Marvel Comics’ What If? was a title I enjoyed in the 80’s. The series, with stories introduced by The Watcher, placed our favorite Marvel characters in one-off stories that diverged from their established continuity to show how their destinies would have been altered as a result of one decision or twist of fate. The first volume of the series for 47 issues from 1977 to 1984 and began with What If Spider-Man Joined the Fantastic Four? (February 1977). Over the course of the first run the series provided some great stories. Two of my favorites were What If Wolverine Killed the Hulk? and What If Phoenix Had Not Died?
I reached into the old box o’comics this past weekend and found issue #28: What if Daredevil Became an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.? (August 1981). This issue contained two other stories (one of which was What If Ghost Rider Was Separated from Johnny Blaze?) but the main story was an 11 pager by written by Mike Barr with pencils and inks by the amazing team of Frank Miller and Klaus Janson.
The story begins with a teenage Matt Murdock saving a blind pedestrian from an out of control truck. As the truck burns, the driver unloads a canister of radioactive material from the flames to prevent an explosion. The canister breaks open as it bounces on the pavement. Matt stares directly at the exposed radioactive material and everything goes black. But in this story the truck is owned by Stark Industries with Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) following close behind. Stark takes the injured Matt Murdock to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Heli-Carrier instead of a local hospital. But as Stark’s flying car rises above the accident scene, an undercover agent reports the event to the head of Hydra…
On the Heli-Carrier it’s discovered that Murdock’s exposure to the radioactive material has blinded him permanently. But his other four senses have heightened, and Col. Nick Fury sees this as an opportunity to train Murdock to be the best agent S.H.I.E.L.D. has ever had. Back in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen Matt’s father, boxer Battlin’ Jack Murdock, is kidnapped by Hydra. After a month of training under Fury, Matt is ready to head home. Fury tries to keep him with S.H.I.E.L.D., but Matt tries to make a break for it when he realizes his father is held captive.
No spoilers here. This was a great story (co-plotted by Barr and Miller) that packs a lot into its 11 pages. When What If #28 hit the stands, Miller and Janson were already two years into their classic run on Daredevil. What If Daredevil Became an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.? could have easily been cranked out as a simple backup story, but Barr’s words and Miller and Janson’s artwork fire on all cylinders. I think Miller and Janson’s layouts are a great example of the differences between comic book storytelling 30 years ago vs. today. You could take the word balloons off of each panel and still follow the story by the art alone, unlike a lot of contemporary comic stories that seem to have most of a page consist of “talking head” panels and a limited amount of action. I prefer the old Marvel Method over full script for this reason.