Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Retro Reviews: What If? Volume 2 #13

Cover by Jim Lee

Okay this may become a semi-regular feature where I talk about individual comics stories that, for whatever reason, have left a big impression on me.

First off is May 1990’s What If? Volume 2 #13 “What if Professor X had become the Juggernaut?” by writer Kurt Busiek, penciller Vince Mielcarek and inkers Ian Akin and Brian Garvey. A great story that I think still holds up well today.

But my take on this may be seriously skewed by my experiences with the comic. This was one of the first books that I ever bought. I was eleven years old when the issue came out and had only recently discovered my local comic shop. I bought a batch of comics on that trip and this issue in particular fascinated me and - more than any of the comics I bought during that period – made me come back for more.

The turning point

Here is a very basic outline of the story: in this world Charles Xavier grabs the Cyttorak gem and is transformed into the Juggernaut (in the original story his step-brother, Cain Marko, had done this). He is buried alive in a cave-in, but over many years he climbs his way out. Embittered by this experience and gifted with his Juggernaut powers as well as his own psychic abilities Xavier quickly takes over the world.

Scott Summers (aka Cyclops) is initially one of Xavier’s lieutenants, but he becomes disillusioned with the abuse that regular humans suffer at the hands of the new mutant overclass. He takes a group of fellow mutants (Jean Grey, Colossus, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver) and working with Magneto they lure Xavier in to a trap and remove him from power.

I bought a lot of comics on that early trip to the comic shop, but this one definitely stood out. The scope of the story, its dynamic artwork, strong characterisation and elegant resolution – all hooked me in strongly.

Two of Mielcarek's redesigns - Thunderbird and The Angel

I remember my mother – anxious about my new fascination comics – actually picked out this issue from the batch and gave it a read to make sure these "comic book" things were suitable reading material. I’m not sure that she got through the whole thing, but I remember her saying that she was impressed by the lofty tone of the first few pages. To me that was high praise coming from someone who hated most fantasy fiction and it made me read the story with extra care.

These days you often hear critics complaining about the inaccessibility of comics, how lots of characters and continuity alienate and confuse new readers. That certainly has never applied to me – I was always fascinated by the deep texture of these stories – how many of these concepts had rich histories and hidden relationships to one another that were only hinted at at first. I guess it amplifies the escapist quality that I most appreciate in comics. This issue is full of that stuff, all done subtly and thoughtfully.

For instance, in the panel below I was fascinated by all the bright costumes and different styles. It was clear to me that these were not original inventions – each one had a unique importance and history that I was dying to know more about and understand.

In anticipation of writing this post I recently asked Kurt Busiek a number of detailed questions about this obscure story and, to his enormous credit, he took the time to answer them in detail. You can read the full exchange here, but I want to touch on a few interesting points.

Originally the plot of the story was completely different with the Xavier Juggernaut becoming a heroic figure. The editor of the book demanded some changes that severely weakened that plot though, so Busiek “replotted it completely at the eleventh hour, because the editorial changes wouldn't leave anything worthwhile in the story, and submitted virtually a completely different story. The new story was approved with no changes, and that's what Vince drew, but it was the result of maybe a day and a half's concentrated work after the other version had run into difficulties.” It seems amazing to me that a story I admire so much could have been put together so fast.

The penciller of this issue was Vince Mielcarek, a Marvel bullpenner who tragically died at the age of 28 shortly after this issue was published. I think that he would have had a long career in the industry if he had lived – he had a lot of talent – a strong storytelling instinct and a fluid, dynamic style. Apparently, at one point Busiek pitched a Luke Cage/Power Man series with him which unfortunately didn't get approved.

In this issue, Mielcarek manages to tell a packed story and still leave space for arresting images like the one opposite. He also did extensive costume redesigns for several of the characters in the story. It was Busiek’s suggestion that “if Magneto had been in charge, the costumes should look like the kind of mitteleuropean comic-opera stuff the original Brotherhood of Evil Mutants wore, not the straight superhero jumpsuits Xavier designed”. Mielcarek ran with the concept and created thoughtful and original new looks for characters like Thunderbird, Cyclops, Jean Grey and the Angel.

One other point which Busiek makes is that Wolverine’s absence from the story was not an issue when the story was approved in 1990. It’s interesting that, though he was already very popular in 1990 the character had not yet attained the status that he currently enjoys. The idea that such an expansive X-Men story could be told today without at least acknowledging Wolverine’s existence is crazy and, I think, a shame as he would not have added anything to the story and probably would have only detracted from its quality had he been included.

This has been a really long post, so I’ll end with the final panel from the story. It left a big impression on me – to my eyes it was an iconic image that lent extra weight to the open and somewhat melancholic ending of the story. It left me desperately wanting to know more – about these characters and about what happens next – something all comics should aspire to do.

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