Keatinge Re-Envisions Marvel U Without Founding Avengers in WHAT IF? AGE OF ULTRON

What If? Age of Ultron Cover
Credit: Marvel Comics

What would the work look like had one of the founding Avengers never existed? That’s the story of the five-part weekly miniseries What If? Age of Ultron. Writer Joe Keatinge and editor Jon Moisan have taken the conceit of of Marvel’s classic alternate universe What If? Series and are using it to bear witness to worlds without some of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in the Marvel U – and and then culminating in one without Ultron. In the second half of 2013’s Age of  Ultron event series we saw what a world would look like without Hank Pym, and April’s What If? Age of Ultron takes a cue from that with each issue showing a world without the Wasp, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and finally Ultron – the villainous robot which Marvel’s heroes went to such lengths to stop in Age of Ultron.

Art from What If? Age of Ultron by Raffael Ienco
Art from What If? Age of Ultron by Raffael Ienco
Credit: Marvel Comics

Keatinge, paired with a quintet of unique artists such as Raffael Ienco, Ramon Villalobos, Mico Suyan, Piotr Kowalski and Ming Doyle (see exclusive first look of art by the first four), is using these five standalone one-shots to see evocative, alternate looks at the Marvel Universe without some of its major figures and how one small death has major effects in the years to come. Keatinge is building stories on a grandiose scale, using the no-limits approach What IF? Provides to show a planet of Ultrons, the last stand of the New Fantastic Four, Black Widow’s Ragnarök, Frank Castle as America’s greatest hero, and finally what Keatinge calls “Ultron Infinity.”

Newsarama: What If? Age of Ultron sounds like it has the potential for some epic, big picture storytelling. Where did the idea to do this initially come from, and how’d it develop into what we see here now?

Joe Keatinge: Editor Jon Moisan, who I collaborated with on Marvel Knights: Hulk, hit me up with the idea of doing What If? Age of Ultron with the barest bones idea — that it would be a What If? story about Age of Ultron, in that we’d see five different worlds — instead of Pym getting killed, we see ones where Wasp, Captain America, Thor and Iron Man are killed and then one where Pym never conceived Ultron at all. Five issues. Weekly in April. That was the mandate.

So, I mulled it over — and I think at one point the idea was to even get different people to do each one — but I quickly had the idea about doing five stories, which could more or less be read individually but read as a whole really created this larger thing about the Avengers, in some ways directly and in other ways not so directly. It’s five parallel universes, all affected by Wolverine tampering with the time stream in Age of Ultron. At the end of Age of Ultron, it established time is an organism, one that can break if you mess with it too much. Other comics are addressing this as well — what we’re essentially delving into alternate realities, seeing how they’re getting affected.

Art from What If? Age of Ultron by Ramon Villalobos
Art from What If? Age of Ultron by Ramon Villalobos
Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: The title of this is What If? Age of Ultron, but it’s a much bigger story than just Age of Ultron – it’s the early days of the Marvel U through the founding of the Avengers and on through classic events like the “Armor Wars” and elsewhere. So what makes Age of Ultronthe lynchpin of it all?

Keatinge: It’s multifold. What Wolverine did in Age of Ultron is what’s responsible for all these alternate realties existing. Then there’s — especially in the first and last one — some very direct effects of Ultron itself. I’m wary about how much I talk about story online before something’s published, but part of this series is examining the very idea of the Avengers and Ultron — and Ultron is approached on a massive, global scale in both issues, but it’s entirely different from each other.

A big part of this whole thing is to just tell cool stories featuring characters I’ve loved my whole life. Another part of it is to examine where that love comics from, similar to what Piotr Kowalski and I did on the Hulk. Why does Wasp, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and Ultron work so well as characters? What happens when you alter their history? Can they still survive? Can they still work? What effect does taking them out of the picture have on their compatriots? The Marvel Universe? Reality itself? Just how powerful these fictions are. Why they endure year after year, decade after decade — eventually, century after century.

Nrama: So in this you’ve had the opportunity to write Marvel’s big heroes – not just Iron Man, Cap and Hulk, but also Wolverine, Hank Pym, Nick Fury, and of course Ultron. What’s it like being in the thick of it here?

Art from What If? Age of Ultron by Mico Suayan
Art from What If? Age of Ultron by Mico Suayan
Credit: Marvel Comics

Keatinge: I’m not sure how my obsession with comics began. There are pictures of me at two years old, having comics around. I’m assuming it was a love ignited by the comics inserted in with Masters of the Universe and Transformers toys, but I don’t really know. What I do know is Marvel Comics are what nearly instantly turned that hobby into an obsession. I just saw this Secret Wars II tie-ins ad pop up on Tumblr and seeing the triangle cover copy STILL fires up something so ingrained into my soul.

Getting to create new works with these characters is something I — and I feel this goes for a lot of Marvel writers — in part feel built to do. I’ve got a lot of original comics in me, creator-owned comics I want to do in genres all over the map, like April’s Shutter with Leila del Duca, but I can’t deny there’s this big part of me who absolutely loves working with these characters created by people like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Don Heck, to name but a few.

