Monday, April 23, 2007

The fault, cursed Richards, lies not in our armor but in ourselves (What If? #22)

Let's celebrate the birth on this day 443 years ago (and you thought you were feeling old) of the man who made it possible for Stan Lee to write Thor's dialogue: Happy Birthday, Mister William Shakespeare—the man who so kindly wrote of me in The Merry Wives of Windsor:
HOST: Mock-water, in our English tongue, is valour, bully.
DOCTOR CAIUS: By gar, den, I have as mush mock-vater as de
Englishman. Scurvy jack-dog priest! by gar, me
vill cut his ears.
HOST: He will clapper-claw thee tightly, bully.
DOCTOR CAIUS: Clapper-de-claw! vat is dat?
HOST: That is, he will make thee amends.
DOCTOR CAIUS: By gar, me do look he shall clapper-de-claw me;
for, by gar, me vill have it.
HOST: And I will provoke him to't, or let him wag.
DOCTOR CAIUS: Me tank you for dat.
HOST: And, moreover, bully.
What's this got to do with comics, you ask? Well, aside from a handful of Classics Illustrated, not much. But one thing I think a bunch of us can agree on is that there's a certain number of superhero heroes and villains who have semi-Shakespeare story arcs: a rise and fall, if not over a standard five-act structure, then at least sometimes over a five- (or fifteen-) issue crossover. But one difference between, say, wise-crackin' Spider-Man and wise-crackin' Katherine the shrew (aside from the fact that Kate seldom fought the Water Wizard) is that The Taming of the Shrew eventually comes to an end while Spider-Man's story goes on and on (and on and on and on and on)...Shakespeare never wrote Shrew II: Bianca Boogaloo. Map out the character's plot development of a Shakespearean protagonist and you generally have a pretty-smooth bell curve pointing downwards and then curving up again (for the comedies) or looking like one of Miss Fergie's lovely lady lumps (for the tragedies). Spider-Man's character curve falls, rises, falls, rises, hits the jackpot, tiger, falls some more, rises, plummets off the Brooklyn Bridge, gets cloned and sinks off the chart, and then curlicues in all different directions before getting more tangled than Tigra's ball of yarn. It's easier to plot the chart for a single story of these characters that has a beginning and end—say, the Spider-Man movie—than it is to try and graph the never-ending saga of a hero who, let's face it, weathered clones and retconned twin babies of his groovy dead girlfriend and will weather worse and better in the future. There really isn't any way to adapt a Shakespearean analogy to a story set within a Marvel Universe that has no end, unless, of course, we could look at a done-in-one story set in an entirely different universe whose plotline has a beginning, middle, and end, and definitely will not be "to be continued." But the Marvel Universe doesn't have stories like that, you scoff?

Au contraire, savoir faire:

What If? #22

What If?, published by Marvel beginning with their big book boom of the late 1970s, was their answer to the Imaginary Stories of DC with the Mighty Marvel twist. Rather than the "anything goes" atmosphere of DC ("This issue: Jimmy Olsen, Last Son of Krypton!"), What If?'s stories took as their springboard the alternative reality concept so vital to the Marvel multiverse: at every point throughout history, thanks to the free will of men, men-things, and talking ducks, decisions can be made go in either one direction or another. In this universe, Peter Parker decided to go to a science fair; but in this universe, he instead took Aunt May to the movies: thus was born The Amazing Spider Flash Thompson! When Marvel kept to its own rules some pretty decent stories came out of What If? issues: What if Reed Richards had put some decent radiation shielding on his rocket ship? (A: They'd still fight the Mole Man, but with their wits and tech instead of superpowers.) What if the Avengers had never formed? (A: Tony Stark dies.) What if Spidey had hesitated before trying to web the falling Gwen Stacy and instead swung down to catch her? (A: Tough luck for Mary Jane!) Once in a while there would be a rare misstep in the concept that might result in an entertaining story but which wasn't true to the idea: What if Leonardo da Vinci had invented the airplane? (A: Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos would fight World War spaaaaaaaace!) Or, on the goofier but wonderfully entertaining side, what if the original Marvel Bullpen had become the Fantastic Four? (A: Jack Kirby has a heck of a fun time and so do we!) But for my money, one of the finest What If? issues ever created—and in fact, one of the finest Doctor Doom stories ever written—is What If? #22: "What If Doctor Doom Had Become a Hero?" Yep, you heard this little stuffed Doc Doom fan correctly: I'll put this book right up there alongside the Doom written by Stan, John Byrne, and Walt Simonson. And since the Marvel Universe Doomsie goes on and on and on, this alternate universe Doom is the only one who has a story arc that perfectly paints his life as a Shakespearean tragedy. (Ah, you were wondering when I was coming back to Shakespeare, weren't you?)

