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Eponymous Kid

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What If... Thor Battled Conan the Barbarian? (vol 1, #39)
I mentioned in the introductory post that this is my favorite issue of What If...?, and probably my favorite single issue story of all time. I wasn't joking, I love this comic to pieces. And it's Planet Hulk and Incredible Hercules writer Greg Pak's favorite, too, according to What If...? #200!

I'm not even certain why I like it so much. I'm not an especially big fan of Thor and I don't think I've ever read a Conan story outside the context of What If...? (and he was in a whole lot of these - Marvel had the license for the character for quite a while). I didn't even see any of the Conan movies. I just think it all comes together so perfectly, I guess.

Oh, and to paraphrase Chris Sims from the inimitable Chris' Invincible Super-Blog, "What if Thor battled Conan? Someone would get their ass kicked." Oh, and in case you're wondering - I'm not necessarily going to do these in chronological order, but I imagine I'll organize them in such a fashion, if that makes sense.

This cover is brilliantly understated. It's literally just Conan and Thor breaing down on each other while the Watcher observes them.

Oh, goodie, this has ads! In the spirit of making this interesting for people who aren't me, Greg Pak, and/or any number of comic book bloggers, I'll be mocking the ads in this comic in between gushing over the actual story.

The inside front cover is an ad for Lock 'n' Chase, and Intellivision game that looks like a cheap Pac-Man knockoff. I have to say, the art they used here isn't too bad - the policeman's shadow looks like an old game sprite. Anyway, a fat man dressed like the Penguin bounds through Scooby-Dooby Doors as a clueless policeman inspects the hallway. "Lock out the police and grab the gold before the police grab you!" Oh, if only crime were that simple. Police would be foiled at every turn! "Aw, crap, the door's locked, that means it doesn't count."

Okay, and here we go with the story itself. The Watcher talks about gods and heroes, and says that often it has been asked what would happen if the greatest champion of one epoch faced off against another. This has happened numerous times, both on "your world" and in others. He now reveals to us one such occurrence, "as recorded in the ancient annals of a time-lost civilization on another Earth." While he's saying this, we're shown an image of Conan slashing at Thor with his sword but hitting naught but air.

The Watcher then takes us back to a crucial moment in Thor's history, when he followed his half brother Loki into a cavern. Navigating through its many paths, he found himself in ancient Troy, in the midst of the Trojan War. But What If he simply took the path to the left of the one that led to Troy? This tunnel would lead to ancient Hyborea, where Thor would do battle with the greatest warrior of that time - perhaps, of any time. "But come, look for yourself in the pages of the Nemedian Chronicles of this alternate world and learn the answer to the question... What If Thor of Asgard Had Met Conan the Barbarian?"

I'd say something about that not being quite what the cover promised, but I can assure you that they both meet and battle so it's all good. Anyway, the Watcher ceases his narration, and really does give up the rest of the tale to the Nemedian Chronicles - which mentions that Thor has lost his memory and doesn't possess his full strength.

Okay, next page is ads, but they aren't really very funny. There's one that touts a way to make yourself taller, which is if nothing else a classic line of bullcrap, but moving on. Next page is... also ads. This one for Bubble Yum. You know, that really sugary bubble gum with the flavor that doesn't last, like if Big League Chew wasn't awesome. Don't really think this warrants comment.

Anyway, Thor asks nobody in particular: why is he here? He says he doesn't remember who he is or where he's from. He runs into some soldiers hunting for Conan, and asks them where he is. Conan's hiding on a cliff above them - evidently he stole something from them. The soldiers tells Thor he's in Corinthia, "and obviously a far ways from your snowy home among the fair-haired Aesir of the north." I find it funny that he's mistaken for an Aesir, because that's a word for the Norse gods. Anyway, Conan shoves some large rocks off the cliff to take care of his little problem, and Thor is angered. "What manner of base villainy is this?!" The soldiers run away, evidently unharmed. Anyway, Thor looks up and sees Conan. He says he doesn't know this man, "but I recognize and act of enmity... nor shall I let it pass unanswered.", he says as he climbs up to Conan's position.

