COMMENT: JMS’ “What If…?” Concept

Dan pointed out this NEWSarama interview to me last night, with spider-scribe J. Michael Straczynski talking about an upcoming project of his called Bullet Points:

…in this story, I looked to the past to find probably the one most critical moment in the history of the Marvel Universe, which was the moment when Steve Rogers became Captain America. No sooner did he get the Super-Soldier Serum than a Nazi assassin killed Dr. Erskine and made sure there would be no more Captain Americas.

I then took that moment and, for this alternate history story, changed one thing – the assassin hits Erskine one day earlier. Not only does this incident prevent Steve from becoming Captain America, the murder kills another person caught in the crossfire, the MP escorting Erskine to a waiting jeep…an eighteen-year-old Ben Parker.

So with one attack, two lives are lost…and the repercussions of that event ripple out across the entire Marvel Universe like a cue ball sending everything into new configurations. Though the Super-Soldier Serum is gone, Steve Rogers still wants desperately to serve…and the military gives him that chance in an experimental exo-suit they’re still perfecting, a device that takes a continual toll on his health because it’s so difficult and hard to use…the first prototype in the army’s “Iron Man” program.

Similarly, Peter Parker, born years later, grows up without the stabilizing presence of Ben Parker, and ends up in a very different place emotionally and physically…a troubled teen, who falls into the wrong company, gets in trouble, runs away and is stranded in the desert when a certain Gamma bomb goes off.

Straczynski plays semantics, saying this isn’t a “What If…” story but an alternate history, but a rose is a rose is a rose, and while the underlying premise is an interesting one – he plays off of the idea that “a single bullet, fired in Sarajevo, killed Archduke Ferdinand…and set events in motion that led directly to World Wars I and II” – the proposed execution has that plot-driven feel to it that so many of the current big events from the Big Two have. They depend too heavily on their template, offering little organic emotional resonance to the storytelling, resulting in an overall experience that’s usually satisying only for the fanatical loyalists.

Despite its many faults, not the least of which was Layla Miller’s central role, Bendis’ House of M worked in the end because of a handful of character beats that felt genuine. In contrast, “Disassembled” didn’t work because it was built on a retconned event that the average fan had no memory of and required some serious plot-hammering to get from point A to point B. Bendis’ own What If Jessica Jones Had Joined the Avengers? story exposed its major flaw, having Jones pre-empt the entire event simply by noticing Wanda was acting a little off. Wha…huh?!! It’s the same problem with Geoff Johns’ out-of-left-field deus ex machina, Kid Eternity, being the reason behind the various heroes who’ve returned from the dead over the years, not to mention Alexander Luthor, Jr. being behind…well, everything!

In both cases, the endings are pre-determined and a story is then constructed to get there, leaving characters feeling like one-dimensional chess pieces, instead of taking a more organic approach that would connect with readers on a real emotional level. It’s pre-fabricated storytelling, and like its real estate counterpart, it rarely stands up to scrutiny.

As for Bullet Points, like Neil Gaiman’s 1602, I suspect the whole will be less than the sum of its parts, another interesting concept crippled by its underlying lack of originality. Of course, 1602 won the inaugural Quill Graphic Novel Award last year, so I’m sure it will be a big hit anyway.

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2 thoughts on “COMMENT: JMS’ “What If…?” Concept

  1. Hear Hear.

    And what’s with lambasting “What If?”

    The only flaw with “What If?” as a series was its own restrictions: limiting the telling of each story to one issue. Otherwise it could have been (and could still be) a solid title.

    Not that we need another superhero book but if you’re going to do it…

  2. I’m not lambasting “What If…?”, I’m lambasting lazy “What If…?” stories that want to pretend they’re something else.

    Generally speaking, I prefer DC’s approach better, with their whole Elseworlds concept.

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