Alternate Spidey - Part 1

Back to the Beginning

Introduction
Everyone loves alternative histories, parallel universes, whatever you want to call them. In a period of time extending back over 30 years, there have been several alternate histories featuring your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. In fact - at any given time there always seems to be some kind of alternative history of the Marvel Universe being told either in a stand alone series (when I first wrote this article - Earth X was still in process. Later, there was Powerless, and then House of M), or as part of a character's regular run. The best stories are those in which the reader learns something new about people he or she thought they were familiar with by putting them in unfamiliar circumstances, and then watching their reaction given these new surroundings. The worst stories are those that are just excuses to kill otherwise untouchable characters and rack up huge body counts. Another component of the better stories is that all of the principals stay within character, even though their situation may have been radically altered. The less than stellar tales not only alter the timeline, but everyone acts out of character simply to arrive at a predetermined conclusion or the "gotcha."

To provide some historical context, during the 1950's and 60's, DC was infatuated with publishing "imaginary stories" during the regular series runs. One month you'd have an in-continuity story (well, as such could be considered "in continuity" in those days), and next month there'd be an imaginary story featuring an event that could never happen, such as the death of the title character. After that, you'd be back in the regular timeline. Although not immune to telling these kinds of stories, until the last decade or so, Marvel had always been a lot less flagrant with them, as the tight continuity of the Marvel Universe used to be one of that company's strongest selling points. Now, people, mostly the writers, it seems, bitch and moan about the Marvel Universe's "baggage."

However, in late 1976, giving in to the temptation to spin these alternate yarns, but also wanting to restrict their use in order not to abuse the concept, Marvel (and Roy Thomas in particular) created What If?. The first issue featured - who else - our boy Spidey as a member of the Fantastic Four, er Five.

During the first run of What If, Marvel concentrated on stories deviating from early events in Marvel history (with some novelty tales such as "What if the Original Marvel Bullpen Became the Fantastic Four?" or "What if Conan the Barbarian Walked the Earth Today?"). This run was typically double-sized in format, lasted less than 50 issues, and suspended publication in 1984.

The concept was revived again in 1989 with the second volume of What If?. This series differed from the first as it focused on deviations to more recent events in Marvel history (you know, for those in that younger, "target" audience), and was published in the regular sized 22 page format. In 1995, Marvel couldn't resist jumping on DC's Elseworlds bandwagon and therefore made What If one of a proposed number of "Marvel Alterniverse" lines. The second coming of What If lasted more than twice as long as the first, but it too, along with the Marvel Alterniverse, suspended publication. However, this version of the series actually lives on in a spin-off title. What If #105 , introduced the daughter of Peter Parker, May "Mayday" Parker as Spider-Girl, who is still in action more than 100 issues later due to her loyal and very vocal fan base.

Beginning in late 2004, rather than come out with a regular title, Marvel periodically has produced limited series of one-shot "What Ifs," featuring various different heroes and concepts, including one for Spider-Man which was actually first done more than 20 years earlier.

So much for the history lesson - now on to the stories. I've decided to break up my discussion of Alternate Spideys, not by order of appearance, but by topic, which will usually cross What If (or other title) volumes. This first part goes back to the very beginning of Spider-Man, covering the topics of (1) someone else being bitten by the radioactive spider and (2) a different outcome in the infamous Burglar's confrontation with the Parker family.

Someone else gets bitten by the spider
Speaking of Spider-Girl, who was the first Spider-Girl in the pages of What If? If you said MayDay Parker, you'd be wrong! The first Spider-Girl was none other than Betty Brant, Peter Parker's first love! What If? Volume 1 #7 (1977) posed the question of what would have happened if someone other than Peter Parker had been bitten by the radioactive spider on that fateful day. The question is answered in three separate stories featuring the following people: (1) Flash Thompson (2) Betty Brant, and (3) John Jameson, the son of everyone's favorite cranky, cigar chomping newspaper publisher. The contrived circumstances that resulted in each person being at the scientific demonstration and getting bitten are not really as important as the stories that resulted, so I'll ocassionally skip a couple of beats.

In the first story, Flash Thompson, Peter Parker's high school tormentor, receives the spider powers, after bursting in on the science exhibition on a lark. However, being an immature teenage jock, he is very careless with his powers. When trying to test them, in much the same way Peter Parker did in the regular continuity, Flash is so distracted in trying to show off that he accidentally kills wrestler Crusher Hogan by breaking his neck. Bolting when the police come after him, Flash is now a wanted fugitive. He later decides to assume a costumed crimefighter disguise not only to satiate his own desire to be a hero, but also as penance for killing Crusher Hogan. Flash becomes "Captain Spider" and embarks on his new crime-busting career.

Sadly, it is a short-lived one. Without any scientific acumen at his disposal, or frankly, much in the way of common sense or street smarts, Captain Spider relies on his physical strength and enhanced abilities alone. This ultimately proves fatal in a battle with the Vulture, as he is knocked from the old bird's grasp while high in the air, plunging to his death. Peter Parker witnesses the battle, being an admirer of Captain Spider (a curious role reversal), and rushing to the site of impact, finds the Spider's broken body. He unmasks the hero while attempting to revive him, and after the initial shock, finds himself grieving over the death of his one-time taunter.

In the second story, Betty Brant is bitten while attending the exhibition with J. Jonah Jameson, a friend of the presenting scientist. Peter rushes to Betty's aid when she appears faint and shepherds her out of the science hall. The two go out to dinner, and Betty accidentally destroys a table in the midst of a tirade about Jonah. Peter later puts her through a battery of tests that demonstrate the extent of the powers she has gained. He proposes that "with great power comes great responsibility" (I guess Uncle Ben still said it to Peter in this particular universe) and that she should use her powers as a champion for good. Initially reluctant, fearful that she might accidentally harm someone with her super-strength, Betty finally agrees, but opts not to use Peter's original suggestion for her other identity - "Spider-Lady" (it would make her seem middle-aged or something), but rather goes with "Spider-Girl." Peter invents the webshooters and other spider-gimmicks for Betty this time, rather than for himself.

