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Wednesday, December 30, 2020

X-amining What If? #87

This review comes courtesy of Patreon supporter Michael Langenmayr. After supporting the site at the "Extraordinary" level or higher for twelve months, he chose this issue for review. 
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"Cat and Mouse"
July 1996

In a Nutshell
Jubilee must survive against an escaped Sabretooth

Plot: Dan Abnett/Andy Lanning
Script: Dan Abnett
Pencils/Inks: Frank Teran
Inkers: Dan Green & Tim Townsend
Letters: Steve Dutro
Colors: Christie Scheele
Editor: Kelly Corvese
Editor-in-Chief: Bob Harras

In the tunnels beneath the X-Mansion, Jubilee discovers that Bishop has been killed by Sabretooth, who escaped his cell when Beast accidentally overloaded the mansion's power core. She runs back to the mansion, past the unconscious forms of Iceman and Emma Frost, only to find Sabretooth attacking Beast. He manages to fight Sabretooth off long enough to tell Jubilee to reboot the power core. Jubilee succeeds in doing this as Sabretooth finishes off Beast. She then blasts him with fireworks, allowing her to run elsewhere into the mansion. Drawing Sabretooth into the Danger Room, she attacks him with simulacrums of Hellfire mercenaries and Brood drones, then lures him into piercing one of the mansion's power conduits, frying him with dangerous amounts of energy, before managing to engage the room's laser grid defenses to keep him safely locked away. 

Firsts and Other Notables
At this point in its run, What If? has abandoned the technique of plastering each issue's cover with its high-concept setup (ie "What If Phoenix Had Lived?") and instead is spotlighting the character the ostensible "what if?" scenario is meant to highlight (though in this case, the story is really about Jubilee, not Sabretooth, but I imagine Sabretooth was considered a bigger commercial draw). 

If we were to give this issue the more traditional What If? cover treatment, it would probably be something like "What If Sabretooth Killed Bishop That One Time He Escaped in Uncanny X-Men #311?" with the answer being "Sabretooth would also kill Beast and thoroughly terrify Jubilee before she managed to lock him back up in the Danger Room." 

Creator Central 
The writing team on this one is Dan Abnet & Andy Lanning, who will in the future make a name for themselves as the architects of Marvel's 00s-era resurgence of "cosmic" books, including the iteration of the Guardians of the Galaxy that would serve as the direct inspiration for the MCU Guardians.

Pencils come from Frank Teran, a name I'm not familiar with, but his work here is quite enjoyable, Sienkiewiczian in places and wholly appropriate to the horror movie vibe of the story. 

Through the Looking Glass
This issue features Jubilee racing down a massive spiral staircase to get to the Danger Room that I don't think has ever appeared in the mansions before or since. 

Austin's Analysis
The "everybody dies" ending to What If? stories is so common as to be cliché, but thanks to the series' jettisoning the need to have a big, attention-getting high concept "what if?" interrogative slapped on the cover, this issue is allowed to cover the usual "everybody dies!" beats a little differently. Here, it's less "everybody dies!" and more "Bishop & Beast die!", and while that smaller scale of stakes maybe isn't as eye-catching at first glance, it does allow for a more intimate story, one that's less about big, sweeping, alternate events and more about character. This issue is, essentially, a character study of Jubilee, showing her response to the monstrous deaths of two of her teammates and her efforts to survive a wild Sabretooth loose in the mansion (and recapture him). As such, it's much compelling than a lot of the series' bigger, more sweeping explorations of alternate scenarios. 

It also allows Jubilee - in many ways, the Kitty Pryde of the 90s - to have her own "Demon" moment; just as Kitty experienced a trial by fire surviving - and defeating - a N'Garai demon on Christmas Eve in Uncanny X-Men #143, here Jubilee (still, as of the point in time when the story diverges, the youngest member of the X-Men, having not left to join Generation X yet) experiences something similar, fighting back against a monstrous foe intent on destroying her, using cunning, training, and steadfast resolve (and a healthy dose of proprietary X-Men tech) to succeed. What If? stories generally don't tend to have a lot of sticking power - some of the bigger swings in terms of crafting an alternate world can be memorable, but for the most part, they're largely disposable & rarely invite return readings after the final page is turned - but by using the "what if?" approach to tweak just one small detail, and then chronicling how just one specific character reacts to that small change, the result is something far more engaging & rewarding than the usual What If? fare. 

Next Issue
"Unstacking the Deck" takes a look at the 1996 Fleer Ultra Wolverine set! 

