One Less than Infinite
I've said I don't really like What If? issues because more often than not they just plain suck. They usually either go on a tangent too fair removed from the central question or just fail to really explore what they've set out to do or have promised (classic example: there's a what if based on the idea of Spider-Man marrying Black Cat except it sharply turns into a Spider-Man/Silver Sable fanfic instead). With that said there are a few issues of What If? that are genuinely good. They can probably be counted on one hand, though. There's the issue that gave us the Agents of Atlas and the better-than-the-story-it's-based-on Atlantis Attacks one (of which I've already reviewed), and that brings us to this one: one of the better What If? issues and one that is completely overlooked despite as much as having been remade time and time again.
Mark Gruenwald writes and draws this issue with finishes by Greg LaRocque and inking from a smorgsabord of talent (we've got Frank Miller, John Byrne, Walt Simonson and Jim Starlin - we'll get to him later). The story spins out of the Avengers classic Korvac Saga arc, and follows Korvac on his quest to conquer the Universe if the Avengers had never managed to overcome the cosmic madman.
So, yes, we begin within the final pages of The Avengers #177 when Korvac is battling the enormous roster of Avengers (Beast, Black Panther, Black Widow, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Charlie-27, Hawkeye, Hercules, Iron Man, Jocasta, Major Victory, Martinex, Moondragon, Ms. Marvel, Nikki, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Starhawk, Thor, Vision, Wasp, Wonder Man, Yellowjacket, Yondu). Just like in the main continuity, Korvac kills all the Avengers (except Moondragon) but unlike the main continuity, Korvac doesn't bring them back to life and commit suicide. Instead, he sets about on the next step of conquering the Universe. Before he can however, the surviving Moondragon presents herself and offers her services to Korvac but she is quickly killed by him.
To begin, Korvac seals Earth off from other dimensions meaning Odin and Zeus cannot seek vengeance for their sons and time-travellers like Immortus can't interfere with his plans. He then banishes Doctor Strange, Jean Grey and Silver Surfer out of the universe fearing they may pose a threat to him. And so it continues, Korvac extends his reach and after attacking the High Evolutionary and Uatu the Watcher, the Astral Deities (Galactus, Gardener, Grandmaster, Living Tribunal, Lord Chaos, Master Order, Shaper of Worlds, Stranger and Uatu himself) see fit to intervene in Korvac's plans.
Over the course of the issue, the Astral Deities fail to stop Korvac and they mostly all fall as the story continues on. After Korvac even survives the Living Tribunal's attempt to destroy Earth's entire solar system, the entire Universe arrive to take down Korvac. Frustrated, Korvac confronts them and uses the Ultimate Nullifier and destroying the Universe and all of Eternity.
So, yeah, this is pretty high concept Cosmic stuff. Sorta very obviously influential on Jim Starlin's latter work (very very much so The End which is honestly just a remake of this with Thanos). The story itself is engaging enough and there's a decent level of dread running through it as we see the Astral Deities fail to stop Korvac. But the real problem here is, it feels quite rushed. Not the story itself, the pacing is fine, but I mean the idea. For a story that encompasses the Universe, there is a major disconnect here from the Marvel Universe. Other than the Avengers, the three heroes Korvac banishes and the Astral Deities, the rest of the Universe has no presence at all in this story. It really felt wrong to not even feature the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Spider-Man, the X-Men, etc. even if their fate would just be an ill-fated battle with Korvac like the Avengers. Likewise, the rest of the Universe isn't really featured, it's like we make an enormous jump to go from Avengers to Astral Deities. Other races like the Kree, Shi'ar and Skrull feel like they should have some presence here, even if it is - again - just ill-fated. While we do get fleeting mentions of Doctor Strange, Immortus, High Evolutionary, Jean Grey, Odin, Silver Surfer and Zeus it's not really much since we either don't actually see them do anything (Korvac wishes 3 of them away from his poolside, another dies off panel and the rest are shown as locked out of Earth).
I don't particularly like omnipotent Cosmic plot power stuff, especially in the case of characters like Thanos who are routinely bigged up as a threat despite being defeated countless times in spite of their immense powers. Korvac doesn't quite have that, having only really appeared sporadically meaning that he is easily still readable as a larger-than-the-universe threat. But that doesn't mean I necessarily like Korvac. Despite that, I have to approach this issue with a certain level of respect because this really was the first omnipotent villain fights the Universe tale Marvel told (no, Thanos with the Cosmic Cube doesn't really count because that spanned the Universe as far as incorporating Iron Man). While this makes us or tries to make us root for characters we've not rooted for before like the Stranger, given us a sense of the scope, it sometimes is handled a bit too... obvious? Like it's striving to demonstrate significance of the threat by personifying human traits in abstract and cosmic entities sometimes works well but other times just seems really weird (the bizarre "sympathetic" scene with Lord Chaos and Master Order easily falls into the latter).
Despite what I'd considering some pretty big missed opportunities or oversights, I found the story itself to be perfectly fine. I obviously have my problems with this type of story and parts of this story in particular, I wasn't offended or really annoyed with anything while reading and mostly anticipated what was going to happen next and hoping for a few things that never came. That still doesn't mean it's bad, as I've said the sequences with the Astral Deities all individually falling to Korvac are entertaining enough. I'd say this issue is actually pretty significant and influential, if not for the fact it's incredibly overlooked. This is basically a template for a lot of Cosmic stories since, and not just Starlin ones either. Enjoyable to see a writer like Gruenwald go a bit nuts with an omnipotent Cosmic story, let alone the first real one, but did leave me desiring a bit more from it and from Gruenwald who was probably all too aware of his inability to incorporate all the potential of a story like this in the page count.