Betty's crime-fighting career unfolds much as Peter's did in "our" universe, with JJJ castigating her in the Bugle as a public menace (although the public thinks she's cute). This time, rather than one employee snickering behind Jonah's back, it's now two, with both Peter and Betty being in on the joke. He takes exclusive pictures of Spider-Girl and sells them to the Bugle, while she provides exclusive tips to Bugle reporters on the super heroine.

Unfortunately, Spider-Girl's career also proves short, but for different reasons. Returning from a photo shoot, Peter and Spider-Girl encounter a burglar running from a security guard (yep - same burglar - same security guard). Betty tries to snare him with her webbing, which she has grown to rely on as a crutch in order to avoid using her strength and potentially hurting someone, but her web shooters are empty. Becoming so reliant on her gimmicks, she is unable to quickly regroup, and the burglar escapes. Later that night, when Peter and Betty return to the Parker home, the same predictable events have unfolded, with Ben murdered by the burglar. Spider-Girl tracks the criminal to a warehouse, where she ultimately makes the same discovery that Peter did - that her inaction at a crucial moment resulted in Ben Parker's death.

Tormented by grief, Betty trashes her Spider-Girl costume and swears never to wear it again. Even Peter's counseling and insistence that Ben's death wasn't her fault is unable to persuade her otherwise. The two walk off into the night, but Peter can't help but look back at the discarded costume in the garbage can...

When astronaut John Jameson receives the spider powers in the third story, he makes no effort to conceal them, planning to use them in the space program. However, his father, old JJJ, figures that is far too mundane of a use for such great powers, and convinces John to become a costumed superhero, fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. He even designs the "Spider Jameson" costume for John, and the young man's friends at NASA create a jet pack that allows Spider Jameson to fly. Jonah's feelings about superheroes undergoes a slight, uh, change, and he revels in all of John's triumphs, while engaging in some self-serving publicity for himself and the Bugle.

Fate has a way of bringing people full circle, however. For Spider Jameson, it is the launch of the space capsule. In the "real" continuity, in Amazing Spider-Man #1, he was the pilot, and Peter Parker, as Spider-Man, saved him. The capsule runs into the same trouble in this alternate universe, and JJJ, pulling his usual strong armed sales job, convinces John to try to save the astronaut, albeit over the reluctance of his son who is unsure he can succeed. However, his father's pressure, and guilt over the fact that if not for the spider bite, it would have been him in the capsule rather than another man, he flies to the rescue. John is able to use his spider strength to reroute the capsule and begins to guide it back to the ground, but the effort expends all of the fuel in his jet pack, and both he and the capsule are in free fall. He is subsequently crushed when he uses his body and strength to give the capsule as much of a soft landing as he can.

Jonah is devastated by the loss of his son, anguished that he was the one who pushed John into the superhero lifestyle which ultimately killed him. During the memorial service, Jonah tells Peter Parker, recently employed as a photographer with the Bugle, that he will use his resources to promote the cause of the superheroes who are beginning to appear in greater numbers in New York, and to ensure that the public accepts them despite their bizarre appearances and concealed identities. Perhaps, in some measure, he will find the redemption he so desperately seeks for the role he feels he played in John's death.

But the story's not over. In the epilogue we find out that in each of these three alternate universes, Peter Parker retrieves the dead spider after it delivers its' irradiated venom. After studying the biological changes that resulted from the spider's absorption of radioactivity, he concocts a serum that enables him to gain the spider's powers without having been bitten himself. Therefore, each of these realities gets its Spider-Man. I suppose we have to assume that since Peter must have been home in two of the three alternate realities, it deterred the Burglar from entering the Parker home that fateful night (funny that I mention that...)

What If? #7, written by Don Glut, is an enjoyable read, one reason being that everyone remains true to their regular counterparts. The Flash Thompson story is the weakest of the trio, since we really don't learn anything new about anyone. We are told that Peter Parker idolizes Captain Spider - but since Flash quickly becomes a fugitive, there is no interaction between he and Peter to underscore the irony of the high school bully now being idolized by the school nerd, rather than the other way around. But at least Flash remains in character here, an overbearing obnoxious loudmouth and taunter, but not a bad person. He wasn't treated so faithfully in some other tales.

My favorite story was the Spider-Girl tale, for various reasons. It's the only character of the three about whom conceivably more stories could have been told (other than the fact that she was the only one who actually survived). For one, I've always thought there was something special about Betty Brant, being the "first girlfriend." I remember the first girl I ever had a serious crush on, as well as the first girl who was probably foolish enough to actually show me some reciprocal affection. I married neither of these women, but still remember them fondly. Betty was probably the most down to earth girl that Peter dated (with the possible exception of Deb Whitman, who was unfortunately turned into a fruit loop and written out of the spider-titles), the one who most wanted the husband, house, kids, and white picket fence lifestyle. Therefore, the profound changes that the sudden receipt of super powers would have wraught upon someone like her would have been very dramatic. What's also interesting is the role that Peter takes in mentoring Betty. Just as being Spider-Man brought the Peter we know out of his shell and self-absorption, in the brief time we visit this particular universe, we see the very same awakening in him, except this time it's through the compassion and understanding he exhibits for someone else, and his involvement in that person's life.

Another interesting twist is that Peter forgives Betty for her inaction which results in his Uncle Ben's death, realizing that it was simply a tragic twist of fate. However, he is unable to forgive himself in the real Marvel Universe. Of course, there is a slight difference in the frame of mind each character was in at the time. Betty's inaction was prompted by fear and uncertainty, whereas Peter's was by selfishness and ego.

A 60's era Spider-Girl series with these same characters would have been an interesting contrast to the superhero landscape of the time. Nowadays, it is politically incorrect to portray any young girl or woman as wanting to do something as mundane and "unempowering" as being a wife and mother, so we'll never see a series about that type of hero. But in the 60's, a series about an ordinary young girl with such "modest" ambitions, who suddenly obtained super-powers, and the school geek (whom no one would certainly believe was the boyfriend and the scientific support of the glamorous super-heroine), would have been fun.

