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Oct 12

What If? – X-Men

Posted on Friday, October 12, 2018 by Paul in x-axis

Another year, another batch of What If? one-shots. So welcome to Completist Corner: It’s Technically An X-Book.

The original What If? series specialised in alternate endings to published stories, which usually turned out to be that a lot of people died and the world was changed forever or something.  More recently, though, the What If? branding has been applied to some ground-up alternate-reality takes on main characters, which is what we have here.  It’s a cyberspace X-Men, because somebody has spotted that X and *.exe are kind of a bit similar?  If you squint?  That somebody, presumably, is writer Bryan Edward Hill, who’s doing a Batman and the Outsiders series for DC.

The cover for this thing is, um, eye-catching.  It’s a staggeringly ugly riot of colour and graphic effects, but with a rather nice Domino figure anchoring it all.  But that’s by a guy called Rahzzah; the interior art is decidedly conventional.  The real-world sequences, by Neil Edwards, feel more like something you might have got in the early 2099 line.  It’s not bad at all on its own terms.  The figures are decently dramatic, the settings are well established, the characters are expressive enough to keep the conversations visually interesting.  There’s an interesting use of the nine-panel grid in a three-way conversation, with Cable staring right down the camera and Xavier viewed more distantly from the side; I liked that.  But it doesn’t really follow up on the visual interest of the cover.

Things pick up about halfway through when we enter cyberspace proper, since that’s drawn by Giannis Milonogiannis, who gives it a manga/Tron look.  It’s minimal backgrounds, a vast amount of white space to give it a sense of scale, and charismatic figures.  He gets a page at the end to do a reinvention of the X-Men, too.  If there’s a reason to buy this, it’s his pages.

As for the story… well.  That’s more of a problem.  It’s the near future, apparently a rather grim one.  A lot of things are now in cyberspace and the real world is starting to fall into neglect.  That’s an interesting enough idea, but it’s not what the story is actually about.  Instead, the idea is that people with the – oh god – *.exe gene have the ability to circumvent the controls that normally keep cyberspace in line.  So they’re people who have superpowers in cyberspace, in other words.  And people are scared of them because they disrupt the predictability and security of cyberspace, on which society and the economy depends.

This is fairly interesting in theory, but it doesn’t really get the chance to go anywhere in 20-odd pages largely devoted to running around.  Erik Lensherr is a high profile kind of mutant, and Xavier sends mercenaries Cable and Domino to stop him from being killed by Nimrod.  Naturally it turns out that Erik is actually a bad guy in the other direction, who intends to give everyone mutant powers so that “all of cyberspace will be free”.

It’s very simplistic and it doesn’t really do anything with the theoretically promising parts of the premise.  And when a bunch of X-Men show up in the epilogue sequence, it feels like it has nothing to do with anything that came before.

Aside from all that, it feels like a throwback to an 80s or 90s take on cyberspace, when it was all terribly novel and exciting and a bit like, well, Tron.  And which has not a tremendous amount to do with a cyberspace of online banking and Twitter.  There’s little or no sense here of anything actually happening in this version of cyberspace; if vast swathes of people are living their lives in cyberspace, they’re doing it off panel.  For this to work, cyberspace needs to feel vibrant, alive, exciting – it needs to feel like a culture, and something extrapolated from our own online culture and screen addiction, not from the cyberspace tropes of thirty years ago and streams of green-screen binary.

All of that cuts against the idea that the story might actually be about anything, and makes it a hazy, inchoate exercise in blurry nostalgia.  But it’s not quaint or knowing enough to work on that level either.  The cyberspace genre has kind of died out as the internet has become more familiar, and the idea of it as some sort of virtual reality playground no longer accords with our experience of the prosaic reality; at the same time, it’s important enough in our lives that there ought to be tons of potential in finding another visual angle.  Unfortunately, this isn’t it.

Bring on the comments

  1. Thom H says:

    Ugh — yeah, this was a waste of time. I liked What If…? better when everyone died every issue.

    Remember when Phoenix outright killed all of the X-Men and then ate the universe? That was the first alternate-reality-where-everyone-dies book I ever read, and I still love that kind of story when it’s done well.

  2. Moo says:

    Yeah I liked that one. And the Korvac issue which ends with the entire universe getting ultimate nullified. The events of the Hulk gone berserk issue really disturbed me because as a kid, the Hulk was hands-down my favourite Marvel character (and the tv show was running at the time).

    But I think my favourite issue of What If was the all-humour issue.

  3. Ben says:

    This is one of those comics where I genuinely wonder how it got published. It’s properly bad stuff.

  4. Chris V says:

    Moo-Did you read the issue of What If? featuring Conan, which had a back-up story which was a sequel to the “Korvac ends everything” story?
    It was written by Gruenwald, just like the Korvac story.
    I thought that was a really good story too.

  5. Moo says:

    @Chris – I vaguely recall flipping through that story at the store but I didn’t buy the issue for some reason (if Conan was the lead feature though, then that’s probably why). I don’t remember the story but it had Doctor Strange, Phoenix and the Silver Surfer in it, didn’t it? Korvac booted them out of the universe before he obliterated it as I recall.

