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Have Them Fight God: Magneto Without A Cause

I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts about each.

Or at least, I should be, but here on Graphic Policy an unfortunate counting error has caused the project to start with Tom DeFalco’s Fantastic Five miniseries from 1999. I feel such a silly goose. Too late to go back and fix it now, I suppose. The only way out is through.  

That series was part of the ‘MC2‘, an alternate universe set sixteen years into Marvel’s future, and so before we can even get to it, we’re looking at every prior appearance of the Fantastic Five in that universe. Thus far we’ve considered What If? #105, Spider-Girl #3 and A-Next #5.

Today it’s…

J2: The Son of the Original Juggernaut #6

J26 jpg

…from March 1999. Another comic in which the FF only appear on a screen in the background for one panel. It’s all important context, though. A new Age of Heroes has dawned and, in this issue, it finds its first critic.

ONE

Franklin Richards, a mutant, is the most popular boy in the world. He’s the non-threatening heartthrob of a generation. Usually at Marvel there’s an interesting tension to that sort of thing.

Avengers #400, to pick one of a million examples, has a crowd wild with enthusiasm for the World’s Mightiest Heroes. They’re cheering and chanting about the virtues of the Avengers, and two particular virtues they’ve identified are that they’re not like those creepy mutant teams and that “they’re our kinda people.”

The Scarlet Witch, both a mutant and an Avenger, begins to express discomfort with receiving praise on those terms. The Vision shushes her. “It hardly matters, Wanda” he says, and helpfully goes on to explain that humanity comes from the soul. “We’re all one race; The human race” is a typically Avengersy stance.

That the crowds cheer for superheroes but persecute mutants is something that a lot of readers find awkward about the Marvel Universe, but it seems to me to be one of the very few things about “the mutant metaphor” that totally works as a metaphor. This is a thing that happens. Our culture habitually selects a few individuals from any group we’re oppressing, raises them to celebrity status, and declares them to be National Treasures. The process offers us the emotional reward of not feeling like we’re oppressing the group (because, look… we love that National Treasure) while also bolstering the logic by which we oppress the group (we love that National Treasure because they are exceptional). It’s an old and sneaky trick, and some people get very cross when the likes of Beyonce stop listening to the likes of the Vision and find ways to disrupt it.

Franklin Richards doesn’t have to bother though. In the MC2 universe that he has inherited then the persecution of the fictional minority to which he belongs seems to have stopped. We know this came about through the “efforts and sacrifices” of the X-Men but we’re otherwise light on details. Regardless, halfway through the MC2’s first year as an imprint then this universe has been established as one where all that nasty business has been sorted out.

That might change. This book’s contemporary, Mutant X, presented a different alternate universe where anti-mutant prejudice was over, only to eventually realise that it didn’t know how to tell mutant stories without it. Mutant X swiftly retconned itself to say that, in fact, anti-mutant prejudice was rife, and that our protagonist just hadn’t noticed it because he was busy. The MC2 might end up doing the same somewhere along the line. I don’t know. I just know that if it does, it won’t be as believable as with Mutant X because the MC2’s protagonist isn’t Alex Summers.

Until that day comes, Jubilee’s X-People seem to be keeping themselves busy by fighting crime. We know from dialogue in J2 #4 that the X-People are not continuous with the X-Men. They are not what the X-Men have evolved into. The X-Men have not re-branded. The X-Men have disbanded. And then Jubilee has formed the X-People. To what ends, exactly, is unclear. We know from J2 #2 that they’re responsible for foiling the get-rich-quick schemes of Enthralla, the Niece of the Original Mastermind, and in this issue they’re listed as part of a category of reactive crimefighters. Based on everything we’ve seen, they have no distinctive mission beyond ‘superhero.’

If there’s no distinct role in the MC2 universe for the X-Men, can there be one for a Magneto figure? Magneta, All-New Mistress of Magnetism, certainly hopes so. Otherwise she’s kind of redundant. She really doesn’t want that. Magneta’s the antagonist on this issue and has “dreams of power and glory” that are dependant on her being the Magneto of her generation.

