Alternate Spidey
Part 3
Team Member and Freedom Fighter

As a companion piece to my Team Player article, we're going to take a look at the alternative universe stories in which Spider-Man has been a member of a team. The concept is a fun one to play with, but as we'll see, sometimes the writing doesn't always live up to the concept.

Remember in Team Player, we noted that way back in Fantastic Four #1, as Spidey stormed out of the Baxter Building, indignant that the FF wouldn't pay him to be a part of the team, Sue Storm called out and asked him to wait? I pondered - what would have happened if Spider-Man had actually heard her and returned?

Well, the very first “What If?” (February 1977) addressed that question. Spider-Man hears Sue's call and comes back, much to the chagrin of the rest of the Four. However, apparently feeling that he's been given a second chance, Spider-Man is a bit more contrite, stating that he really doesn’t need a lot of money, just a little. Thinking quickly, team leader Reed Richards considers the advantages of adding more raw power to the group, and Spider-Man’s plea for membership seems to be a way to justify giving out some more spending money to the rest of the team. The Thing and the Torch aren't keen on the idea at all, but once Richards cools them down, (in the Torch's case literally by turning the hose on him), he accepts Spider-Man's offer - on one condition, which is agreed to by the rest of the team. If he wants to join, Spider-Man will have to disclose his true identity – which after some hesitation - he does - and the Fantastic Five is born.

The Five rolls into action, kicking ass and taking names, and even the Thing becomes a convert to having Spidey on the team. Unfortunately, his presence increasingly creates a glaring problem for the Invisible Girl. Spider-Man's arrival gives the chauvinistic and overprotective Reed an excuse to push Sue further and further into the background as a means of protecting her. Matters come to a head around what was issue #13 of the Fantastic Four, when Reed finishes his rocket that will travel to the moon (in order to investigate the mysterious "blue area") but in order to stay within the departure window (not explicitly stated, but I'm assuming this is the reason), he doesn't have time to alter the rocket's accommodations to seat five, so Spidey goes and Susan stays (the story assumes that this all occurs as originally written - in the early 1960's - thus the references to America being able to win the space race "now").

The next part of the story follows the plot of FF #14, where the Sub Mariner, under the control of the Puppet Master kidnaps the Invisible Girl and takes her to his undersea home. The Mariner contacts the group via holographic image to tell them that he has her, and to meet him under the sea. After they get there, the usual battle takes place, but Reed's suspicions are aroused when Namor threatens Sue's life, something he doesn't believe the Mariner, who is in love with her also, would do. Between Reed's induction and Spidey's spider sense, they learn that the Puppet Master must be controlling the Sub Mariner, and after one of those odd twists of fate common to comic books, the Puppet Master is attacked by a giant octopus and taken out of action - resulting in Namor's return to normal. However, with tempers and rivalries already high and stoked by previous events, and Sue's obvious sexual attraction to the Sub Mariner (which remains to this day, even long after marrying Reed and having their two children - but remember, according to some sources at Marvel, there cannot be romantic tension with a married character, after all) Reed and Namor decide to get in one of those old fashioned testosterone induced fights over the lovely heroine. Sue immediately puts a stop to this (darn, I would have liked to have seen that fight) and in a particularly gut wrenching moment for all concerned, she states that although her loyalties have always been with Reed - he has recently demonstrated that neither he, nor the Fantastic Five really need her - and thus she chooses to stay with Namor. She enters a chamber that alters her body, allowing her to breathe underwater, and the remnants of the Fantastic Five return to the surface. The perpetually guilt-ridden Spider-Man begins to believe that Sue's departure is his fault, that if he hadn't joined the team, Sue wouldn't have felt like nonessential personnel and taken up with Namor. However, the Torch comes to his side, telling him that it was merely fate, and that even if Spider-Man had not joined the group, everything would likely have turned out the same.

The story, written by Marvel legend Roy Thomas, by today's standards seems a little bit rushed - after all - Sue agrees to make such dramatic changes to her life and her physiology on a whim, and Reed doesn't do a whole lot to stop her (this is acknowledged in some part by the Thing who asks Reed "why'd you let her do it? You knew she did it on impulse - like some crazy kid!") However, this needs to be taken in the context of the storytelling methods of the time, more than two decades before the era of decompressed story arcs manipulated for later sales in trade paperbacks. Also, as this was the very first What If?, Thomas spent several pages retelling part of Amazing Spider-Man #1 and explaining the concept of parallel universes, a device which is no longer used in current alternative universe stories. There are certain things that would have strengthened the resolution of this story if they had been spelled out a little clearer rather than merely implied, such as the fact that it isn't just Namor's hot bod and pointy ears that drive Sue wild. Unlike most "What If" tales, this one had not one but two follow-ups, one which was pretty good, and the other which was rather weak and unnecessary.

This Fantastic Four returned in What If #21 (June 1980) in a story written by former spider-scribe Bill Mantlo entitled “What if the Invisible Girl Married the Sub-Mariner?” It has been a year since the events of What If? #1, and opens with the Fantastic Four of Mr. Fantastic, the Human Torch, the Thing, and Spider-Man busting the chops of the shapeshifting Super Skrull. However, not all is well with this team, which began to fall apart almost from the moment of Sue's departure. Although the Four defeat the Skrull, both Reed and the Torch are on Spider-Man's back about what they perceive as his placing independence before teamwork. Embittered by the loss of Sue, Reed has been taking out his grief on Spider-Man, constantly second-guessing and belittling him. We see several flashbacks where Spider-Man's actions are questioned by Reed, usually with "if Sue were here..." Spidey's and the Torch's friendship has also fallen apart. At the risk of sounding like a male chauvinist pig - it becomes apparent that without the Invisible Girl's "mother figure," there is no moderating influence over what is essentially four very strong, very different, macho personalities. Badgered once too often, Spider-Man rips the Four logo from his chest and takes off telling the rest of them to take the number, the team, and shove it all up their asses.

