Friday, November 11, 2011

It's Veterans' Day: What If the Invaders Had Stayed Together After World War Two?

What If? #4 (August 1977)
"What If... the Invaders Had Stayed Together After World War Two?"
Roy Thomas-Frank Robbins/Frank Springer

Doug: Last year at this time we took a look at a futuristic morality play that involved three soldiers. Superstar artist Neal Adams rendered that tale; today's fare is admittedly a large step down artistically in my (our?) opinion. Anyway, we'll keep with the wartime/veteran/fight for truth, justice, and the American way theme of today: Armistice Day.

Karen: Today's book is a What If that really isn't a What If. The events in it are pretty much considered part of Marvel continuity now. On a text page inside, Roy Thomas explains that he'd always wanted to write about how there was a Captain America from 1945 to 1963 -just not the original, Steve Rogers. He'd tossed that idea off to new Cap writer Steve Englehart in the early 70s, and of course Englehart penned the classic story of 1950s, Commie-hating psycho Cap versus our own Cap. But Roy really wanted to look at what happened right at the end of WWII and just after. There was no place to put it though -since it depicted the end of the war, it couldn't be in Invaders. And Roy wasn't writing Cap. So -why not What If?

Doug: We open with a recap of the events of Avengers #56, sans the meddling Avengers (almost). In this tale, Cap and Bucky bust in on Baron Zemo, only to have to confront his giant android on their own. Eventually defeated, they are taken out of costume and clad in American GI uniforms. Strapped to a drone plane, Zemo prepares to launch it, programmed to land at a future point in front of Adolf Hitler. But, as those of you who read that famous Avengers story recall, the Captain America from our present couldn't resist one last attempt to change history and save Bucky. A phantom shield pierces the air, slicing the bonds of Steve Rogers. Free to assault Zemo, the drone is nonetheless started. In the same scene we've already witnessed, Steve and Bucky hop a motorcycle and advance after the plane. Bucky leaps onboard, followed closely by Steve. However, when it becomes evident that the plane is booby-trapped, Steve leaps away; Bucky pig-headedly stays on, and dies in the explosion.

Karen: Which is really where I wish they'd left it, although I have to admit to enjoying some of the Winter Soldier stories. But having a grown Bucky running around now just doesn't feel right.

Doug: We then get the obligatory introduction to our story from Uatu the Watcher. We get to see each of the Invaders in the twilight of World War II. We are told that Cap and Bucky went off to guard English supplies, but the Torches made their way toward Berlin. In the real world, our history tells us that Hitler committed suicide after shooting his new bride, Eva Braun; in Marvel reality the Human Torch and Toro found Hitler's bunker and burned their way inside. As Hitler reached for a detonator, the Torch set him ablaze. So it was not the death we've been led to believe...

Karen: The scene with Hitler was very interesting; I think it was the first time I saw a Torch, FF or Invader, actually set a normal human on fire. It was a bit disturbing.

Doug: I agree with you, and I guess it makes me wonder if the Invaders operated under a "lethal force" mandate or whatever. Certainly in all of the classic Alex Schomburg covers there was collateral damage as these heroes tore through Axis planes, ships, and tanks... I just have to stick an art interlude in here. It's finally set in with me -- Frank Robbins' figures and faces always look like people in the throes of starvation. Check it out: pronounced cheekbones, weird body contortions, deep-set eyes. It's taken me almost 40 years to put my finger on it, but that's what I'm going with. I'm not going to take a cheap shot at the guy by comparing him to this or that, but his style is so far away from what I like...

Karen: You know we are in full agreement when it comes to Robbins. The crazy expressions, the contorted bodies....well, not my cup of tea either.

Doug: After the Hitler death scene, Uatu gives us a look-see at the rest of the Invaders. Namor finished the War fighting in the Pacific theater, while Spitfire and Union Jack defended the British Isle. Once the fighting in Europe had almost ended, the remaining teammates were assembled in London and told that Cap and Bucky had not survived. Toro became belligerant, as they were told that bodies were never recovered. After the Torch got him settled down, orders were given that Namor and the Torches were to return to the States to meet with President Truman. Once there they were thanked for their service to the Allies, and then told that with the Japanese not yet surrendered it was essential that Captain America and Bucky live!

Doug: Entering the room are, amazingly, Captain America and Bucky -- or is it? Upon closer inspection, Namor deduces that Cap isn't Steve Rogers while the Torch states the obvious -- freckles and reddish/blond hair have "Bucky" looking more like Jimmy Olsen! Charades are soon dropped, and "Cap" reveals himself as the Spirit of '76, while "Bucky" is Fred Davis, last seen in the Liberty Legion story in Marvel Premiere #30. I guess desparate times left Harry S Truman grasping at straws, 'cause these dudes certainly weren't in the same league as the originals! After those introductions, the final surprises enter the room in the forms of the Whizzer and Miss America. What we have here, kids, is the All-Winners Squad!

