In the 1968 film "If," Malcolm McDowell's character Mick Travis uttered the line, "One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place."
Last year, the world of Spider-Man underwent major changes when a hitman's bullet struck Peter Parker's beloved Aunt May. But what would have happened if the bullet struck Peter's wife, Mary Jane Watson? How would Spider-Man's world be affected?
Writer Steven Grant and artist Gus Vazquez examine these questions and more in the one-shot "What if? Spider-Man: Back in Black," which hits stores on December 24 from Marvel Comics. CBR News spoke with Grant about the project.
Mary Jane's shooting may change Peter Parker's circumstances and affect him emotionally, but both the world and title character of "What If? Spider-Man: Back in Black" will be recognizable to fans. "The story begins as Peter senses the bullet's approach, so he's still the same familiar Peter Parker at that point," Steven Grant told CBR News. "He's really driven by the desire to protect, especially those he loves, and by guilt over failure to protect those he loves. That sounds like the Peter Parker I've always known."
Nevertheless, his wife's shooting has made the usually friendly neighborhood Spider-Man decidedly less than friendly. "I don't think he really knows what he wants; he just knows he has to do something," Grant said. "I tried, without making it ridiculously parallel, to evoke his response to Uncle Ben's death, way back in his origin story, where he basically goes on a rampage to catch Ben's killer, without any clear concept of what he'll do when he catches him. The Kingpin comments on this aspect of his personality late in my story, and basically defines it as a character flaw. I'm not sure I would, though; that's the Kingpin's perspective."
In the original "Back in Black" storyline, it was Kingpin who arranged the shooting that nearly killed Aunt May, making him the ultimate villain of the piece. The scheming crime lord also serves as the foil in Grant's "What If?" story. "The thing I like about the Kingpin, especially since Frank [Miller] retooled him in 'Daredevil', is he figures out all the angles well in advance. He's never just playing this one move, he's setting up his moves six moves ahead and working out all your moves and how he can turn them to his advantage," Grant explained. "That's why he interacts interestingly with Spider-Man, whose main flaw is that he usually has no battle plan aside from jumping into the fray and making it up as he goes along. To some extent he's predictable, and the Kingpin is a man who got where he is by preying on other people's predictability.
"If you've ever played chess with someone who doesn't really know the game, what seems unpredictable and spontaneous to them is something a trained chess player can easily counter and use because there are only a finite number of moves available," Grant continued. "That's the Kingpin's real strength: he doesn't really have to predict your specific moves, he just knows all the moves open to you and knows how to counter them and push you to where he wants you. That's pretty much what he does in this story; there's never a moment when he doesn't have the number of Spider-Man and everyone else he involves, like Iron Man. Well--almost never."
Iron Man, along with Aunt May and a few stock/prop style characters, make up the supporting cast of "What If? Spider-Man: Back in Black." "Because of space limitations, we had to keep our cast small. They all have significant roles, because they represent clashing philosophies," Grant said. " Marvel comics are really a lot more fun to write now because Marvel has seriously embraced moral ambiguity, which means the reader, not the writer, is the final arbiter of who's got 'the answer.' In terms of Spider-Man, the whole history of Spider-Man has been predicated on 'responsibility,' but the question in this story is what really constitutes responsibility, a question that hasn't been broached a lot. All the characters have their own ideas about what responsibility means, bringing the 'good' people into conflict. The story has a resolution but the conflicts in it really don't, except the conflict between Spider-Man and the Kingpin, because no resolutions are possible. Someone once wrote that tragedy isn't a great good in conflict with a great evil but two great goods in conflict with each other. I believe that."
Grant can't say much about the plot of "What If? Spider-Man: Back in Black," but the writer did reveal that a certain figure from the infernal realms of the Marvel Universe wouldn't be involved in his story's conclusion. "I can say with some pride that Mephisto doesn't figure into it," Grant confirmed. "That's the one thing I asked going in: can I please not have to bring Mephisto into it? I didn't want to do a slightly diverted retread of that story, I wanted a completely different resolution. But that's the virtue of 'What If.' You don't have to worry about what your Spider-Man story's going to be next month."
"What If? Spider-Man: Back in Black" is a tale about Spider-Man dealing with the woman he loves most becoming a victim of crime, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a darkly toned story. "The story's a tragedy, as I mention above. It's Spider-Man in a world of questions that have no right answers," Grant said. "You just have to make a choice, or not make one, and live, or die, with the consequences. Is that dark? I don't know. I'll leave that up to other people to figure out."
Steven Grant couldn't be happier with the way Gus Vazquez has brought to life his tragic tale. "Gus is great," the writer said. "He's a Michael Golden acolyte without being a Golden imitator, so he brings a very clean, very sharp style to both his art and storytelling. He was a dream to work with."
"What If? Spider-Man: Back in Black" is not Grant's first "What If?" story. Over the years, the veteran writer has penned a number of alternate looks at events from Marvel history. "I always like the challenge of them. They're like little puzzles," he said. "They were entertaining to write, though there used to be a lot of restrictions on them, and I was always straining against those. In contrast, the only real restriction I had on the current story was the page length. Everything else was open to discussion.
"My favorite from 'back then' was a story I think everybody else absolutely hated. It was loathed in the Marvel offices, almost got me banned as proof I didn't know how to write. A backup story in some issue, what if the Sub-Mariner never gotten his memory back in 'FF' #5. One of the least 'Marvel' stories ever done in a Marvel comic. I screwed up one tenet of 'What If?': I didn't show Namor never getting his memory back. Instead, the story starts on an Arctic voyage led by a crazy sea captain who basically scrounged up sailors in every seaport on the East Coast, and dragooned the alcoholic, amnesiac Namor in because he was big and strong looking. Namor just didn't have any interest in resisting, so he went along. It's just this crazy little adventure story of doomed people pursuing insane obsessions, and had absolutely nothing to do with anything Marvel continuity, except for the premise and the final scene.
"A mutiny by a crew convinced they'll all die if they don't turn around and head out of the Arctic ends with them all dying, except Namor, who ends up among native peoples in the far north who (don't you love cultural paternalism) worship him as a sea god because he's practically naked yet isn't troubled by the cold. As the story ends, Namor is still utterly despondent and amnesiac, pretty much shut down and doing nothing but sitting there. But behind him is a glacier with the frozen Captain America locked in it, and all Namor has to do to snap out of his amnesia and torpor is to turn around and look. But he never looks. He doesn't change in any way as a result of the story, there's no character development, because he's beyond that.
"I still love that story. Now that's dark, completely fatalistic."
"What If? Spider-Man: Back in Black" goes on sale December 24 from Marvel Comics.