Now, Spider-Man is not in the remainder of the story, but I feel like I’m cheating the readers if I don’t discuss the rest of it, so here it goes as briefly as I can do it.

Under the ocean, we discover that Sue is almost at full term with Namor’s child, and she wishes to extend an olive branch to her family on the surface. Namor, not enthralled with walking into hostile territory, yet willing to do anything for his wife, agrees to invite the remaining members of the Fantastic Four to his kingdom to celebrate the birth of his and Susan’s child. But just before Namor arrives, the "Fantastic Three" has yet another falling out and defection. The Thing, sick of Reed's relentless self-pitying, calls him out on it and gets slugged by Mr. Fantastic. Rather than dismember his best friend, which he clearly feels like doing, Ben also quits the FF.

Naturally, with all of this turmoil going on, Namor's presence is not appreciated, and after the pre-requisite fight, he leaves uttering a rather vague and oblique threat, which Richards uses to forge a video tape portraying Namor as an aggressor who is close to precipitating a war. He takes this to the United Nations in an attempt to get them to strike at Atlantis first. However, Ben Grimm blows the whistle on the whole charade by bringing in the original tape (the story doesn't explain how he managed to get his hands on it, or how he came to be there at the UN in the first place, but let's move on), humiliating Richards and ending his scheme to force the nations of the world to attack Atlantis. Johnny then suggests to Reed that they invade Atlantis on their own, break the Sub-Mariner's control of his kingdom, and retrieve Sue. Proving that he doesn't have the moniker of "Mr. Fantastic" for nothing, Reed soon concocts a brilliant plan...

With Johnny distracting Namor via a direct assault on Atlantis (Reed has devised a pill that allows them to function underwater), Richards reaches the bottom of the ocean and triggers a device that begins to alter the Atlanteans’ physiology so that they can no longer breathe underwater (sort of the reverse of the device that Namor used on Sue in What If? #1 to transform her). Reed's scheme is far more devastating to the Sub Mariner than simply invading Atlantis - his device will not kill the Atlanteans, but force them to the surface to become land dwellers, where in time they will eventually be assimilated into the rest of the human population. Their cultural identity will be annihilated, Namor will be powerless to help them, and he will be reduced to an arrogant ex-monarch with no subjects and no civilization.

Before Reed can gloat too much, Lady Dorma, Sue's attendant and Namor’s former girlfriend, reminds him that while he will no doubt succeed with his plan, returning Susan to her former state as an air breather at such a critical moment in her pregnancy will likely kill her. Faced with this, and realizing that Namor came to the Baxter Building that day in peace, not to threaten nor to rub their noses in Sue's choice, Reed comes to his senses and shuts down his machine, realizing that his bitterness and jealousy is not sufficient reason to destroy an entire culture, particularly if it causes the death of the very woman he came to save. The story ends with Sue and Namor's son being born, Reed promising to work for peace between Atlantis and the surface world, and a still raging Human Torch threatening to return some day and rain fire on Atlantis. The Watcher closes the story by giving the reader enough tantalizing threads to realize that there is yet another story to be told...

This issue gives us a much better feel than the previous one over why Sue would consider choosing Namor over Reed. O.K. he does have the hot bod and the pointy ears (not to mention those wings on his ankles), but even though Namor is an insufferable egomaniac, it is also clear that he is a doting husband, almost smothering in his affectations and devotion to his wife, and there is no doubt that he would willing give up everything, including his life, for her - a difficult thing for any woman to turn down. While Sue (in both universes) clearly loves Reed, she has to constantly battle for his attention and devotion, competing with his almost boundless intellectual curiosity and responsibilities as leader of the FF.

Unfortunately, the story hinted at by the Watcher is never told, as we get a rather hastily written and unsatisfying return to this universe in What If Volume II #35 (March 1992), "What If the Fantastic Five Fought Doctor Doom and Annihilus?" even the more disappointing after seeing that the same Roy Thomas who gave us the first What If? is the co-writer on this one (unless the credit was given to acknowledge Thomas' creation of the concept of the Fantastic Five). The time is years after the events of What If #21, but rather than a direct sequel to that story, we get a re-telling of Fantastic Four Annual #6 (1968), which is the tale of the birth of Reed and Sue's son, Franklin. In the original story, Sue and the unborn child are dangerously close to dying as a result of the effect of the cosmic rays which gave the Four their powers and altered their bodies. Reed, the Torch and Thing journey to the Negative Zone to retrieve a sample of anti-matter, which Reed believes will counter the negative effect of the cosmic radiation - and encounter Annihilus, the mad ruler of the Negative Zone. Where this story differs from the original is that Spider-Man is along for the ride as part of the Fantastic Five, and this is actually told in the context of a much larger storyline called "TimeQuake" which involves a group of entities seeking to destroy various powerful beings in each universe (in this one they are attempting to preclude Franklin's birth - and even bring in Doctor Doom to prevent Reed from obtaining the anti-matter he needs). However, Doom turns the tables on his benefactors by coming to Richard's aid when yet another powerful being - the Whisperer (no, I don't know who any of these characters are) - tells him that he has been lied to, and that if Susan and Franklin die, Reed will be driven insane with grief, which will eventually lead to an unspecified conflict that triggers a planet-devastating nuclear war. The rest of the details are not really worth getting into, since the Five succeed in their quest, and both Sue and Franklin survive - and the only reference to the previous story is one panel where Reed reflects on Sue marrying Namor and later returning to the surface and to him.

And therein lies the failure of this story - since it isn't nearly as interesting as the one that was never told. Why did Sue return? What about her and Namor's son? You're telling me that Sue would have left her own child behind? Because while Namor would have been generous enough to let Sue leave if she wanted to, I can't see him letting her take his son from him. How were Spider-Man and the Thing talked into re-joining the team after it had earlier fallen apart in such a bitter fashion?

We'll likely never know. Although the "What If" concept never really seems to die, as evidenced by a slew of one-shots released during December 2004, it's unlikely that this particular universe will ever be revisited.

