Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Back in 1996, What If…? switched its focus from simple alternate reality stories to darker, edgier, more twisted stories. It began with What If…? #87 by Warren Ellis (scripted by someone else, I believe) and Frank Teran, telling a story about Sabretooth killing all of the X-Men and Jubilee as the only one left. Sadly, I don’t have that issue anymore, parts of my collection traded away to friends back then (hey, swapping comics was a fun thing to do), but I do have seven issues from that era still and want to run through them. Spoilers, of course.
One of the better issues of this bunch. You’ll notice that Ariel Olivetti did most of these covers, too, and this was back when he was a fantastic art that actually drew comics in interesting, attractive ways. This issue focuses on Ben Parker, the teenage son of Peter Parker, in a world where the spider that bit Peter turned him into a freak. Sometimes, he transforms into a giant spider creature. He married Gwen Stacey, but she died giving birth to Ben who suffers from the same condition, even looking a little freakish with giant red eyes. At school, he’s bullied by Butch Thompson (guess who his dad is) and is friends with Sara Joy Watson (I legitimately wonder who her father is and how it worked out that she has her mom’s last name). He and his father barely speak, Peter spending all of his time trying to solve their condition and Ben growing increasingly anti-social. It’s very much a dark Spider-Man story with Ben showing the darker side of the light high school experience of Peter in the Marvel universe. Sure, Peter was bullied, but never like this. Peter wasn’t going to school in shirts with blood stains on them. For all of the bad stuff in Peter’s life, it was still better than the life Ben lives here.
Things come to a head when Ben takes off after learning that Peter was in contact with Professor Xavier about Ben going to his school — and running into Butch Thompson. This time, Ben fights back and, later, we see him half-dead, hanging from webbing, muttering to his dad that it was ‘Parker’ that did it, setting Flash off. Meanwhile, Sara Joy rushes to tell Peter that Ben is in trouble, and Peter rushes out, partly transformed to discovered a spider-creature Ben is about to be killed by a mob and some cops. Peter sacrifices himself so Ben can escape, the issue ending with him arriving at Xavier’s.
Olivett’s art is very dark and moody. It reminds me a bit of Leonardo Manco’s style here, which suits the material. Man, I miss him drawing like this. Meanwhile, the story is very dark and interesting, but the execution is overwrought, very much in that typical Marvel style with obvious thought balloons and stock dialogue. While this story is meant to be darker than and different from the Marvel universe, it isn’t told that way all of the time. Still, out of this bunch of issues, this is probably the third-best comic.
An interesting idea that just falls flat on the execution. The Fantastic Four’s origin gone wrong: their powers are harder to control/more extreme and Reed is the only survivor it seems… and is branded a traitor to America for his theft of the shuttle. See, now that idea has some bite. He’s stuck in an exosuit to keep his form and is on trial for treason. Meanwhile, we later learn that the other three were taken by Latverian forces and are being held captive by Doom for his own purposes. After being convicted, Reed is freed by Sue (whose powers extend to intangibility here) and is sent to Latveria by Nick Fury. From there, it’s pretty standard stuff. Like the Spider-Man story, I love the core concept, but the execution just isn’t there. Ariel Olivetti’s cover gets at the basic darkness and appeal of the idea better than anything in the issue. At this point, I was kind of wondering what the point of this ‘darker’ direction was if it was going to be pretty basic storytelling that just didn’t try to do something interesting. Mike Miller’s art was fine.
This one is ‘what if the Summers family survived that alien attack years ago?’ and is actually interested. It’s narrated by Alex as he grows up in his brother’s shadow. Scott is the golden boy — confident, popular, good at everything he does. Then, Scott becomes more withdrawn and we learn it’s a result of his mutant powers kicking in. At the same time, Alex, jealous and feeling left out, encounters the Dark Beast, who has tracked down the Summers boys, and they become friends. The Dark Beast actually being a positive influence — giving Alex the idea that he should protect Scott and look out for his older brother. This goes wrong when Xavier shows up at the request of their parents and Scott freaks out, so Alex introduces Scott to the Dark Beast — and Scott just breaks down, equating the Beast with the aliens that attacked them as kids. To protect his brother, Alex’s powers kick in and he agrees to work with the Dark Beast if he’ll leave Scott alone. The final image of the comic is Scott at the kitchen table, head in his hands, and bandages over his eyes — which I always interpreted as him poking his eyes out in order to get rid of his mutant powers, but I remember a letter column in an issue I no longer have suggesting something tamer as what they meant. If that’s the truth, don’t believe it.
Like the Spider-Man story, this had some nice parallels to the regular MU with Alex in Scott’s shadow, but the ending is such a nice reversal. One of the recent ideas with Scott is that he has the superpower of repression and it’s like he needed that harsher childhood to develop a tougher skin, better coping skills. By growing up in a happy, loving environment where everything went his way, he just wasn’t equipped to be a ‘freak’ all of a sudden, while Alex, being the second son, was stronger and more mature in many ways.
James Daly provided the art and he draws very thin, blocky characters. I remember liking this art more at the time. He’s good at expressions, though. You can tell what characters are thinking. He really nails the look of apathetic boredom that kids this age have. Some compositions are rough — same with figure work, a little too stiff, but it’s solid here.
