1978 was a tumultuous year for Jack Kirby, the unparalleled King of comics. Right on the cusp of leaving Marvel for a second time following a previous departure to the disappointing shores of DC Comics, he was not only about to start a career in animation, but he got a chance to don the disguise of one of his most famous creations in the interim!
The premise of the assorted What If series has generally been to document how Marvel’s then-singular continuity would drastically altered by seemingly insignificant edits to the accepted canon; someone else gains Spider-Man’s super-powers, the Avengers lose such-and-such battle they had previously won, someone lived who had died – almost always with fatal consequences.
|The man knows his classics.|
The box turns out to be the work of “The S People,” who accompany their radioactive geegaw with a note proclaiming “Greetings! Open this box and live the ultimate fantasy!”
The S People turn out to be the alien, shape-changing Skrulls (whom younger readers may know from absolutely nothing nowhere because of the complicated rights issues between the film studios handling all the Marvel superheroes these days). While the Marvel Bullpenners stand in for the original FF, the Skrulls and Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner are apparently native to this universe, which raises questions everyone was in too much of a rush to address.
What’s genuinely interesting about this story is that it feels very much like an affectionate farewell to the publisher which had once been Kirby’s home and which had ultimately let him down so badly. While the comic focuses on the origins of the new FF, it takes the time to present an abbreviated, first-hand perspective of the rise of Marvel Comics; the surge of popularity of the books, particularly in colleges, and the landslides of fan mail get a nod, as do the second wave of Bullpenners – including Marie Severin, John Romita and even “this new kid named Thomas” (now editing this very book). Lord knows where Ditko was throughout all of this. Cutting up original art in his apartment most likely.
This issue ends up being one of the most-written-about issues of What If across the internet, and why wouldn’t it – the premise is ultimately absurd. It’s also somewhat sweet and sad, given the timing of the story. Plus, it’s rewarding that – despite having mended fences for the most part around this time – he still chose to portray Stan Lee’s Mister Fantastic as kind of an officious blowhard.
|The Man, keeping you down.|
The story ends on a tremendous note; Having upset the plans of the S People, the Bullpen Four are left victorious, but still trapped in the super-powered bodies they'd hoped alien science could free them from. Now, bereft of their alien expertise, Kirby comments that they'll have to "help themselves to their best-kept secret: Mastery of the Cosmic Ray" as their adventures continue. Somewhere, in some continuity untouched by reboots, revamps, cosmic events and plain old vanilla human mortality, there's a world where Jack Kirby is bounding into adventure with his friends at his side, which is possibly the happiest ending in any comic I've ever read.