  6. Mikey says:

    They used Rogue’s “What If” design for a variant cover, so I wonder if we’ll see this version of these characters again.

  7. mark coale says:

    I loved V1 What If as a kid, even the odd ones (what if Nick Fury fought ww2 in space).

    The Marvel Bullpen as the FF is just an interesting piece of work.

  8. Voord 99 says:

    I think that one can point to things that made What If? work better as a concept in the old days. I’d go so far as to say the specific part of the old days in which it appeared, the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

    OK, by that point, the Marvel universe had enough history that, if you were coming into it as a child, you found out that there was a *lot* of earlier stuff that you’d never seen. But you could piece together bits and pieces of it from editor’s notes in footnote caption boxes, and back issues that you picked up second-hand (or a friend had them, etc.)*

    “Your” Marvel universe was a collage of bits and pieces of the past, liable to be read out of context. I remember, for instance, that I picked up something that reprinted part of what I think must have been a Thor issue from the ‘70s in which Hercules guest-starred, and somehow got the impression that there had been a time when Hercules was an ongoing member of Thor’s supporting cast for several years, that the book had been “Thor and Hercules,” like Captain America and the Falcon.

    So when you a What If? issue that was “What if this famous story had not happened?” there was a very high chance that you had knew that the story existed (because it was famous, and had been referenced). And so you were definitely curious about it. But you didn’t really know what had happened in the story. And now, thanks to What If?, you would find out. In a way that had a story in it itself. It was a more interesting Official Handbook.

    I remember, for instance, that the first time I found out a lot of pieces of Doctor Doom’s backstory was from a reprint of the “What if Doctor Doom was a good guy?” one. Definitely the whole “mother is in hell” bit.

    *If you were in the UK or Ireland, add the fact that Marvel UK didn’t necessarily reprint current material, so that you could buy “new” comics with older stories. Which also ended up circulating years after the original publication, adding to the “collage” effect. Seriously, it is a surprise to me that I can believe that the US has linear time at all, given the extent to which it existed for me as a child as a place in which things happened out of order.

  9. Thom H. says:

    What If? definitely educated me about pieces of Marvel history I wasn’t aware of and sent me looking for back issues to fill in the gaps.

    Something else that made the What If? concept more compelling during its original incarnation was the relative lack of alternate universes in comics at the time.

    Comics have embraced alternate realities to the point that DC has based their entire line on multiple overlapping continuities for years now.

    And Marvel sneaks alternate universes into stories every chance it gets. Avengers recently had their whole thing with Kang, half the FF has been off creating new universes since Secret War — itself a destruction and reconstruction of universes.

    And the X-men — for whom “possible futures” have been a part of their shtick for decades — have recently amped that up in multiple ways (O5, Old Man Logan, Bloodstorm, etc.).

    It’s like the Silver Age Superman comics where the “imaginary” old Superman with a long beard would show up, or the Superman with a lion’s head, or the one with a giant brain. Except now they’re all real and they all keep coming back whether we like it or not.

    There’s no solidity to the main characters anymore — no “real” versions — so what does What If? have to offer except more of the same?

  10. Chris J says:

    I agree Thom H. In one of Paul’s older X-Axis reviews, he covered the death of Colossus back in Uncanny X-Men #390, which mentioned that he was still alive in the Ultimate universe:

    “he’s alive and well over there, so Colossus isn’t dead. A Colossus is dead. They come in six packs, you know.”

    It was hard for me to get worked up about it for that reason.

  11. PersonofCon says:

    If nothing else, the premise “cyberpunk X-Men” feels like it should be a lot more gonzo ridiculous than this is.

  12. Chris V says:

    The original premise of What If? was also to take a starting point of a story that was published as part of the canonical Marvel Universe, and create an alternate reality where things happened differently.

    The whole premise has been lost, as there was obviously never a story where “the X-Men might end up in cyberspace, except…”.
    It’s not an alternate history of a canonical Marvel Universe story.
    They’re just stories taking place in a different universe of the Marvel multiverse.
    In that sense, the new What If? stories aren’t special.

    I’d say there is still room for a compelling What If? story, here and there, if it sticks to the original premise.

  13. mark coale says:

    As someone who used to love the pre Crisis DC multiverse, it just seems like there are just too many alternate versions of characters these days. While part of it may be the desire to create multicultural versions of the main stars, a lot of them just seem superfluous or great for a one-off, but dont need to be seen regularly.

  14. Luis Dantas says:

    DC’s policy regarding alternate universes sure changed since 1985.

    To think that Crisis happened as an attempt to solve a perceived problem of too many alternate realities…

  15. Daibhid Ceannaideach says:

    @Chris V: In general yes, but picking up from Mark Coale, I’m not sure there was a story where World War II was nearly fought against the lizard men of the Betan Empire, either. (Yes, it carefully explains what the point of divergence is, but still…)

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