Now, this is a messed up comic with the harshest ending of any of these issues. This is pure, straight fucked up comics, folks. In this world, Bruce Banner was both the scientist we know, but also a hardcare military guy. That dynamic changes things where he’s still hit by the gamma blast, but he’s so different that it affects him in a much different way. The story is told by Betty to Leonard Samson, her psychiatrist on the base, and she tells a story where Bruce Banner’s tale was somehow worse. He’s a violent, high-strung man that, after they’re married, because distant and abusive. This is a guy who, on the outside, idealises his father. When he does transform, it’s into this energy creature that’s very much like a little kid — the inner kid that’s horrified at his abusive father’s actions. Banner uses this ‘Starman’ to create panic and increase the budget for his projects. Betty realises the truth and is laying it out for Samson. At the end, Banner, knowing what’s going on, give Samson a choice: commit Betty or face a transfer to the front lines of a newly started war. He chooses to have Betty committed. The end.
I know, that’s just messed up. She’s an abused wife — in one scene, Bruce breaks her jaw — and she winds up committed. This is the Marvel universe gone wrong.
The issue is told in a fairly straight forward, honest manner. It doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of this life. Nelson’s style isn’t photorealistic, but there’s a lot of realism there. There’s a certain deadness in Betty’s eyes as she talks to Samson. The final page is fantastic from Banner’s smug smirk to Samson’s disbelief at the choice he has to make to the final panel where Betty looks happy for the first time, unaware that right behind her are two hospital workers about to take her into custody. In that final panel, we also get Banner saying something to Samson that still disturbs me: “YOU’VE DONE THE RIGHT THING, SAMSON. A MAN HAS TO KEEP HIS HOUSE IN ORDER — / — ORDER MAKES A MAN STRONG, AND STRENGTH EQUALS RESPECT. MY FATHER TAUGHT ME THAT.” Jesus. There’s also a message at the end about seeking help for domestic violence, which is appropriate.
I’m not sure why this is a What If…? story. Nothing happens here that couldn’t have happened in an issue of X-Men Unlimited or some other X-Men spin-off series. Basically, Canonball and Husk’s younger brother, Josh, finds a damaged Sentinel, becomes its new master, paints it up in an X-costume (and wears one himself), and tries to do good, but usually messes up. When his mutant siblings visit, the Sentinel attacks them and Josh intervenes, causing the Sentinel to destroy itself. Not sure why it was published as an issue of this comic. James Daly does the art here, too, but it’s not as polished as his work on the Summers issue. Maybe because he doesn’t ink himself here. Really, a baffling issue of sorts.
My favourite issue of the bunch. For a period, this was one of my favourite comics altogether. In a piece I wrote back in 2002 discussing this issue along with the Spider-Man and Hulk issues, I wrote:
The issue was written and drawn by Chris Wozniak and is my second favourite single issue of all time. To me, this is the quintessential Magneto story. This story shows the true Magneto, and how ugly he really is. Although the story focuses on Pietro, it is really about Magneto’s impact on his family.
We’re always presented with stories of human intolerance, and that’s in here, too, but this shows the other side of the coin. Mutant intolerance. Magneto hated humanity so much that that hate was transferred to his daughter. His daughter.
While it’s not surprising that this issue didn’t make the top ten greatest Magneto stories of all time, it probably should have. In this world, his wife and daughter both lived — his human wife and daughter. With the birth of mutant twins, they become Magneto’s focus, while Anya is shunted aside, noticeably looked down upon — by her siblings as well. She’s just normal. In this issue, Pietro winds up leaving home at 14 against his father’s wishes and finds acceptance in the outside world. He becomes famous because of his speed. He’s a demonstration that mutants and humans can live in harmony.
At home, Magneto becomes increasingly paranoid as the organisation he’s created to take the world for mutantkind grows beyond his control. He’s seen as weak for having a human wife and daughter — and Pietro leaving only makes matters worse. Anya is blamed, Madga is… not well, and Wanda becomes increasingly cryptic in her secret letters to Pietro. When he receives a letter from Anya saying that Wanda has been kidnapped, he finally returns home — to find that old wounds are still there. He gets into a motorcycle accident and loses the use of his legs. He also learns that his father knows what happened to Wanda. A part of his organisation kidnapped and killed her to show their power. In the final scene, Pietro confronts his father with his, a film crew with him, and he shoots his father… but Magneto doesn’t stop the bullet. He dies to protect the cause, choosing the cause of mutantkind over his family once again.
At that point, Anya reveals that she killed Wanda. She’s the powerful one now. Two mutants dead, one crippled. Magneto’s racism made his daughter into a mutant hater and it destroyed his family. Wow.
Wozniak’s writing is great, but I also really like his cartoony art. It reminds me of Chris Bachalo quite a bit. It’s a little looser, but some panels and pages just knock my socks off. A panel where Magneto confronts Pietro about leaving — you believe Pietro’s narrative caption that reads “MY FATHER ANGERED COULD SCARE GOD ON HIS BEST DAY.” Magneto is a force to be reckoned with. While later in the issue, he’s a living ghost. A shell of what he once was, living in a ruined family of his own doing.
Very kinetic and energetic art, which suits a story about Pietro quite a bit. Wozniak draws speed well.
If you haven’t read this issue, you should track it down.
The worst issue of the bunch. Battle’s art is unpolished and ugly. The worst elements of the ‘Image style’ with no energy or aesthetic attributes. Some of the ugliest art I’ve ever seen. The story isn’t great either. In this world, the Black Cat unmasked Spider-Man and they’re together. She thinks he should go public with his identity, he disagrees. She fakes Flash Thompson as being Spider-Man, but that just puts Thompson’s life in danger thanks to J. Jonah Jameson hiring the Scorpion to capture him and provide proof he’s Spider-Man. At the end, Peter is removing his mask for Jonah to learn the whereabouts of Thompson unaware that the Black Cat has already rescued him. Not a bad story, it just feels like a regular What If…? issue, not one of the darker ones.
And that’s that. Thanks for reading.
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