When I got into comics, the biggest help in understanding the Marvel universe as a whole was going back and checking out the What If series. Created in the 70s, the series was about breaking the shackles of the status quo by doing storylines where anything can happen, while also giving history lessons on how important events actually went down in canon. Spider-Man can join the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man can die, Spider-Man can become evil, Spider-Man can have a kid, etc. It helped that most issues were self-contained. Being an anthology series meant you could easily shrug off the lame issues while making it easier to celebrate the brilliant ones.
There are so many great stories through the years. That time Frank Castle became Venom and conquered the symbiote mentally. Juggernaut killing the X-Men in their first battle, thereby allowing Sentinels to destroy the planet. Tony Stark deciding to immediately go public with his Iron Man tech and creating a completely different kind of reality, for better and for worse. Logan escaping his fate as a Weapon X test subject and instead having to face their uncontrollable second choice. Dr. Doom wielding the Beyonder’s power as well as the Infinity Gauntlet and using them to wage a one-man war against the Celestials for the sake of experiencing conflict. The Living Laser’s tragic attempt to redeem himself, complete with alternate endings.
My comfort food issue of What If comes during the stretch when they would release a handful of these babies during the holiday months. What If: Annihilation by David Hine, Mico Suayan, and Rafael Kayanan came out in November 2007, only a month before the long-awaited What If: Civil War. That issue was a strong one as well, telling two stories that ultimately cut Marvel’s Civil War into its base: Captain America was morally right but refused to think further than that while Iron Man’s path to a solution lacked compassion and humility.
What If: Annihilation also had its own take on Civil War. When the Civil War event was happening on Marvel’s Earth, so was Annihilation, the cosmic event that laid the seeds for the modern-day Guardians of the Galaxy even being a thing. Annihilus was busy tearing through the entire universe and not only had Thanos on the payroll but had kidnapped and weaponized Galactus. It took a big team-up involving the likes of Nova, Phyla-Vell, Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Super-Skrull, Ronan, and others to save the day.
So this alternate take shows a reality where a bunch of the Annihilation heroes, as well as Thanos and Galactus, get wiped out. Nova comes to Earth during the big climax of Civil War, when Captain America is seconds away from being tackled by 9/11 first responders or whoever it was who saved Iron Man. Nova interrupts everyone by taking out one of Annihilus’ underlings.
His wide-eyed reaction to their bogus superhero civil war when there’s intergalactic genocide on the table is absolutely priceless and a gigantic breath of fresh air. It’s like the time Ares rolled his eyes at Civil War being considered a war.
It kind of lives on in Avengers: Infinity War when Bruce Banner is all, “You guys broke up over political crap? That means nothing to me! Thanos is coming!”
Nova brings everyone to speed and it’s agreed that, yeah, maybe let’s table this whole superhero inter-fighting. What follows is a days-long battle between Earth and Annihilus’ forces that in any other comic would last maybe two issues. Here, it’s a mere two-and-a-half pages of busy action.
Not only are all the superheroes on the same wavelength, but so are the villains. Dr. Doom is seen flying the skies among Nova and the Sentry. Daredevil, Bullseye, and Punisher are kicking ass together. A nice detail, if you remember how things were going with Daredevil during Civil War, is that it subtly establishes that this isn’t Danny Rand in disguise. The government was sensible enough to let Matt Murdock out of prison for this all-hands-on-deck situation.
How do we know that it’s Murdock? Because Iron Fist shows up later and whoever is wearing the Daredevil tights doesn’t fare too well.
Forget doing an event about friends fighting friends. We have enemies fighting together to the point that Bullseye of all people dies a hero alongside his greatest rival.
Then the Inhumans – also part of the big hero infighting of the mid-00s – step in because they know if they stand back, they’re next on the menu.
There’s a page break to let us know that while Marvel’s heroes and villains have been able to stave off the threat after several days, things are far from ducky. Not only are the survivors shown coming out of the rubble to find food and comfort each other, but we see Phyla-Vell comfort Nova over the death of his parents.
Now it’s time for what would normally be Act III, but in this situation is in fact Act II. Annihilus is on the way for another attack and this time it’s going to make the previous one look like a minor scuffle. Earth is, seemingly, doomed. Luckily, there’s one guy looking out for them.
I’ve always been a bit fascinated by Uatu the Watcher. As a Marvel fixture, he has two jobs. One, he’s a guy who is supposed to watch Earth’s exploits unfold, but not do anything about it. Sometimes he interferes by simply standing there in silence, noting that certain moments are of great importance. Other times, his love for humanity gets in the way and he finds himself breaking the rules of his kind by stepping in to give the heroes vital information and even weaponry necessary to survive a major threat.