I'll have to have a true FF expert help me fill in some of the blanks, but these "What If" stories (and there was another one not related to this universe called "What If the Invisible Girl had Died?" in which Sue actually does perish in childbirth) have a tendency to portray a very psychologically unhealthy Reed Richards. Reed doesn't just seem to be hopelessly in love with Sue, but fanatically obsessed with her, to the point where she appears to be the only thing in the universe that is actually keeping him from coming totally unglued. While the fact that there is a dark and dangerous side to Reed Richard's brilliant persona makes him a more complex and interesting character, the way he is portrayed in these "What If" stories implies that at heart he is a very sick and disturbed man, which I'm not sure is what either Stan Lee or any of his long line of successors on the regular title had in mind.

While for the Spider-Man fan, it is fun to see him as a member of this classic Fantastic Four, the stories themselves are ultimately cheats because we never really learn the impact on his life of this alliance. How did it change the nature of his relationships and his battles with his deadliest enemies, particularly Doctor Octopus and Norman Osborn? Or of those he loved, such as Aunt May, Betty Brant and Gwen Stacy (the last What If story essentially only takes us to 1968 - which would be around Amazing Spider-Man 56-67 based on cover dates)? We know that there is a bond between Spidey and the FF due to the fact that they have been at their respective work longer than any other of the superheroes (with the possible exception of Ant-Man and the Hulk), and have bumped into each other numerous times, but what impact is there on those relationships when they know his secret identity and he is a constant presence in their lives?

As I've stated before, in Team Player and elsewhere, if this were the "real" world, then the only team I can see Spider-Man joining is the Fantastic Four, because of their bond, and because he would truly fit in unlike on other teams - with Reed being a kindred intellect to Peter Parker, and Johnny being that obnoxious loud mouthed brother figure that he's always fighting with but still loves for some strange reason. But while it makes "real life" sense, it makes little creative sense, as we all know the Fantastic Four is about a specific dysfunctional family (in which Spidey is still an outsider) and there is creative redundancy as well (does the team really need two intellects, two hot headed young men, or two muscle players?).

Still, a talented writer could really do something with the concept.

Now, let's get to "new" Fantastic Four.

This is actually one of my favorite “What Ifs” of all What If Volume II #78 (October 1995), "4 Against the Darkness" by Chuck Dixon in which the new Fantastic Four decided to stay together as a team. Now, it's not a great story. If anything, it's an interesting concept that was underdeveloped due to the fact that the second volume of What If was in a regular comic format, as opposed to the double sized formats of the first volume, which allowed for more detailed stories. This is just a fun little tale, that although it starts because of a tragedy, it doesn't end with either a "happy" or a "sad" ending, just a rather bittersweet one in which the principals involved simply have to move on and accept that their world is a little poorer and sadder than before despite their best efforts to make things right.

You might remember from Team Player that in Fantastic Four #347-349 (December 1990-February 1991) the shape shifting Skrull De'Lila dupes Spider-Man, the Hulk, Wolverine and Ghost Rider into doing her dirty work for her in locating a powerful weapon, under the auspices that the Fantastic Four were murdered and the "new" Four need to find the killers. Ultimately, this led to a battle under the earth which was resolved in the heroes' favor, and the "new" Four, which were never really a team, disbanded only to come together in a later issue for no real reason other than to promote a new title called Secret Defenders, which ultimately had nothing to do with either the old or new Fantastic Four.

This alternate universe story is told from Mary Jane's perspective, who refers to the team as "the boys" throughout the story. The divergence from regular continuity occurred when the original Fantastic Four died during the climactic battle in issue #349. During the funeral, which opens the story (incidentally, one of the mourners is none other than Prince Namor, the Sub Mariner himself), the new Four are agonizing over their failure to save the original Four. Ghost Rider tells them that the deaths of the Fantastic Four have left a void in the world, as they were often the first line of defense against extraterrestrial evil. Now, the new Four must fill that void and take their place, in order not only to protect the earth, but also to find redemption for their previous failure.

The new Four moves lock, stock, barrel, and Mary Jane (who becomes the team's business manager) into the Baxter Building. One of the highlights of the issue is seeing MJ in a FF costume (oh come on - give me at least one puerile fanboy moment every once in a while) - although she's the only person who will wear one! And despite their differences, the team is able to make a successful go at it, kicking butt all over the Marvel Universe and attracting notice, especially from one Victor Von Doom. One of the highlights of the issue is the "settling of old scores," as the Sinister Six gang up on Spider-Man, only to collectively wet their pants when they see that he has brought his "friends" along for a little battle. MJ notes these distinct personalities have begun to even bond like a family.

However, after time, things begin to fray around the edges a little as none of the players really has a feel for the minutiae that comes with running a super team, such as regular meetings about the team's finances, and looking for additional ways to pay the bills, such as clearing out several floors to rent to other tenants and trying to save money by turning off the heat in various rooms. It's also implied that the Hulk and Wolverine constantly rag wear on each other, something that would try even the most patient of souls who came between them - that is - if anyone was foolish enough to get involved in a spat between these two!

The final blow to the team comes when the Baxter Building is attacked by two separate villainous duos seeking the Four's collective hides, including Lady Deathstrike and the Abomination on one hand, and the Super Skrull and someone I didn't recognize (sorry - I did try to look him up) on the other. During the battle that results, the Hulk is blasted out of the building and before he can make his way back, the bad guys are too much for the rest of the team, who are overcome. But as certain death looms over our heroes, salvation comes in the form of - none other than Doctor Doom - who incinerates the villains and then takes his leave, stating that "No one may destroy the Fantastic Four - any Fantastic Four - no one save me."

With both bodies and egos hurting badly, the mutual decision is made to disband the group. As Wolverine says "there can only be one Fantastic Four - and we ain't it." Mary Jane's subsequent narration indicates that Four Freedoms Plaza was demolished and a hotel put up in its place and everyone went their separate ways.

