RETRO REVIEW: What If? (Vol. 1) #4 (August 1977)

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Or – “Before The ‘What If?’  Concept Really Solidified…”

These days, it seems people only use the term ‘House of Ideas’ to mock what they believe to be a loss of originality from Marvel editorial, but there was a time when wild notions flew freely and writers  were free to come up with bizarre (but believable) stories that turned the Marvel U into the brilliant madhouse that we know it as today.  Witness this tale, one of at least three written to answer the question:  If Steve Rogers fell in the ice in 1945, how in the hell was Captain America active well into the 1950s?

The answer is complicated and more than a little bit heartbreaking…

WHAT IF #4
Scripter: Roy Thomas
Penciler: Frank Robbins (breakdowns); Frank Springer (finished art)
Inks: Frank Springer
Colors: George Bell
Letters: Joe Rosen (pp 1-10, 37-47); John Costanza (pp 11-36)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: 50 Cents (Current Near-Mint Pricing:$10.00)

Previously, on What If?: The practice of retroactive continuity (or retcons, for short) has pretty much always been around, dating back to movie serials when the hero miraculously escaped unharmed when last week’s reel clearly showed him plunging to his death.  Roy Thomas, though, turned it into an art form as he worked to make even the oddest Golden Age notion work in a cohesive universe.  (The JSA’s discovery of little green aliens on every planet in the solar system is a particularly fun one to see him work with.)  When Stan Lee brought back Captain America in the pages of the Avengers in the 60’s, he forgot (or more likely didn’t even consider that anybody would remember) the fact that Cap’s Golden Age appearances continued well beyond that point.  In 1977, R.T. put pen to paper to try and figure out exactly how and why…

We began our tale in 1945, as Steve Rogers and James Buchanan Barnes crash through a window to stop what they believe to be just another hair-brained scheme of Baron Heinrich Zemo.  It’s the moment where Cap and Bucky meet their rendezvous with destiny (with a little help from a time-traveling team of Avengers…  Long story.)  After a recap of that story (buzzbomb plane, Cap and Bucky leap on, Bucky defuses bomb, KABLOOIE, iceberg, Russian mindwipe, blah blah blah fishcakes), we find Uatu the Watcher sadly considering the day’s losses…

In hindsight, it’s kind of funny to realize that NOBODY actually died that day, not even Zemo himself.  But in any case, the seeming demise of the Sentinel of Liberty and his teen partner is slow to make it’s way across the Pacific, but soon the government gathers Cap’s wartime super-team, The Invaders, to break the bad news.

The Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch and Toro make their way to our nation’s capital, leaving Union Jack and Spitfire back in the U.K., to meet up with the man who has inherited the post of Commander-In-Chief from the very recently deceased FDR:  Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States.

I really enjoy Roy Thomas’ tendency to use real-world events and personages (FDR also founded the All-Star Squadron at DC, while Winston Churchill figures in the adventures of both Invaders and All-Stars) in his stories, especially given the nature of the Captain America identity.  As the stunned Invaders watch, Truman reveals his latest strategy…

Truman’s new Cap and Bucky, along with the Whizzer (Heh) and Miss America have been asked to join the Invaders and continue the war in the Pacific, and the assembled heroes agree.  When the war ends, the team continues their efforts as the All-Winner’s Squad, and the Spirit of ’76 serves ably as a replacement for Steve Rogers.  As much as I enjoy Rogers, I really like the implication that the role of Captain America is bigger than one man, a notion that doesn’t really play these days, when “The One True Whatever” is comic creators’ watchword.  Then, comes the summer of 1946, when Namor brings a startling announcement to his partners…

The heroes scatter to the four winds, and the Torch returns to his maker’s home in New England.  The What If concept was still pretty much in its infancy at Marvel, but we clearly see the more global-scale adventures that readers will eventually come to expect from this title.  Upon returning home, the Torch is stunned to find a false, mechanical version of Professor Horton awaiting him.  Though he quickly destroys the lesser mechanical man, there’s another waiting in the wings, and this one is a pretty snappy dresser…

The torches are overwhelmed and locked in a tank (with the real Professor Horton) and left to drown in a James Bondian deathtrap.  The Torch manages to heat up enough to set off a fire alarm, and help arrives from an unexpected source…

Meet Jeffrey Mace, aka the Patriot.  After pulling off the save, he accompanies the torches as they set off to stop Adam-II’s evil plan: replacing a local politician with one of his evil android duplicates.  Joined by the rest of the All-Winner’s Squad, they quickly track down Adam-II and the team splits up to find the right politico.  Each hero checks on one, but it’s Captain America and Bucky who find the congressman that Adam II has targeted (one John F. Kennedy, a congressional candidate from Massachusetts) and engaging the android in combat!

“If you capture him–  CRUSH HIM TO DEATH!”  An ugly sentiment from a literally inhuman madman.  Captain America’s flare is seen by the rest of the Squad, and all the heroes converge to find Adam II swooping down to kill young Jack Kennedy.  The android throws what should be a fatal blow, but…

In his haste to escape, Adam II’s car skids on an oil slick (a slick left by his own android henchmen), crashed into a wall and explodes.  The heroes and the shellshocked Kennedy wonder why the android targeted him (a neat bit of continuity for those of us in the future) before Bucky realizes the truth about “Cap.”

The story ends with what I consider to be it’s only really sour beat, comparing the loss of Steve Rogers and William Naslund to the eventual deaths of John and Robert Kennedy, but even that doesn’t damage an ingeniously plotted bit of retroactive continuity.  Steve Englehart had earlier created the 50’s Commie-smashing Captain America to explain away inconsistencies in that story, and this book fills in the gaps of what happens during the missing years.  The continuity touches are pretty awesome (F’rinstance, did you know that in the Marvel Universe, Jim Hammond the Human Torch set Adolf Hitler on fire rather than der fuhrer committing suicide?) and nobody does 40’s slang like Roy.  This issue comes from a time when the second wave of Marvel creators had taken over from the old guard, and a time when the world our heroes existed in was still simple enough that stories like this really WORKED.  This story is also early enough in the history of What If that the answer to the question isn’t immediately “everyone died screaming,” which is somewhat novel in retrospect.  This issue is one of the earliest grails of my comic collecting career, and I clearly remember the exultation of finding it in a box at Pat’s Book Nook back in the day.  The art team of Frank Robbins and Frank Springer is an odd one, but even the strangenesses of the synthesis work for me in the story.  Most interesting of all is the fact that this, unlike most of the original run of What If?, is considered a canonical story of the mainstream 616 Marvel Universe, and even got name-checked and reprinted in a Jeff Mace one-shot in recent months.

The practical upshot is that this story redefines what being a Marvel hero is, leading to the eventual existence of characters like Daken, Danny Ketch, and most of the ‘legacy’ hero types running about Marvel’s books today.  What If #4 sets the bar high for this series, and earns a very impressive 4 out of 5 stars overall. I firmly believe that this book can be considered the end of the Bronze Age of comics, and helped to usher in a more modern storytelling form that’s still the basis of what’s in use today.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day: With so many great characters having played Captain America, is there any real reason why we have to stick with Steve?