Marvel Boy, 3-D Man, Venus, Gorilla-Man and the Human Robot — the Avengers!(?) – What If…? #9
Marvel’s What If…? series was often a font for the joyously preposterous. From the Venom symbiote taking over Thor — and Thor’s hair — to Conan vaulted forward to the present day — and getting stuck there again — there was never a shortage of tangents for creative teams to pursue. The possibilities might not not have been legitimately infinite, but it sure seemed that way a lot of the time. What If…? was imagination stacked on top of imagination, and it made for some really fun reading for daydreaming kids of all ages — even when under normal circumstances you couldn’t care less about the character(s) getting the hypothetical treatment that month.
Today we have before us one of the more whimsical entries in this long-running series. It posits the question: What if the Avengers had been formed during the Golden Age of comics? What the what now?
The catalyst for this tale of maybe isn’t Uatu the Watcher, up there on his Moon base contemplating which of his people’s ethical codes he’s going to ignore next. Instead it’s Tony Stark, who’s invented a gizmo that lets a person view the past of an alternate reality. Tony flips some switches and twists some dials, and we’re back in the prehistoric olden times of the 1950s, where it seems everyone had cheek implants and bad Botox (script by Don Glut and art by Alan Kupperberg and Bill Black — sadly Jack Kirby’s talents only graced the cover, which is a tantalizing tease):
I mean, Eisenhower looks more like Khrushchev than Khrushchev does. And is that Lucy or Howdy Doody?
FBI agent Jimmy Woo, the good guy in the old Yellow Claw series, is the force pulling these disparate heroes of yore together, very much filling the Nick Fury role from the movie Avengers-verse. One by one he recruits or dredges up (literally in one case) all the primary characters for this special force: Marvel Boy, 3-D Man, Venus, Gorilla-Man and the Human Robot, Golden Age stars all. Even more, like Namora and Jann of the Jungle, show up during these team-building efforts, and the whole thing is subsequently a lot of fun, as you never know who’s going to be the next surprise around the corner. It should be noted that this book was edited by retconner extraordinaire Roy Thomas, who also gets a concept credit for the story. This is no surprise, since his fingerprints and love of comic book lore are all over this plot, almost literally since he was working overtime inserting asterisked notations. Take this two-page spread, as Uatu fills readers in on the senses-shattering origins of all these champions of old:
The mining of the rich trove of the past doesn’t stop with the heroes, either. It and the asterisks continue with an assemblage of villains, gathered to nefarious effect by the Yellow Claw:
The fulcrum of the story is the kidnapping of President Eisenhower (the villains tunnel under a golf course and spirit links-loving Ike away like Caddyshack gophers) and the Avengers’ efforts to rescue him. This of course ends up in a lot of punching, kicking and throwing — and teamwork, baby:
U S A! U S A!
The day is won, and we have the de rigueur Oval Office meeting with a grateful Eisenhower. Ike drops a subtle dig at Fredric Wertham and his ilk, and then a bombshell on this just-born team:
So their heroics will have to be covered up because of Communism or Roswell or something. But this plays into a twist: This may not be a hypothetical story at all. Thanks to Tony’s contraption still being in the developmental phase, there’s no way to be sure whether this story is from an alternate reality or the good old Marvel-616. Which is fantastic, when you think about it. Because who wouldn’t rather have a Marvel Universe where there was this super-duper top-secret Avengers team before the other famous group banded together to foil one of Loki’s schemes?
The Golden Age of Marvel/Atlas/Timely never had the staying power of DC’s old pantheon, despite a number of key stars also making their debuts in those misty reaches. Which is a shame, really, and we’re left with reprints — sometimes old reprints — to appreciate them. This little tale doesn’t make up for that deficit, but it’s a hell of a start. Some of these characters have received some love in recent years, as the unquenchable thirst of nostalgia has probed deeper and deeper into the dusty stacks. [And as a commenter points out, this story, with some alterations, was retconned into Marvel continuity in the 2006 Agents of Atlas mini, which reunited the lineup.] Which is all fine and dandy, but these comics have had an uphill climb to equal the whimsy of this one small book.