In a way, Uatu is the closest thing Marvel has to a loving God. Someone who watches over us and shouldn’t aid us, but does because he loves us.
Uatu’s other job is to be the What If narrator, at least in most issues. By looking through alternate realities, he’s able to tell us of their events while being able to keep himself from interfering. Even in this issue, it begins with the Watcher talking up the events of the issue, but there’s a big twist to come. He isn’t Uatu the Watcher of Earth 616 talking directly to the reader. Not quite.
Uatu tries to help out by giving the heroes access to the Terminus Device. It is essentially a temporary black hole engine that should be able to suck up the entire Annihilation Wave if it gets close enough. Unfortunately, by setting it off on the moon, that means that the Inhuman kingdom of Attilan will be completely destroyed.
As Medusa looks on in horror, Black Bolt gives a look of steel resolve, as if he knows exactly what he must do. For a page or two, they tease betrayal by having Black Bolt and Medusa offer information to Annihilus in return for their potential survival, but it’s merely a trick to get Annihilus’ attention to the moon.
Based on what we see and read through Uatu’s narration, the Terminus Device plan works. Annihilus and his gigantic armada are sucked into a black hole. Earth is spared.
There’s just one problem, though: the Terminus Device packs more of a punch than realized and straight-up explodes the moon completely.
One of the most underrated emotional moments in a comic to me is Uatu’s follow-up line, “I did not know.” Despite being a cold, cosmic being, this just spells out the idea that he realizes his actions – successful in the end or not – led to an epic folly and he’s truly broken up and sorry about it all. It breaks away from the narration to let us know where he’s really at.
Reed Richards comforts Black Bolt over the loss off Attilan and wishes there were another way. Yeah, Annihilus is defeated, but victory does not get more pyrrhic than this. Millions are dead. The Earth is in ruins. The moon is gone (now in the form a ring of gravel around the planet), and while they do not touch on the gravitational effects, the symbolism is depicted as soul-crushing.
But no. Not really.
See, some What If issues suffer from trying to explain alternate history events like a list of things that happened. One of the greatest offenders is What If the Avengers Lost the Evolutionary War, where it’s just a bunch of wacko bullshit going on with no real conflict or human touch to it. There’s no protagonist or emotion in what’s going on. Stuff just happens.
Here, we see that it isn’t the mainstream Watcher showing us another world. It’s the Watcher of this What If’s world talking directly to all of the world’s survivors. He’s explaining the events that they just lived through and giving context.
He rewinds to the moments before the Terminus Device is turned on. Reed Richards is quick to point out that the Device needs to be protected so Annihilus doesn’t just destroy it or turn it off before it can do its job. Nova steps forward and offers to stay behind to make sure.
I’ve always found this development interesting. Nova talks up how he’s given the Xanadarian Worldmind to someone he trusts. There’s a big image of Uatu showing us this flashback underneath, but I was never sure if that’s who he actually gave it to. It’s just as likely that Phyla-Vell is its new host. Either answer makes sense in its own way.
Knowing that Nova is probably in over his head, Captain America and Iron Man share a glance before agreeing to stay behind.
As the three heroes wait for oblivion, Cap and Iron Man have a brief moment of mending their friendship. The two verbally jab each other over who was truly right in the Civil War and then they shake hands. Nova goes full B-Sharps Chief Wiggum by putting his hand over theirs.
The final image is a two-page splash featuring the three heroes on the moon, running forward in the direction of guaranteed death. Yet, it’s a success and they’re giving their lives to save what’s left of the universe. Two men who were recently at blows and the lone space soldier who berated them, giving their lives to protect so, so many.
The narration simply says, “Remember… this…”
That’s why this comic is my Comfort Food. It isn’t just Rogers, Stark, and Rider dying in an awesome way. It’s Uatu the Watcher using it as a coping mechanism. Like I said, Uatu’s usual deal is that he’ll interfere, but with a limit. If humanity is going to absolutely die without him speaking up, he will say something or hand over something like the Terminus Device.
Uatu didn’t have to do this. Mankind survived. The story was over. Instead, Uatu CHOSE to use his powers to make everyone on Earth see just how heroic those three heroes were. He wanted them to all feel better about what they were and what they could be.
In the wake of disaster, the Watcher was there to point out how awesome humanity is in order to pump them up so they can rebuild and thrive. That rules.