Upon reaching it, Thor basically says the Shakespearean version of "Them's fightin' words!" Conan is baffled - an Aesir running with a pack of Corinthian jackals? He tells Thor to back off; he's got nothing against Aesir. Thor leaps at Conan, saying the boulders he tossed at him say otherwise. Thor tackles Conan and the two of them tumble down the hill. Conan thinks Thor must be crazy - why else would he take such a long trip from the north just to get himself killed in a warmer climate? No matter - Conan of Cimmeria draws his sword, all too willing to oblige the madman's wish!

Their duel begins now in earnest, but neither of them gives an inch. Each blow is blocked in kind or avoided altogether. They trade You Fight Like a Cow quips, but their antiquated language makes it sound much more serious. Thor gains the edge when he swats Conan's sword right out of his hands. Conan isn't impressed. "That sorry mallet of yours might serve to shoe a scrawny nag", he says as he lifts a giant boulder, "but this blacksmith's son has dealt with sterner stuff, son of a she-dog!" Conan hurls his colossal stone. Thor dodges, but falls right on his back and dropping his hammer in so doing. This fight's going barehanded!

They rush at one another again, and Thor wins the contest of strength. He tosses Conan violently to the ground. Conan isn't even upset at this point - only amazed. "Crom's devils! I've never known so strong a warrior, even among my own iron-hearted countrymen! Who in Mitra's name are you, man?"

Oh, gee, more ads. These are for comic and sci-fi conventions. I should probably start going to Comicon, really. Yeah, San Diego's a 4 hour drive and all, but there's just so much stuff that's relevant to my interests. Oh, and there's another one that claims it can help you start your own business as a kid. I can't even begin to wrap my head around that, honestly.

Oh, here we go! Here's the classic stuff. There's a Charles Atlas ad on this page, for Christ's sake! How long did they run those, honestly? This was 1981! Oh, and I'm calling bullcrap on this "Be a Slam Dunker" ad. You can't increase your vertical leap by reading a book. Sadly, the rest are normal ads for comic shops and stuff.

Back to the action, Thor is skeptical that Conan's giving up the fight, but it's no trick. "No, Strawhair. You've won Conan's respect this day. I'll no longer seek your early death." Thor believes him, and says he'll honor the truce. Conan wants Thor to join him as his companion - he's been having a bit of trouble with these Corinthians and could use someone watching his back. However, Conan says Thor's hammer isn't going to scare anybody (it seems it wasn't just macho posturing when he mocked it before - he really thinks that monster is lame!) He picks a sword from a fallen Corinthian soldier - evidently there were some casualties of the avalanche - and gives it to Thor. "There's a hefty yard of steel." Conan says that since neither of them has any money, they'd better get to work persuading some local Moneybags his life is worth more to him than his wallet.

Soon, after moonrise, Conan and Thor do a daring Building Swing as Conan laughs at the reaction a priest had to his harsh threats. Thor questions whether their actions - robbing, especially a temple of the gods - are right. Conan finds this pitiful, and thinks there's no other way to survive. "Not god nor man will grant you gold — only the skill of your own two hands at swordplay and thievery." Oh, and the skill of your legs can help once you're found out!

Later, the two of them relax at a local tavern. Conan jokes that maybe the ale will jog Thor's memory (this entire time, Conan's been calling him "Strawhair"), though he'll still wager all the gold you can imagine that he's an Aesir. Thor seems to have some unconscious memories, because he wants to know about the gods of Hyborea. Conan tells him to give it a rest, Thor having apparently asked about this a few times before. His interest in them is far greater than the inverse. He says Crom lives on a mountain, deaf to the whimpering of mortals, caring little if they live or die... better to stay silent than to call his attention to you. Thor, however, is still intrigued, and wonders where Crom's mountain can be found.

Conan thinks Thor's going batty. You know what he wants to do now that he's got all this ale in him? Hunt down the Stygian wizard, Thoth-Amon. He's never met him, but he had a vision of his demonic visage the other day and wants to know why. Thor, however, reiterates that he wants to see Crom. Later, they actually go out and start heading for that mountain. Conan starts to think he's the crazy one for letting Strawhair talk him into this, but Thor needs to know who he is and why he's here. Conan insists he's an Aesir, probably bonked on the head with the flat of a Vanir's sword. Still, something compels Thor to seek Crom.