J2, the Son of the Original Juggernaut, questions her on this. He’s fairly unconvinced that his generation needs a Magneto and the strength of his feelings tells us a lot about how the last generation’s Magneto has been remembered.  

“Why pattern yourself after one of the greatest super-villains of all time?” asks the kid dressed as the supervillain who, in 1991, destroyed the World Trade Centre and stood cackling delightedly amidst the carnage. Magneta makes a half-hearted effort at suggesting he might be coming from a somewhat compromised position, but the scene bustles us along past it. The weight of the story is behind the guy dressed as the Juggernaut being the voice of reason when he tells off the woman dressed as Magneto for taking on the identity of “as mass murderer.” Public acceptance of mutants clearly hasn’t come with any reevaluation of Magneto’s radicalism. If anything, this suggests that whoever wrote the history books hardened the line. In J2’s world, Magneto is remembered simply as a monster.

Magneta thinks differently. Her stance is that he was “a victim of poor press management.” She might be onto something there. The one time we’ve seen Magneto make use of a PR specialist, in Kieron Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men run, then she turned out to be Mister Sinister in disguise. That’s not ideal. So far, the facts bear Magneta out.

“Many of his ideas and ideals are quite admirable when stripped of his usual arrogant rhetoric” she goes on to say. Again, uncontroversial. Jay and Miles Xplain the X-Men sell a very amusing t-shirt to that effect. But then she runs into trouble.

Magneta is arguing for herself as a new Magneto and has identified that Magneto’s ideas have something to offer. Okay, but what do they have to offer in a world where mutants aren’t being oppressed? Depending on how much you want to engage with, and how you want to parse, the mutant metaphor then that’s a question that’s certainly eminently answerable in its terms. But that’s not where Magneta goes with it.      

Up on a screen she displays pictures of all the MC2 heroes we have met so far. They all make the same mistake, she tells us. And that mistake is that “they always allow the criminal to make the first move, and only respond after some outrage has been committed. Her plan is to form “a super-team of like-minded individuals — a Brotherhood of Proactive Heroes — who will strike at anyone we regard as a threat!”

This is both remarkable and unremarkable. Contrasting the traditional values of superheroes with the values of the more gung ho types that crashed through your walls in the early nineties Image boom was, by Nineteen Ninety-Nine, a conversation that was well under way, and Nineteen Ninety-Six’s Kingdom Come had already established that alternate futures like the MC2 were the ideal place to stage it. This conversation was under way, but it was far from over; a couple of months before this comic was published then Stormwatch had been destroyed by Aliens, and a couple of months after this comic was published they would return as the Authority. More than one nearby universe would get precisely the Brotherhood of Proactive Heroes that Magneta called for.

The remarkable bit is the idea that this might be Magneto’s legacy. Something that is nothing to do with identity or resistance but just tips on how to catch criminals. That the notions of his that have value are those that are applicable to the business of being a costumed crimefighter. Both the person arguing for and the person arguing against Magneto have no concept of there being any political context for his actions. It’s strikingly absent from either of their considerations. 

The world in which Franklin has entered adulthood is one where being a mutant has been depoliticised, and already we can see how that’s distorted its cultural memory.

TWO

Magneta has a context in which she sees herself. She is, she announces, “the most powerful of the new generation of heroes!” The MC2 characters are developing a sense of themselves as a group. They know that something’s changed. They know that their synchronous emergence is a thing.

She defines that group by displaying them all on her wall o’ monitors.

wall o monitors

There they all are. The Avengers. The X-People. The Fantastic Five. Darkdevil. Whatever the Doctor Strange analogue was called. Spider-Girl. And seeing them all there together like that really brings home what DeFalco’s done, the extent to which this new generation is a recapitulation of the Silver Age. Seeing them all assembled together for the first time truly explicates what the MC2 is. It can sneak past you when you’re just seeing successive introductions of new versions of old concepts, but when you put them together like that then the big picture is clear.