Let's take a big Latverian look at this ish in brief descripts and some dandy pictures by artist Fred Kida (best known for Airboy in the Golden Age, but he also did a lot of inking work for Marvel in the seventies as well as five years illustrating the Spidey comic strip), shall we? Yes, let's!

What If? was a double-sized 48-page comic (like the Marvel Annuals, it was even squarebound in these early years), so there's decent space for plot development and big splash pages, including this one where galactic peeping-tom and What If? narrator The Watcher shows off just how too cool for school he is. Hey Uatu...get a freakin' Laz-E Boy™!:

What If? #22 panel
All panels in this post are from What If? #22 (August 1980),
written by Don Glut, art by Fred Kida, Dave Simons, and Carl Gafford, letters by Tom Orzechowski

Like Hamlet, Doom's history is fairly straightforward, except with less ear poison. As in all What Ifs, The Watcher recaps "our" Marvel Universe reality. You know the story: wacky college roommates and inveterate pranksters Reed Richards and Victor von Doom, cookin' up a crazy scheme to win the State University Science Fair, accidentally fry Doom's face, leading him to swear revenge on the Tandy Corporation for selling him cheap-ass Radio Shack tech parts. (Warning: not actually what really happened.) "But," posits the Watcher, "What If™ von Doom had actually listened to Richards instead of scoffing at him when told his machine might be faulty?":

What If? #22 panel

It's a (literally) pivotal moment, and despite the arrogance and exceptionally high self-esteem of Doom in any universe, it's believable: this is an early, unformed Victor and it's well within reason that given just that one extra second to think about it, he might put aside his anger and grudgingly accept that his goal is more important than his pride, and after all, if you can't trust your college roommate, who can you trust? This simple hesitation and decision to let Reed help with the building of his Afterlife Machine creates an alternative universe so dramatically different than ours that your copies of Fantastic Four #4 immediately become worthless scrap paper. The experiment that fried Victor's face (or, if you choose to believe Jack Kirby—and why shouldn't you?—and later John Byrne, that gave him a tiny scratch his ego couldn't stand), is now ultra-successful. Doom's search for his mother in the world of the dead shows him since she died a heathen gypsy, she's in that place with the pointy forks and the flames: no, not Famous Dave's Barbecue, but H-E-double hockey sticks itself, Hell. The machine overheats anyway, but with Reed there to shut it down, there's no harm and no foul other than ticking off the dorm matron who runs up the stairs and shouts through their door that there's no hot plates in the rooms, Mister Doom!:

What If? #22 panel

Looking uncannily like a thirty-eight year old rather than the first year college student he's supposed to be, Reed comforts his new bestest pal and learns what von Doom has found out:

What If? #22 panel

With the help of dramatic lighting, von Doom vows to rescue his mother and regain control over his country of origin, even though it means totally missing out on the State U. homecoming dance and canceling his date with Cindy Lou Torkildson:

What If? #22 panel

Doom treks to that far-off monastery where, in our Stan's universe he was literally welded to a glowing white-hot iron mask, and instead has the monks forge him an armored battle suit that isn't halfway as impressive as anything Unca Jack created but which suits him dandy as a champion of the people:

What If? #22 panel

In the next few swift and dramatic pages, he rescues his momma from hell and sends her spirit soaring to paradise to the tune of "Wind Beneath My Wings," liberates Latveria from the iron clutches of evil usurper Prince Rudolfo, gains the love and marriage hand of childhood sweetheart Valeria, and becomes a celebrity loved and adored by all. He can do no wrong, even when he declares himself bigger than The Beatles:

What If? #22 panel

Well, wasn't that a pleasant story? Everything worked out so nicely for Mister Doom, didn't it? A lovely happily ever after ending, and...oh wait, let me turn the page to see ruler of Hell Mephisto chillin' with his homegirls:

What If? #22 panel

With Doom's mother freed from hell, Mephisto is rightly ticked, just as you would be if somebody snuck into your long box and stole your copy of Nova #6, thus making your collection incomplete. And Mephisto don't get mad, he gets even. Well, actually, he gets mad and even, by spiriting Doom away to Hell and ensnaring the souls of every man, woman, child, and wiener dog in Latveria in a little "Visit Scenic Latveria" snowglobe:

What If? #22 panel

Apparently having boned up on his copy of Faust, Mephisto has a...hee hee...devilish proposal for Doom—since Doom stole one soul from him, he'll release Latveria only if Doom gives up another soul in replacement: either von Doom's soul or that of his lady love Valeria. Whom will Doom choose? Cue the Jeopardy theme song!:

What If? #22 panel

Really, as Harry Chapin would sing much later on, "there was only one choice." Even in this new universe (no! not the "New Universe"!), Doom's Shakespearean hubris can not allow him to make such a selfless sacrifice, and by his own words he gives up Valeria's soul and condemns her to burning torment eternal. Man, forget about Superman: Doctor Doom is a dick.:

What If? #22 panel

And in keeping with the What If? tradition of "the more universes change, the more they stay the same," like he does in the Marvel Universe, every Midsummer's Eve Doom conjures up demons and devils and does psychic and magical battle with the forces of hell to attempt to reclaim a soul from Mephisto's clutches: but this time his ever-fruitless attempts are to rescue Valeria, not Momma Doom. And ever Midsummer's Morning he fails, whines a lot, gnashes his teeth, curses his fate and stands with his legs disconcertingly widespread:

What If? #22 panel

And the Watcher sums it up sadly as he always does: in this universe things happened dramatically different than they did in ours, that this'll probably somehow maybe will lead in a way he's not entirely certain how but should probably possibly lead almost inevitably to the death of Tony Stark, and hey kids, stay tuned, 'coz next issue Uncle Uatu's got a cool story about the Hulk doing a Conan impression.

I've made some fun of What If? #22 here but don't get me wrong: it's still one of my favorite Doctor Doom stories ever. I consider it the definitive portrayal of the hubris of Victor von Doom, and the best story from which parallels can be drawn between him and the greatest of Shakespearean tragic heroes like Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear. Kida's artwork is solid and dramatic and Glut's script is fast-moving and covers all the bases, but it's definitely not as fine a book as, say, Fantastic Four #57 or #247. But it is proof that Stan 'n' Jack created one of their finest and fullest-developed characters in a boasting iron-clad villain, an antagonist so rich in potential that even a one-shot issue of What If? that stars him could be compared to a Shakespeare play by a little stuffed bull without too many people laughing. What If? #22 was the second issue of the series that I picked up (following the interesting but confusing #21, a sequel to #1), and it's one of the comics that hooked me on Marvel in general and ol' Doc Doom in particular. This long and rambling post celebrating that issue is the first in an occasional series I'm working on covering Bully's list of The Most Fun Comics Ever, and to me, there's no better way to kick off the concept than with Doctor Doom doing battle with freakin' Mephisto. Shakespeare maybe coulda done better, but he likely would not have given us the immortal declaration "The world must not be deprived...of Doom!" No, it mustn't. And neither should we. On Shakespeare's birthday I thus salute you, Doctor Doom! Excelsior!


Anonymous said...

Agreed, little stuffed bull! And now I'm really looking forward to The Most Fun Comics Ever, what a good idea.

Sleestak said...

Uatu upskirt.

(Hello, Googlers!)

David C said...

This would be on my "Most Fun Comics Ever" list, too. One of my favorite What If's and Doom stories.

As a kid reading this story, I remember being struck by the notion, maybe for the first time, that someone could be *both* a great hero and a colossal asshat at the same time....

SallyP said...

The world should never be deprived of...DOOM! Heh, I get warm tingles, just typing that.

And speaking of Shakespeare, I have a book that is nothing but various insults taken from the plays. It is a hoot and a half.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

What If was a sweet, sweet title. My first Marvels were from that run:

What if someone else had been bitten by the radioactive spider? (Flash Thompson? Killed by the Vulture. John Jameson? Got a jetpack, became "Spider-Jameson," killed by getting squashed under a space capsule. Betty Brant? Quit after letting a crook go by who later shot her boyfriend's uncle.)

What if Nova had been somebody else? (Mostly bad things.)

What if Rick Jones became the Hulk? (Hulk would talk like a beatnik. "Don't jive Hulk with fancy lingo, bug-man! Hulk doesn't dig it!")

What if Captain America weren't revived until today? (The best freakin' comic ever.)

When it was good, it was excellent, and when it was bad, it usually still had a gonzo energy that made it fun.

(The second run of the series, not so much. Ah, well.)

Adam Barnett said...

What If? was a true gem of a comic. I also liked the 1950's Avengers and the "Why Not?" story finishing the Invaders saga. Good stuff.

Bill D. said...

What If occupied an area in comics made up of nothing but extremes... every issue was either really great or really awful. And yeah, the answer to every other What If question seemed to be, "Well, they died." But the good issues - and this is definitely one of them - are among the best books Marvel ever published. Especially, as someone mentioned above, What If Captain America Were Revived Today?, which isn't only my favorite What If issue, but probably one of my most favorite Marvel books ever. I picked that one up from a used book store when I was 10, and it completely blew me away.

Anonymous said...

Are those panels lettered by the great Tom Orzechowski? Man, everything looks better when he letters it.