This story definitely needed another issue as so much was left unresolved. For one, the team seems to disband far too quickly after one humiliating defeat, and even Spidey himself learned way back in Amazing Spider-Man #3 (from the Human Torch, of all people) after suffering his first defeat at the hands of that new super-villain Doc Ock that you can't just give up when you get your clock cleaned. Thus, there clearly had to be other tensions that lay below the surface for which this defeat was the last straw. And unfortunately, Doom's rescue of the Four at the end almost seems like a deadline motivated desperate act to provide an ending in lieu of being able to figure out a better one. It's almost like "oh man, how are we going to pull this off - wait- let's have Doctor Doom come in and kill off the bad guys!" After all, why was Doom there in the first place? Did he come to tangle with the Four himself? Was he just hanging out in the neighborhood? Why did he seem so provincial towards the "new" Four, even though they had nothing in common with the old Four other than co-opting the team name and headquarters? It's easy to see why Doom wouldn't want anyone else taking out Reed Richards and his crew - there's a lot of water under that particular bridge, but not so easy to see why he would really care about someone else taking this team out of the picture.

An interesting perspective is provided on the letters page when the editor of the line, Marc McLaurin, tells that he pushed writer Dixon to move towards a "happy" ending, where the team becomes a family like the old FF. Dixon reminded him of what we discussed in Team Player that these particular personalities could not function as a family, or a team for very long, no matter how good their intentions were. It's unsaid, but when you have four very strong personalities, three of whom tend to be very violent and brutal in their methods, and have no compunctions about killing, which runs against Spider-Man's belief system, it's hard to imagine a glue strong enough to hold them together. Collective guilt did the trick for awhile, but it wasn't enough to sustain the team.

Yet this still wasn't the end of stories featuring the New Fantastic Four. During 2000, a storyline called "Ages of Apocalypse" was running through the various X-titles, and featured several fractured alternate universes that occurred as a result of the events of that story. In the alternate universe featured in Wolverine #148 (March 2000), many of the world's other superheroes, including the FF, the Avengers, and the X-Men, died in the final confrontation that took place between them and the High Lord, who was mutant Nate Grey gone mad. The story, which takes place several years after that battle, was written by Erik Larsen, and actually features this FF in full uniform. Peter no longer wears his Spider-Man costume, and apparently his identity is now public knowledge. Although this story features the same New Fantastic Four as the previous alternate universe story, it is not a sequel nor related to that story in any way - as this universe's FF died in the final battle with the High Lord. This version of the Hulk changes back and forth between his various personalities, such as smart Green Hulk, dumb Green Hulk, and Joe Fixit Gray Hulk, and no one knows which one is going to pop up next. And, not only does Mary Jane live in the Baxter Building, but so do the Parkers' young daughter, May, who is literally climbing the walls.

This world is a much darker and grimmer place than others we've seen. Robert Kelly, the virulent anti-mutant Senator in regular X-Men continuity, is now President of the United States, such as it is, as the country looks to be on the verge of falling apart. It is, as Ghost Rider describes it "fetid and rank - a festering cesspool over the last few years," and our heroes feel completely overwhelmed, not just by taking on their own individual foes as well as the FF's old foes, but by watching society come apart at the seams, with little they can do about it (which presents an interesting dilemma for superheroes - you can defeat super powered bad guys - but how do you defeat an evil that rots society from within?).

The catastrophe of the moment is that Doctor Doom, thought dead for years, has apparently assassinated President Kelly and set Washington D.C. aflame. The team invades D.C. and the White House to find Doom, which they certainly do - or think they do. After Wolverine rips off Doom's mask, he realizes that it's a fake, and the real villain manifests himself - Arnim Zola - one of Wolverine's old sparring partners. Zola had created a Doom clone to serve as his public face in his attempt to take over the world, with the FF as his first targets because they are the strongest of Earth's remaining heroes. Zola has rigged the White House to blow sky high with the heroes inside, but Wolverine is able to disable Zola and the Four escape before the building goes up in smoke. Before the team can catch its breath, however, they see that Graydon Creed, who's views on mutants makes Kelly look like a moderate, is being sworn in as President. The story ends with Wolverine plaintively asking his partners "What now, folks - what now?"

Again, I guess we'll never know. The following issue of Wolverine occurred after the conclusion of the Ages of Apocalypse storyline, so the New Four's dilemma will remain unresolved for all of time. Frankly, that sucks. I hate when that happens.

Although we're dealing with the same four heroes that couldn't keep the team together in other stories - the circumstances of this world are clearly different. With many of the other heroes dead, and the world falling apart, the new FF has a much greater incentive to stay together, additional security not among the least of their concerns, since it would be harder for various supervillains to take on the whole team as opposed to picking them off one at a time if they were all still loners. Their relationships are clearly much stronger due to the grim circumstances in which they find themselves, although there are moments when for example, Wolverine and Ghost Rider feel isolated from the group. Unlike the previous What If story, Bruce Banner makes an appearance, and we see a little of how his and Peter's relationship has developed as they quickly retreat to their lab together after an early battle, much to Mary Jane's chagrin and Wolverine's amusement ("forget it Red" he tells MJ "you'll be lucky if you can pry those two away from their test tubes by dinnertime").

And that my friends, was the last we have seen of the New Fantastic Four. The chances of the team being revived any time in the near future is pretty remote, either in the regular universe or any others, particularly with both Spider-Man and Wolverine as full-fledged members of the New New Avengers. And I really wouldn't want to see the team revived again unless someone actually did something with them in a story, as opposed to using them as a one shot sales gimmick.

Spidey as “Avenger”
What If? Volume 2 #64(August 1994) featured an un-credited story called “What if Iron Man had Went Public"(notwithstanding the misleading title on the cover, which implies that Tony Stark, Iron Man's alter ego, acted malevolently). In the original origin tale, Stark was wounded in Vietnam War, a piece of shrapnel lodged dangerously close to his heart. He developed the Iron Man armor to keep himself alive, and eventually escaped from his captors. Back in the States, Stark decided to pursue a career and a secret identity as Iron Man, fighting crime and later intergalactic nuisances as a founding member of the Mighty Avengers.