I also liked the Spider Jameson story, silly as it was, because I think it nailed the various sides of Jonah's personality, whereas many What If's (and sometimes even writers in the "real" universe) simply choose to portray him as psychopath who's only reason for being is to hate Spider-Man. Jonah does exploit his son for his own self-gratification, but there is never any doubt about his love for his boy, and that his grief at the end is real. It also illustrates the mental block that Jonah has for accepting superheroes, particularly those who conceal their identities and appear to avoid accountability for their actions. As they keep themselves masked, and often appear amidst, violence, chaos and destruction, he cannot relate to them as fellow frail human beings who are making huge personal sacrifices to do what is right. However, that barrier is broken when his own son becomes a superhero, and he begins to comprehend the selflessness, dedication, and heroism that it takes for a man (or woman) to suit up and confront danger when there is no certainty of survival. But basically, it demonstrates that J. Jonah Jameson, for all of his bluster, arrogrance, cheapness, and curlish behavior, is at his core a good and decent man. Unfortunately, no one's taken a crack at writing the story of what would happen if Jonah was bitten by the radioactive spider.

Flash Thompson got another crack at being Spider-Man in What If Volume 2 #76, except this time his characterization is way off-base. Whereas in his first stint as an alternate Spidey, Flash simply took the buffoonish high school jock to another level, this time the powers transform Flash from a bully into a thief and would-be murderer, in which he either attempts to or threatens to kill both Peter and Betty Brant during the course of the story. Although this is not an accurate depiction of Flash - it still results in a servicable story with interesting insights into some of our other favorite characters, and how fate can be both kind and capricious, with every gain resulting in a loss somewhere else down the line.

After Flash is bitten by the spider, Peter sees a demonstration of his powers as the jock nearly pummels the driver of a car that almost ran him over. Peter is able to convince Flash to take a low profile for awhile, later emerging as a costumed crimefighter. Flash likes the idea of a costume and gadgets, but secretly plans not to fight crime, but to personally enrich himself. Peter questions the wisdom of helping Flash, but then a tragedy close to home changes his mind. But it's not Uncle Ben's death.

Since Peter is not bitten by the spider, he does not pursue a showbiz career, and is home the night the burglar arrives. Seeing someone besides two harmless old people in the house, the burglar decides not to pursue Dutch Mallone's treasure that night, thus sparing Ben Parker's life (and explaining why Ben does not die in two of the alternate spider universes presented in What If Volume 1 #7). However, in order to make his night worthwhile, the burglar robs the house next door, Anna Watson's home. He is surprised by Mrs. Watson's young niece who is visiting and guns the girl down in cold blood. As a result, Peter Parker never even meets Mary Jane Watson. Therefore, if helping Flash can prevent such horrible crimes from occurring, Peter feels he has to give it a chance - and creates a costume and web shooters for Flash.

Before long, Peter realizes that Flash has no intention to doing good with his powers, and after a pep talk with Aunt May and Uncle Ben, who tell him to do what is right, even if there may be unpleasant consequences, he decides to put a halt to Flash's career.

Without super powers, however, he's going to need a gimmick to take Flash on, and approaches Dr. Otto Octavious, offering to share concepts and ideas on the doctor's artificial limbs, which fascinate him. The arrogant Dr. Octavious, feeling it would be beneath him to cooperate in any exchange of ideas with a lowly teenager, tells Pete to take a hike. However, Octavious has become so pre-occupied with his experiment that he fails to see the subtle, but deadly radiation build-up that is occurring. Peter brings this to the doctor's attention, and Octavious quickly corrects the problem, preventing the explosion that in the regular continuity created Doctor Octopus. The scientist, realizing how careless his arrogance and narrow mindedness had made him, takes a dose of humility and begins working with a bright young lad by the name of Peter Parker. This is interesting taken in the context that in <1>Spider-Man 2 (2004), Peter questions Octavious about his ability to appropriately contain the massive fusion reaction he is creating - but well - we know what happened.

Cut to the Daily Bugle, where Jonah is grieving over the death of his son (since Peter Parker had not become Spider-Man in the timeline, he did not save John in the malfunctioning space capsule). "The Spider," as Flash calls himself, crashes in, ordering Jonah to publish his demands that the city provide him with regular cash payments or he will launch a massive crime wave. Before he can convince Jonah of the sincerity of his demands by seletively breaking a few of the old man's bones, another figure crashes through the door - although this one has 6 artifical limbs and calls himself "Spider-Man." Guess who?

After a brief battle, as he is familiar with Flash's powers, Peter overloads his spider sense, rendering him unconscience. A grateful Jonah declares that the Bugle will sponsor a "Peter Parker Day," but blast it, why isn't there a decent photographer around to take a picture of him with New York's newest hero?

Later, after Peter has told Aunt May and Uncle Ben about his extra-curricular activities, the Fantastic Four quinjet lands on the Parker front lawn, and Sue Storm offers an invitation for the Parker family to visit the Baxter Building.

While there, Reed Richards shows Peter the incapacitated Flash Thompson and reveals that he removed the radioactive isotope responsible for Flash's powers before it permanently alterated his DNA. Peter believes that he has been invited to the Baxter Building so that Reed could inject him with the isotope and give him the spider powers, but watches in horror as Richards disposes of the isotope! Flabbergasted, Peter tells Richards what good he would have been able to do with those powers, but Reed tells him that he doesn't need super powers to do good. Through his intelligence, courage, and compassion, he's already proven himself a hero.

The story ends with an unlikely scene on the stage of the ceremonies for "Peter Parker Day," where Peter, Jonah, Otto Octavious, Ben, May, and Betty are all smiles and shaking hands and the Watcher shows us scenes which demonstrates that this "Spider-Man" will continue to fight evil, although in a somewhat different form than we are familiar.

The gross mischaracterization of Flash Thompson aside, this story had some interesting things to say, other than the fact that it once again illustrates what kind of man Peter Parker is, super powers or no. Although this story does have a "happy ending," it also illustrates that there is no perfect world, not for Peter Parker, nor for any of us. During the regular continuity, we often see Peter bemoan the day that the spider bit him and gave him his powers, and of the lives that were subsequently ended or ruined as a result, i.e. Uncle Ben, George Stacy, and Gwen Stacy.

