Panels of Future Past: What If #33 (June 1982)
In the early 80’s, Marvel comics seemed to be eager to mix the genres of science fiction with the very fundamentals of super-heroism during this time, and the company certainly didn’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about logic. Even with that being the case, they still managed to tell good stories. What If #33 has two stories that propose an alternate reality, and more important than the alternate reality itself our how it came to be, is how it affected the lead characters involved.
The Watcher is a character that seems to have control of space and time, and is able to find a crucial point in which to peer into a potential future if something different had happened at that point in the history. Each point was crucial enough that one wonders would have happened differently. It’s a time travel concept that’s as old as the hills, but so is this comic.
The first story, featuring the character of Dazzler, who, I might bring up, is not exactly a character the true fans of Marvel really rave about, is actually the better of the two stories. It probes deeper into some gray areas about the notions of good, evil, self-sacrifice, and the true meanings of morality. Yes, it’s hero “skates” through space on her roller-skates and dreams of just getting back to her normal life on earth where she is a pop singer, but it also allows for the kind of moral discussions that really make science fiction stories worth telling.
Dazzler is not too well-liked because she is essentially is instantly “dated” the moment she appears in a comic book panel. Everything about her embodies the disco-era of the late 70’s but the character wasn’t created until the decade actually changed. What’s more, she was devised as more of a herald (prophetic word there) of corporate greed than true inspiration, as she was created to help promote a record company as well as a series of comic books. Her powers – the ability to change sound into blinding light and manageable energy, are a bit “cheesy” as well, particular to Marvel’s target demographic: pre-teen to teenage boys.
Put aside all of the cheesy and easily dated trappings of Dazzler and look at Allison Blaire herself. When you do: one thing is certain: she’s not inherently a bad character. She’d rather be an entertainer than a hero, and her reluctance has been mined for decent story material that was certainly to fill 40+ issues of her own series.
In this story, history is changed by the Watcher at the very moment she encounters the world destroyer Galactus when he puts Terrax the Tamer, one of his former heralds, on trial. In the normal timeline, she had fought and defeated Galactus’ herald, Terrax, before being returned to her normal life as Terrax abandoned all attempt usurp his master and was resumed his position as the herald. In the new timeline, Galactus banishes the herald into a black hole and anoints Dazzler herself as the new herald.
What is great about this story is not the obviously silly aspects, like the fact this normal and ditzy girl has suddenly achieved god-like powers, or that we see her skating through space, but the fact is that her new powers overwhelm her. Even more than what it does to her own sense of self, is how she is placed in a position to change the fate of the universe. She has to stay as herald in order to spare the Earth, but she knows that Galactus will destroy many worlds in his reign of terror. Her objective: lead him to planets that have no sentient life that he can destroy. Throughout the issue, this wasn’t as easy as it would seem to be (at one point she leads him to a planet filled with plants that turn out to be intelligent) but what she does manage to do as his herald is something far more significant: she takes the edge off his need to destroy, and uses her own good nature to turn Galactus into a more merciful being.
The final battle of this adventure occurs when she stumbles upon a fleet of star-ships whose commanders cannot possibly believe that Galactus has changed at all. They are able to hurt Dazzler, and, after she falls in the battle, Galactus wipes the fleet out without effort. She wonders if she really did change his ways. When she is returned the Earth, it has been ripped of all life, and at the adventures end she come to the conclusion that she must continue to be his herald. Her newest act of heroism lies with the hope that, in that brief time, she had started to change his ways, and she must continue to influence him to do good.
What makes this adventure so intriguing is this: whereas most heroes perform acts of boldness and sheer power to defeat their worst enemies, Allison’s heroism comes from who she is as a person: someone normal, someone good, and someone who must be more patient. someone who’s very personality will be what will change an evil being rather than her super-powers.
The next story involves Iron Man as the Watcher forces him to remain in medieval times instead of returning to the present with Doctor Doom, as he originally did. The story goes the route of almost all of the time travel cliches – even those that were seen in films long after this issue was published. Tony is considered a great hero, leading knights into battle. His ability to keep his suit powered without his usual resources blunts his effectiveness in the battle scenes, a weakness which is exploited by King Arthur’s enemy, Morgana Lafey. This eventually leads to a devastating turn of events for Arthur in which his enemies have successfully blitzed the castle and it seems that there is no chance to hold out in the siege.
Tony Stark manages to refashion his suit again, at least enough to ward off the enemies during the battle. King Arthur doesn’t make it through alive, and it is Tony himself who takes his place. In this version of events, he never returns to the present.
Despite a more appealing character (yes, the Tony Stark of Marvel’s early 80’s era does still crack wise on occasion just as Robert Downey Jr’s version of the character, and he does appreciate a good alcoholic beverage) the story itself is pretty thin despite all of the battles and the changes in fortune for Tony and Arthur’s forces. It might challenge Tony in a technical sense (how can he keep his suit going in this by-gone era) but it doesn’t present him with the kind of moral dilemmas that confronted Allison Blaire in the previous adventure. The adventure seems more content to be a more routine story. Take it or leave it. The Iron Man adventure, if converted a film right now, would no doubt sell more tickets and please more fans, but that doesn’t change the fact that, in the end, it wouldn’t really resonate as much as Allison’s.