Tuesday, April 21, 2015


"What If ... Conan was your dad?"
The premise of Marvel's original What If? series was almost always about how a minor change to the established continuity could have major ramifications to the rest of the shared Marvel Universe. The best stories, though, were almost always the ones which shot far and wide of that goal, and almost nothing better exemplifies the immense potential of those rarer tales than two issues separated by years - What If? vol.1 Nos 13 and 43, released respectively in Februaries of 1978 and 1984, entitled "What If Conan the Barbarian Walked the Earth Today?" and its sequel "What If Conan the Barbarian Were Stranded In The 20th Century?"

"Are you comfortable in the bucket, Conan?"
For the sake of full disclosure, let it be known that there is no ongoing comic I more wish were currently being produced than "21st Century Conan," to the point that I am currently sitting on a proposal for said story. Conan joins a biker gang. Conan gets into heavy metal. Conan gets a van, possibly with himself painted on the side. Call me, whoever has Conan's rights - that's how getting published works, right? You just say you have an ideas on your blog or on Twitter or something and then you go "Call me -" whatever company and they call you and you're hired, right? I ask because that's literally how every third would-be comics pro I've ever met online does it.

Okay! Anyway!

The first half of this unusual pair of speculative adventures comes with the pedigree of Roy Thomas, John Buscema and Ernie Chan at the helm, making it effectively as legit a Conan story as any set in the Hyperborean Age. Spinning off from a Savage Sword tale, Conan is at the mercy of time-plundering wizard and former Babylonian CFO Shamash Shum-Ukin (Huh, I went to school with a Charlotte Shum-Ukin, I wonder if there's any relation). Hucked in a bucket and dropped through a time well, the timelines diverge when it turns out that Shambash Clay-Aiken or whatever his name was bought really shitty rope - in mainstream reality, Conan was able to climb out of the time well. In What If World, though, the rope snaps and he f-a-a-al-l-ls ...

Spider-Man, you useless prole.
...into late-1970s Greenwich Village, a world of tank tops, berets and dookie chains. The New York of Conan's experience is a grittier than the New York of almost any other Marvel Comic of the era - shadowy figures loiter on every corner, figures duck in and out of doorways, it's crowded with dogs, rats and cats, ladled with garbage, groping figures decorate the backgrounds - and that's not even to mention the "punk rockers" he meets. It's frankly as true a picture of the Big Apple as painted in that era, even taking into account the bare-chested, sword-wielding steroid case walking around and assaulting its citizens. I mean, especially taking that into account.

Being New York in the late Seventies, there's naturally a blackout. Having taken up residence with a hard-boiled lady cab driver named Danette, Conan ends up leaving her company briefly to deal with looting in the streets below before ending up killing a few hoodlums inside the Guggenheim. I'm sad that he didn't try to fight the '78 Yankees or anything, but it's only a 48 page comic.

Being unexpectedly struck by lightning on top of the museum roof signals Conan's exit, just as it does for many golfers every year during the rainy season. In the barbarian's case, however, the lightning strike merely executes his return to ancient times, taking with him as a memento only the denim beret of his time-lost lover. Weirder words I've never before written ...

Somehow the acoustic guitar just makes them more punk.

When the story is revisited in 1984, it takes the uncommon tactic of spinning off a What If from a previous What If scenario - this time, Conan ISN'T struck by lightning on the roof of the Guggenheim, and is instead jumped by like forty cops and shoved in lockup. This sequel is helmed by Peter Gillis and Bob Hall, and lacks some of the gravitas and authenticity which the Thomas/Buscema/Chan endeavor had by default.

Life goal.
Likewise, it's been six years and the city of New York is changing as well, here deep in the era of Reaganomics. Greenwich Village is out of style, so when Conan literally escapes from police custody in the middle of being tried for the straight-up murder of like six dudes, he ends up in squalid, glittery Times Square. The image of Conan shaking down a Wall Street fatcat for his wallet and then throwing away everything but the quarters - what does he know of paper money, right? - is an image that has remained with me since childhood, and why my savings account sucks.

It doesn't take long for Conan to figure out the mechanics of the modern day, particularly - and again, this is the Eighties, so this is inevitably how it goes - cocaine and hookers. Dressing in a white pimp suit and sporting a PET LEOPARD, Conan calls on his former future flame Danette, only to be rebuffed because I guess her building only allows service leopards.

Heartbroken but huge, Conan forms a street gang comprised entirely of African-American bodybuilders. This is a twist which begs to be the subject of some academic paper on severely literal cultural acquisition, but let's not lose focus on the ultimate climax of the story. Robbing the Natural History Museum of Hyperborean treasures, Conan's gang draws the attention of Captain America, leading to a battle which ends in stalemate only because Conan declines to skewer Cap completely, having already cut him up a damn treat. Show that fight footage to Batroc the Leaper and watch him cry.

If that mug was a gift, then 
he's got cheap friends.
The tantalizing end of the story involves Captain America legit offering Conan a place on the Avengers, which is ANOTHER ongoing comic I'd slap an orphan right in the face to see published. Wonderfully, the audience is left to their own devices to decide if Conan takes the offer, and even moreso are delighted to witness Conan staring at a rotary dial phone with his fist clenched, as though he were swearing vengeance at it.

The Watcher shows up in the last panel to tease a further sequel to this chain of stories, which unfortunately never materializes. To that end, I encourage everyone to envision their own sequel to Conan visiting the 20th Century and joining the Avengers, possibly becoming elected governor of California and then making some disappointing Terminator sequels. We might just make it happen through the power of dreams!


John said...

Another great GAF entry. I'm certain that actually reading these comics is nowhere near as much fun as reading your descriptions of them. And as for the "punk-rock musicians" - is that another "What if?" "What if punkers dressed like some sort of glam/folk trio?"

smokingrobot said...

I assume those two weirdly photoreal faces in the middle of the "Spider-Man, you useless prole" image are supposed to be real people. Any idea who they are? My best guess is John Travolta and.. I dunno. Sandy Duncan's little brother?

Calamity Jon said...

I pitched the question on Twitter, and the consensus was that it was Sal Buscema and his wife, based on photos of the two of 'em.

smokingrobot said...

Thanks for the fast and informative answer!

Grimjack said...

Very funny writing, and it brings up a lot of good memories. I bought this comic when it came out, and I re-read it this summer (2016) as I pulled a bunch of What Ifs out of a box. Most impressively, it brings out a number of interesting optional paths I cannot believe I had never thought of each time I read it myself.

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