So what if the spider never bit him? Well, good things do result. Uncle Ben's life is spared, Otto Octavious' life is not ruined by an explosion, and he becomes a friend of Peter Parker's rather than a vicious criminal, providing support to this new "Spider-Man." However, there is still a price to be paid - a price that this Peter will never know about - such as the deaths of Mary Jane Watson and John Jameson, Anna Watson's and Jonah Jameson's subsequent guilt and grief, and the ruin of Flash Thompson's life. Plus, will Peter's loved ones now be in constant danger as he pursues his new crime-fighting career without the anonymity granted by a mask (hmmm - and this was years before the advent of Civil War)?

All of us pay in one way or another for the choices we make. Undoubtedly, we often ponder what we could have done differently had we another chance. But, even if granted that chance, would it be wise to correct our mistakes? Or have those mistakes, with their penalties, taught us valuable lessons that preclude us from making even greater mistakes down the line?

In a great Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, the omnipotent alien Q gives Captain Jean Luc Picard the chance to correct some serious mistakes he made as a brash, arrogant young man that he has spent his life regretting. However, the changes resulting from Picard's "corrections" so negatively impact his future that he realizes that the life he had was a good one - poor choices and all. He sums it up perfectly when he comments on the misery that the loose threads in his life caused him - "but when I pulled on these threads, I unraveled the tapestry of my life."

I failed to mention What If #15 in the first rendition of this article because it didn't neatly fit into the themes I had selected - but after combining the first two original Alternate Spidey articles - I realized that I can slide it rather neatly in the middle of a revised one.

This issue really isn't about Peter Parker - but rather is about Nova - a teenage superhero from the 1970's who was red hot at the time - but is now a C-Lister in the current Marvel Universe. There are four separate stories in which someone else receives the power and the costume of Nova, of which Peter Parker is one.

In this story - the radioactive spider does indeed bite Peter, but rather than giving him spider powers, it makes him deathly ill - and although he later recovers, his legs are paralyzed, and he begins to wallow in self-pity and self-indulgence, obessessing over his scientific work and keeping everyone who might get close to him at arm's length (oddly enough, this was the fate of Peter Parker in Flash's Mysterio-induced fantasy in the "Perfect World" story than ran in volume 2, Amazing Spider-Man #7-8 back in 1999). Compounding the tragedy, Peter's Aunt May, overcome with fear after Peter becomes gravely ill, has a heart attack and dies (well you knew it had to happen in some universe somewhere).

However, a coincidence of time and place puts Peter in the path of the energy discharge that subsequently turns hims into Nova. In addition to the costume and the powers, Peter's paralysis is now cured. Flying home that night - the new Nova happens to burst into the Parker house just as the Burglar is about to gun down Uncle Ben. However, the bullets ricochet off Nova, and kill the Burglar (served the bastard right). Regardless of Ben's and the police's assurances that it was just an accident, Peter is overwhelmed with guilt that his actions inadvertantly caused the death of another - and he disposes the Nova costume in the trash, vowing to never use his powers again.

Bleh. This story didn't work for me. While Peter sinking into the abyss of self-pity over his paralyzed condition is realistic, his guilt over accidentally causing the Burglar's death seems far too overwrought, particularly since Uncle Ben would certainly have died had Peter not stepped in the way. If Parker/Nova had accidentally killed someone such as Flash did in a previous story, by showing off his powers, or simply being careless, then he would have reason to feel this way. This story tells us nothing new about anyone in the spider-universe, and therefore was just a gimmick to marry Marvel's most popular superhero with it's hottest superhero at the time.

So now let's go on a slightly different bent. Peter becomes Spider-Man, but the outcome with the infamous Burglar goes awry...

What if Spider-Man Stopped the Burglar?
In What If Volume 1, #19 (February 1980) written by Peter Gillis, we find out just how dramatically Peter Parker's life would have been altered if, during the most pivotal moment of his life, he actually stopped the Burglar from killing Uncle Ben. Don't wait for the happy ending.

After his TV appearance, Spidey sees the Burglar coming toward him, security guard far behind, calling for the wall crawler to stop him. In this timeline, rather than letting the Burglar get by him, Spidey realizes that some well-timed heroics would provide excellent publicity, and trips up the Burglar with a web line. The media swarms all over Spider-Man, who milks the moment for everything it's worth. Our first hint of the "new" Peter Parker occurs at later at school, when, after being accosted by Flash Thompson, rather than fight him or engage in a battle of wits, Peter simply brushes him off stating that "I don't care for nobodies touching me."

As Spidey's media popularity increases, he reveals his dual identity to Aunt May and Uncle Ben, who are less than enamored of the fact that their favorite nephew is "Spider-Man - the television actor." Ben in particular is unhappy with Peter, because it's not only evident that the young man is going to blow off college and a career in science, but is also shrugging the responsibility he has for using his super powers to help humanity. The typical 15-year-old doesn't react well when a parent tells him what to do with his life, and this 15-year-old, who has superpowers and is coming into a great deal of money, reacts no differently. Peter walks out on Ben and May, the latter tearfully feeling that they've lost him. Ever the wise old man, Ben tells her that the boy will see the truth, eventually...

Spider-Man becomes so popular that he guests hosts on the Tonight Show, and stars in a self-titled major motion picture. There are a couple of dated references that would probably slip by today's reading audience, but an old duffer like me thought they were funny:

  1. Spidey guest-hosts the Tonight Show for Johnny Carson. Today's generation probably doesn't remember Carson since Jay Leno has been the host for several years but this was a rif on the numerous celebrities that Carson had guest-hosting for him during his frequent absences from the show. Carson took every Monday off - and sometimes was gone for weeks at a time. In contrast, current late night hosts Leno and David Letterman are almost never absent from their shows - with Letterman being benched a couple of times only because of serious health problems, including open heart surgery.

