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Greatest Spider-Man/Fantastic Four Stories: #6

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Dating back to the very first issue of Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four have been intrinsically linked as allies, adversaries and frenemies. With the Fantastic Four starring in their own movie this summer, superiorspidertalk.com is taking a look at the 10 very best Spider-Man/F4 stories.

Here’s #6:

What If 1 03“What if Spider-Man Had Joined the Fantastic Four?”— What If? #1 (published February 1977): script by Roy Thomas; pencils by Jim Craig; inks by Pablo Marcos

As an unabashed fan of Marvel’s flagship hypothetical story series What If?, I undoubtedly have a soft spot for this specific issue. In terms of one-and-dones, it runs longer than it needs to at nearly 36 pages, not including ads, and the art team of Jim Craig and Pablo Marcos leave something to be desired — especially when it comes to their inconsistent renderings of the Watcher (an odd-looking character for sure, but that never stopped Jack Kirby from knocking the design out of the park during the Silver Age). Still, when it was time for me to assemble this list of Spider-Man/Fantastic Four tales, there was no question in my head that What If? #1 was going to make an appearance. I just needed to figure out how high I could rank it before being called out by readers for putting it on a pedestal over some better all-around stories that don’t need gimmicks to be effective.

And yet I love the gimmick of What If? The series essentially marks Marvel’s first prolonged foray into its Multiverse. Marvel did dabble in alternative timelines and universes prior to the publication of What If? #1 — most notably, Roy Thomas, the author of this comic, co-created the Squadron Supreme of Earth-712 with John Buscema during their landmark run on the Avengers in early 1970s. But What If? featured a different look at a different timeline every issue, and created an entire series of alternative outcomes to some of Marvel’s most iconic stories. Above everything else, the series was very smart in how it set up these hypothetical stories. Each issue would start off rehashing something familiar before finding a point of divergence from the original tale. And that’s when the fun would start.

What If 1 01In the case of “What if Spider-Man Had Joined the Fantastic Four?,” Thomas and Craig revisit the back-up story of Amazing Spider-Man #1. In the first few pages, everything goes as we originally remembered it – all the way down to the Thing and Johnny Storm chasing Spider-Man away after he asks to join the Fantastic Four (and get paid for his work in the process). Except in this comic, the original outcome is flipped on its ear when Sue Storm calls out to Spidey, “come back.” Not one to resist the calls of an attractive young woman (so says Spidey, but who am I to argue?), Spider-Man returns to the Baxter Building, and the “World’s Greatest Superhero” team decides to give the Web Slinger a chance to show off his stuff and come away impressed by the demonstration. And thus the Fantastic Four become the Fantastic Five (complete with a lazily designed costume that puts the number “5” on top of Spidey’s red and blue duds).

Another thing that I find so compelling about both this issue and What If? as a whole is how dark and grim these stories turn out being. Legend has it that creators loved working on What If? because these alternative timelines where rarely, if ever revisited, allowing them to be as twisted and shocking as they wanted to be. As a result, every action in these stories has a seismic consequence. There’s no reason for a creator to be gun shy and to protect “the toys” for future writers and illustrators. That meant characters died, did horrible things to each other, etc. In “What if Spider-Man Joined the Fantastic Four?,” his acceptance to the team led to the eventual resignation of Sue, who decides that in addition to leaving the team, she wanted to leave Reed and shack up with a man in Namor the Sub-Mariner, who appreciated her for all of her power, brains and beauty.

It might seem a bit dramatic to have Sue quit the team and leave her lover Reed because she was being overshadowed by Spider-Man, but Thomas actually built off of years of Fantastic Four stories where (unfairly or not) the Invisible Girl was portrayed more as a liability and fourth wheel than an asset. Despite how groundbreaking and revered the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run on Fantastic Four in the 1960s was, even they had to dedicate an entire issue to address fans who wouldn’t stop complaining about Sue’s role with the team. Of course Lee/Kirby made a point of validating Sue and her powers, but the legendary creative team still consistently found themselves leaning on the “damsel in distress” trope when it came to Sue. And when she wasn’t in distress, she was the object of everyone’s affections – even a supervillain like Doctor Doom. This trend generally didn’t change until John Byrne’s historic writer/artist run on the book in the 1980s, where he not only accentuated Sue’s powers, but also had her change her character name to Invisible Woman to demonstrate her growth and maturity.

What If 1 04With that information in hand, What If? #1’s premise is pretty sound. Despite not having the physical strength of the Thing, or a potentially destructive super-power like Human Torch, Spider-Man’s skillset translates perfectly to the F4. As a result, Sue’s role was downgraded from frequent “damsel in distress” to babysitter and watchdog. In other words, the team didn’t even bring her out on missions half the time. When she finally does take it upon herself to get involved, it’s only because she’s acting independently in an attempt to appeal to Namor’s humanity (while also knowing that Namor was in love with her). She still manages to get herself captured but rather than be rescued again she agrees to stay with Namor under the sea. Reed justifies the betrayal by saying Sue would aide humanity by being the human conscience of the hot-headed Namor, but it’s still an unexpectedly tragic ending to a story that by title alone, sounds fun and fanciful.

Again, What If? #1 is undoubtedly a gimmick, but it demonstrates the gimmick shockingly well. In many ways, it functioned as a template for all of Marvel’s alternative timeline stories that followed – stories that have also served as the backbone for many of Marvel’s biggest events in recent years like Age of Ultron, “Spider-Verse” and the currently ongoing Secret Wars. Marvel’s treatment and elevation of the Muiltiverse has never seemingly reached the heights of the Distinguished Competition’s (which has killed and brought back its Muiltverse multiple times over), but it has still produced a number of memorable, or just flat-out fun stories. And if Spider-Man had never joined the Fantastic Four, we may never have known any of these stories. Talk about a crisis!

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