WHAT IF? X-MEN – THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SHI’AR EMPIRE
WRITER: CHRISTOPHER YOST
PENCILS: LARRY STROMAN
INKS: JON SIBAL
PUBLISHED BY: MARVEL COMICS
This wasn’t the easiest book for me to review, mainly because the ‘What If’ concept has never really sat that comfortably with me. For those new to this, it is pretty self-explanatory – the idea is the exploration of a previous Marvel epic, taking place in a divergent reality, where a variance of action spawns an entirely different set of events. The thing is, I am a self-confessed continuity freak – I become strongly invested in the way actions have a measurable effect on the continual development of character. While it’s true that the ‘What If’ books deal heavily with the very issue of consequences, the format means that going in you know that this is a finite, one-off deal, with no consequences for the main Marvel Universe, which just makes the drama ring a little hollow. Additionally, the stories are also heavily limited by the 22-page format, which is almost never enough space to properly develop the sort of epic storylines that these issues require. This is not to deny that the concept has real creative potential, allowing creators to stretch their wings and delve into realms that the constraints of current Marvel continuity would prohibit. I fully appreciate these strengths if done well, but overall the limitations always seem to seep through in the end.
Strangely, there appears to be two titles for this particular adventure – ‘What If? The Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire’, which isn’t even a question, but which locates the story within Brubaker and Tan’s first Uncanny X-Men run, or the more fitting ‘What If Vulcan Gained the Power of the Phoenix?’
It’s hard to talk much about the plot without spoilers (and forgive me that this summary assumes some working knowledge of X-Men history – otherwise I’d be writing this well into 2008); the story launches from the premise that during the final battle between the X-Men / Starjammers and Vulcan / Shi’ar Imperial Guard, a ricochet sends not Professor Xavier but Vulcan, the third Summers brother, into the heart of the M’Kraan crystal, the nexus of all realities, and so powerful that it is guarded by the Phoenix force. Where in continuity, Xavier escaped the Crystal with his telepathic powers returned, in this reality Vulcan emerges with the full power of the Phoenix at his disposal. Now armed with even greater power with which to wreak his vengeance on, well, pretty much everybody, the only hope for the survival of the Universe is the X-Men, led of course by Vulcan’s brothers Scott (Cyclops) and Alex (Havoc).
As is often the case in these tales, there is a happy ending of sorts, though not without resorting to wide-scale death and destruction that was largely avoided in the 616 continuity. The major problem here is that the crux points of the story are all really rather weak. They do make sense in the overarching scheme of the story, and there is a nice ‘totality’ that threads them together at the end, but they come across as simple plot devices, rather than creative storytelling – though I do put this down to being more a feature of the limited 22 pages available rather than a lack of imagination on behalf of the writer, Christopher Yost. On the plus side, Yost’s dialogue shows a great feel for the Summers clan, past, present and future, capturing their different personality traits whilst still maintaining the feel of a family that has been through so much together.
As far as the artwork is concerned – well, welcome back Mr. Larry Stroman, we’ve missed you. Or at least I know I have. There are too few mainstream comic book artists out there today that can infuse the page with such originality and energy. Seeing his pencils at work on the page again, after a hiatus of more than 10 years, was like welcoming back on old friend, not realising how much you had missed them until they were back in your life. I still think this guy draws the best Havok around – especially in the manifestation of his plasma blast power – even in his currently rather silly costume (though not as ridiculous as his first, granted). However, it is actually Stroman’s Cyclops that steals the show – stoic, confident, and emanating the presence of born leader, reflecting the mantle that Scott has finally started to grab hold of in recent issues of X-Men. Coupled with the lush space adventure scenes which form the backdrop to most of this story, these pages really are a joy to behold, and signal a triumphant artistic return. And a special mention also has to go out to inker Jon Sibal and colourist Christina Strain, who enhance the tone and ambience of the book while allowing Stroman the freedom to express himself.
I sincerely hope that we see Mr. Stroman back on an in-continuity X-book sometime in the near future, even if it is only for an Annual or mini-series.
Putting my reservations about the ‘What If’ line to one side, this issue does have quite a few things going for it. If you’re a Stroman fan like me, then you’ll love the visuals (and I do accept that his style can be polarising), and it’s fun to see the Summers family fighting together, especially when they are solidly written. There are also some not-so-surprising but certainly entertaining guest stars too. But the over-arching plot is both rather contrived and rushed, which does limit the story’s impact. If ‘What If’ is your thing, then as a package this is a decent attempt.