The following is a review I wrote for PopMatters for “What If? Punisher #1.” Enjoy!
Every Wednesday, a new batch of comics comes out and for comic fans like me, it’s the biggest highlight of the week that doesn’t involve ice cream and whiskey. Within that batch of comics, it’s hard find the gems that really stand out. That’s why every week, I pick out a comic that I feel warrants extra praise.
This week, my quick pick is “What If? Punisher #1.” Now, this may seem like an odd selection. In fact, this comic is very much an anomaly. There was once a time where Marvel had an ongoing “What If?” series that basically offered alternate history takes on iconic characters and stories.
Personally, I have mixed feelings about how these stories are handled. For the most part, they’re hit or miss. They’re either really good or really bad. Rarely, if ever, are they fleshed out stories.
“What If? Punisher #1” finds a way to stand out because it does more than speculate on what would happen to Spider-Man if he chose a slightly different path. It actually explores the entire premise that with great power comes great responsibility. It even makes the case that the mainline Spider-Man in the long-running “Amazing Spider-Man” series is wholly irresponsible in his methods.
This is an idea that I’ve actually explored before. I once made the argument that Spider-Man is the most inept hero of all time. I got a lot of hate for that piece, mostly by long-time Spider-Man fans. I don’t blame them for a second. However, this comic actually takes some of the concepts I discussed and puts them into a cohesive story.
It doesn’t radically reinvent Peter Parker or Spider-Man. It also doesn’t radically alter his origin. He still fails to stop a burglar that goes onto murder his Uncle Ben. From that tragedy, he learns that critical lesson about power and responsibility. The only difference in this timeline is that great responsibility means killing his enemies, just like the Punisher.
It’s a line that the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man doesn’t dare cross most of the time. In nearly every famous iteration of Spider-Man, Peter makes clear that he does not kill. However, “What If? Punisher #1” makes the case that not only is this irresponsible. It actually played a part in hurting his loved ones.
How that happens and how it makes this case is something I won’t spoil. Since this is a “What If?” comic, though, there’s not room to dig deeper. There are more than a few gaps and oversights, but most of that is due to logistics rather than merit. At the very least, this comic asks some pretty damning questions about how Spider-Man approaches power and responsibility.
Even though most “What If?” comics are quickly forgotten and have no impact on the actual canon, this issue is worthy of my pick because the concept is so intriguing. It’s too brief and very much incomplete, but the ideas it presents are pretty remarkable. Not all Spider-Man fans will like it, but it’ll definitely get them thinking.
Contrary to the sentiment I convey on this blog, there are other genres of fiction that tickle my fancy and not in the way that makes my pants feel tighter. It’s true. It is possible for someone to appreciate multiple genres of fiction, even those that are exceedingly different. I’ll give everyone a moment to get over the shock.
While I do consider erotica/romance my specialty as a writer, there is another genre I often contemplate in my quiet moments. It’s a genre that doesn’t make anyone who isn’t an ardent fan of The History Channel horny, but it has a unique appeal and one day, I do hope to explore that appeal in my own writings.
It’s called alternative history. No, I’m not talking about the history of BDSM or alternative relationships that involve multiple partners and/or aliens. I’m talking about elaborate, sometimes exceedingly detailed, scenarios that craft a whole new timeline of our history. From these scenarios, all sorts of stories can emerge. Some are pretty damn successful.
Probably the most recent examples involve Stephen King’s “11/22/63” and Philip K. Dick’s “The Man In The High Castle.” Both of these stories take a seminal event in recent history, namely World War II and the Kennedy assassination, and put a new twist on it. That twist can be pretty intriguing, even if some details would make a historian’s head explode.
Now I like alternative history. It’s one of those guilty pleasures I can enjoy with my pants on. However, there is a recurring theme in these stories and one that tends to undermine the narrative.
It’s an inescapable byproduct of the genre itself. In order to craft stories about alternative history, it’s necessary to make a few too many assumptions that can’t possibly be understood. Until we create a functioning time machine, we just don’t know how changing one detail or another would affect history. There’s a reason why Doc Brown was so uptight about that sort of thing in “Back To The Future.”