  2. The stars of The Amazing Spider-Man listed on the movie marquee are Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman. When the first Superman film was released in 1978, the late Christopher Reeve, who was an unknown at that time, received third billing behind Brando (who had all of 15 minutes, if that, of screen time, yet received $4 million - more than Tobey Maguire received for starring as Spider-Man in the first motion picture more than 20 years later!) and Hackman. By the way, Spidey attends the New York premiere of his movie with a buxom blond wearing a variation of the Spidey red and blues. Peter's luck with the ladies most definitely improved.

Spidey's gig on the Tonight Show is interrupted for the special bulletin that astronaut John Jameson died upon re-entry into earth's atmosphere (since Spidey didn't save him in this universe as he did in Amazing Spider-Man #1). Grief-stricken, J. Jonah Jameson becomes enraged at the publicity that the "clown with super powers" Spider-Man is receiving, which is actually understandable in this context. Jameson sends reporter Ned Leeds to root out Spider-Man's identity, which he does (you know, if it was so easy in this parallel universe - how come it wasn't successfully done during the current continuity?). Spidey's identity is plastered on the front page of the Bugle, thus ruining what Peter had planned as the gimmick for Spider-Man II. Thus, the conflict between Spider-Man and Jonah Jameson exists even in this universe, but this Spider-Man will ultimately resolve it in a far more...unseemly way.

Spider-Man expands his entertainment empire in several ways, including buying a certain comic book company (with none other than Stan Lee and Jack Kirby cowering in the presence of their new boss). He also makes the rounds of the other New York-based superheroes, signing them to exclusive deals as their licensing and promotions agent, which, when you think about it - is perfectly logical. With the slickness of a used car salesman, he signs up the Fantastic Four, Avengers, and the X-Men. His comment to the X-Men is particularly interesting. He tells them "With me promoting you, you will become heroes in the public eyes! Think of what that will do for Human-Mutant relations!" This could have been an What If story all its own - with the X-Men receiving the relentless promotion of a popular entertainment figure, would the whole history of Human-Mutant relations change? Would there ever have been a Senator Kelly or the Sentinels? Would Magneto have been able to rise to prominence among the evil mutants by exploiting Human-Mutant tensions with Spidey working to defuse them? Interesting thought.

One thing that hasn't changed is J. Jonah Jameson, who is no less incensed with this version of Spider-Man than he is the one in the regular continuity, and uses the Bugle to blast the web slinger and his clients. After Spidey signs a reluctant Daredevil, Jonah files a lawsuit in federal court on the grounds that Daredevil is a "vigilante." (I'm not sure I understood the basis for the lawsuit either, but that's not the point, I guess). Peter, who by this time is now sporting a thick mane of long hair (how does he get it under his mask?), decides to destroy Jonah. He discovers that Betty Brant, Jonah's secretary, is making payments to an underworld figure known as the Big Man (to settle her brother's gambling debts). Spidey discovers that Bugle reporter Frederick Foswell is the Big Man, and exposes Foswell by giving the story to the Daily Globe - on the condition that it be implied that Jonah and the Bugle were part of Foswell's syndicate, which the Globe's headline "Crime Syndicate Run from Bugle Offices" certainly does.

Later, one of the Bugle's Board of Trustees asks Jonah to assume a less active role in the Bugle's operation and take an Emeritus position - a nice way of saying they want him to step aside. Jonah does them one better and actually resigns (this is inconsistent with the notion of Jonah actually owning the Bugle - a fact on which Marvel has been less than consistent in the regular continuity). After the death of his son, the Bugle was all he had left (this occurs long before he met Marla Madison), so now he has nothing. Foswell offers Jonah a position as his "outside" man to run his criminal organization during Foswell's incarceration. In return Jonah can use the organization to get revenge on Spider-Man. Jonah flatly refuses at first, stating that would make him what he was accused of being - a criminal. After considerable agonizing, he looks upward to heaven for a sign, only seeing another Spider-Man promotional billboard, which prompts him to rethink Foswell's offer...

Daredevil flies to Los Angeles to warn Spidey (hanging out by the pool at his mansion with two babes in bikinis) that the word is out in New York that he is to be "hit." Peter refuses to believe this until during a workout session with martial arts experts, one of them (who turns out to be Kraven the Hunter) slashes him with poison-tipped claws. Spidey survives the attack, now believing Daredevil, although incredulous at why anyone would want to kill little ole him.

Soon after, during a writer's conference, Peter (accompanied by DD) demands a rewrite of the latest Spider-Man movie script. Now, he wants it to co-star Daredevil, as well as lose the artiness, social commentary, and long conversations. This is a trap, though, as the writers turn out to be the Sinister Six in disguise - less Kraven, who was arrested for the attempt on Parker's life - but with the addition of a mysterious cloaked figure who is clearly the leader.

Daredevil begins to battle the Sinister Six, with Peter cowering behind him, fearful of getting into a real fight against super villains. Combined, the Six are too much for Daredevil, nearly beating him to death. Enraged, Spider-Man springs into action. As the Six have never fought him for real, they are unprepared for just how quick and strong he is (thinking it was part Hollywood gimmickry) and he quickly defeats them. Determined to exact a pound of flesh for Daredevil's brutal beating, Spider-Man rips off the mask of the leader only to discover that he is - J. Jonah Jameson. After this defeat, Jonah collapses, babbling and on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown.

Seeing the depth of Jonah's grief due to Peter's ruining his life, as well as Daredevil's bloodied frame, Peter finally realizes what he should have a long time ago, that Uncle Ben was right - that he should have used his powers responsibly - to help people. Rather, he used them for his own greed and self-glorification. And here the story ends, with Peter finally learning that with great power, comes great responsibility.

This was a strong story, and while everyone else was in character for the most part (Jonah humorously so - when first confronted by Spider-Man after revealing his secret identity, he says "Spider-Man! My idol! Loved your movie! Saw it three times!") we see a dramatically different Peter Parker than we have ever seen, even in most of the alternate universe storylines. Most of those stories continue to show a conscientious, responsible, humorous Peter Parker. However, in this universe, as a result of his show-biz career continuing unabated, Peter becomes selfish and egomaniacal. Although this story is more than 25 years old, reading it continues to be unsettling, because I have a difficult time believing that Peter would behave this poorly - feeling that no matter how rich or successful he became, he would still be a decent person. It's also hard to believe that neither Uncle Ben nor Aunt May would be able to reach him and talk some sense into him. Now, it isn't beyond the realm of possibility that the Peter Parker in Ultimate Spider-Man would become this way, because he is a brooding, troubled teen - unlike the square, clean cut, goody twoshoes Peter Parker created by Stan Lee back in 1962, and for the most part still the blueprint for the character as he exists today in the regular continuity.

