I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts about each. I have my reasons.
What If? #105
…from February 1998. A comic in which they appear on a screen in the background for one panel. Oh, and it’s not, strictly speaking, even the Fantastic Four. It’s the Fantastic Five.But there’s no point doing this sort of thing if you’re not meticulously thorough.
Script, Plot and Pencils by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz. Finishes by Bill Sienkewicz though there’s only a couple of pages where you really get the benefit. Letters by Chris Eliopoulos & Virtual Calligraphy. Colours by Matt Webb.
It is hard to talk about What If? #105 without also talking about Spider-Girl #0. Mostly because they’re the same comic. Nine months after its release, this issue was re-branded and re-released as the launch of a new imprint and of a new ongoing universe. A universe that then chugs along in fits and starts for the next seventeen years. MC2. Marvel Comics Two.
So this issue has been two things; The comic it was published as and the comic it was repurposed into being. Which is intriguing, because it reads a lot more like the comic it was repurposed into being than it does the comic it was published as. Everything in What If? #105 makes more sense when it stops being What If? #105.
This, the second volume of What If?, was already in a peculiar place in its final year. The initial Nineteen Seventy-Seven to ‘Eighty-Four volume had established that the business of the title was the business of its title. Each issue was to present something which had not happened in the main Marvel continuity and to spend its page count exploring how things might have turned out with that variable altered. What if the Invisible Girl of the Fantastic Four had married the Sub-Mariner? What if Spider-Man had never become a crime fighter? What if Phoenix had not died? That sort of thing. This second volume, starting in Nineteen Eighty-Nine, continued in this vein. What if Spider-Man had Married Black Cat? What if the Trial of Galactus had ended in Reed Richards’ execution? What if the Punisher’s family hadn’t been killed?
These were the kind of questions to which the book both demanded and promised answers. Although readers knew that in most cases the answer would probably be “Everything turned out awful.” There was always something weirdly defensive about What If’s certainty that most divergences from established events would lead to ruin.
“Oh, you think it might be nice if Mar-Vell hadn’t died of cancer, do you?” it goes. “Well, we’ll tell you what would have happened if Mar-Vell hadn’t died of cancer. It would have turned into magic contagious cancer and then thousands would have died. Is that nice? Is that what you want? Is it? No? Then let us do our jobs.”
What If often feels like it’s exploiting a misunderstanding about the nature of fiction to indirectly contend that those pulling the levers of the Great Marvel Machine have made the tough choices they had to to keep everyone safe. For all that the title gestures at possibility, What If is typically an agent of narrative conservatism, an advocate for The Way Things Are. It’s the barrel of ‘Stick With Your Wife’ fortune cookies from The Simpsons.
But, even if readers might guess at the answer, the appeal of the book was still in the question. A question the book had perversely stopped putting on the covers in the middle of Nineteen Ninety-Six. #86 was What If The Scarlet Spider Had Killed Spider-Man? and then #87 was just What If …Starring Sabretooth with no indication of what that ellipsis hid. Functionally it can only be ‘What If You Wanted To Buy A Comic Starring Sabretooth?’ because you had nothing else to go on.
By the time the comic we’re talking about today comes along then we’re on the other side of #100 (What if…Starring Gambit/What if You Wanted To Buy A Comic Starring Gambit?), a milestone whose cover gave no indication of what possible deviation from Gambit’s storied history we might be exploring to mark the momentous occasion. Asking the question ‘What If?’ was no longer how this comic was being sold, but was still how it was being told. The selling point had changed (to a vague shrug) but the structure remained the same. The issues either side of #105 might just proffer themselves as What If…Starring Silver Surfer and What If…Starring chuffing Gambit AGAIN but inside they’re doing ‘What If the Impossible Man Obtained the Infinity Gauntlet?’ and ‘What if the X-Men Condemned Gambit to Death?’ They were still typical issues of What If?
What if #105, the comic that would be Spider-Girl #0, was not.
Part of the reason for that was the point at which it deviates from continuity. The Spider-Man books’ ‘Clone Saga’ was the way it was because of constantly shifting choices at every level as to what the Clone Saga was supposed to be about and what it was supposed to be for. At one point one of the things it was supposed to achieve was the retirement of Peter Parker, and at one point it was not. At one point Peter and Mary Jane were supposed to have a child, and at one point they were not. Unfortunately, at the point they were not then Mary-Jane had been established as being pregnant.