However, in this story, Stark takes a step back and considers whether or not he should market his technology and make it available to the rest of the world, considering the numerous positive applications that it could have. After months of agonizing, he decides to go public, and a new "Iron Age" begins. In addition to the medical and other humanitarian applications, the Iron Guard (essentially storm troopers in Iron Man gear) is formed to serve and protect the public. However, this ultimately has a devastating impact upon the world of superheroes as we know it. The Fantastic Four is murdered at the hands of a Doctor Doom enhanced with the power of Stark technology. Without Stark as Iron Man being a driving force, the Avengers are never formed. Subsequently, Captain America is never found and revived from suspended animation, and with the Iron Guard firmly in control of the law and order situation, the old style flesh and blood superheroes decide to retire and move onto other things. Thor returns to Asgard to rule in his father's place. Dr. Strange is in a deep mystic retreat far from makind. Daredevil retires and marries Elektra, living in comfort on a Greek island. Peter Parker stops being Spider-Man to take care of Aunt May.

Unfortunately, the longer that Stark’s technology is available, the more it becomes traded as a commodity, or outright stolen. It isn’t long before everyone who wants the technology and can afford it has it – which means the bad guys as well. The world is now embroiled in a brand new arms race and the good guys are coming in on the short end of the stick. Stark himself, aghast at how his products have been exploited and misused, is now in hiding. Not even his friend and CEO of his company, James “Rhodey” Rhodes (whom we all know not only as War Machine, but the man who actually took on the mantle of Iron Man when Stark’s alcoholism got the best of him) knows where he is. Stark is spending all of his time developing enhancements to his technology in order to stay one step ahead of everyone else – and soon – he develops the ultimate weapon.

One day when Peter Parker is minding his own business, he happens to bump smack dab into a battle between the Beetle, enhanced with Stark technology, and the Iron Guard – and the Guard is losing. Concealing his face, Peter goes into action and is able to distract the Beetle long enough for the Guard to get its act together and take him out. Still, this is more evidence that the situation is getting completely out of hand, and someone needs to take action before the world destroys itself.

As if that weren’t enough, Stark technology has made the Sentinels even more effective in their battle against mutant kind, which stirs Magneto into action, prompting him to drop in on the U.N. threatening war if the world does not retreat from using Stark technology.

Peter visits Doctor Strange, who has coincidentally just returned from his sabbatical, and wants to know where the other retired heroes are. Strange knows what he has in mind, in fact, the very reason the Master of the Mystic Arts returned to civilization is that he himself feels that the tide is turning against humanity and something must be done (possibly his motivation for being one of the New New Avengers in the regular continuity?). Strange warns Peter that it will be difficult to convince the other heroes to abandon their current lives and return to action, but they try nonetheless. We see Peter cajoling Matt Murdock and Elektra, while Strange approaches Thor.

Magneto and his band of evil mutants attacks, and has the X-Men at his mercy before help comes in the form of a new super team, consisting of Spidey, Thor, DD, Elektra, Strange, the Wasp and one other that I don't recognize (aargh). Meanwhile, Stark sees Magneto’s attack as an opportunity and mobilizes his weapon - an Iron Man outfit literally the size of King Kong, with Stark in its heart, directing its every move. Rhodey, who has been on the hunt for Stark, finally finds him (Stark is able to shield his weapon from detection by others, but not his own technology), and knows exactly what he has in mind. Tony’s plan is to harness Magneto’s power and direct it to satellites that will blanket the earth with an electromagnetic pulse, effectively wiping all computer memories clean and disabling all technology, sending the earth back into the dark ages. If you recall, this was how the dystopian world of Jim Cameron’s “Dark Angel” (starring Jessica “Invisible Girl” Alba) came about, and also occurred at the conclusion of the movie Escape from L.A. with Kurt Russell in his second turn as Snake Plisken.

Rhodey suits up in armor to try to stop Tony, who is in awe of the superheroes who are currently fighting Magneto and his troops. With no armor, mere flesh and blood, they have no chance of ultimately winning against a powerful force like Magneto unleashed, but he marvels at their bravery.

Finally, after much pleading Rhodey is able to convince Stark not to shut down the world, that although his technology has been misused, it has also improved the lives of many, primarily through its medical applications. The giant Iron Man is able to defeat Magneto, and Stark embarks on another mission.

Using the threat of a magnetic pulse against the world, Stark is able to force disarmament down its throat, and everyone takes a few backward steps in technology. But with no Iron Guard, who is there to look out for us? Why - “The World’s Mightiest Heroes” of course, comprised of the heroes who fought as a team against Magneto.

This issue of What If? Volume 2 was unique in that it was double-sized like the original volume of What If?, and the result shows. Unlike so many of the others, this issue told a complete, coherent story that tried to address many of the questions it raised. Also, it’s an interesting look at what the world would REALLY look like if even a fraction of the Marvel Universe were real. If any of this stuff, or any of these people, were real, our society and culture would be significantly different.

Unlike many other alternate universe stories where it seems that Spider-Man is usually getting killed, or merely along for the ride, this is one in which, although he is not the star, he is a primary mover of the story's events. Rather than the iconoclastic loner, this time he is a mature team leader who convinces several of the world's remaining heroes to return to duty. Although we know that his guilt will always motivate him, it's good to see him take action because sometimes it is simply the right thing to do.

There are a few blemishes on the story – for one – none of the superheroes’ retirements are adequately explained other than the implication that they felt they weren’t really needed. This makes less sense for Spidey than others, due to the guilt that has always plagued him and causes him to act because he can’t bear the thought of someone else being hurt due to his inaction. This may simply have been due to space constraints, and since the story was not really about Spider-Man or the other heroes, but Tony Stark and to a lesser extent, Jim Rhodes.