The MC2 is a new start for the Marvel universe because it’s a re-enactment of the start of the Marvel universe. It’s not just a new generation. It’s specifically a new Sixties.

Last week we talked about exactly this happening in 1602. How, in Gaiman’s story then the introduction of Captain America to Ye Olden Days caused Ye Olden Days to contort themselves into the shape of Marvel’s Silver Age. To extrude analogues of its characters.

Since this is a Fantastic Four project then we might be a little grumpy at the notion of Captain America being the trigger for a Silver Age, but I’m afraid that’s what it says. I checked.

What about in the MC2 though? The fiction’s pretend material history offers no explanations within its bounds for why the Silver Age is repeating itself, so we can only assume that a process similar to 1602’s narrative causality is at work. One retro-snowball has caused this retro avalanche, but which?

Looking at the sequence of these characters emergences sends us cascading backwards. In Spider-Girl’s first story we learn that her superheroic debut is pre-existed by the X-People, the Fantastic Five and the new Avengers. Later events will make it clear that Darkdevil was also on the scene before her. A-Next establishes that the X-People beat the new Avengers to formation, and that that Doctor Strange analogue has been around for a while too.

The Fantastic Five are not a viable trigger for the start of this new Age, since they never went away, but perhaps whatever mysterious catastrophe they have undergone is. Something as yet undiscussed has happened to the team to put Sue out of the picture, put Reed in a cute little robot body, and put metal bits on Ben. Perhaps that mysterious disaster constituted the end of the age they began and prompted the commencement of this one.  

Failing that, then the internal chronology seems to leave the Doctor Strange analogue as the first of the new heroes. That might be interesting, given the antagonistic relationship A-Next has shown him to have with his predecessor. The actual Doctor Strange got fired from the Sorcerer Supreme gig! I sort of love that. If we had more to go on, it would be a lot of fun to consider the two magicians as representatives of two different magical epochs and to account for the two Silver Ages in terms of what they represent. We might keep an eye on that.         

Based on what we have got now though, I think our best bet is to take another close look at What If? #105. No active superheroes are mentioned, shown, or otherwise evidenced anywhere in the comic until May learns of her legacy. As soon as she has…SUPERHEROES EVERYWHERE! It seems most likely that the MC2’s reality has warped around Spider-Girl in the same way 1602’s warped around Rogers.  

THREE

Or it could just be dynasty.

Magneta has got Magneto’s powers, costume, and hair but no apparent personal connection to the chap himself. She’s the new Magneto because she’s mysteriously acquired sufficiently attributes of Magneto-ness and adopted ‘Magneta’ as what she calls her “nom de costume.” Magneta is unusual. Most of the MC2’s analogues have some personal connection to their predecessor.

The Fantastic Four is a family saga, but rarely a dynastic one.

Certainly there have been attempts to interest us in other generations. Sometimes ancestors, sometimes descendants, sometimes ancestors who have time-travelled to the future and sometimes descendants who have time-travelled to the past. It doesn’t matter so long as they’re all called ‘Nathaniel.’ But for all that, the focus is always on Reed and Sue’s generation.

The utterly wonderful Fantastic Four 100th Anniversary Special illustrates the point well. Purporting to be an artefact from forty-seven years ahead of its publication, its recap page gets up up to speed with who the FF will be by then…   

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Fantasic Four: 100th Anniversary Special #1

We don’t get to spend much time with these kids. We get a fabulous story about Sue and Valeria that I wouldn’t trade for anything, but… damn, I kind of want to know if Vicky and Kirby are gonna kiss again.

But Fantastic Four will never be about Vicky and Kirby. It’s only towards the very end of Fantastic Four, in the Millar and Hickman runs, that Franklin and Valeria finally became viable protagonists.