This was a problem. Peter Parker becoming a father was a move chosen to age the character, to allow him to mature in his life and move on to other things and step aside for a younger generation of Spider-Man. If Peter Parker wasn’t to be aged then he couldn’t become a parent, but there was no easy way out. To write Mary Jane as having miscarried also ages the characters. Superheroes’ ages have nothing to do with how long they’ve been in publication and everything to do with what life events they’re considered to have been through and how old they consequently feel. For ‘lost a child to miscarriage’ to be a thing that the Sensational Spider-Man has been through adds years to the character’s perceived age.
The child could not be born and also couldn’t not be born. That’s the truth that was floating around the room when Marvel arrived at a decision that solved absolutely nothing and made everything worse. You can imagine why it happened. Somewhere in the fog of debate someone must have lost track of why the child could not be born and why they couldn’t also not be born. Why that was true must have been forgotten and what must have become important was to find a way, any way, that the child could be born and not born. Solving that problem was mistaken for solving the deeper narrative problem from which it arose.
So, in Amazing Spider-Man #418, Mary Jane is led to believe she has miscarried, while in fact the newborn baby is smuggled out of the hospital and handed over to Norman Osborn. Peter and Mary Jane continue under the delusion that the child has died, while in fact she’s been trafficked abroad into a sinister but unspecified situation by the Green bloody Goblin. It’s absolutely the stuff of nightmares. What we’re given to take away as the answer to the question, “Does Spider-Man have a child?” is “Yeah, but he thinks she’s dead. She’s not anywhere good, tbh, so that’s probably kinder. Best not think about it.” That scab will be lightly picked at through ‘Ninety-Seven and ‘Ninety-Eight before Marvel eventually just decide to have Osborn declare the baby dead and move briskly on.
What If #105 is basically What if…Okay, Yeah…What If Anything Except That? Jesus Christ! though this is phrased as What If Mary Jane Had Never Lost The Baby, And Spider-Man Had Had A Spider-Girl?
What If Mary Jane Had Never Lost The Baby, And Spider-Man Had Had A Spider-Girl? is a tellingly inelegant question. It’s still obscuring how things then stood continuity. What If Mary Jane Had Never Lost The Baby? Well, she didn’t really, did she? Not in the way that phrase suggests. Her baby was stolen and handed over to an abuser. But even when being presented with a universe in which that didn’t happen, we’re still discouraged from thinking about the universe where it did.
One thing that makes this an atypical issue of What If? is that there can be no pretence that those pulling the levers of the Great Marvel Machine knew what they were doing when they made the original choice. We can’t head into this comic imagining that a steady hand was previously on the tiller but now we drift precariously into dangerous waters. The weirdly written blurb on the intro page contrasts the certainties of the Marvel Universe with the jeopardy of What If? -“We experience a ray of hope knowing that Marvel heroes will ultimately triumph over Marvel villains but […] What if we shed a little light on the dark side of the Marvel Universe?!” We know that’s not what’s going to happen here. This can only be fix fic.
The other interesting thing about the awkwardness of What If Mary Jane Had Never Lost The Baby, And Spider-Man Had Had A Spider-Girl? is that it exposes the supplemental action this story is performing. We might have thought it sufficient to ask What If Mary Jane Had Never Lost The Baby? and to then reveal Spider-Man having a Spider-Girl as a consequence. But no, this comic is not playing the What If? game of pretending its events are all necessary consequences of the premise. We are not pretending that we’re changing one variable on the Great Marvel Machine and then reading off the results of that butterfly flap. This comic is open about the fact that it’s not changing a system but inventing fictions. It’s adding things. It’s making stuff up.
That would be hard for it to conceal, really, as what it’s making up is a new and entirely viable continuity. We’re introduced to a universe here that, next time we see it, will be an imprint. We meet Spider-Girl, who’ll get her own title in October of Ninety-Eight. We meet a new generation of the Avengers who’ll get their own title in October of Ninety-Eight. We meet the son of the Juggernaut who’ll get his own title in October of Ninety-Eight. We meet the Fantastic Five too, but they won’t get their own title until October of Ninety-Nine since they’re not so obvious a concept as the son of the Juggernaut.
The gang’s all here and all introduced by a structure that seems built for the specific purpose of introducing them. This isn’t what you get when you ask What if Mary Jane Had Never Lost The Baby? This is what you get when you sit down to write a book about a second generation of Marvel heroes.
