Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The What If? Top 5: What If Spider Man's Uncle Ben Had Lived?

Welcome to the What If? Top Five, a look at my personal favorite issues of Marvel's long-running What If? series. What If? initially was a double-sized comic published bimonthly for 47 issues from 1977-1984, later revived as a standard-sized monthly that ran for 115 issues from 1989-1998. Since then, The book has been released sporadically as a series of one-shots, and continues to this day in that form. You'll notice that all of my top five come from the first series, as it is my opinion that the second series suffered from the shorter format and monthly frequency. Even the best stories from that era fail because they don't have enough room to breathe.

Without further ado, number 5:

The first thing I noticed when I started re-reading these was how many of them were written by Peter B. Gillis. What If #46 was a stand out issue for a number of reasons, not the least of which was Gillis' thoughtful and humane script. In a reality where May was shot by the burglar instead of Uncle Ben, the result is a different, more conflicted Spider-Man. In What If Spider-Man's Uncle Ben Had Lived?, Peter is mere weeks into his career as Spider-Man when Ben finds his Spider-Man costume and confronts him with the knowledge. Ben allows Peter to continue crime fighting, but takes exception to J. Jonah Jameson's anti-Spider-Man crusade, telling Peter that allowing it to continue is disrespectful to May's memory. He then goes to confront Jameson in person with a desperate gambit:

Jameson mulls over how to handle this development, deciding to milk it for circulation. He challenges Spider-Man to present his side of the story, then co-opts the young hero, using his inside information to score Spider-Man scoops. Jameson goes too far when he assigns Peter to trail Betty Brant and her brother Bennet. In this alternate reality, Spidey arrives in time to save Bennet (he failed in "our" timeline), but he feels compromised and distrustful of Betty. Tired of answering to two old men, Peter disappears for several days, until Jameson draws him out of hiding by threatening to expose his secret.

When Jameson's son, John returns from a space mission with a mysterious ailment, Jameson rushes to his side. The Green Goblin tips his hand early, determined to kidnap Jonah and learn Spidey's secret identity. John mutates, as he did in AMS #42, and heads out to find his father. He knocks out the Green Goblin, but in his disoriented state, almost attacks Jonah until Spider-Man shows up to subdue him. The story ends with a restoration of the uneasy peace between the Parkers and Jameson, and with Peter and Ben agreeing to stick together.

I can see where this might have struck some as a particularly dull issue, given that things don't veer far at all from the original storyline. Most What If? tales aren't satisfied than anything less than a dozen shocking deaths (and Iron Man, of course) but this story was more about a difference in Spider-Man's mindset. Gillis provided a very compelling look at an angrier, more jaded Peter Parker who nonetheless followed approximately the same superhero career path.

The art was by Ron Frenz, one of his earliest Spider-Man jobs for Marvel, and one in which he closely mimicked the style and mood of Steve Ditko. Not that that's a bad thing at all -it's entirely appropriate, and one almost gets the feeling of reading an alternate universe Amazing Spider-Man comic.

Coming soon: Number Four!


Al Ewing said...

Peter B Gillis did some absolutely phenomenal work here, particularly the Cap vs. Cap issue and the Reed Is Suicidal issue, at least one of which I'm sure will turn up later in the countdown.

Siskoid said...

You pretty much hit on everything I liked about the issue: Frenz doing Ditko, no body count, etc.

Great idea for a series. I almost wish you'd spoiled us with the entire list right away.

Definitely, the last issues were better than the earlier ones, though there's a goofy charm to Nick Fury fighting WWII in space, etc.

Can't wait to read more.

Zach said...

I remember really enjoying the "What if the Fantastic Four's Daughter Had Lived" with two count 'em two stories in one.