Here and now, in the MC2, the Fantastic Five stand as part of this “New Generation of Heroes.” Four out of the five of them are from the previous generation.

Elsewhere, there has been a succession and it has mostly been a dynastic one. The new team of Avengers consists of Thunderstrike’s son as Thunderstike, Scott Lang’s daughter as a bug-themed hero, the Juggernaut’s son as J2, and a robot that Tony Stark built (I don’t know if robots that Tony builds count as his children, but I bet that’s explored somewhere). The Spider-Girl comic’s tagline is “the daughter of the true Spider-Man!” which even sounds like a genealogical claim being asserted to oust some pretender from the throne.

A-Next’s ‘Kooky Quartet’ characters inherit their roles by more circuitous routes. The American Dream is the niece of Sharon Carter, who is the niece of Peggy Carter. Association with the person of Captain America is obviously passed along the line of nieces. The Crimson Curse, the Scarlet Witch figure, isn’t the daughter of the Scarlet Witch, but is the daughter of Agatha Harkness, her mentor. Even where the relationship between these characters and their predecessors isn’t quite one of linear descent, it’s still all in the family.

Also, the new Avengers’ reserve member, Coal Tiger, is the son of the Black Panther. We might expect them to act like a royal family, I suppose, since they are one. What’s everyone else’s excuse?

The mainstream Marvel and DC universes have long had to negotiate the fact that they have two broad generations of heroes in their stories, the Golden Age and Silver Age characters. Marvel cheerfully started integrating Nineteen-Forties characters into their universe from Fantastic Four #4 on, while DC have gone back and forth on whether or not their Golden Age and Silver Age characters exist in the same reality or if old people are from another universe. As I write, another swing of that pendulum is scheduled for the end of this month.

On the occasions when the DC universe does house both its ‘forties and ‘sixties casts then there’s a further tension. How is the succession to work? How bound are these roles to the bloodlines of their originators? That’s a massively complex question over there. James Robinson’s Starman gets well over eighty issues worth of drama out of interrogating the intersection of the Knight family and the Starman identity.

star1

Starman #One Million

Sometimes you’re Black Canary because your mother was. Sometimes you’re Wonder Woman because your daughter was. Sometimes you’re Wonder Woman because your daughter was but then you then went back in time to be Wonder Woman before her. The late nineties and early two-thousands were a wild time for this sort of thing at DC. A reader could readily observe the push and pull between people who thought it’d be cool if Hourman was a colony of intelligent machines apprenticed to a New God and people who thought it would be more cool if Hourman was some generic bloke called Rick, because Rick was the son of the true Hourman.

It is a complex question at DC because it is one with huge implications.

Generation One have titles and powers. The two are associated.

Generation Two have titles and powers, again associated.

How that association of powers and titles is transmitted from one to the other is a big deal. Making those associations and managing their transmission is literally how Rome gets a line of Emperors without formally having Emperors. That’s what defines what a Roman Emperor is and this potentially tells us a lot about what a ‘superhero’ is too. It makes a huge difference to what has been created, within the fiction, when one creates a superhero identity if it’s established as the natural norm for you to have just instituted a dynastic inheritance. It colours any response to the question of how superheroes relate to their power if one of the things they’re expected to do with it is pass it on to their kids.  

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Starman #One Million

This isn’t as inextricable a concern for Marvel as it is for DC. Marvel might tie themselves up in a muddle of retcons as to what exactly the Vision has to do with the Golden Age Human Torch, but it never has to worry about whether or not he’s the son of Marvex the Super-Robot. Whatever relationships may be established between Marvel’s ‘forties and ‘sixties characters, there’s rarely a sense that they share identities to an extant that demands an explanation.

When DC’s ‘forties characters became superheroes, did they found dynasties? Um, it’s complicated. On the days when they exist, then some certainly did.

When Marvel’s ‘forties characters became superheroes, did they found dynasties? No, they categorically did not.

