MARK GRUENWALD’s WHAT IF? #32: It’s the End of the World As We Know It — and I Feel Entertained

SCOTT TIPTON’s COMICS 101: A birthday tribute to the late writer, who was born 71 years ago, on June 18, 1953…

Well, not every Wednesday. Now, it’s a recurring feature.


When the late Mark Gruenwald — born 71 years ago, on June 18, 1953 — was first beginning his writing career for Marvel in the early 1980s, it must be remembered that it was a very different culture than today’s hot-writer-driven, company-exclusive comics scene. (And in more ways than one: the comic book we’re about to discuss, which was by no means a best-seller, boasted an average circulation of 119,159, according to its “statement of ownership,” a sales number that only the very top titles today reach.)

While popular artists were a hot commodity and often jumped back and forth between the publishers, writers were generally cultivated in-house, through the editorial departments. Accordingly, the best way for would-be comics writers to break into the business was to find work as an assistant editor, and then slowly build credits by writing fill-in issues and one-shot stories on some of the company’s less popular series.

Bob Layton pencils, Joe Rubinstein inks

Such was the case with Gruenwald, who found some of his first work teaming with fellow assistant editor Ralph Macchio on Marvel Two-in-One (a perennially unremarkable series that featured the Thing and a different guest star every month) and on the anthology series What If?, which would postulate every issue how things might have gone if a certain incident in Marvel’s history had turned another way. Gruenwald demonstrated an affinity for looking at the big picture in 1982’s What If? #32: “What If the Avengers Had Become Pawns of Korvac?”

Here Gruenwald used as a starting point the climax of “The Korvac Saga” from The Avengers #167-177, in which the omnipotent time-traveller Korvac, who planned to reorder reality itself under his perfect control, barely held off an attack from a small army of Avengers before succumbing to despair when his lover Carina demonstrated a moment’s doubt in the rightness of his cause. Korvac weakened and was defeated, and as a final act of mercy restored to life the Avengers he had murdered.

However, in this alternate retelling of the tale (written and with layouts by Gruenwald, finished by Greg LaRoque and inked by practically every artist who was then working for Marvel), Carina demonstrates no doubt, and a confident, renewed Korvac slaughters the last of the Avengers. Alarmed by this turn of events, Uatu the Watcher (one of a race of intergalactic observers that has sworn never to interfere in the affairs of others) decides to interfere in the affairs of others and tries to get the rest of his bald-headed brethren to go along.

When they refuse, he summons a council of the great cosmic powers of the universe, including such luminaries as the Stranger, the Gardener, the Collector, floating-head types Master Order, Lord Chaos and the Living Tribunal, and even the Devourer of Worlds, Galactus himself.

When Galactus and the Gardener agree to attack, Korvac resurrects the Avengers and puts them to work as his private army, but Galactus remains too much for them, prompting Korvac to resurrect the most resourceful Avenger, Captain America, and send him to steal that most dangerous of relics, the Ultimate Nullifier, which Reed Richards used to drive off Galactus back in Fantastic Four #50.

Here’s where things really get interesting.

Galactus scoffs at a mere human pulling the Nullifier on him again, and pretty much tells Cap to take his best shot. Cap pulls the trigger, and for the first time we see the Nullifier in use, and discover what’s so ultimate about it: both the wielder and the target are nullified right out of existence, making it not a weapon to be pulled lightly.

After repeated attempts on his life by even more of the universe’s cosmic powers, Korvac notices the enemy’s final gambit: a massive armada of millions of starships from every spaceworthy race in the universe. Marshaling his forces, Korvac absorbs the life force of every living being on Earth, and, now grown to enormous size, perches casually on the planet itself and stares down the armada, Ultimate Nullifier in hand.

Over the last pleadings of the Watcher, Korvac pulls the trigger and nullifies the universe itself, bringing an absolute end to, well, everything.

Gruenwald’s ability here to take stories and concepts well past the general conventions of the genre, and drive them in a completely unexpected but completely logical direction, is something we’ll see again and again, especially in his longer works.


— COMICS 101: A Wild and Wet Time With Bill Everett’s SUB-MARINER. Click here.

— COMICS 101: DEAD MAN WALKING — Bernard Baily’s THE SPECTRE. Click here.

Scott Tipton is a 13th Dimension columnist and the site’s longest-tenured regular not named Dan Greenfield. He and Dan co-write the site’s HOT PICKS and RETRO HOT PICKS columns and Scott also writes COMICS 101. He’s perhaps best known as the writer of scores of Star Trek comics published by IDW.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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  1. One of my all-time favorites! I had not read many Marvel comics at this time, and this was my introduction to the Watcher, Galactus, and all of the other cosmic-level Marvel characters. I also had not read the original story in the Avengers that this diverged from, and it didn’t matter. The story was fascinating, with stakes that grew larger on almost every page, and I must’ve read this comic a hundred times. Thank you Dan for shining a spotlight on this story!

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    • And I should have also said, many thanks to you, Scott Tipton, for writing this article!

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  2. Oh, I loved “What If?” And I remember this one! As unbelievable as it may seem, there was a sequel to this story! And it worked! Oh, boy did it work!

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  3. There was a sequel in issue 43 I believe where Dr. Strange, Phoenix and the Silver Surfer return from their exile and find the void and decide what to do next. Really well done one off.

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  4. Great issue. And I never really noticed before how much Gruenwald is channelling Starlin this issue. Smart choice!

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