Reed Richards — member of the super hero group the Fantastic Four and dubbed Mr. Fantastic by millions. A man of incredible brilliance. Reed has time and again used inventions of great technology to defeat the super-villain menace. Fellow genius Tony Stark — head of Stark Industries and known as the avenging hero Iron Man to the world, has also created a showcase of unimaginable technology. As a consequence of their constructions, the city of New York and civilization as a whole has taken a great leap forward. The city and its people showcase ultra=-modern superhero technology. Mankind need not ask “What If?” any longer!

Who here remembers the four-issue 2001 mini-series Big Town, written by Steve Englehart and penciled by Mike McKone? I bought and read the first two issues when they were first released, but based on my twin tenets of comic book collecting (“Don’t buy what you don’t read” and “Don’t read what you don’t enjoy”), I didn’t buy issues three and four of what I considered at the time to be nothing more than a “What If?”

But Englehart disagreed: “This is not a ‘What If?’ story, where one fact changes but the universe stays the same. This is not Earth-X, where alternate versions of heroes live but the real heroes still exist. This is a story about a universe which was exactly the same as ours, until the night that Reed Richards took his friend, his girl and her bother into space. Back from the phosphorescent stars came the Fantastic Four — and that changed everything. Super heroes made the universe expand. And the center of the Universe is the Big Town.”

Big Town tells the story of a Marvel Universe that diverged from the one we know on day one. The “Big Town” in question is comprised of the five boroughs of New York plus Newark, NJ, melded into one huge city that is the backdrop of the tale. I dropped this title because it told the story of an MU wholly unrecognizable to me, but I find the mainstream Marvel Universe of today to be wholly unrecognizable, so I thought why not read about a utopia rather than a dystopia? Besides, with talents such as Englehart and McKone producing the series, how bad could it be?

Over the weekend I picked up issues #3 and #4 and read all four start to finish. It was neither as bad as I remembered nor as good as I had hoped. I was hoping I could pretend I was reading a story set in the present day MU after a gap of however long it’s been since I lost interest in the hyper-continuity morass the MU has become, but I couldn’t do that, really. For one thing, it’s not as “utopian” as I recalled. I expected conflict, sure, but there were too many changes for me to readily embrace.

For one thing, Sue Richards was rendered sterile by one of Reed’s experiments gone awry, so there’s no Franklin. Sub-Mariner and the Hulk are villains, fighting alongside of Doctor Doom, the Red Skull, Magneto and Ultron; inexplicably (because they were never gathered together by Charles Xavier), the five original X-Men are banded together (as “Mutts”) in New Jersey; Magneto’s “Brotherhood” is comprised of Wolverine, Storm, Havok, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch; artificially enhanced police officers patrol the streets as the X-Squad; the Silver Surfer is under mind control by Doctor Doom; the Avengers are led by the Swordsman.

All in all I enjoyed it more than most stories set in today’s Marvel Universe, but I wouldn’t want a steady diet of this reality, either.

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Englehart's take on it is here. My recollection is he expressed his unhappiness at the time.
"An almost total disaster." Wow.

Thanks, Luke, for pointing out an interesting spin on what I didn't like about the series.
Thanks again, Luke, for drawing my attention to that site!

Fascinating behind-the-scenes stories!
I remember being very excited about it at first, then vaguely dissatisfied. The link provided by Luke perhaps explains why...
It's been nine years, so I don't recall much specific about Big Town -- except that I disliked it.

I've argued for many years that almost any one of the major (or minor) miracle inventions of the Marvel Universe would transform the world. From boot jets to Pym particles, from shapeshifting clothes ("unstable molecules") to the Fantasticar, the technology to do these things would spread far beyond their original use and change everything. Pym particles alone could cure world hunger and make traditional transportation almost obsolete. (An ordinary man could shrink enough food to feed a continent, put it in his pocket and fly to Mombasa -- and feed all of Africa in a day.) "Unstable molecules" would make it possible for a man to move from land to sea to outer space without changing clothes. Boot jets would put Detroit out of business.

But I don't really want the necessary effects of Pym/Richards/Stark tech to change the Marvel U. It would become so divergent from my own reality that it would become irrelevant. Reading Marvel Comics would be like a 12th Century Chinese man reading Newsweek -- a world so different from his own as to be almost gibberish. Why would he care about American politics, for example -- when that political system hadn't been invented yet, that country hadn't been founded yet, the North American continent unknown to him, America's primary religion (Christianity) not terribly familiar to him, the major events underpinning the opinions not yet occurred, the personalities not yet born? That's not what I want for Amazing Spider-Man.

So Big Town seemed a gift to me. I'd finally get to see the effects of Pym/Stark/Richards tech after it escapes from Avengers Mansion, the Baxter Building and Stark Industries (which it necessarily would). But it would leave the "primary" Marvel U unchanged.

And what did I get? A standard What If that was badly executed and rather stupid.

Why are the X-Men not founded? What's that got to do with the premise? And even if they aren't, why would they suddenly act out of character and be bad guys? Frankly, I'd think anti-mutant paranoia would be close to non-existent in a world where people can give themselves super-powers (Pym particles, for example). Now that's an idea worth exploring.

And why is Silver Surfer mind-controlled by Dr. Doom? To artificially even up the sides, of course. But why are there sides? Why is there a Dr. Doom? He likely would have been rendered irrelevant in a world where technology is leaping forward every 20 seconds, and the concept of superheroes virtually meaningless. It wouldn't have been the "end of history" -- the very concept is idiotic -- as some other counter-balance to American political/superhero hegemony would necessarily rise. But it probably wouldn't be a mad scientist from an East European backwater country that barely has running water. Whatever he invented, some 16-year-old in Bolivia would probably be inventing something better at the same time -- and somebody else in Beijing would do the same 20 minutes later. So control of technology would not be a factor in any country's superiority -- whether American or Latverian.

So what would be important, game-winning factors in a world run amok with virtually magical technology? That's a story I want to read. Not a half-baked What If with a predictable ending.

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