The one thing that doesn't feel quite right is how the conclusion lets Stark off the hook too easily. He has essentially become a benevolent dictator with his hand firmly grasped around the world's throat, ready to squeeze at a moment's notice. Even with the best of intentions, I'm not so sure that’s a good thing. Also, while there would clearly be peace in the short term, I can’t see the governments of the world just sitting idly by while one man pulls the strings, no matter how well intentioned. Governments and peoples tend not to like being controlled by outside forces even if those forces are acting in their best interests.

Freedom Fighter
The teams in the following two stories are actually resistance movements of which Spider-Man is a key part. Both of them, written more than a decade apart, center around what would have happened had Captain America not been revived until the times they were written, the 1980’s and 1990’s respectively. In fact, I think it was one of only two “What If” concepts done twice, the other the recent “What if Aunt May Died Rather Than Uncle Ben?” which retold a story first written more than 20 years ago. Although Spidey is not really a featured player in either, he does figure prominently in the resolution of each, and both present radically different versions of Spider-Man than we are accustomed to seeing.

What If Captain America Were not Revived Until Today?
The first attempt was What If Volume I #44 (April 1984), written by Peter Gillis. In this story, the Avengers are formed, but without Captain America’s unifying presence, the disparate personalities soon split the team apart and it disbands. A shadowy figure, which remained unrevealed throughout the story, sees America’s overtures to communist China under Nixon (which in our world happened in 1972) as a threat to American sovereignty. This unidentified “patriot” finds both Captain America and his partner Bucky (you know something’s wrong right away since Bucky Barnes "died" during World War II – and was not revived until more than 20 years after this story was written, as the "Winter Soldier.") in suspended animation in a laboratory. He releases them, stating that America needs them. This Captain America was a character that actually did surface in the 1950’s fighting communists, alongside with Bucky. He was supposed to be the "real" Cap at the time, but the 1950's were not kind to the superhero genre. Fighting communists was not nearly as good for sales as fighting Nazis and "Japs." The stories were not very successful, and Cap went into creative limbo again. Stan Lee ignored these tales when he brought Captain America back in Avengers #4, under the premise that he had been in suspended animation since the end of World War II and Bucky had died. However, in the 1970's, writers decided to go back and weave some of those stories back into the regular continuity, so the Captain America and Bucky that appeared in the 1950's were fakes with a back history as such. Confusing? Well, yeah, so let's just get on with the story.

While this Cap and Bucky are sincere, they are definitely a product of the 1950’s – when America was gripped in a wave of McCarthyism and seeing “commies” and “reds” under every bed, as Senator Joseph McCarthy exploited the legitimate fear of communist infiltration for his own power-mongering purposes, and in the process, turned many Americans against each other, ruining the lives and careers of many. Therefore, this Captain America is more of a right-wing ideologue than the “real” Cap. Unfortunately, fighting crime doesn’t pay very well for this Captain America, and his 50’s era paranoia (as well as fear of being discovered not to be the legitimate Cap) precludes he and "Bucky" seeking assistance from or cooperating with any of the other superheroes. This makes them susceptible to the overtures of a radical group seeking to exploit Cap’s popularity and trust factor. The duo are conned into supporting an extremist independent candidate for Congress, which is the first step towards the erosion of civil liberties and implementation of a right-wing dictatorship, all with Captain America as its public face. Eventually, we discover the players behind this conspiracy, which include the racist “Sons of the Serpent,” the Secret Empire, the National Force (seen in a number of Marvel stories over the years) and "our patriotic lodges" (which seems to be a veiled reference to the Freemasons - apparently a group Gillis does not care for). The final card is about to be played, with the convention of the America First Party (which is a real party by the way - I was going to include a link to their website so readers could see for themselves, but I was afraid that would be misinterpreted as some kind of endorsement), after which the party is expected to be swept into majorities in Congress and the Presidency and then a new Constitutional Convention will be convened which will result in the elimination of the Bill of Rights. America is moving towards becoming a dictatorship, with African Americans literally walled off from the rest of the population in ghettos of unbelieveable poverty and squalor, Jews being placed in concentration camps, and dissenters being arrested and held without trial.

By chance, a submarine crew, whose commander is a player in the resistance movement, discovers the real Captain America. When the sub docks at New York, Cap gets a first hand glimpse of the nightmare that America has become. After the commander passes on some information to a certain freedom-loving publisher by the name of J. Jonah Jameson (who is passing along secret codes within the crossword puzzles of the Daily Bugle), he takes Cap to the headquarters of the resistance where the “second” American Revolution is being planned. None other than Nick Fury is leading the resistance, and one of his lieutenants is Peter Parker - Spider-Man, one of the few heroes not fooled “thanks to Jameson” (now isn't THAT ironic). In this alternate history, the government has subtly relocated some of the superheroes (the FF are in Arizona), and fooled most of the rest. However, in a grossly inaccurate characterization, when there is some suspicion regarding Captain America’s legitimacy, Peter Parker tells Fury just to give the word, and he’ll blow Cap’s head off!

Captain America and Spider-Man crash the nationally televised convention of the America First Party at the same time that Fury sends the forces of freedom out to wage civil war from coast to coast. As the revolution kicks off, Cap defeats his bogus counterpart, and gives an impassioned speech about freedom and responsibility, and then leads the convention in a chorus of “America the Beautiful” in an overstated and over the top ending.

