What if my dad had bought me Son of Satan #8 (Feb 1977) instead?

§ September 12th, 2016 § Filed under from the vast Mikester comic archives § 11 Comments

whatif1cover
This is a scan of the cover to the first issue of What If, dated February 1977. In fact, this is my personal copy. When this comic was released, I was seven years old, and I was at home, sick, suffering one of my several bouts with bronchitis. My dad, about to go grocery shopping, asked if there was anything I wanted while he was out, and I asked him to buy a comic book for me. Didn’t specify which one…pretty much anything would have been good to seven-year-old me.

And What If #1, the very copy pictured above, is the one he picked out for me. Now, as a seven-year-old Mikester, I don’t really recall just how familiar I was with either Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four. I mean, sure, I suppose I knew Spider-Man from the cartoons, at least, and I’m pretty sure I’d seen FF comics once or twice…my cousin had a copy or two I remember perusing, and I know I inexplicably had a copy of this terrifying comic from just a few months prior, so I had some passing familiarity with the concept. And though I don’t specifically recall watching any, I’m sure I’d probably caught an FF cartoon or two along the way.

As such, this comic was more or less one of, if not the, earliest Spider-Man and/or Fantastic Four comic of My Very Own, and naturally it’s one that played with the established continuity of the characters.

I got the concept, I’m reasonably certain. Repeated exposure to the old Land of the Lost TV show and its heady-for-’70s-kid-vid sci-fi concepts of parallel universes and time paradoxes and whatever probably helped prime me for the premise of this comic. The Watcher, the bald fella what lived on the Moon and watched things, would present to us, the bronchitis-afflicted seven-year-old readers, what could have happened if things just went a wee bit different in the Marvel Universe that we knew. Or, in my case, only barely knew, though this issue did a good job of explaining “here’s what really happened, and now here’s what we propose might have happened” and even my young illness-addled mind could grasp it. Helping matters is a one-page catch-up on the origins of the characters, which I’m sure I appreciated.

Also helping was a two-page spread where the Watcher goes into detail about what he means by “parallel realities” and “alternate times” and all that other hoohar, providing examples from previously-published Marvel comics. Amusingly enough, the spread also includes this bit of business referencing the company’s recent crossover with DC Comics, in which ol’ Web-head meets Superman:

whatifsuperman
…and of course plays coy as to whether or not this actually took place in another universe or not. I hadn’t read that particular crossover yet when I first read this first issue of What If, but I knew about it from ads I’d seen, and even then I knew that a character from Marvel Comics meeting a character from DC Comics was a Big Deal. I felt at the time like somebody was getting away with something by sneaking Superman’s blue-sleeved arm into this comic…and you know, decades later, looking at it now, I still feel like that, and it makes me laugh.

Anyway, this comic sure packed in a lot of information about the Marvel Universe, introduced me to a lot of characters (like Namor and the Puppet Master), and through its emphasis on “this is different from what actually happened!” I was surprisingly not confused by what was regular Marvel continuity and what was alternate-continuity shenanigans. I ended up being mostly a DC Comics kid, as it turned out, but this issue of What If gave me at least a small level of comprehension of what to expect from the House of Ideas whenever I delved into their catalog.

Oh, and those copies of the Origins of Marvel Comics and Son of Origins books, reprinting classic early Marvel stories and that I would eventually discover on my local library’s shelves, helped a lot, too.

I didn’t end up following What If on a regular basis, but I would pick up the occasional issue as the whim struck me. I think a large part of the appeal was the sense of, perhaps, finality to some of the stories, or the idea that Big Things could happen here that couldn’t happen in regular continuity. Okay, “and then [x] dies at the end!” was a common theme, as was “What If [x] Never Became [Superhero Identity]” (answer: [x] becomes [Superhero Identity] anyway), but even still there was a sense of no one being safe, the threat of inevitable tragedy, the permanent change to the status quo, even if it’s just for that one-off story.

It’s probably my primary nostalgia-trigger for comics collecting. Seeing a stack of What Ifs (like I did over the weekend, prepping more back issues at my store) reminds me of that rush of discovery, long ago, from picking through that first issue over and over again. It also pulls the old comic book sales trick of asking a question on the front cover, a question that’ll compel the potential reader to plunk down his 50 cents (or more, adjusting for inflation). The question’s built into the title of the series, which is brilliant. “What if Spider-Man kept his cosmic powers?” I don’t know…what if he did keep his cosmic powers? I must pay whatever the cover price is for that particular issue to find out!

I’ve had a lot of comics from that time of my childhood fall to the wayside…read to pieces, thrown out, lost. But I held onto that What If, nearly forty years on. And it looks it: Comic Book Retailer Mike is aghast at the condition Young Comic Book Reader Mike let that comic fall into. Clearly, however, that was a comic that was read and loved, over and over again.

Loved it so much I put my name in it so none of you rotten thieves could claim it for yourself:

whatifsterling
Probably the one time I got top billing over Stan Lee. Also, I apparently required many different pens to scribe my name into this comic. And just to let you know, I’ve since learned to spell my name correctly on the first try. Usually.

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