One of the more enjoyable parts of the Marvel’s yearly “What If?” issues are the issues exploring the previous events or status quos, showing what could have happened if something changed. This year, Marvel has left those two issues until the end of the month with one focusing on “Dark Reign” this week and “Siege” next week. For the “Dark Reign” issue, the major difference rests on Clint Barton succeeding in killing Norman Osborn and the ramifications of that act. Disappointingly, the ramifications are barely shown in a large sense and Barton’s story is wrapped up via interference from an entirely new character that acts as little more than a poor attempt at mocking those on the right of the political spectrum.
Focusing on how killing Norman Osborn affects Clint Barton and the Avengers directly makes sense, but it does make for a very limited story, one that would work better as the first part of a larger story. While balancing between how changes affect specific characters and the larger Marvel universe at large is tough when all you’ve got is one issue, when the subject matter of the comic is a large Marvel-wide status quo, getting a larger perspective is required. We don’t know how the death of Norman Osborn affects anything except Clint and the hunt for him by both the police and his fellow Avengers. And, if you’ve seen any other story where someone is on the run, then not much about this one will surprise or interest you.
If anything, the point of the issue seems to be ‘why Clint actually killing Osborn would have been wrong,’ but it doesn’t make much of an argument besides ‘people would have been pissed off!’ There’s no actual examination of the effects of the act in a larger sense. Without Osborn, there would have been no “Siege,” so what happens instead? Who takes over for him? What happens to the Super Human Registration Act? What happens when Steve Rogers returns? Henderson leaves all of that out, answering the question of what happens to Clint after. It turns out, not a whole hell of a lot.
The resolution of the plot comes from an entirely new character, a right-wing blogger so incensed that an outlaw ‘hero’ would kill America’s top cop that, going on flimsy information, he threatens to blow up the motel where he thinks Clint is hiding out. The character really has nothing to do with the story at all besides being a chance to mock a right-wing figure. The ending packs absolutely no punch, because it has little to do with anything we know. There’s no real spin on what happened, it’s just Clint kills Osborn and that causes a bunch of things to happen that are alternately uninteresting and executed in the most clichéd fashion, or have nothing to do with the Marvel universe as we knew it.
Providing the art is Sana Takeda with a painted style using what looks to be computer colors. The colors work at times, but are grating at others, often depending on the setting and light levels. In lower light levels, the colors look a lot more natural than in brighter scenes where they look very fake and distracting. Takeda’s line work draws upon an Asian influence, making some characters look a lot like their usual portrayals, while some look nothing like their regular selves. Drawings of James Barnes out of costume, for example, could be any random character, but Takeda has a strong handle on Clint and Bobbi. Ultimately, the art is inconsistent throughout depending on the character and the setting.
“What If? Dark Reign” #1 is another in a month of disappointing “What If?” issues that have shown a surprising lack of imagination and scope. Given the broad question of “What if Clint Barton killed Norman Osborn?” Jason Henderson delivers just about the least interesting answer possible with a clichéd ‘man on the run’ story mixed with some bad political commentary and a puzzling ending.