Nostalgic devotion has led me to buy each volume of Marvel's What If? Classic collection, though reading them has - occasionally - been a bit of a slog. There have been some real gems along the way though, from the original What If Spider-Man Joined The Fantastic Four? (one of the first Marvel stories - "imaginary" or otherwise - I ever remember reading, from a UK reprint) to What If The Original Marvel Bullpen Became The Fantastic Four (enjoyable for its self-referential kitsch value). The misses were more frequent than the hits in the book's early days though, but What If? proves one of those rare examples of a high concept pitch that gets better as time goes by. Recent volumes have included an FF What If? written and drawn by John Byrne and a couple of alternate universe Daredevils by Frank Miller. But I've been looking forward to the final book more than any other as it features my all time favourite, What If Spider-Man's Uncle Ben Had Lived?, from issue #46.
Peter B. Gillis's story is as heartwarming as I remembered it. In short, it's Aunt May who gets killed by the burglar, but though her death has a similar effect on young Peter, the boy is less worried about his uncle's health and so feels more able to confide his secret. Ben becomes Spider-Man's greatest champion, even taking on J. Jonah Jameson in a memorable showdown with leaves the cigar-chomping publisher speechless. Gillis even manages a happy ending, something that's quite a rarity on What If? world.
The issue is also notable for being the first time Ron Frenz draws Spider-Man - and his lush, Ditko-flavoured visuals probably landed him a job on the main book. Frenz is something of a chameleon, changing his style to match whichever classic artist is most appropriate to the characters he's currently drawing. He also illustrates an FF What If? here in pseudo-Kirby style, helped along considerably by Joe Sinnott inks. I'm a much bigger Ditko fan than Kirby though, so I'm far more fond of Frenz's Spidey.
Gillis is responsible for the majority of the What Ifs collected here, and proves a most versatile writer, whether tackling machiavellian Asgardians (What If Loki Found the Hammer of Thor?), crooked magicians (What If Dr. Strange Had Never Become Master of the Mystic Arts?) or over-zealous patriots (What If Captain America Were Revived Today?) There's not a bad story here - except, possibly, for a short Mark Gruenwald penned back-up, the sequel to an earlier adventure that ended with the Marvel Universe pretty much destroyed. It doesn't help that Gruenwald inexplicably chooses to draw this himself - an artist he's not (still, at least he doesn't have to bother with backgrounds... since they've all been obliterated). The main story from that issue, What If Conan the Barbarian was stranded in the 20th Century?, is not collected here due to Marvel no longer owning the publishing rights to Conan.
Artistically, this is also the most satisfying What If? collection, partly because Gillis is given a full, double-sized, 40-plus pages to tell the majority of his stories. Previous volumes included 2 or more stories per issue, resulting in some very over-crowded visuals. As well as Frenz, there's strong work here from Kelly Jones, Sal Buscema & Dave Simons, Jackson 'Butch' Guice and a young Marc Silvestri.
In short, if you're only going to buy one What If? Classic collection, this is the volume I'd recommend. They're not cheap though. This one cost me £16.16 (inc. p&p) from eBay, which is more than I've paid for any of the other volumes... but I had some money in my Paypal account and I really, really wanted it. It's currently available at The Book Depository for a slightly more affordable £13.95, which is more than a fiver cheaper than Amazon, so start your search there. Good luck finding it any cheaper (unless you're Rob!)