What bothers me most when I read historical fiction is how these assumptions tend to fuel certain biases. Those who speculate on the tweaks and alterations on the timelines tend to have an agenda. More often than not, that agenda requires that a good chunk of reality be ignored or, in some cases, spat upon.
By far, the most popular assumptions come from the various “What If” scenarios surrounding World War II. In many respects, World War II is to alternate history what “50 Shades of Grey” has become to BDSM erotica. It is essentially the standard by which all others are measured.
There are already so many flawed assumptions about this period in history and I say this as someone who had relatives fight in this war. Movies, TV, documentaries, and conspiracy bloggers like to craft this flawed image of World War II, as though it was a real battle against an evil force bent on world domination. That makes for great, iconic comic book stories, but it’s about as historically accurate as a Zack Snyder movie.
There are any number of stories that make the same claim. If Hitler had only done this or that, then we’d all be saluting a Nazi flag today and tiny mustaches would never have gone out of style. That’s a tempting and terrifying thought, but thankfully it’s about as valid as a physics lecture by Homer Simpson.
The truth is that the Nazis were never close to winning World War II, America’s involvement had little to no impact on the outcome of the war, and Hitler was an inept basket case who just had more luck than brains. History is rarely that frail because in general, people aren’t nearly as diabolical or heroic as the fiction we craft around them.
The same goes for the JFK assassination. There’s a whole cottage industry around the crazy conspiracy theories surrounding this assassination (see the non-Dan Brown version of the Illuminati). Oliver Stone even made a movie about it, which took so many liberties with proven facts that it would take multiple blog posts for me to list them.
Now I’m not saying these narratives don’t make for great stories. They do succeed in creating a world that’s much more interesting than the one we live in now. Unfortunately, it assumes too much of mankind’s ability to keep secrets, conduct wars, and document their various screw-ups.
For me, personally, I prefer alternative history that just doesn’t give a flying fuck about sticking to the facts. There are some stories that basically just give a big middle finger to history books and craft a less elaborate, but more colorful form of alternative history. For me, the one that really got me into the genre wasn’t a book. It was a video game, specifically this one.
That’s a header for Wolfenstein: The New Order, a video game that came out a few years ago. It’s a bloody, brutal, historically inaccurate shoot-em-up that gives everyone a chance to kill hordes of evil Nazis. It’s as much fun as it sounds.
It also has a powerful story that is, again, exceedingly inaccurate. However, it doesn’t try to be accurate. That’s what makes it fun. That’s what makes it engaging. Nobody outside Alex Jones fans are going to argue the plausibility of the events of this game.
It’s in that overtly implausible spirit that I feel inspired to craft my own alternative history story. However, I don’t want it to be one of those stories that preventing JFK’s assassination will lead to a hippie utopia or that Hitler sleeping in would somehow change the course of World War II. For my alternate history scenario, it needs to be more ambitious. It also needs to be much sexier.
Yes, history tends to be pretty repressive when it comes to sex, but it can still be pretty damn sexy. If you don’t believe me, do some research on the antics of Cleopatra, Theadora, and Catherine the Great. Hell, look up some of the massive amounts of erotica produced during the Victoria era. I promise your pants will be tight for a week. It’s no wonder they needed chastity belts back then.
History is full of horny men, horny women, and people trying to thwart horny men and horny women. Most of the time, those trying to thwart horniess are shoveling sand against the tide. In the long run, the desire to hump, hug, and orgasm wins out.
So with that dirty, sexy thought in mind, I feel like there’s potential to craft a different course of history, one where that potential can manifest into something an erotica/romance writer can appreciate. If done right, I can make history the sexiest topic we all slept through in high school.
How would I do that? When in the timeline would it take place? How much will I upset historians with the liberties I take? Well, these are the kinds of detailed questions that I’m still fleshing out. If and when I complete this process, I’d like to build upon this narrative and possibly set the standard for a sexier brand of alternate history. Between our collective fascination with alternative timelines and BDSM erotica, I think there’s an audience for it.