"This is an IMAGINARY STORY... aren't they all?" -- Alan Moore, in Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
Mainstream superhero comics exist to perpetuate more mainstream superhero comics. The good guys generally always win, because if they didn't then there wouldn't be a comic book to publish the following month. As we've outlined previously in this column, even when superhero comics take a radical turn -- Superman dies, Batman breaks his back -- eventually (or surprisingly quickly) continuity returns to the original status quo -- Superman returns, Batman rehabs -- as if nothing ever happened.
When I was a kid Marvel Comics used to publish a series called What If...? The title succinctly explained the premise: hypothetical stories spinning out of previously published Marvel Comics. If the Avengers won "The Evolutionary War," What If...? would publish "What If the Avengers Lost the Evolutionary War?. If Peter Parker married his girlfriend Mary Jane, What If...? did "What If the Amazing Spider-Man Had Not Married Mary Jane?"
The appeal of What If...? was simple but powerful: it was one of the few places in comic books where the rules of comic books did not apply. The Hulk could die (as he did in What If...? Vol. 1 #31's "What If Wolverine Had Killed the Hulk?") or Wolverine could croak (as he did in What If...? Vol. 2 #50's "What If The Hulk Had Killed Wolverine?) because these stories held no bearing on the decades-old continuity of Marvel Comics. The in-book excuse for these flights of fictional fancy came via the narrator, an alien known as The Watcher whose solemn (and kinda pervy-sounding) duty was to observe -- but never affect -- all the events of multiversal history.
With that explanation, Marvel's creators could unleash their darkest imaginations with total abandon. It was the central selling point of the book. Where other comics were rigid and formulaic, What If...? was wild and anarchic. One issue could follow Thor, the next could center around Conan the Barbarian, and in the next Thor and Conan might appear together, battling one another to the death. "To the Death" could almost have been the title of the comic; the series' body counts were sometimes laughably high. I remember What If...? fondly as a book that tantalized -- and often disturbed -- my young imagination. I vividly recall "What If Cable Had Destroyed The X-Men?" as a particularly gruesome bloodbath that bumped off Professor Xavier, Cyclops, Jean Grey and many more.
Marvel published 47 What If...?s in the late '70s and early '80s, and then 114 more in the early to late '90s. Eventually, all that formula-breaking anarchy became a formula unto itself, a factor that no doubt contributed to the series' eventual cancellation. In the intervening years, What If...? has returned sporadically in the form of one-shots and mini-series around big Marvel events and crossovers (What If? House of M, What If? Secret Invasion, etc.), most recently in 2011.
Even if What If...? is dead, or at the very least lying dormant in extended hibernation, its spirit lives on in the books of Jonathan Hickman, a comic book writer whose work seems defined by those two key words -- "what if?" Whether working for Marvel Comics, where he recently penned a highly acclaimed run on Fantastic Four and currently works on two different Avengers series, or for Image Comics, where he publishes his own intricately designed concepts, he's quickly become his generation of comic book creators' foremost purveyor of imaginary stories.
Almost everything Hickman writes comes from a what-if premise. Even his work on major mainstream superhero titles seems decidedly suppositional. His riff on the Fantastic Four evolved into a title called FF which was, in essence "What If the Human Torch Died and the Fantastic Four Continued On In His Absence?" His current run on Avengers has largely centered around the question "What If the White Event That Started Marvel's New Universe Happened In the Marvel Universe?"
Hickman once described Marvel Comics as "perpetual second act comics," and added that part of the job of a Marvel writer is to "protect IP." For all the big changes he brought to the Fantastic Four mythos during his run on the book -- subtracting Human Torch, adding Spider-Man -- most have already been undone. The only lasting contribution that's really hung on through his successor's issues (beyond a few tertiary characters) are the team's new white uniforms. Hickman can what-if all he likes, but eventually things regress toward the mean. Maybe that's why so many of Hickman's superhero books have left me cold.
His talents are more clearly on display in his creator owned books from Image Comics, where he's already speculated on a variety of fascinating subjects, like the possibility of the Catholic Church gaining access to a time machine in order to rewrite history in their favor, and a possible future where the secrets of genetic engineering are controlled by two warring companies. And, in his finest work to date, he's begun an ambitious ongoing series on a really meaty what-if: what if the United States' Manhattan Project was actually a front for even darker experiments?
This book is called The Manhattan Projects, and it is thoroughly outstanding. It envisions a Manhattan Project filled with deranged doppelgangers of the real men who built the first atomic bomb -- Oppenheimer, Einstein, Feynman, Fermi and Daghlian -- in versions ever so slightly twisted from their real life counterparts. Explaining just how they're twisted would spoil some of the pleasure of the first volume of Hickman's story, but each involves a small, fanciful leap of imagination. In real life, for example, Harry Daghlian was the first scientist to die as a result of a nuclear accident. In The Manhattan Projects he lives on, sort of, as a walking radiation leak, a floating skeleton inside a protective containment suit. And that guy, the sentient bomb, is basically the nicest guy in the group.
The first trade paperback of The Manhattan Projects collects the first five monthly issues of the Image series. Each chapter focuses on a different member of this secret government organization; each opens with quotes from the various participants, supposedly culled from an imaginary volume entitled "The Recorded Feynman Vol. 1." The chapter on Einstein opens with this eye-catching quote:
"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution."
Interestingly, this fake quote from a fake book called "The Recorded Feynman" is actually a real quote from a real book called On Cosmic Religion and Other Opinions & Aphorisms by Albert Einstein. Einstein really did say that imagination was more important than knowledge; conveniently, one of Hickman's subjects has essentially laid out his fundamental theme for him.
In the world of Jonathan Hickman, imagination is more important than knowledge. We have knowledge of The Manhattan Project; we have magazine articles and books and documentaries. If we want to know that story, we can find it. But as Einstein argued, and a book as thrilling as The Manhattan Projects proves, knowledge is limited, and imagination is so much more fun. In imagination, we can envision stories that go beyond what happened. We can take the members of The Manhattan Project and transform them into hideous destroyers of worlds.
Even better, at Image Comics, in a series that's not tied to any other corporate continuity, much less reality, it can mean something. And it can last forever. It can give birth to an evolution in comic book storytelling. It can ponder, with ultimate freedom, the ultimate question. "What if?"