is that he looks like he’s going to be Kid Thor but then turns out to be better at throwing his mum’s spells around. Look what we’ve found here! A little proto-Billy Kaplan.
The child of Storm and Wolverine. Characterised mostly as a short Storm who sometimes growls.
I think the best version of this comic would be one told as her story. These other kids are all people of the toybox. They’re in their natural habitat and their only concerns are with how they relate to elements present within it. Elements like their peers, their parents and their legacies. Torrent’s concerns are all with matters back on Earth. Her mother had a spiritual link to the planet, and Torrent’s got no way of knowing if she has one too. Her legacy is as part the struggle of an oppressed people from which she’s totally disconnected. Everything she needs to make sense of her world is outside of the world she’s in. Equilibrium has been lost. Nothing is at rest. There is story here.
This comic doesn’t really tell that story, but even as things stand then she does get the most heartbreaking line of the issue. We’ll come to that later.
After we’ve considered the wicked children of the wicked people…
Interesting young lady, this. Daughter of Titania and the Absorbing Man.
We’re introduced to her while she’s wrestling with Mustang, choking him until he says that she’s prettier than Crusader. It’s a pretty awkward bit of flirting. So much so that I wonder if it contextualises Firefly’s pathetic looks-based bullying. Is the implication that the children of this dying community have a very concrete sense of themselves as in competition to pass on their genes? That their teenage dating hijinks have been distorted by an ugly sense of themselves as stock?
Chokehold is the first villain-spawn we see lured by the Son of Doom into doing some actual villaining. He tells her he has a proposition for her and leaves it at that. We don’t know what the proposition is. There’s nothing he’s got. There’s nothing meaningful he wants to achieve. There’s nothing we know she wants other than to be told she’s prettier than Crusader. Maybe it’s just that.
The Molecule Man’s kid. Very much like the Molecule Man, really. Younger. That’s about the only difference I could see.
The son of the Lizard. Talks a lot about how he’s like his father but with “cunning” and “smarts.” All he seems to do though is swim about in Doom’s moat. Might be doing something cunning down there, I suppose, but we don’t have enough to go on.
Nevertheless, the least upsetting son of the Lizard I’ve ever read about.
The son of the Wrecker. Described as a bully. Does 300% less bullying than Firefly.
We’ve got a generation all ready to fight and a scenario in which they’ve nothing to fight for. Is that what you get when you leave the toys in the box for twenty-five years and then come back to see what’s grown? The Fantastic Four shocked me as a kid because they only made sense in a social, familial context whereas at eight years old I couldn’t give a fuck that the Wasp had a creepy ex. Crusader, Mustang and their pals are a generation nurtured within the Manichean Desert and who have never known the touch of context. I’m not sure she knows what the crusades were. I’m not sure he knows what a mustang is.
The comic opens with the site where the Beyonder’s abductees declared a truce. A plaque there is inscribed “Let this mark the spot where both sides laid down their weapons and the great war came to an end.”
Placed perfectly parallel to the plaque is Thor’s hammer, the only laid down weapon visible. We can’t see what’s written on it, but if I remember right then it’s something along the lines of “You can only pick this up if you’re awesome.”
Thor’s hammer is a symbol of worth, one much more judgemental than Swords in Stones, since they only check for legitimacy. As always, you can’t see that hammer lying on the ground without wondering who is going to prove worthy of picking it up, but here its abandonment is the corollary of peace. To pick it up is to make war.
Lying on the ground the hammer means that war is over. Raised from the ground the hammer means that someone is worthy. There cannot be worth here without war. The tea party at Snake Mountain will be an awkward occasion, for the action figure people cannot be validated without conflict.