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  1. Very coincidentally, the issue that serves as the inspiration for this What If? is one the three post-Claremont Uncanny issues I read last week. So while I've not read this comic, I can say that UXM 311 is a fairly surprising issue to revisit for the What If? treatment.

    As you note, the What If's of my era were reserved for either big moments (What If the Invisible Girl Died, for example) or alternate-universe type stories (What if Matt Murdock became an agent of Shield?). UXM 311 seemed like a perfectly ordinary, bog standard comic, albeit one enlivened by some great John Romita Jr. art. If I recall Bishop was the real star of 311, and since he's a character I'm least familiar with, his fight with Sabretooth is the one that is most memorable.

    One character I am familiar with his Jubilee, and I can safely say if there's one X-men who I'd rather not see in the spotlight, it's Ms. Jubilation Lee. Perhaps it's because of the neo-Valley Girl speech pattern given her by Claremont (or maybe because she feels like a knock-off of the Robin from Dark Knight Returns) but I found her a consistently grating presence in those late Claremont comics. All of the cutesiness of Kitty Pryde and none of the charm.

    But given all that, you make this sound like an enjoyable read, and I'll check it out. At least in the panels above Jubilee sounds less annoying. (But what's going on with those Mines of Moria stairs to the Danger Room?)

    1. Yeah, I would argue that Jubilee is very much Scott Lobdell's character. Claremont created her, but she didn't really come into her own, with her own voice (one which toned down some of the Valley Girl excess of Claremont's take), until Lobdell got ahold of her.

    2. Ah, interesting. You are steadily making a persuasive case for Lobdell.

  2. Whoever Frank Teran is, their art reminds me of Olivier Coipel, the artist who worked with Abnett & Lanning on their Legion of Superheroes run (AKA the run that brought me back to the title after a long spinning-wheels period). It's not similar enough that I wonder if it's a pen name, but there's definitely a similarity.

    1. Whoever it is, it looks really good. Much better stuff than b-tier Marvel titles of that era were typically getting.

    2. You're right, there's definitely a resemblance to early Coipel (incidentally, I had totally forgotten that Coipel started out like this, given by the time he became a big name at Marvel and was being assigned huge event series, his style was...not like this, at all).

  3. I loved the dark new take of What If in this era, and this issue in particular. The art is wonderful and scary. This issue actually gave me nightmares as a kid!

    Thanks for the review!

    1. Thank you! And reading this issue has definitely made me want to check out some more WHAT IFS? from this era.

  4. This issue DOES look intriguing, because Jubilee never had her "Demon" spotlight issue (Claremont not wanting to repeat himself being one of those things), but my question which, admittedly goes unanswered in a lot of "What Ifs" is what THEN?

    Do the X-Men assume THIS was the traitor to the X-Men Bishop came back to stop? Does Onslaught still exist, and with no Bishop to help stop him it creates a time loop? IS there an Onslaught? Knowing Sabretooth killed his teammates, can Wolverine stay away as long? Are Dark Beast's plans in the toilet or does he still infiltrate the X-Men while saying his injuries are why he's so different?

    I'm merely asking if any of this was dealt with inside the comic. Seems interesting, either way, would that more what-ifs got the character part right.

    1. No, the issue is pretty much set on a micro-level; it never pulls back to explore the greater ramifications of the altered scenario. Which, I suppose, is the downside to the smaller, more character-driven alterations, whereas the more sweeping "What if the Avengers lost the Kree/Skrull War?" kind of "What Ifs" allow more room to explore the butterfly effects of the initial change on the wider Marvel Universe.

  5. Kitty's "Demon" of course is the predecessor, but the setting with Sabretooth as the monster kind of also reminds me of UXM #213 where Betsy was the heroine with a goal beyond her mere survival (here, recapturing Sabretooth).

  6. Going on what "Unknown" said, was there ever a scene where the X-Men of 616 pondered whether Sabretooth was in fact Bishop's traitor? It seems like a logical thought to me.


  7. I’m pretty sure I have, or had, this issue due to a friend who worked for Marvel at the time passing along his comps; also pretty sure I’d never read it before now.

    And… it’s pretty good. The script effectively gets into Jubilee’s head and the art is quite suitable. Frank Teran’s name rings a bell, I think from his Batman: No Man’s Land work. (Hated that storyline’s general concept and many specific details, but read some.)

    You missed this issue’s actual premise, despite it staring you right in the face, that being “What If There Was a Massive Spiral Staircase Leading to the Danger Room?” — although in keeping with the series’ form the answer is still that Sabretooth would manage to kill Bishop and Beast.


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