However, even in Stan's version, Peter had gotten pretty cocky, as his conversation with the security guard after the Burglar originally escaped indicates. Add to that the fact he is still 15 years old when fame and fortune descend upon him, not to mention super powers, and it is feasible that he could be come this puffed up and arrogant. Uncle Ben's death during the regular continuity taught Peter more than just "with great power comes great responsbility." It also gave Peter hard lessons about mortality and the fragility of human existence that for the most part is lost on most teenagers to begin with (I'm not slamming teens - I was one, albeit a long time ago). The Peter Parker in this tale simply does not have that perspective.

The one real problem I have with the story is that it's still hard to believe that Jonah would actually turn to crime and assume a costumed identity, which he has continually criticized others for doing. Maybe that was supposed to be a ironic moment, but I think Jonah would have to go through a lot more misery than we are shown here before he made such a drastic turn.

Other than this point, the story is very good and clearly illustrates that while Ben Parker's death was a tragedy, ultimately, the greater tragedy would have been for there to have been no crime-fighting Spider-Man at all. As Spidey admits to himself at the end of Amazing Spider-Man #181 "Uncle Ben did not die in vain - he died that Spider-Man might be born!"

The next story, which originally appeared in What If? Volume 1, #46 (June, 1984) was also written by Peter Gillis and posed the question:

What if Uncle Ben had Lived - and Aunt May had died?
In this story, Peter commits the same mistake in letting the Burglar escape. However, this time, May is the one who surprises the Burglar, and is murdered.

Things proceed very similar to our own continuity until one night when Ben is up late pondering the problems in his relationship with Peter. This is very interesting because with Ben dead in the regular continuity, his relationship with Peter has been idealized by both the writers, and well, by Peter himself, particularly the more time that passes. Again, this is perfectly normal, as the longer our loved ones are gone, we tend to remember more of the good than the bad. However, in this reality, with May dead, we realize that Peter was actually much closer to her than Ben, who never fully realized what Peter was going through at school, with the teasing and intimidation. During one conversation at the breakfast table, Ben thinks to himself "You're a strange boy, Peter." It is not at all unusual to speculate that Peter's and Ben's relationship, though close, would still be a little strained, particularly during Peter's teenage years (in a more recent take in Peter Parker volume 2 #33, the wonderful "Wait Till Next Year" story by Paul Jenkins, Peter is getting somewhat surly and declines to go with Uncle Ben to the Mets game - their annual ritual - until May gives him a "go with your Uncle or I'll kick your ass" look). I don't know if we ever learned what Ben did for a living, but it probably is a fair assumption that he was more of a "man's man," kind of like Carol O' Connor's blue collar, loading dock union man, Archie Bunker, except with more sense and a lot less bigotry - and not a shy, awkward intellectual like Peter. While he loved Peter with all of his heart, he would still be at a loss to deal with the boy's heightened sensitivity. Therefore, Peter probably would have been much closer to May growing up.

Anyway, during Ben's late night introspection, he actually sees Spider-Man swinging by the house. Unlike May (and virtually everyone else who has ever been with Peter as he disappears and Spider-Man shows up), Ben immediately puts two and two together (or maybe May did as well, but went into denial because she couldn't deal with it). Over the next few days, Peter resists the subtle hints that Ben is sending to discuss this issue - until Ben forces the matter by snatching the Spider-Man costume and laying it out on the kitchen table in plain sight. Finally, Peter unburdens himself by telling Ben his story, including his guilt about letting the Burglar get away. Ben then reminds Peter that it was him who was in the house when May was killed, and that she was shot while he slept, and that his guilt is the greater one. Peter responds by telling Ben that he shouldn't torture himself, that there is no way he could have known - which Ben immediately turns on Peter and tells him to take his own advice. He tells Peter that he should continue to be Spider-Man, but not out of guilt, but to "fight the evil in the world...for all of the other wonderful, but fragile people who need protecting."

So, with this burden removed from Peter's shoulders, Spider-Man is able to pursue his mission with more fearlessness and confidence than in our continuity. But then, things take a complicated turn.

Ben is furious with J. Jonah Jameson's anti-Spider-Man crusade. While Peter blows it off, appreciating the irony of selling Jonah photos of himself (Peter works for the Bugle in this timeline as well), Ben takes it far more personal. Not only is Jameson slandering his nephew, but since it was Spider-Man who captured May's killer, he feels that Jameson's tirades dishonor May's memory as well.

Ben storms into Jameson's office to try and reason with him to stop his anti-Spider-Man crusade. Jameson argues just as vociferously that Spider-Man is a publicity seeker who only turned to crime fighting because his showbiz career went bust. Of course, an argument between two hard-headed old men goes nowhere, and Spider-Man, who was following Ben, steps in and tries to break it up.

However, Ben, determined to prove Jameson wrong about Spider-Man plays his ace, ordering Spider-Man to take his mask off and reveal his identity to Jameson, which he does.

And here's an interesting point, which I feel that most Alternate Universe Spider-Man stories get wrong. Jameson ponders just exactly what to do with this information. He realizes that he would place Ben Parker's life in jeopardy, as well as ruin the Bugle's credibility, because competitors would run with the angle of Parker selling the Bugle photos of himself. Jonah then hatches an idea to keep Spider-Man's identity to himself, but still use the connection to his own benefit. This is what I think Jonah would really do if he had found out the truth about Peter and Spider-Man in the early days (unlike the post Civil War environment - where after all of these years he feels betrayed when he finally learns, along with the rest of the world). There have been at least two alternate Spidey stories (including the Earth X series) in which once JJJ learns Spider-Man's identity, he broadcasts it to the world. Frankly, I don't think Jonah would have done that, because (1) he genuinely cared about Peter and (2) he realizes that the Bugle's credibility would indeed be wrecked if the public found out that Peter was selling it photos of himself (post Civil War - this particular subplot has yet to fully play out).

