RETRO REVIEW: What If #9 (June 1978)

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Or – “Known Decades Later As The Agents Of Atlas…”

Back in 1977, Marvel Comics introduced (or, given the existence of the Silver Age Imaginary Story, reintroduced) the concept of the “What If?” story, a tale which examined the road not taken.  Most of the time, the answer to the question ‘What If?’ ended up being “Everybody dies screaming!”  But, on occasion, the stories told are memorable for a different reason…

WHAT IF #9 - “What If The Avengers Had Been Formed During The 1950s?”
Writer: Don Glut; Roy Thomas (concept)
Penciler(s): Alan Kupperberg (breakdowns); Bill Black (finishes)
Inker: Bill Black
Colorist: Carl Gafford
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Editor: Roy Thomas
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: 60 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $10.00

Previously, in What If?:  Uatu The Watcher appeared the same year that Spider-Man debuted, but it wasn’t until the mid-70′s that he began narrating tales of alternate realities in the monthly pages of “What If?”  Uatu’s alien nature made him aware not only of our reality, but the fact that his world is one that serves as entertainment in ours.  As such, he narrates directly to those of us on Earth-Prime (or Earth-0000), starting with events transpiring in Avengers Mansion in the summer of ’78…

I love the ‘What If?’ concept, and have read most all of the issues (I zoned out a bit when the concept became so specialized as to tell tales of Sam Guthrie’s little brother, or spun out of one random panel of an X-Men story) but I can’t remember any other time that the characters IN the story did the title drop.  Uatu did, a time or two, but this situation is brought about by Iron Man’s new dimensional device, reverse-engineered from the teleporter that brought the Squadron Supreme to our Earth.  His never-before-nor-since-seen plot device dimensional viewer homes in on the Avengers recent past.

The 70′s were full of stories that talked about the 50′s (notably Happy Days), and it’s a little weird to think that the past timeframe of this story is closer to their present than their present is to OUR present.  (Sorry about that sentence, I’m a Legion of Super-Heroes reader…)  Jimmy Woo (hero of the 1950′s Yellow Claw series) gets taken down by what seems to be Marlon Brando and his gang from ‘The Wild One,’ gaining the attention and assistance of the 3-D Man and Marvel Boy…

Marvel Boy’s Uranian telepathic powers quickly reveal what we already knew, that the villain behind whatever is going on is The Yellow Claw himself!  This story is interesting in a meta way for using the actual characters that were around in the 1950′s (a time when superhero comics were on the wane, and most of Atlas Comics’ titles featured other genres) but the actual execution of the story feels oddly clunky in retrospect.  Marvel Boy and 3-D Man are sent off to the corners of the alternate Marvel U, encountering a couple more of Marvel/Atlas’ 50′s heroes…

Years later, Namora would be revealed to have been a larger part of a similar story that DID take place in the mainstream Marvel Universe, but here, she and Jann of the Jungle play merely supporting roles.  That doesn’t mean that this team is going to be devoid of a female contingent, however…

As much as I love these characters, and this issue in general, I am once again struck by how incredibly awkward Don Glut’s scripting is, even compared to the glorious expositional dialogue of What If stalwart Roy Thomas.  The reveal of Venus is rather nicely done here, as she (like Marvel Boy) had a relatively successful book in the 1950′s as well, and her powers are probably better suited to espionage missions than either 3-D or Gorilla Man.

The Human Robot’s dialogue is at least interesting though, a precursor to the kind of misunderstandings of colloquialisms that would later turn up with Data in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.’  The story stops dead for a few pages to allow Uatu to narrate the origins of the heroes, including the 70′s retro-insert 3-D Man.  (He would later be removed from the initial Agents of Atlas lineup for that reason.)  The Yellow Claw, for his part, has assembled four villains (each of whom magically opposed one of Jimmy’s recruits in the past) of his own and combined their powers to kidnap President Eisenhower.

It’s amusing how much that drawing of Ike in panel two looks like current-day Don Rickles.  Suwan, the Claw’s grand-niece and Jimmy’s main squeeze, tries to solicit Jimmy’s help but only gets Mr. Woo captured by the evil mastermind.  Fighty-fighty ensues (and, sadly, rather run-of-the-mill fighty-fighty at that) followed by a Yellow Claw last-ditch plan that blows up the Human Robot, bumming the team out that they misjudged their inhuman comrade…

Eisenhower’s request is shocking, but Marvel Boy quickly figures out that the world of the 1950′s isn’t ready for aliens, robots, monstrous apes and extra-dimensional gods, even chucking in a shot at Doctor Frederic Wertham for good measure.  As their first-and-only adventure wraps up (rather anti-climactically), the Avengers of the 1950′s have no idea that they’re being assessed by their alternate-universe future counterparts…

The story ends in a weirdly ambiguous note, as The Watcher teases us with the question of whether or not the tale takes place in the mainstream Marvel Universe or not, as though this issue was a backdoor pilot for a series.  The eventual series came about 30 years later, with some changes, after the original tale was confirmed as NOT being canonical to the 616 during the chaos of Avengers Forever.  All in all, as much as I enjoy the characters and the Agents of Atlas stories that followed, this book is much more impressive in hindsight than in actual practice.  What If #9 is a book that, sadly, hasn’t held up to scrutiny as a complete tale, with a particularly inexplicable plot and a bizarre non-ending, earning a vaguely heart-breaking 2 out of 5 stars overall.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