“Well, that’s probably what happened then, isn’t it?” You’re probably thinking, “The 2099 imprint was just wrapping up and there was a gap in the market for a Marvel World of Tomorrow, especially with that DC World of Tomorrow having been such a big hit. This was always a stealth pilot, surely? Look at the cover! It says ‘THE NEXT GENERATION OF SPIDEY EXCITEMENT STARTS HERE!!!’ not ‘THE NEXT GENERATION OF SPIDEY EXCITEMENT STARTS AND ENDS HERE!!!’ This was always really Spider-Girl #0 or my name’s not Hypothetical Reader.”
Fair enough. But Tom DeFalco’s always been very clear in interviews that that’s not what happened at all. Back in Two Thousand, Jenifer M. Contino of Sequential Tart asked him how he got the idea for the MC2. “I didn’t,” he replied, “I just got the idea for the first Spider-Girl story which I thought would be a one-shot in What If.”
His story has remained consistent and plausible right up to the interview cycle for Secret Wars IV. This really was just a one-shot issue of What If. The reason it doesn’t look like one, the reason it’s so excessively inventive and additive, is simple. The creators just got massively into it.
Having things turn out better for Peter and Mary Jane really mattered to DeFalco. He’d spent those trying times working down the Clone Saga mines daydreaming of the bright sun above ground. The opportunity to construct a world full of new and redesigned superheroes really excited Frenz. He’s a superhero artist. They developed incidents and sketched characters massively in excess of what was was required because they were excited by what they were creating. That’s one of the reasons this comic seems so startling to me as a reader. I know DeFalco mostly from his confused and compromised Fantastic Four run, which never gave me a sense that its writer was fired up with passion and pride for the material he was producing. There’s one story in that run that’s there to literally apologise for the previous story. This DeFalco, running on the joy of invention, is new to me.
Though it would be overly romantic to suggest that all this imaginative industriousness necessitated the continuation of the material.
“The fans are the ones who should get the credit for coming up with the MC2 universe!” DeFalco further told Contino. That’s a bit much. There was not such a strong response to the Son of the Juggernaut standing around in the background of one panel that Marvel were compelled to give him his own title nine months later. No, what happened is that Marvel were looking to create a new imprint to put into Kmart and Target at the same time as DeFalco and Frenz happened to cook up all this content that would be suited to such a venture. That’s the confluence of timing and commerce that turned What If #105 into Spider-Girl #0.
But why What If #105 reads like Spider-Girl #0, that’s all down to the enthusiasm of its creators. As the longevity of these characters would show, that enthusiasm was catching.
One of the soundest decisions this comic makes, and one that can’t have hurt the MC2’s enduring viability, has to do with how it constructs a future. What does the Marvel Universe look like fifteen years on from Nineteen Ninety-Six? It looks like Nineteen Ninety-Eight.
We’re in a generic Nineties Marvel world of fashion, furniture and culture. With huge Nineties mobile phones. The 2099 line had been predicated on the idea that, in order to thrive, futuristic Marvel heroes needed to be properly housed in a vivarium of sci-fi slang and flying cars. The MC2 line looks like it’ll be having none of that.
It’s interested in what it means for fifteen years to have passed for Foggy Nelson and Jubilee, but not for the world that provides their backdrop. A future Marvel Universe is on offer here but not a future America. and that keeps everything focused on what you probably want from this comic rather than on invention outside its scope. As I go forward with reading the MC2 I’ll be really surprised if this one choice doesn’t come to look like a major reason for its success. The Damian Wayne Batman would be a more easily exploitable character if he didn’t come bound with the highly specific future which he does.
The only cultural whiff of the alien comes from some of the dialogue, but that’s all down to the well-documented linguistic strangeness of the Nineties and the well-documented strangenesses that occur when middle-aged men write teenage girls.
My favourite line is “What’s the word, Girly Girl?” but I think DeFalco’s must be “feeling loose and slamming heat!” It appears twice, accompanying both of May’s major triumphs and bookending the story.
This is a Fantastic Four project, so our particular interest in the MC2 is with its alternate future version of the team, the Fantastic Five. They appear here, but only as an image on a screen. So it’s worthwhile to see what we can learn about this FF from that brief appearance.
For starters we can tell something about their relationship to Peter. Or at least about Peter’s relationship to Johnny. Missing a leg and thirteen years out of the superhero game, Peter believes he’s going to have to fight a new Green Goblin who’s out to kill him. His first course of action is to seek out Johnny. Not the Fantastic Five as a group and not the Human Torch as a massively powerful superhero who can just step in and solve this problem for him. No. Peter wants Johnny to back him up while he confronts the Goblin, to be by his side as he makes what he must imagine to be his last stand.