Karen: I'm a bit surprised that the Invaders wouldn't have insisted on searching the area where Cap and Bucky were thought to have died. But even more surprising is the acceptance of these two replacements; let's be honest, neither would be up to the job. A hot-head like Namor would have certainly provided more objections. But, we need to get our story, rolling, so I guess we have to buy into this. Still -a bat-boy for Bucky? What the heck kind of sense does that make?

Doug: This new brand of Invaders gets right to work, shortly ending World War II in both theaters. They are there when General MacArthur receives Japan's surrender. In the months following, the All-Winners defeat some Commies and the first villain of the Atomic Age, Isbisa. But as 1946 arrived, the group began to drift. Namor wanted to return to Atlantis, and Bob and Madeline wanted some time away. That left the Torches to head to Boston, where Professor Horton lived.

Doug: We get a brief recap of the Human Torch's origin, and then our flaming friends land at Horton's doorstep. The good doctor greets them at the door, but looking drawn, emotionless. He's not himself, and as he nearly crushes Toro's hand while shaking it, the Torch flames on and attacks. Skin melts away to reveal some form of robot. The Torches are soon confronted by another android, calling himself Adam-II. He claims that he is Professor Horton's second android, and far superior to the Torch. He comes with some robot henchmen, but the Torches make pretty short work of them. However, you know there's always a water source when you least expect it, and the flames are doused. When imprisoned, they are of course tossed in a big empty water tank with Phineas Horton. But before a reunion can commence, Adam-II starts filling the place with water. A short-circuit sets off the fire alarm, but it's not Boston's bravest who show up. Instead, it's the Patriot!

Karen: So I guess this was the first time the Torch had returned to see Horton? He seems to have reached some sort of acceptance of his creator's acts. Adam-II reminded me far too much of the similar android, Andro (formerly the Doomsman), who appeared just two years earlier in Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up. They even look very similar, although Robbins was not the artist on that story.

Doug: Johnny-on-the-spot, the Patriot gets everyone out so they can dry off. But Horton's privy to Adam-II's plans, and knows that he plans to substitute another robot for a young congressional candidate in the area. So the Patriot and the Torches reunite with the rest of the All-Winners and set about finding this politician. Who do you think it is? Boston area, early 1950's? Yep -- Jack Kennedy. Cap and Bucky find him first, but it's not the real Kennedy -- it's the robot and Adam-II (hey, I cannot tell you all how many times I've wanted to type "Adam-12" while penning my part here). Here's the line of the book -- makes me totally think this was being done "Marvel style" and Robbins turned in a page that just handcuffed Roy.

Cap: "No! That's no human being -- but a robot! See its eyes! The irises are like some shiny silvery metal!"
Adam-II: "Blast! I neglected to add the proper ones in my haste!"

No... way.

Karen: Yeah, I had to flinch at that one too.

Doug: Cap and Bucky mix it up with Adam-II's hench-robots, but Cap flees to find a way to alert the others to find the real Kennedy. Staggering to the Old North Church, Cap heads for the belltower to signal, as Paul Revere was signaled. But you know one of those nasty ol' robots trails him and a melee ensues. Cap gets into a tussle, and sans the Super-Soldier serum is no match for the close-quarters strength of his attacker. This night, the States lost another Sentinel of Liberty. The remaining All-Winners do locate Kennedy, and as Adam-II moved to attack the young candidate himself, his blow was parried by... Captain America? Stunned, Adam-II leapt into a nearby auto, but crashed it soon after in a spectacular explosion that ended his "life". And the new Cap? None other than Jeff Mace, the Patriot -- attempting to honor two fallen heroes. And the rest is pseudo-history, as all What If's are.

Doug: Evaluation? I don't know. I want to like this story, I really do. I can't even really say that the Robbins art was out of place -- after all, for those of us who read the Invaders back in the '70's, it's what we had. But Roy Thomas' story sometimes smacks a bit of a DC Comic rather than his typically good Marvel output. The Adam-II costume is horrifically ugly (did you notice that Adam-II has red skin? Do you think Roy planned to do something with the Vision in that regard, perhaps? Of course, Adam-II was supposedly killed), and as I said seemed more fitting for a DC. I did like seeing the All-Winners Squad -- I love the retro. stories. But I'm just feeling this was a B-/C+. How about you?

Karen: I'm about in the same place as you. It's sort of a whirlwind of ideas -which can work sometimes, but also runs the risk of feeling over-stuffed. Three different Caps, WWII, androids, Kennedy....there's just so much going on. I like it but don't feel the execution was the best, certainly not the best of Roy's work. The Robbins art doesn't help matters. Enjoyable but disappointing -does that make sense?


Anonymous said...

D&K – good choice. Haven’t read this since it came out. Gil Kane cover, Frank Robbins inside. Hmmmmm. Been on a few dates like that!