Writing an issue of Amazing Spider-Man even though Peter Parker was trapped in some old dude’s body was almost thirty years in the making for me. Each project has been ramping up on this trajectory — I got to work with one of my favorite, let’s face it, C-Level villains and do something new with him, then I got to work with someone I feel is an absolute icon of the entire Marvel line and now in this What If I get to work with — jeeze, nearly everybody. Off the top of my head these issues feature not just Wasp, Captain America, Iron Man and Thor, but also Spider-Man, Hulk (that guy again), Wolverine, Ghost Rider, Punisher, Shang Chi, Silver Sable, Nick Fury, Black Widow, Falcon, Microchip — I mean, c’mon!

What If? Age of Ultron Cover
What If? Age of Ultron Cover
Credit: Marvel Comics

So, yeah, being in the ‘thick of it’ has been fantastic, for sure. Good people there, for sure. The fact they — in this case via editor Jon Moisan -- bring on high quality artistic collaborators like Raffaele Ienco, Mico Suayan, Piotr Kowalski, Ming Doyle and Ramon Villalobos and folks like Nick Filardi on Marvel Knights: Hulk and letterers like Clayton Cowles (who I’m fairly certain has lettered every single Marvel book I’ve written and am happy if it remains that way) just make it all the better. Characters are one thing, but it’s really the people there I like working with.

Steve Wacker, Sana Amanat, Ellie Pyle and Devin Lewis were all great on Morbius, William Rosemann and Jon Moisan were awesome on Marvel Knights: Hulk. Having folks like Tom Brevoort, Mark Paniccia and Axel Alonso advise on all of these in some way has been invaluable. The support staff ranging from folks like Ryan Penagos to Ben Morse to Chris D’Lando to Lorraine Cink to Charles Meyer to — jeeze, I could go on — have all been awesome to work with. So, yeah, the characters have been solid, but in the end I most look at enjoying who I work with and so far so good there.

In terms of work-for-hire, I’ve been overall very happy there.

Nrama: Some people might admonish this for being an alternate reality story, but in effect it lets you go all out in terms of possible directions for What If? Age of Ultron. How would you compare doing this like it is versus attempting to do something of this scale within the 616?

Art from What If? Age of Ultron by Piotr Kowalski
Art from What If? Age of Ultron by Piotr Kowalski
Credit: Marvel Comics

Keatinge: [Laughs] Admonish? Really? Man, that’s intense! Who admonishes alternate reality stories? The original What Ifs are some of my personal favorite Marvel Comics. Heck, even the later stuff — What If? Wolverine Became an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. by Rob Liefeld and Jim Valentino? Still classic! People who admonish alternate reality stories are the worst, besides, I dunno, murderers and racists.

And the one thing I’d argue here in this particular case is that unlike most What Ifs, the way we’ve worked it here is that they can all be viewed as canon in realities just off of our own. As I said before, these realities exist because of what happened in Age of Ultron. These are the effects of what happened in that mini-series.

Nrama:  And just like your other comics, you made sure your artists are front and center – you’ve accumulated a crew of notable indie artists as well as some Big Two stalwarts like Mico Suayan. Can you tell us about actively cultivating who’d work with you on this, and maybe point out specific things on each that made them good for their issues?

What If? Age of Ultron Cover
What If? Age of Ultron Cover
Credit: Marvel Comics

Keatinge: A lot of this one came down to getting to collaborate on curating with editor Jonathan Moisan. That guy and I really see eye-to-eye on a lot, including artists we’re interested in. Raffaele Ienco is amazing at all out action comics, as evidenced by his Image Comics series, Epic Kill, so he was perfect for the first issue. Ramon Villalobos is a newer guy, but has such a huge potential he’s realizing with our take on the new Fantastic Four in the second issue, killing it on a 16-panel grid! Mico Suayan has done some astonishing work on Thor before, so we’re seeing him take not he myth of Thor with a completely different cast of characters. Piotr Kowalski is someone I absolutely loved working with on Marvel Knights: Hulk — a book where we approached Hulk as the ultimate American nightmare, so I thought he would be perfect for a new take on the Ultimate American dream of Captain America. I’ve worked with Ming Doyle before and was mesmerized with her work and — she actually drew the one I’m being most secretive about and there’s good reason why, so I want to just say there’s no one else on Earth who could draw the issue she’s drawing and it’ll be much more evident once it’s out.

Nrama: In these five issues you’re, in essence, showing how these heroes being there when the Avengers were founding has profound effects on the Marvel U. Like The Butterfly Effect but minus Ashton Kutcher and add in the Marvel heroes. What’s been the most surprising thing to you that came out of spitballing these story ideas and seeing how far they’d go?

Keatinge: The final page of each issue. The initial concepts came fairly quickly, but when we started spinning just how far they could go, what effects they could be — well, it’s a line of thought that can take you to very interesting places. I was pretty surprised myself, so I hope folks reading these are too.

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