This Hamilton-esque correlation between the wish for a war and the wish to rise up is very much on the mind of one of the villains’ descendants. Vincent, Vinnie or Malefactor is the product of Doom’s libraries and what’s inspired him there is the story of Napoleon. Mal’s decided that similar conquest is his destiny and that he’s going to do some Napoleon-ing. He’ll provide the rumpus that everyone needs by staging a Napoleonic war of conquest, undeterred by the fact that Napoleon conquered much of western Europe and a took a bite out of North Africa while all that is available for Mal to conquer is six-square-miles of Denver occupied by fewer than forty people. War is an essential part of the heroes and villains’ natures, he contends, and its cessation is just explained by the parents having been too old and the children too young until now. Any interbellum is just a generational tide.
And so begins the Conquest of Nothing. A secret war that culminates in the imagery of all your faves battling Malefactor’s robots on the streets of an abandoned Denver suburb, in front of empty buildings. As a symbol of the absurd futility that menaces the superhero genre from within then that’s up there with Superman Returns. The last stand of our heroes, defending nobody from nothing in particular.
The march to war is even stranger. Malefactor gathers his allies from among the wicked children of wicked people but then invites the virtuous children to virtuous people to get in on it.
“Join me. Get your friends and join me,” he tells Bravado, “Together we can rule the planet.”
Mate! If he’d taken up that offer then you would have just brought together the entire second generation of this settlement. You’re going to rule the planet anyway, all six square inhabited miles! That’s not conquest, that’s consensus! And since Malefactor seems set on the whole aesthetic of conquest, I don’t think the offer’s all that sincere. He then threatens Bravado with war. Bravado declares that they’ll be no war since he and his friends will take up arms to stop one. This is also insincere. Or just really poorly thought through.
In the flames of this epic conflict between the Conquerors of Nothing, fighting for a generational handover that’ll happen anyway, and the Defenders of Nothing, fighting to protect some empty buildings, then a team is forged. A superhero team with nothing to fight or stand for outside the business of being superheroes. Say, what do you call an act like that?
Torrent knows. The growly mini-Storm knows who they are.
“Who gets to say ‘Avengers Assemble’?” eagerly asks a child who could have been an X-Man. If you take the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and the Avengers and separate them from the external then this is what you get. An Avengers World.
We know this because that’s the Marvel Universe we have now. This year they’re publishing an event called Secret Empire in which various Marvel characters ally themselves with a fascist takeover of the United States or are revealed to have been secretly fascists all along. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly then Marvel are keen to reassure us that this is “an age-old battle of good versus evil” with “little to do with contemporary political parallels.” How’s that possible? How’s it possible to pretend that a Two-Thousand-and-Seventeen story about a United States co-opted by fascism is an apolitical punch up between goodies and baddies? Only in the big blank battleworld. The Wars over Nothing and Empires over Nobody that exist inside the toybox cannot be allowed to touch those without. Those wars and empires, they’d have it, are secret.
Yet What If #114 knows something that I’m not sure Disney’s Marvel does. It knows that this is unsustainable. Not long after this team of Avengers, this team of Just ‘Cos heroes, forms then they find their way to Earth and straight into the middle of an X-Men story. Sentinels roam the streets! Cities burn! Oppressed groups are hunted and regulated, their right to exist dependant on validation by their persecutors! What If #114 ends with the Mutant Metaphor in full effect and our apolitcal heroes crash-landing into the most undeniably political cornerstone of the Marvel universe. These Avengers have X-Men problems now. Problems with external reference and context. Reconsidering their role and purpose, they do the all-hands-in-the-middle thing, as seen at the climax of Disney’s Descendants and the origin story of the Fantastic Four. Firefly ends the issue by saying he’s going to regret this.
We’ll never know if he did or not. This is the last issue of What If’s second volume and comes with a little editorial note marking that. “Possibilities. That’s what this book is about and that’s how it’ll end” it says and it’s not lying. The children of the Secret Wars are given no further stories but they’re given a possibility denied to children of the Secret Empire, denied to characters in ‘apolitical’ stories about facism. They’re given the possibility that their stories might have worked.