Peter Gillis wrote a couple of the best "What Ifs" ever to feature Spider-Man, which I've discussed in Alternate Spideys Part 1. Unfortunately, this reads more like an anti-Ronald Reagan diatribe than a story, which reflects the time in which it was written. The propaganda and motivations of the villains make them appear to be what many people who opposed Reagan perceived him to be. Talking about the political environment of the early 80's is not something to be waded into lightly and is beyond my ability to deal with in a column about Spider-Man, but has to be mentioned to understand the context of the story. The extreme conservatives at the time were convinced that anyone who questioned why we needed more nukes when we could already blow up the world many times over was a communist dupe, and that nuclear (and other) protestors were all just a bunch commie sympathizers on Moscow's payroll. Conversely, those on the extreme left chose to characterize those with religious conviction or who questioned the size of the Federal Government as warmongers and bigoted religious lunatics, and were convinced that Reagan’s diatribes against the “Evil Empire” as he tagged the Soviet Union, were going to lead American into nuclear war. This wasn't helped by a group known as the Moral Majority, led by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, whose power and influence was grossly overstated by the left and like so many other groups and political parties, allowed whatever reasonable core ideas it had be co-opted by obnoxious extremists who led it down the path to ruin. At least that's how I remember the 1980's - probably one of the most significant decades in my life as I was graduated from high school and college, got married, and obtained the job I currently have now all in that decade. Most Americans, then and now, are smack dab in that big gray middle. In this story, Gillis apparently chose to come down on the side of the extreme left.

Not only that, but without some additional background on the situation, such as how this twisted timeline may have affected Peter, the idea of him threatening to blow off anyone’s head is inconceivable. This is the man who can’t bring himself to kill Norman Osborn, even though he has every reason in the world to do so, and not a lot of folks would get in his way. A positive, though brief, characterization is that of J. Jonah Jameson, shown to be a true patriot and freedom fighter, his personality notwithstanding.

The next revisiting of the revival of Captain America has a more in character Spider-Man, but the story is no more satisfying.

This is actually a two-part story. What If Volume 2 #67 has Captain America revived in the 1990’s by none other than Doctor Doom. Since there was no Captain America, Doom, along with the Red Skull conquered the world and divided it between them. Of course, that hasn’t stopped either one from plotting against the other, and Doom is easily able to persuade Cap to join him against the Skull, considering that he was Cap’s #1 enemy the last time he was awake. Just when Cap begins to get wise to Doom and his cronies (including the Abomination, the Vulture, and Juggernaut – now really – who could possibly be suspicious of those clowns?) who are about to kill him, in burst a group called the “X-Patriots” consisting of Spider-Man, the Human torch, Wolverine, Jean Gray and the Sub Mariner, setting the stage for issue #68 (December 1994).

Cap is rescued and taken to the X-Patriots’ headquarters, where he learns the whole story of what the two supervillains did to the earth. The rebels, including the surviving superheroes on the side of right, are led by – Nick Fury (I guess if there’s a revolution to be fought to bring back the American way of life, Nick Fury’s your man!), are getting ready to mount one last desperate attack on the Skull’s stronghold. Although this Peter Parker doesn’t threaten to blow anyone’s head off, he’s still a different man than the one we know. A flashback panel shows him being taken away to a concentration camp for superhumans (Put in the context of Civil War, that would, I suppose, be considered Tony Stark's "Final Solution") with Aunt May’s lifeless body in the foreground. He is tattooed with a bar code (again, similar to what the Jews endured during the Holocaust), and tells Cap that he’s not into the freedom and America Way rah rah – he wants revenge, pure and simple, on those who killed everyone he loved (although I’m not exactly sure what purpose the earring he's wearing serves).

Captain America leads the assault on the Skull, but as the other heroes join the battlefront (including fighting against a Hulk who is controlled by the Skull), Spider-Man mysteriously slinks away. After Captain America himself penetrates the Skull’s headquarters for a confrontation with his old enemy - he finds the Skull dead, suffocated by webbing sprayed over his face! Also in the room, Spider-Man is bleeding profusely from bullet wounds, and drops dead into Cap’s arms. Captain America walks out holding Spidey’s body, proclaiming that when the flag of America flies over the country again, the name of Peter Parker will be among America’s greatest heroes.

Bleh. Not a whole lot of substance to this story.

There are so many things wrong with this ending I don’t know where to start. First of all, the Skull, one of Marvel’s greatest villains, comes to a far too quick and ignominious end. Not only that, but the climactic confrontation that occurred between Spidey and the Skull, in which each met their deaths, all happened off-panel like in a bad Howard Mackie story. And besides, the Skull is Captain America’s greatest enemy – and should meet his final fate at the hands of the Captain, not someone else. In fact, a more recent alternate universe story in the pages of Captain America had a non super-powered Peter Parker dying with fellow rebels Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm, and Cap facing off against the Skull at the climax, the latter probably a more appropriate ending.

Although the latter “What If” was clearly less political than the former, both are typical of what makes certain alternative universe tales weaker than others. In the good ones, no matter what the situation, the characters are the same and the primary story is in how they react to their alternate environment. The weaker ones have characters running around with familiar names, but the alternate universe itself is the most important part of the story, and the characters are altered to fit the universe and reach a predetermined conclusion.

In our final story, the war that our heroes fought was lost more than 1000 years ago – but their legacy remains.

Spider-Man vs. the Martians!
The Guardians of the Galaxy was one of those future Earths that became an alternate Earth because of the longevity of the concept and the Marvel Universe. Ostensibly, by the 31st Century mankind had settled all of the planets in the solar system, genetically alternating humans to survive the extreme conditions on planets such as Mercury and Pluto. However, an alien race called the Badoon, basically two-legged lizards, had conquered the Earth system and eradicated most of the human population. An astronaut from the 20th Century, Vance Astro, had been sent to Alpha Centauri (in 1988! Oops.) in suspended animation, only to arrive in the 31st Century to find out that mankind had already beaten him there. He eventually became the leader of a rag tag group of survivors of the Badoon eradication that traveled space in a ship that looked suspiciously like the original starship Enterprise and was named “Captain America” after Astro’s childhood hero, engaging the Badoon whenever they could. After the Badoon were defeated and run out of the solar system, the Guardians decided to “explore strange new worlds and civilizations” in their new ship, the Icarus (as the Guardians probably were gun shy of running afoul of Paramount's lawyers, even in the 31st Century), occasionally encountering either survivors (such as the Silver Surfer, the Vision and Wonder Man) from the original Marvel Universe who had survived, descendants, or imitators.

