Thursday, January 22, 2009

Retro Review: What If? Special #1

This gem was given to me by my good friend Adama, who runs the finest Green Arrow blog I've ever seen over at Dispatches From The Arrowcave.  He has been known to collect What If?, and he came across this issue (along with another one featuring Shellhead) one day and picked it up for me.

Our story goes all the way back to hallowed antiquity -- that is, Tales of Suspense #39.  That issue, of course, is the debut and origin of Iron Man, where (as all of us now know) Professor Yinsen sacrificed his own life to give Tony Stark time to power up his crude first armor, allowing the injured industrialist to defeat their Communist captors and escape to become a great hero.  But Uatu The Watcher asks us to take a look on a different Earth, where Yinsen's gambit does not pay off, and Tony is captured before the Iron Man can rise.  So now let's examine what would have been if Iron Man Had Been A Traitor!

After their escape plan was foiled, warlord Wong Chu intended to use the armor as a weapon himself, but his plans go awry when he received orders to send Stark into China and to the lab of Chen Lu!  There, Chen Lu implants a device into Tony's chestplate which allows him to turn the device on and off remotely.  Chen's plan is to allow Tony to be found by American troops and returned to the States, where he will become a pawn of the East.  Tony says he would die before he betrays his country, but Chen calls his bluff, taunting him, saying that while saying such words are easy, living up to them is not.

Soon, Tony is found by an Army patrol and flown back home.  Picking up where he left off as an industrialist, he soon is confronted by CIA agent Nick Fury, who suspects that Tony was compromised.  Tony angrilly thows Fury out, but then is contacted (via a miniature transmitter planted in his skull!) by Chen, reminding him who he serves.  Tony then "debuts" Iron Man on the superhero scene, and quickly is accepted as a defender of freedom.  Nick Fury, however, still does not trust Stark, and suspects that the armor might be controlled remotely.  When Reed Richards informs him that his theory could  be feasible, Fury is confident that he can expose Tony Stark as a red traitor.

Unfortunately for our favorite fed, Tony Stark receives a report on the new organization named SHIELD, including that Fury is nominated to be it's director, and is ordered by Chen Lu to kill Fury.  Shortly thereafter, Fury is attacked by an unknown terrorist group who calls themselves HYDRA!  Nick barely escapes with his life, and now is convinced that Stark is a traitor.  Taking his information to the Fantastic Four, Reed Richards devises a method by which Iron Man is tricked into a special powder, which reveals that there is a signal being beamed into the suit from a satelite.  Chen Lu observes this and orders Stark to kill Mr. Fantastic.  Breaking into the Baxter Building, Iron Man avoids nearly all of the automated defenses, and manages to slip a cassette tape to Reed.  The tape (made by Tony on the sly, by recording at a super-slow speed his meditation mantras, then played back at regular speed to translate the message) clues Reed in to Tony's situation, and the big-brained Mr. Fantastic quickly devises a plan.  Reed "traps" Shellhead in a new device, and quickly takes control of the armor, then removes Tony and performs some quick surgery on his heart, ending the threat.  While Tony recovers in the hospital, Reed Richards informs Fury about the situation.  Fury inquired about the armor, and Reed tells him that all weapons will eventually turn on their creator.  Meanwhile, the empty Iron Man armor streaks towards Chen Lu's laboratory, and crashes explosively into the building.

As a fan of the Tales of Suspense era of Iron Man, I was a prime candidate for this story.  Just seeing the early 60s Marvel crew running around was a lot of fun.  But on top of that, this is a well constructed yarn which examines the battle between saving oneself and being a hero.  Tony Stark fights however he can, but Chen Lu holds all the cards: it's hard to resist someone who can essentially put shrapnel into your heart at will.  But Tony figures out a way to stop Chen Lu, knowing that if he is taken out of his chestplate he'll die anyway -- Reed's quick thinking being the only thing which saves him.

Seeing Iron Man -- who along with Captain America was the most patriotic of the original Marvel characters -- betray his country makes for stirring reading for an Iron Fan.  This is America's best and brightest turned into a Commie lackie.  That's the strength of What If?, and while there are a lot of times where the title just goes a little too far into left field for me (there was one I read once involving the Punisher getting the alien costume instead of Eddie Brock, and that has to be one of the lamest alternate universe stories ever), in this case the twist is not so outlandish that it cannot be enjoyed.

The artwork is not able because of the breakdowns done by none other than Steve Ditko.  Pat Redding handles the finishes, but with all of the layout and panel work being done by an legend (not to mention one of the men responsible for inventing Marvel's visual look) really helps sell this as an alternate Silver Age story.  Art style may change, but good storytelling is good storytelling.  The same goes for scribe Peter B. Gillis, who's dialogue could have passed muster in the Silver Age, though admittedly it is mostly devoid of Stan Lee's legendary linguistic banter.

Overall this was a very cool oversized (38 pages) comic book.  A fun adventure with a nice twist of the classic Tales of Suspense story which I must have read at least a dozen times at this point.  The Ditko breakdowns are a very nice touch as well.  Totally worth picking up if you can find it for a good price.

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