Soon, the two run into a pack of ravenous boars. One of them knocks Thor off his horse, and Conan tells him to use his sword. Thor prefers the heft of his hammer, but he thinks in this case Conan's counsel is wise, and he soon plants his sword straight through a charging boar, nailing it to the gound. They battle on until "the snow runs crimson with gore", and the last boar flees in terror. "Well, there you see how Crom looks after his charges. When they're hungry, he sends them ravenous pigs to battle."

They reach Crom's mountain. Lord of the Mound. It's said that Cimmerians can climb a waterfall - but Conan's never heard a tale of someone who could scale that cloud-scraper. Still, they begin their climb. Thor is happy to find that his muscles recover even as he climbs, while Conan grows too tired to continue, heading back down to roast some boar meat while Thor continues on. The book gives us a little more narration. "Grey is the home of Crom, grimmest of the gods... craggy his realm, empty of all hope..." It then theorizes that the top of the mountain is in fact part of some other plane that only immortals can rise to - after all, Conan couldn't make the climb.

Thor meets some creepy hooded figures, and asks that they direct him to Crom's throne. Following their directions, he sees Crom. Crom sits atop a throne carved from rock, cloaked in shadow and fog. He doesn't so much as acknowledge Thor's presence even as Thor bows before him. Thor beseeches him: Who is he? Where is he from? This rouses Crom to speak - "DARE YOU speak unspoken to?! What cares Crom of your desires, outsider?" Thor notes that "outsider" remark - so Crom does know of him. Yes, Crom replies. He tells him he is Thor of Asgard, an immortal of a distant future age. However, he says that his presence in Hyborea is not welcome; this is their time, his time of power. Thor has perverted the natural order by coming here.

Though Crom acknowledges that Thor's strength is greatly diminished due to being so far from Asgard, it's hardly outside the realm of possibility that he could grow in power and influence before ultimately coming to knock him off his throne. Crom asks if it's all coming back to him, and Thor replies in the affirmative. However, Crom demands that he hand over Mjolnir, his hammer, as a sign of reverence for his power. Thor refuses, but Crom wills Mjolnir come to him. Thor is baffled - never before has anyone been able to overcome Odin's enchantments! But Crom is lord of this domain. Everything within it is completely under his power. He then tosses Mjolnir off the mountain with untold power, telling Thor that never again will he hold it in his hands, for it will forever elude his searching, buried deep underground.

Thor grits his teeth and says it is not the way of a true god to be so unforgiving, but Crom has tired of his company and demands he leave. Knowing his power is nothing compared to Crom's, Thor concedes and heads back down to Conan's camp. Conan mirthfully teases Thor for giving up so soon. But wasn't he gone for hours? Hardly - by Conan's estimation, perhaps a minute! In any case, Thor brings Conan up to speed. Conan thinks he underestimated Thor's imagination as much as he did his strength when they first met.

We then cut to Thoth-Amon's dark palace in Stygia, where he witnesses through his crystal ball as his winged servant collects Mjolnir from its earthly prison. Thoth-Amon is intrigued by the mysterious, otherworldly metal from which it is made, but is naturally more concerned with the fact that he can use it to become the master of all sorcerers.

Back with Conan and Thor, Thor explains his background in detail. Conan doesn't believe any of it. He does, however, think Thor may be a prince, his stories of the rich court from his youth sounding truthful to his ear. They embark on a quest to retrieve Thor's hammer. Eventually, a nomad guesses that if the hammer is magic, surely the sorcerers in Stygia have heard of it. Following this advice, they head south. Days later, they have their answer: Thoth-Amon has it.