Back to this story - the Daily Bugle seems to be following Spider-Man's footsteps, getting exclusive stories and photos of all of the webslinger's busts. Jonah issues a challenge to Spider-Man to respond to certain allegations Jonah has made against him, and Spider-Man's version appears on the front page of the Bugle in a subsequent issue. Jonah realizes that rather than one scoop, here today, gone tomorrow - by keeping the lid on what he knows, he has used it to increase the Bugle's overall circulation and improve its long-term viability.

Peter's getting something out of this too. For one, his economic situation has clearly improved. When Betty Brant is needing money (to pay her brother's gambling debts), Peter has plenty to spare, stating that the Bugle has been good to him ever since he "learned how to handle Jonah."

However, the ugly side of Spider-Man being on the Bugle's payroll becomes apparent as Jonah wants Spidey to follow Betty and find out why she's borrowing so much money. Peter resists the idea of playing the "company fink," and leaves. At home, he finds out that Jonah has already talked to Ben behind his back about the idea. Ben thinks Peter should do it, because his own cronies (probably at the lodge or the pool hall) are well aware of Betty's brother's "connections," and that this could be for Betty's own good. Peter, clearly attracted to Betty here as in the regular continuity, refuses to believe she is mixed up in anything like this, and complains about the two old men who believe they own Spider-Man and are ruining his life. He decides to follow Betty just to prove Ben and Jameson wrong, but as we all know from the events of Amazing Spider-Man #11-12 Betty's brother was indeed involved with mobster Blackie Gaxton and Doctor Octopus. Spidey comes to the rescue with the added twist that this time, Bennett Brant is not killed in a hail of gunfire, but survives, and both him and Betty are grateful for his help (as opposed to Betty hating Spider-Man, blaming him for her brother's death). However, Spider-Man stalks off angry, clearly resenting his forced involvement in the matter, and telling Bennett that he's convinced he belongs in jail alongside Gaxton and Octopus.

Peter returns to New York devastated, and both he and Spider-Man go AWOL. Jonah sends Patch the stoolie (who is also Frederick Foswell - the whole Big Man storyline seems to have been overlooked in this timeline) to find Spider-Man and give him the message that the headline of tomorrow's Bugle will read "Spider-Man's Identity Revealed" if he doesn't shape up. Peter gets the message and reports back to Jameson. However, neither Spidey nor Patch realized (which I find hard to believe due to Peter's spider-sense) that they were being watched by the Green Goblin, who now knows that Jameson has a hold on Spider-Man, something he plans to exploit.

After another argument with Jonah (in which Jonah makes the comment we'll probably never hear in the regular continuity "that's what I support your crimefighting crusade for"), the two of them visit John Jameson in the hospital. John has been exposed to space spores during a spaceflight and is under observation. The Goblin bursts in and kidnaps Jonah, telling Peter and John to let Spider-Man know that he has the man who knows his secret identity. After the Goblin leaves, the anxiety triggers the spores in Jameson's body, and he becomes a super-powered giant (this happened in the regular continuity in Amazing Spider-Man #42). He goes after the Goblin, his heightened senses following the villain's glider exhaust trail.

Peter walks off, figuring that his secret might as well be out, resenting how he was turned into a shill for the Daily Bugle. Even if his i.d. is revealed, he'll just disappear. In the depth of his self-pity over his current situation, he almost wishes that it wasn't Aunt May who died, but...

And horrified by his own selfishness, Peter comes to his senses, changes to Spider-Man and follows John Jameson to the Goblin's lair, where the villain is about to use a machine to extract Spider-Man's identity from Jonah's mind (like the Klingon mind-sifter in Star Trek). John bursts in, startling the Goblin, and the ferocity of his attack takes down the Goblin with one punch. However, the spores that have altered him have affected him so that he doesn't recognize his own father and moves to attack him as well. Spidey arrives to save the day by knocking the younger Jameson into an electrical panel, the shock of which turns John back to normal. Jonah, holding his unconscience son in his arms, is alarmed that John didn't seem to know him, that he seemed to hate him and want to hurt him. Spider-Man, in a moment of reflection on his recently troubled relationship with Ben Parker tells Jonah "that sometimes happens between fathers and sons."

The story ends on a positive note, with Norman Osborn exposed as the Green Goblin and in jail, John Jameson recovering, and Spider-Man's role in the rescue of JJJ ignored in the Bugle's headlines. In the Parker kitchen, Ben is still aggravated at Jameson's grandstanding, but both he and Peter, having seen Jonah's vulnerability, and weathered their own storm, are more tolerant. Ben and Peter resolve their differences and pledge to work together.

I really enjoyed this story - which begged for a sequel. Unfortunately, this was the next to last issue of Volume 1 of What If? Of all of the What Ifs, I believe this was the one in which everyone was as close to being true to their characters as they are in the regular continuity. It is very likely that if May had been the one to die - events would have unfolded like they do here. It is also probably a more realistic portrayal of Peter Parker as well. As we know, because of May's fraility (and come on, who could yell at and argue with sweet old Aunt May?), Peter submerged his own angst in order to put on a brave front for her - and actually used his identity as Spider-Man to work through some of those issues rather than take it out on May. However, with May dead, and Ben, who is much more prone speak his mind, around, Peter's teenage angst and resentments resurface in his civilian identity, and he chafes to escape the parental control as so many kids his age attempt to do - even "running away from home" at one point. The fact that he has another "parent" in J. Jonah Jameson, also pulling his strings, complicates the matter.

It is also interesting to envision a world in which the original Green Goblin has been exposed and jailed. Does this result in a universe where Peter Parker marries Gwen Stacy, where neither her nor Norman Osborn die (o.k. so Norman didn't really die, but let's not make this any more complicated than it already is), and where Harry Osborn is spared the madness and legacy of the Green Goblin? Or, does Osborn escape from jail and find out Peter's secret identity anyway? Is he even more dangerous, particularly with his business empire now destroyed due to his exposure and his life as Norman Osborn ruined? Rather than just Peter, does the Goblin also target Jonah, John and Ben Parker for his vengeance? Is Harry's life complicated at an earlier age by the humiliation that his father is a known supervillain? Although this story ends more happily than many other of the What If tales, that doesn't necessarily ensure that things will be better going forward. But, all in all, probably one of my favorite alternate Spidey tales.