But while we might reasonably infer that some strength of feeling has persisted between Peter and Johnny, we also learn that that doesn’t seem to have translated to them keeping in touch. Peter is unaware of Johnny’s comings and goings and has not visited the FF in some time. Their regular social association doesn’t seem to have survived Peter getting out of the superhero game.
We can pick up a few details about the MC2 FF from Peter’s visit. We can look at where he’s visiting, for one thing. Although I’m afraid to say that this is not an area washed over by Frenz and DeFalco’s wave of inventive enthusiasm. It is called ‘Fantastic Five Headquarters.’
Fantastic Five Headquarters is a big white skyscrapper just like Four Freedoms Plaza except with ‘5’s all around the top rather than ‘4’s. This probably explains why it got stuck with a rubbish name. Nobody could be bothered to look back over the 1941 Roosevelt speech from which the four freedoms originate to find a fifth principle. Shame. There is, for example, plenty that they could have lifted out of his list of requirements for a just economic system. I like “Four Freedoms And Also The Ending of Special Privilege For the Few Plaza” but maybe the most FF-sh would be “Four Freedoms And Also The Enjoyment of the Fruits of Scientific Progress in a Wider and Constantly Rising Standard of Living Plaza.”
I am just not happy about this tower.It is ill-conceived. Sticking giant ‘5’s where the ‘4’s were solves nothing because there are still four sides. Four ‘4’s is pleasing. Four ‘5’s is rubbish. Unless they’ve put an extra ‘5’ on the roof. I take it all back if they did.
Whatever it looks like and whatever it is called, Fantastic Five Headquarters tells us something about the status quo of the team. Which is to say that it is indeed their usual status quo; the FF operate publicly out of a big building in New York. Everyone knows who they are, what they’re up to and where to find them. They are also, to some extent, publicly accessible. Roberta, the robot receptionist from the John Byrne era, is at the desk. They remain the sort of super team who have a receptionist and, as Peter discovers, the sort who need one because they’re usually away in space.
So far they seem to be a symbol of stability within the MC2 universe. They’re in the same sort of place they’re usually in, doing the same sort of thing they usually do, with the same ancillary staff. How much does that change when we see the actual line up? How much of what the Fantastic Five signify is changed by who the Fantastic Five actually are?
Johnny is on the team! We can’t tell much about him other than that he’s looking a little broader, a little more filled out. Presumably, fifteen years on, his role is no longer ‘The Youth.’ So what is it? He looks confident, relaxed and authoritative in the foreground of the image. Is Johnny the leader now?
Ben is on the team! With a metal shoulder. Possibly a metal arm extending from it too. We can’t see it, but I feel like there’s one there. This is interesting. Ben + Metal Bits was a visual symbol of DeFalco’s Fantastic Four run because Ben spent a fair chunk of it with a bucket on his head. Giving Ben a metal shoulder (and probably arm) seems like an interesting way of affirming that aesthetic without repeating it. The bucket is off the head but the DeFalco approved way to introduce visual variation to Ben Grimm is still to stick metal bits on him.
Lyja is on the team! Equally evocative of DeFalco’s Fantastic Four run as Ben’s bucket, although with less personality, Lyja’s the product of one of its earliest controversies. She is the Skrull who was invented to retcon away Johnny’s marriage to Alicia and who we’re retroactively asked to imagine was the ‘Alicia’ we saw all though the John Byrne era. As someone created for the sole purpose of undoing years of character development for Johnny, Ben and Alicia then it’s easy to see her as an icon of the gravitational pull that always drags the Fantastic Four back to something as close to their Silver Age set-up as possible. DeFalco was determined for her to not be just that, however, and so kept her around and did weird stuff with her. Now here she is, fifteen years of story time later, as part of the Fantastic Five. A character who most naturally represents the FF’s resistance to change put forward to show how the FF have changed.
A nondescript blond man is on the team! I’m going to assume this is an adult Franklin. Adult Franklins of the time-displaced variety caused all sorts of fun and games in DeFalco’s Fantastic Four. If there’s a ‘Franklin Problem’, like many writers believe there is, then DeFalco’s preferred solution to it has always been to age him up. It will be interesting to see what he does with a Franklin who arrives at adulthood via the conventional procession of years rather than by being abducted into the timestream by a grandfather who’s trying to stop him marrying into the Summers family.