The history of the Guardians was eventually collapsed into another alternate earth concept – this time the “War of the Worlds,” which bore almost no resemblance to the HG Welles novel other than those murderous marauding Martians. The comic “War of the Worlds” was a series from the 1970’s that was set in the second decade of the 21st Century, after the invasion of 2001 (oops again). The focus was on a warrior called “Killraven,” an escaped slave who tangled with the occupying Martian forces from time to time. Spidey even teamed-up with Killraven once in the original Marvel Team-Up #45 (May 1976) during a six month spell when Spidey was traveling through time, going to the Salem witch trials and even meeting the original Deathlok in that far flung future of 1990 (oops trebled). Like I said, eventually the Guardians Universe had to be ret-conned into an “alternate” future because many of the original “future” dates came and went! The original Martian invasion of the early 21st Century became part of the alternate past – and the Vance Astro of our universe, since he didn’t go to Alpha Centauri, became a superhero called Justice, a member of the New Warriors and Avengers at various times! Confused? There’s more. Apparently, the Martians weren’t really Martians, because after more than 30 years of probes and land rovers, we now know there are no, and probably have never been, any Martians. Thus, Earth's conquerers came from another planet and just launched the invasion of Earth from Mars. Bear with me, I’m done with the exposition.

In Guardians of the Galaxy #54 (November 1994) Mars has been a quarantined world for a thousand years (no reasons given), avoided even by the Badoon during their conquest of the solar system (apparently when the “Martians” were done sucking the Earth’s natural resources dry, they simply left). No one has survived breaching the quarantine – but the Guardians will not be deterred, since even they know there won't be a story if they just shrug their shoulders and move on. They are hunting the planetary serial killer called Ripjak, who has been obliterating entire planets and civilizations out of existence. The Guardians have tracked him to Mars - the Forbidden World. There, they come face to face with several Martian war relics, including the tripod war machines (patterned after the invaders in the original Welles novel – not the flying ships from the classic 1950’s movie version) and a shrine devoted to the old Marvel Universe superheroes, whom the Martians exterminated during their invasion. The shrine is composed of many relics, including the tattered remains of various costumes and weapons. Astro finds the mask of his hero Captain America hermetically sealed, but when he breaks the seal to touch the mask, it crumbles into dust.

However, one hero has his own special wing in the museum. When all of the other heroes were either killed, or driven off world, he continued the fight for humanity alone. After his demise, the war-like Martians honored him as “The Last to Fall.”

And if I have to tell you who it is, then you obviously don’t know whom these articles are all about!

The Guardians review old footage of Spidey ripping apart Martian tripod machines as they go through Ripjak’s logs, where they discover that Ripjak is the last surviving “Martian.” The remainder was eradicated by a plague, and Ripjak was a scientist who believed that the cure to the disease could be found among their historical artifacts (what led him to make this assumption is not stated). Apparently after Spider-Man’s death, his body was taken to Mars, where it was preserved with all organs and fluids intact. The Guardians find that the body of the “Parker-Spider” has been removed and they discover that scientist injected himself with Spider-Man’s radioactive blood, and was transformed, but now wears an exo-skeleton that completely hides his true appearance. The injection of Spidey’s blood cures Ripjak of the plague, but by the time this cure is discovered, all of the other Martians are dead, and it is later discovered that the planets that Ripjak is destroying are actually all infected with the same plague that destroyed the "Martians," with the disease ravaging their own populations. Ripjak is not a serial killer, but a mercy killer (and I’m not even touching that political debate), eradicating civilizations that are already suffering and preventing the plague from spreading.

Unfortunately, it is not known whether or not the fact that Ripjak had a connection with Spider-Man was going to be followed up in any detail later in the series, or was merely a “shock” element concocted to interest schmucks (like me) who otherwise wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about this title – after all, that is a pretty catchy cover. The title was cancelled after issue #62, the victim of one of Marvel’s purges of less profitable titles during the 1990’s. Exactly what condition Spidey was in was actually left to speculation. A flashback panel indicates that nearly a thousand years after his death, the body was still so well preserved that we could still recognize Peter Parker, who was wearing a ventilator during the flashback (apparently oxygen was continuing to be pumped into the body and the heart was being artificially stimulated to preserve the body). Ripjak did not indicate what happened to Spider-Man’s body after he was done with it, nor was it stated that all of his blood was necessarily used, which left open the possibility (perhaps only an imagined one) that Spider-Man had in fact survived the Martian Invasion in suspended animation, and Ripjak only took the blood he needed. In a later issue, when confronted by the High Evolutionary, who became fascinated with the “radioactive paradigm” in Ripjak’s blood, Ripjak warned him not to examine him too closely. Since we were never allowed under Ripjak’s exoskeleton, could he actually have been within the body of Peter Parker? Or could Spidey have still been alive?

We’ll never know. I don’t know if the Guardians have even made an appearance in the last decade or not, but if they have, they’ve kept a very low profile. But they’ll likely one day return – Marvel never lets a concept or character fade totally into obscurity – but it is unlikely any of the old plotlines will be revisited.

Some of the more ugly aspects of the story aside (the Marvel heroes being all dead, and Spidey’s blood being used to rejuvinate an alien), this is actually a nice little tribute to our hero, paying homage to his strength, intelligence, determination, and survival skills – a combination that allowed him to continue fighting long after all of his peers were gone. I suppose from the perspective of a Spider-Man fan, it would be interesting to see a story where he watched his society, culture, and race destroyed all around him, and how he fought on until the bitter end, but we’ll probably only see that in the realms of fan fiction. It would be a depressing story to write, and with the Guardians and the Martians now in the dustbins of Marvel history (although there was a Killraven mini a few years ago), there is probably no business reason to revisit it.

Our next part called Spidey Dies is about - well - just that.

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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.