Tuesday, June 30, 2015


That guy in the bottom-right corner evidently thinks you're ugly.
When I was a wee'yin, one of the comics with which I was most fascinated was Marvel's original What If--? series, wherein events of Marvel history were slightly reimagined, usually to disastrous effect. I've written elsewhere about what I feel the appeal of these kinds of stories were to adolescents in the throes of a post-pubescent emotional development, but also part of their appeal on a personal level was that they served as something of a Cliff's Notes for the non-obsessive Marvel Comics fan.

I only read a handful of Marvel comics when I was a youngster, so I was woefully ignorant of the histories of even Marvel's prominently exposed flagship characters like Iron Man, Spider-Man, Captain America and the Hulk. What If--? provided a handy, short-form method of immediate absorption of decades of Marvel history across hundreds of books. Every issue began with Uatu the Watcher explaining what the actual events had been, and how one small event could change the outcome completely.

So imagine what kind of straight-up bullshit this issue was, wherein the Howling Commandos of World War II fought evil alien forces on the edge of space thanks not to some hiccup in Marvel continuity, but because pyramid-shaped parachutes wouldn't have killed you.

What If--? vol.1 No.14 boasted on its cover "First Star Wars -- then Battlestar Galactica -- AND NOW!" leaving to one's imagination the concluding thought "This largely disappointing attempt to capitalize on the success of those two things." Marvel clearly hoped there would be some life in this idea for a sci-fi happy audience, much in the same way there had been for its adoption of blaxploitation and kung-fu theater. Licensing top-selling franchises was nice, but it paled before owning one.

In this story, Nick Fury and his companions from his earlier series of European-theater war stories find themselves launched into space, although not forward in time. Technology, explained the Watcher, developed more quickly on this alternate Earth not because of some momentous milestone in Marvel history going awry, but simply because Leonardo DaVinci's speculative inventions - his early tank which wouldn't work, his early helicopter which wouldn't work, and his pyramid-shaped parachute which seriously would not have worked - were actually developed instead of residing only on paper.

"So, in conclusion, your world sucks, this world rules, GO SPACE WORLD WAR TWO EARTH WOOOO!"

This is, to repeat myself, bullshit. The appeal of What If was documenting the numerous ways Uncle Ben not being murdered would mess up Spider-Man's life, or how Iron Man could have become Galactus' wife or whatever. Show me "What If Leonardo daVinci became the Punisher?" and we've got a deal, but let's leave this weak stuff at home.

In any case, such technological advancements moves the nations of the 1940s to space, and our heroes specifically to the space-carrier "Station Pearl," a seemingly peaceful outpost possessed by a world which is keeping its nose out of the intergalactic conflict plaguing the rest of the galaxy. Naturally, the station is attacked by surprise suicide bombers, and that takes us to the second problem with this story.

In this space-sited analogy, the attacking aliens are taking the place of the Japanese, reintroducing to comics after a several-decades rest the "ghastly caricature of Asian people as sneering, fang-toothed lizard men" caricature.

You may argue that the lizard men may only be filling the role played by the Japanese military in World War II and, being fictional, their portrayal isn't intended to be representative and the Japanese are clearly part of the Earth armies attacked by these creatures, but ... well, maybe we shoulda seen some Japanese soldiers fighting for Earth, because all we got was the Howling Space Commandos versus sneering space-Japanese lizard people.

I mean, it's subtle, but you can almost see it...

The rest of the book is a series of battles involving the cast of Sgt.Fury and his Howling Commandos, a book which I believe had been out of print at least a decade when this issue of What If debuted. Comic audiences being what they are, this meant that some of the kids reading this hadn't even been alive when the source material was on the comic racks, and back issue shops were still a rarity.

One thing which underlines the definite tongue-in-cheek quality the comic was intended to have was the constant presence of characters smoking inside their spaceman bubble helmets (and one member playing a trumpet through the mouthpiece of his). Clearly, when man moves to space, he'll have to find new oral fixations.

The story wraps up with Admiral Baron Strucker revealing a ship full of alien-allied Nazi soldiers on one of the vessels, which Fury and his men invade and beat up, and hold on a second there are Nazis in space? That's a helluva thing to introduce five pages before the end of the book. Anyway, Fury and his men beat the Nazis, destroy the alien fleet, and I guess win the war which is good news because it means there's nothing else for these characters to do and we don't need to see any more of them.

"...With you at all titties?"


cup king said...

That guy in the bottom-right corner doesn't LIKE you!

I DON'T like you EITHER!!!

Oh, there goes my arm. Me and my big mouth.

Green Luthor said...

Believe it or not, the last issue of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos was cover dated December 1981 (as opposed to this issue's April 1979 cover date), although by that point the book had only been doing reprints since 1974. So it's possible that the kids reading might have known about the book, although that whole "reprint" thing probably indicates they didn't care...

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