A Herbie Robot with a pink blob for a face is on the team! Not sure if the pink blob is a rose or a brain. Also not sure how this robot identifies, but I’m going to be pessimistic and suspect that the move from four to five members has not brought this team any closer to gender parity.
So, other than the unremarkable Johnny and the unreadable Brain/Rose/Robot then everything we’ve got here sends a very loud message. Lyja. Adult Franklin. Metal Bits. It couldn’t be clearer if Sue’s weird costume with the ‘4’ cut out of the chest was hanging up behind them. The What If? Posed by the Fantastic Five is ‘What if the DeFalco run never ended?’ What if that five year run continued unseen for another fifteen years?
That gravitational pull towards the Silver Age team that often exerts itself on the Fantastic Four can do so in harshly punctuated bursts. The weirdest instance of that punctuation was the descent of the Englehart run into nightmare logic and embittered metafiction as its attempts to tell a generational story dissolved around it. The most violent instance of that punctuation was Heroes Reborn washing the DeFalco run away. The Fantastic Five look like a team immune to that gravity and to those punctuational moments of catastrophe.
And, appropriately, for a team left to grow and change slowly and organically, they’re a generational blend. Ben and Johnny, junior members of the team now elder statesmen. Lyja, someone brought in through changing relationships. Franklin, a second generation. I’m sure the robot fits in with this somehow. But it’s interesting to see how starkly this is contrasted with the other superteam we see, the MC2’s Avengers. There’s no blending there. The Avengers we meet here are an entirely new generation of grown-up teen characters previously unassociated with the Avengers. Like Jubilee, the Son of the Juggernaut and Speedball. There, one generation has passed cleanly to the next. The FF have been spared from the acts of punctuation that pull them backwards and the Avengers subjected to an act of punctuation that has pushed them forward.
This volume of What If? is very quick to tell us when it has a Gambit story to tell, but it’s a little cagier about who this issue is about. According to the original cover, this comic stars “Spider-Man?”
Do the contents resolve the cover’s question? Is this a story about Peter or May? Both go on journeys in the issue and neither is trivial. May becomes Spider-Girl and Peter ends up with a gun and the intention of killing the child of a man he loves. It’s a busy day for everyone.
The plot is straightforward. Mary Jane and Peter have concealed their spidery past from their teenage daughter, May. May begins to manifest spidery powers. Normie Osborn (Harry’s son) coincidentally commences his career as the Green Goblin a couple of hours later. May learns the truth about her parents’ spidery past. Peter goes on a tour of the MC2 universe to see if anyone can help with the Goblin thing. Nobody can, so Peter turns up to meet Normie with a gun. Normie makes a nob joke. May turns up as Spider-Girl to save us all.
What’s complicated is the perspective. How point of view works in this issue is truly remarkable. Peter’s unquestionably the viewpoint character. He’s watching the opening scene with an understanding that May lacks and the reader shares. He’s our tour guide to this universe. May’s decision to become Spider-Girl happens off panel so that we can follow Peter and share in his surprise when Spider-Girl shows up. That last one’s the most telling. This is a story about someone deciding to become Spider-Girl in which we’re not granted access to that decision in order to keep us locked on Peter’s viewpoint and to share in his reaction when he learns of it.
That’s not truly remarkable though, is it? That just means that this is a story about Peter Parker watching his daughter become Spider-Girl. Okay, yeah. But, given that, consider that is issue is narrated in the second person, with YOU being May.
“And that’s when you begin to feel it! A strange, tingling sensation in the back of your skull — [..] Nothing can stop you now! You’re in your zone — […] Your name is May “Mayday” Parker and today is the first day of the rest of your life!”
This is compromised a little by one solitary page that’s narrated by Peter in the first person, but that’s entirely compartmentalized. Peter is explicitly not ‘I’ at the same time as May is ‘You.’ And May is consistently ‘You.’
It is you who are feeling like you accidentally stumbled into someone else’s nightmare. It is you who are feeling loose and slamming heat! But, even if you always wanted to hear about yourself in a comic, don’t be too pleased. This is not a story about you. This is a story about Peter Parker watching you become Spider-Girl.
“You want a Spider-Person, Normie?” you ask as you first appear in costume, “Face it, tiger — You just hit the JACKPOT!”
“The familiar words spring from your mouth in a nervous rush,” the narrator tells you. “They’re words you learned on your mother’s knee.”
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this comic over the last two days. Most of it has been trying to imagine that conversation.