What If comics are awesome, just not utilized as much as they used to be. It makes sense because anthologies, despite being a fantastic way to get into comics, meet new writers and artists and test out concepts on an open-minded audience, sadly don’t sell well in the United States. If something doesn’t sell well, we all know that means it isn’t going to last, and why spend money on a series that’s just going to be canceled in a month or less, right?

Aspersions on the comic market aside, What If comics are still nifty little treats of reading joy, and the current trend of basing them around big events makes a certain kind of sense. After all, everyone will have read the story in question, be familiar enough with how it went down and might be intrigued enough by a plot twist or two to try out the new take. So, this week we got What If …  Avengers vs. X-Men #1, the first of a four-part story that promises us … well, what does it promise us? Let’s take a look at the issue and the What If? format and see what we have in store in the annals of tragedy, because SPOILERS: Almost every What If story I can think of has a “down ending,” to borrow a Clerks phrase. Join me, won’t you?

A rare treat in comics, What If stories let the cover say it all. Some times it’s quite literally the story you’re about to read: What If Vol. 2 #42 should be better known as “What If Spider-Man Had Kept His Six Arms?” Spider-Man fans will know exactly what this story will be talking about, and new readers can wow over the fact Spidey even has six arms to begin with! Right from the start, everyone knows what kind of comic they’re picking up and, in these newfangled days of alternate covers and pin-up work wrapped around a story that may or may not have that scene or even characters in it? It’s a pleasant delight.

What If … AvX #1 starts off well by bringing us some idea of what we’ll be seeing in this book: two teams of X-Men and Avengers fighting over Hope who is being protected by Magneto. Folks, this is exactly what happens inside; no extra fluff, no grand twist (so far, this is only Issue 1), just Magneto in charge of the mutants living on Utopia and, more importantly, in charge of Hope this time around. It may not be as vivid or dynamic as Spider-Man having six arms, but it’s a start, and displayed right there on the cover so we can judge it properly.

Wonderfully, we also get right into the story in most What If tales, mostly because we already know about what we are going to read. What If Vol. 2 #10 asks “What If Punisher’s Family Had Not Died In Central Park?,” assuming the reader knows enough about the Punisher and his origin to understand this is a big deal. His family now saved from one tragedy, the book gets to work on creating a new one from what was previously assumed. A lot of What If comics start you right in the action in the first few pages, using their smaller page count as efficiently as possible to get you to the goods.

This is where I’m starting to see a crack in the armor of What If … AvX #1: We don’t exactly get to the big turning point until the end of the issue. The beginning changes a few characters’ locations (more people in space), Magneto seems to be more in charge as Cyclops lets him handle the big confrontation with the Avengers, and of course, the big shocking cliffhanger. The rest of this issue is just a retelling of the big Phoenix threat and how this Avengers vs. X-Men thing got started the first time. It feels a little stalling, like it’s missing something that could have transitioned things a lot more smoothly.

Looking over old What Ifs just makes me see it sooner: Uatu is the key. Most What If comics start us off with Uatu to explain what’s happening where we are. He’ll tell you the original choice, explain there’s going to be a new one, then let you go and watch everything fall apart. He’s necessary for the comic at large because he helps answer a “So What?” question that’s just as important as the “What If?” itself. So what if the Phoenix had not died, asks the X-Men (and What If Vol. 1 #27)? Well, here’s Uatu to show you and explain that this would have been pretty catastrophic and further reaching than this comic is showing you, giving the reader context to put this alternate twist to.

What If … AvX #1 doesn’t really feel like a What If story. It’s more like an alternate take on a well-known story than anything that fits with the previous What If formula. It has four issues to tell a story, and it’s going to take its time getting us to newer and broader horizons; while What Ifs never shied away from a multi-part story, they did try to keep them short and to the point, with each arc its own question or conundrum. I’m not even sure how much change we’ll actually see, as the story seems more geared for subtle, less-intrusive twists than the big shockers that normally grace a What If‘s cover.

I can’t say it’s a bad issue or a waste of time, but there’s just something askew in What If … AvX #1 that makes it difficult to recommend. Mind you, Avengers vs. X-Men was pretty popular and people do love their hero vs. hero fights. Some readers even prefer a well worn tale to jump into and it’s not like Avengers vs. X-Men was flawless and untouchable. It’s a great premise for an epic story and will probably do well as a look back at last summer’s event in a slightly new context. But as a What If?

There’s only one way to bring things back to the classics: What If stories are known for their tragedy and morality tales. Nine times out of 10, all of the new twists and spins on classic Marvel tales leave out heroes broken and destroyed in the worst of ways, making the reader grateful that the original stories turned out so well. Uatu often grabs you by the hand to say “See this? Don’t do this! This turns out terrible!” and we’re all a little better for our peek into the darker side of our favorite stories. Sure, they’re tragic, but understandably so and there’s going to be a regular issue of our heroes out next week.

What If … Avengers vs. X-Men has three more issues to go …

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