Which makes it interesting when Marvel imagines futures for itself. When it imagines a Generation Three. Because then it has to ask if its ‘sixties characters founded dynasties. If they did what their predecessors did not and made the imperial move when they associated titles with powers.

The MC2’s answer is a definite yes.

They’re not the only ones at it. One of the back-up stories in this issue is an adventure for Wild Thing, the daughter of the original Wolverine.      

FOUR

Here are the credits for this issue –

givethedonkey

“This line was always aimed at a mass market beyond the comic book stores,” Tom DeFalco told the comicboards forum in 2004. It was aimed at “the K-Marts and Targets of the world.”

As we saw when we looked at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, this is what Marvel does in the late nineties. When it reaches outside the direct market, it presents itself as a retro brand. A pastiche of how Stan Lee books were presented in the Nineteen Sixties is what theme park visitors and K-Mart shoppers are thought to be looking for. It’s not clear if they’re expected to recognise the specific reference points for these hokey bits of bullpen buffoonery, but they’re expected to recognise this material as ‘old timey.’

Marvel were publishing two alternate futures in Nineteen Ninety-nine. The project aimed at the direct market, Earth X, traded off the solemnity of Alex Ross pseudo-realism. Readers in the loop were to be sold an idea that ‘Marvel Comics’ are something terribly, terribly serious with the authentic air of adulthood that can only come from all the characters looking like random middle-aged blokes. Meanwhile, the product aimed at the people outside the circle sold an idea of ‘Marvel Comics’ as a happy relic of simpler times. Both were extreme strategies.

The strategy for how the MC2 books were to be sold was a nifty one. Three titles, A-Next, J2 and Spider-Girl, would run in the direct market for a year. Then, when their time was up, they’d be replaced with three new titles on on the comic shop shelves. The twelve issues of each launch title that existed would then be bagged up and sold in the mainstream outlets in packs of four, six or twelve. The process would then repeat, with the second wave of titles enjoying their one year of life before making their way in turn to k-mart’s bundles.  

That’s not how it turned out though. A-Next and J2 made it to their allotted twelve issues according to plan, but Spider-Girl made no sense to cancel. So only two new books were introduced in the second wave, Wild Thing and Fantastic Five, and neither made it past their fifth issue. The K-Mart and Target deals had fallen through, and we were spared the strangeness of a continuation of DeFalco’s Hyperstorm saga being presented as an ideal way in to comics.  

I wonder how study those retailer deals were looking when this issue was written, as there’s a paranoid note to many of the frequent metafictional lines of dialogue. “I will be surprised if they survive a full year” says Magneta of the A-Next Avengers, obviously aware that that’s the specific finish line they’re racing to. She’s not sure about the branding either, telling J2 that his battlecry is “a little too Silver Age for today’s audience.”

Gone is the confidence we saw in Spider-Girl that this fictional universe can stand on its own rather than in relation to someone else’s. J2 begins his opening monologue with “In case you’re new to this particular plane of reality…” and so from the moment we begin to engage with this issue’s world, we’re asked to take a step back and remember that it is just one of many. Even to our viewpoint character, his reality is only provisional.

Then a flying car shows up and someone says “we must be living in someone’s future!”

With that, the MC2 characters abandon their claim to their own present. The world in which they live isn’t their now. It’s someone else’s future. It belongs to those someones and they just live in it. The line asserts that this world derives its meaning from its relation to another. Of the five characters who speak in this story, three of them make moves to downplay the extent to which the MC2 universe matters.

While the way in which the dialogue and the branding address the reader is often confused, J2 is a comic very certain as to whose needs its main character is to serve.

DeFalco’s teenagers are all about the nerd/jock binary. Spider-Girl’s social problems arise from her being equally successful in both groups and having to deal with the fallout of constantly crossing the streams. J2 offers the more traditional power fantasy of a nerd who is, secretly, bigger and stronger than all those mean jocks that pick on him. This is complicated by race. As Zane Yama, our hero experiences life as the son of his Asian mother. As J2 he experiences life as the son of his white father. The way this interacts with the standard male empowerment fantasy isn’t something the comic yet seems prepared to talk about out loud.