Meanwhile, in Thoth-Amon's palace in the City of Magicians, the foul conjurer's incessant chanting has yielded a result - finally, the hammer has allowed him access to its power over storms! Now, no one will be able to stop him, having as he does power over the wild elements. He will carve an empire across the planet on which the serpent-folk of his dark god Set will once again rule! In kingdom after kingdom, disaster strikes - and Thoth-Amon is there to stop it. The people then gratefully worship him, giving him absolute control. Meanwhile, however, Conan and Thor trek through Thoth-Amon's own home.

Attacking the sentries guarding Thoth-Amon's throne hall, Conan becomes one with his blade, "sweeping bloody arcs... a whirlwind of death." Thor, however, isn't doing so bad himself - despite being held to a vow to never take a mortal life. After the battle is through, Thor asks if it was truly necessary for Conan to kill those men. Conan can't get enough of this guy; what's a blade for if not cutting? Upon breaking into the throne room, they find it empty - and surmise that he must be in the musty temple below.

Indeed he is, orchestrating a human sacrifice ritual for Set. Thor and Conan burst in, and Thor is shocked to see Thoth-Amon wielding Mjolnir. Thoth-Amon sets his serpent-man acolytes on them. Conan intructs Thor to retrieve his hammer - he'll deal with the freak show. Thor tries to wrest Mjolnir from Thoth-Amon's grasp, but the hammer is torn between its rightful master and its ensorcelment.

...Gee, nothing ratchets up the tension like another ad. This one's for, uh... subscribing to Marvel titles. And Bullseye has a pie in his hands. I can't even begin to even.

Moving on... another ad. This one's for the Star Frontiers tabletop game, I guess. It's really goofy looking, but frankly I'm probably going to download a sourcebook later because I just never learn.

Conan makes quick work of the snake men, but sees Thor struggling with Thoth-Amon. Thoth-Amon has called lightning to strike the sacrifices, but Thor commands the lightning come to its master, striking him instead. He falls to the ground from the pain, and the lightning acts like a loyal dog protecting its master, lashing out at Thoth-Amon and leaving him a smoldering pile of ash. Thor tells Conan that he is dying, his weakened state incapable of standing up to the force of Mjolnir's mystic lightning. But the mortals Thoth-Amon was to sacrifice are safe. "Aye, benevolence is the true way of the gods, not Set's blood thirst nor Crom's indifference."

He tells Conan to take Mjolnir, heavy as it might be, to the Lord of the Mount. Tell him that Thor of Asgard won't be replacing him - because he died so that men might live. Offer him the hammer as a sign of love that deities of a later age will share with reverent mankind. And then... there is silence as Thor lay dead.

Conan's amazed. "Were you then truly a god, Strawhair? Who would have believed it? But god or madman, I shall do your bidding, Thor... for the memory of our friendship means that much to me." He hopes they will meet again in the shadow-guarded halls of the dead.

Bearing mighty Mjolnir, now worthy to lift it according to its enchantment, his spirit bears a great melancholy as he makes his way back towards Crom's mountain. Upon reaching it, he began to scale it as though he were made for the task. Though even his steely muscles nearly burst and his iron heart beat heavily in his chest, he would not stop and he would not look back. "...Aye, the memory of Thor of Asgard drove him upwards."

And wouldn't you know it, another ad after the surprisingly touching climax. Olympic sales club, sell stuff to get prizes, blah blah. And another one - the hell, there was Fantastic Four bubble gum? Dang, I want some.

Anyway, I think this closes out the story much better than I ever could. "But whether he attained the cloud-strewn summit and stood before the grim god Crom does not matter... What matters is that on this day, Conan the mortal took his first step toward becoming much more."

That literally gave me chills. I hope you can see why I like this issue so much.

SO IT WAS ON THIS WORLD. BUT WHAT IF...?
11th Feb '11 3:35:14 PM flag for mods
comments
Wow. Can't say that I know much of Conan myself; in fact, I probably know less about Thor than I'd like to as well. But I must agree that this particular issue sounds both awesome and dramatic, and I certainly hope that future issues you report on don't pale too badly in comparison.
EndarkCuli 11th Feb 11
I doubt that'll be much of a problem, since I'm specifically picking the best, most notable, most memorable, and worst What If...? has to offer. Not a dull moment in sight, I assure you.
EponymousKid 11th Feb 11
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