Steven Grant understands the first crucial element about the “What If?” concept that few others seem to: the stories aren’t canon and, therefore, characters can be pushed in directions the limitations of monthly serial comic books will never allow. And I’m not talking about Ghost Rider joining the Fantastic Four or something equally kitschy or superficial, I mean having character make tough decisions that really do change their lives.
“What If? Spider-Man Back in Black” is one such story as Grant has the Kingpin’s assassin’s bullet hit and kill Mary Jane. No wounding or miraculous recoveries, just straight-away dead. This sends Peter Parker into a rage, and revenge upon the Kingpin is all he wants. He’s willing to go through S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, police officers, and Iron Man to get his revenge, not caring about the consequences or the so-called “morality” of the situation.
Immediately after Mary Jane’s death, the Kingpin makes a deal with Stark and S.H.I.E.L.D. from prison, and this, more than anything, sets Stark and Parker on a collision course, highlighting the inane hypocrisy of Stark’s policies. Even after Parker reveals that the Kingpin not only killed Mary Jane but is using Stark to save him, Stark refuses to budge, which is a Stark we haven’t seen for a while. The fight between the two is charged with emotion thanks to the continuing fall-out of “Civil War,” and a move by Parker that has even Tony Stark surprised.
Gus Vanquez has a cartoony style, but one that conveys action fluidly, which is a big plus since most of the issue is action. His faces sometimes look odd and overwrought, but you can always tell what each character is thinking. Despite some flaws, when it counts, he delivers powerful and dynamic pages and shows a lot of promise.
What comes through in this issue is intelligence and thought as Grant considered exactly how Peter Parker really would react to an event like this. Not how he would have to act to fit the constraints of the genre and editorial mandate, but how he would act. Some may disagree with Grant’s conclusions, but the final pages demonstrate that he thought everything through, including Parker’s obsession with responsibility. While revenge may drive the character here, he isn’t stupid and he doesn’t expect to walk away if he gets it.
The final pages are chilling, but also deliver exactly what a “What If?” story should: shocking change that makes you question if what “really happened” was the better story choice. That is the second crucial element, because if the reader isn’t wondering that, what was the point? Thankfully, Steven Grant comes through here and provokes that question. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do want to see a “What If? Spider-Man Back in Black” #2.