As you say, it’s not really a what-if, so much as a re-telling of the All Winners continuity. That, of course, in itself is ret-con, because when Roy was a boy, Timely were forever putting Cap, the Torch and Subby together as a team on the front cover and then they were separate stories inside. (so I guess the Kane/Robbins disappointment is quite appropriate). Roy’s whole Invaders project was just his boyhood wish list.

In real life after Hitler committed suicide his body was burnt because he knew what the Russians would do with him, so the idea of having the Torch torch him was quite good, but as you say, quite shocking. Probably a good job Robbins’ art was not equal to the task of depicting it.

Who actually edited it? I‘m guessing either Roy himself or someone who didn’t have enough gravitas to stand up to him. I was never too convinced by Rick Jones summoning the heroes of the past in Avengers #97 and I always think someone should be monitoring the Thomas boy carefully when he’s resurrecting his childhood heroes.


Dougie said...

This is one of my favourite Marvels of all time, although I didn't read it until the early 80s. I love Robbins on Invaders and Spitfire is my favourite, although she was overshadowed by her father and brother.

The Torch's immolation of Hitler is shocking but compare it to Wolverine's claws, which are equally fatal a couple of years later, and yet go uncensured.

Fred Davis impersonated Bucky for the first time in the fourth part of the Invaders/Liberty Legion cross-over in Marvel Premiere. I don't think a baseball mascot is really any more unlikely as a teen sidekick than an army one.

I like the fact that the red-skinned android villain anticipates the Vision. My only disappointment is the too-brief cameo of Miss America, the first bespectacled super-heroine.

Fred W. Hill said...

Doug & Karen, my feelings about this issue are pretty much the same as yours, some great ideas, not so great execution. To be honest, the bit where the Human Torch killed Hitler only bothered me for it's distortion of actual history; that this was the first time any of the fire-based heroes purposely killed someone didn't register with me at all, mainly because, well, this was set in a devastating war and it would be far more shocking to me to pretend that none of the Invaders had never killed any enemy combatants during the course of the war. Then again, this sort of involvement of super-powered fantasy characters in real events poses all sorts of quandaries, including why didn't the Torch (or Subby or Superman, etc.) travel to Berlin to take down Hitler long before 1945? Or how about Ben Grimm taking a trip on the time-machine to smack down Hitler on September 2, 1939, and hand him over to the Brits before the murders on his behalf ran up to the millions (he was already responsible for thousands even before starting the European half of the war)? Considering there were stories where the original Torch flew to distant planets and back in a matter of hours with just his flame power (I read that "golden" age reprint as a kid and it struck me as sooooo preposterously silly I wondered, "how can anyone regard this as golden?").
In the end, we readers just have to remember its all fantasy, where one day is Bucky has been dead for decades and the next he's been a brainwashed prisoner of the Russians the whole time, and the heroes may travel back and forth in time almost routinely, but none of them can prevent the genuine horrors of the past.

J.A. Morris said...

I'm not a big Robbins fan, but I could deal with him on The Invaders. His art sort of worked in that title since it was "old fashioned".

But his Watcher looks all wrong.

Joseph said...

With Richard Kiel as...the Watcher.

Anonymous said...

The Human Torch is first seen roasting Hitler in YOUNG MENS # 24 1953, a Roy Thomas favorite...He was picking up an old thread.

Anonymous said...

Cap, Namor, and the Torch usually were in separate stories in the Timely era, but they did team up with Miss America and maybe the Whizzer in two issues of All-Winners. They were sloppy imitations of the Justice Society stories in All-Star Comics. Both were published after the war.

Anonymous said...

DC once published a sort of "what if" one-page feature sometime around 1940. In it, Superman kidnaps Hitler and Stalin and delivers them to the League of Nations for trial. It seems to have gotten swept under the rug when the US entered the war in real life (and when Russia became an ally with the western democracies against Nazi Germany).

Anonymous said...

Clark Kent flunked his draft board physical exam in a story. I don't know if, at the time, DC ever explained what kept Superman as Superman out of the war. In the 1980's, All-Star Squadron said that the Nazis had the Spear of Destiny and Holy Grail or Ark of the Covenant and their magic force kept the more powerful heroes (Superman, Dr. Fate, Spectre) out of Axis territory.

Anonymous said...

That "How Superman Would End the War" feature was published in Look Magazine, Feb. 27, 1940. DC may have reprinted it in the 1970's in a 100-page Super Spectacular or Annual.

Anonymous said...

I thought Frank Robbins' old-fashioned style suited a strip set in the 1940's, giving it a Golden Age feel. For the same reason, I thought his style was well suited to strips that had a 1930's pulp magazine feel-The Shadow and (sometimes) Batman. And I also thought Wayne Boring's art worked well in Superman when it was a straightforward, Golden Age-style, action adventure.

john said...

frank robbins was GREAT!!! there...i have said it.

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