What it is really hyped to talk about is how J2 feels about large men. The comic appears to offer the consolatory pleasure of letting young men who feel disempowered imagine how cool it would be if you could transform into what it terms a “beef muffin.” Then you’d show them, you’d show them all.

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That Charles Atlas Ad

There’s a lot of that about. But what makes J2 interesting is that it runs with the idea that even if you did suddenly change from the kid who gets sand kicked in his face to the hero of the beach, you’d probably retain negative associations with large men.

J2 is a comic about a weedy kid who can transform into a large man, but is really, really unsure how he feels about large men. The primary relationship the book keeps returning to is between J2 and his Flash Thompson figure. His every night is filled with terrifying dreams of his enormous father looming over him in pursuit. One issue of J2 is an expansion of a scene in A-Next that exists so we can watch him bond with the Incredible Hulk. He is terrified of his own naked body.

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Panels from J2 #1

To the standard, if racially inflected, power fantasy and been added bucketfuls of paranoia and ambivalent sexual anxiety. If you could turn into a beef muffin, this book tells its hero, I’m afraid that would not resolve all your feelings about beef muffins.

This issue is about J2’s feelings towards women though. “Sure, I know some major lookers.” he complains,  “But they usually ignore me — or shove me into the best friend/faithful confidant role. There’s gotta be a girl for me somewhere!”

The character’s friendzone narrative is somewhat challenged by the story, since it turns out that when women do make advances towards him that doesn’t resolve all his feelings about women. But only somewhat. We’re still expected to have some sympathy for his viewpoint by the end. As I say, this comic has a very clear idea of the sort of person it was addressing, even if it was unsure of how to reach them outside of comic shops.

Have Them Fight God: Spider-Girl’s Slamming Heat

I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts about each. I have my reasons.

Today it’s…

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.

ONE

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.

covers

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 IVThis 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.    

TWO

freaky

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.   

THREE

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.

Yes. Good.

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.

BRAINROSE

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.

FOUR

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.

Review: Spider-Island #1

si001In some ways the entirety of Secret Wars has at times read like a fan fic.  Although there is a strong enough core to the overall story to hold it together, it is equally a relatively fertile ground for creators to let loose in terms of creativity.  Some tie-ins have benefited from this and others have not, and in the case of Spider-Island it is very like the former.  The creative team here has taken the crossover from four summers ago and repurposed it, asking some common fan fic questions like what if the Spider Queen had managed to take over the Avengers?  Or what if Flash Thompson as Venom was the one fighting for the city, not Spider-Man.

The plot here focuses on Flash and his few allies – Jessica Drew, the Vision and Werewolf by Night.  They are fighting a losing battle against the spread of the spider virus, and they are desperate to find something which they can do to counter it.  Werewolf by Night is himself infested but only comes to the side of the heroes when her turns into a wolf at night, and he manages to give Flash the information that he might need to finally stop the spread of the virus.  He launches a covert mission with the Vision, Jessica and himself, but things don’t turn out exactly as planned, though in this case neither for the heroes nor the villains.

The result is a fresh take on the crossover by recasting some of the main characters and by changing the baseline of the setting.  It is a bit grittier than the original, but the reimagining works well as the reader is drawn into the story almost immediately and the pace never lets up.  It is also nice to see the backup feature showing us a slightly older Spider-Girl (now Spider-Woman) from the MC2, which also sort of ties into the Secret Wars crossover.  In the end this is a pretty decent tie-in to Secret Wars, proving once again that those who are willing to push the boundaries that the freedom of the crossover allows, also benefit from those risks, as they have paid off here and elsewhere for these tie-in series.

Story:  Christos Gage, Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz Art:  Paco Diaz and Sal Buscema 
Story: 8.5 Art: 8.5 Overall: 8.5 Recommendation: Buy