Hmmm... two great stories by one writer. Where is Peter Gillis these days?

In late 2004, another writer postulated a world where May was killed and Ben lived in another What If? - and I take a look at that story in The 2004 Year in Review so I won't go over it here - other than to say it was a far less effective story.

But say Ben dies as originally destined - and fate throws Spider-Man yet another curve - that in his anger and lack of complete control over his newfound powers...

What If Spider-Man Killed the Burglar?
What If Volume 2, #72 (April 1995 - written by Simon Furman) presents an entirely plausible idea. After all, if Peter killed the Burglar, who could really blame him? Would exacting the ultimate vengeance on Uncle Ben's killer bring Peter the closure and peace of mind that has escaped him in other universes - or does it make matters worse?

As the title indicates, Spider-Man's history unfolds as normal until that fateful confrontation in the warehouse, where Peter allows his rage and grief to override his caution, and he accidentally beats the Burglar to death. But rather than take the Punisher mentality that the guy had it coming and deserved to die, Peter is horrified at what he has done (this makes more sense than his horror in What If volume 1 #15 when the Burglar dies as a result of ricocheting bullets).

Spider-Man slips out of the warehouse without being seen by the police, but there is no rest or relief for Peter Parker, who contemplates turning himself in, but fears the impact his incarceration would have on Aunt May. Spider-Man thus stays out of sight, and never confronts the likes of the Chameleon, Vulture or Doctor Octopus. In fact, Peter has become fearful of using his powers again, afraid that he will accidentally kill other people. Spider-Man is forced into action again when the Sandman takes students hostage at Midtown High (as he did in Amazing Spider-Man #4), but this time he lacks the confidence and experience that his previous battles with supervillains in the regular continuity provided him. In fact, this is the first time his spider-sense is even triggered and he thus hasn't learned how to use it to work for him. His hestitation almost puts him on the opposite end of a fatal blow from the Sandman before Flash Thompson, who has been chafing to tangle with the Sandman anyway, sprays an adhesive on the villain and forces his molecules to congeal, removing him as a threat. As Flash rakes in the adulation, Spider-Man slips away, thoroughly humiliated.

Desperately needing a change of scenery, Peter answers an ad from Dr. Curt Connors for a research assistant at his lab in the Florida Everglades. While there, his outlook improves, and he contemplates trying to find a way to rid himself of his spider-powers. However, Connors still tries the ill-fated bio-regeneration formula on himself in order to grow a new arm, and turns into the Lizard, escaping into the swamp. Peter, grateful to the Connors family for giving him a home and taking care of him during this time, is not about to allow Connors to become a danger to himself or anyone else - and changes to Spider-Man before tracking down the Lizard.

At the moment when the Lizard has him on the ropes and Peter contemplates just giving up and dying, it occurs to him that giving up on Spider-Man and on his own life will make Uncle Ben's death a hollow one. For Ben's death to have meaning, Peter will have to accept, even embrace, the fact that he is Spider-Man. He forces the Lizard to drink the antidote he has prepared (and since he was working on a concoction to get rid of his own powers, he was already on the way toward a cure for the Lizard, unlike the "real" continuity, where he just whips up a miracle cure from scratch), which turns the two-legged reptile back into Dr. Connors.

Spidey tells Connors to just forget the whole thing, since no one ultimately got hurt - but Connors will hear nothing of it. He says that his blind need endangered countless people, and that he must face up to what he's done. This strikes a chord in Spidey, who pulls off his mask and tosses it aside, knowing what he must do.

The story ends two years later. Peter turned himself in and was offered a suspended sentence, but insisted on doing the time. Parolled after two years, he is released from prison, where Aunt May is sitting waiting for him. Turns out Peter underestimated just how strong and resiliant she was (like he always has).

May has brought something with her, however - the Spider-Man costume. Without saying anything, she has given Peter her blessing to pursue his crime-fighting career. The last panel is Spider-Man swinging through the city saying that Spider-Man is back - and here to stay.

This is a "nice," if not particularly memorable story. What If's change in format from double-sized in Volume 1 to 22-page length in Volume 2 resulted in stories with less depth, and less time to explore the various complexities and answers to the questions they raised. The stories thus seem to rush toward their conclusion rather than slowly build to a powerful climax.

It does raise one interesting question, though. The primary reason that J. Jonah Jameson has hated Spider-Man throughout the years is that he has always shielded his identity, and thus, in Jonah's mind, refused to accept responsibility for his actions. In this timeline, however, Peter Parker has done just that, has revealed himself, and accepted responsibility for his accidental killing of the Burglar. With Spider-Man back in action as a crime-fighter - what is Jonah's reaction to him now? Does he embrace Spider-Man as a young man who had the courage to come forward and admit his mistakes? And the bigger question, now that Spider-Man's secret identity is public knowledge, how does that affect his personal life? Does it jeopardize Aunt May's life and the lives of anyone who gets close to him? Or, because it is publicly known, it simply doesn't become that big of a deal, much like the identities of the Fantastic Four? Again, this is in the early years of his career...Civil War has screwed up a lot of things...

Thus, my major complaint with this story is that it really is only half-told, and stops before it answers the additional questions it has raised.

Part 2 of the Alternate Spidey series looks at changes in Peter Parker's domestic life resulting from time taking a different twist (1) where he is actually adopted by J. Jonah Jameson (2) another where Gwen Stacy never dies, and (3) one where he marries the Black Cat rather than Mary Jane.


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Copyright 1998-2008 by J.R. Fettinger. All rights reserved. All original content is the exclusive property of J.R. Fettinger. Spider-Man, the Green Goblin, and everyone else who appears in the Spider-Man comics is the property of Marvel Entertainment, and are used in these articles for the purpose of analysis and commentary.