What If...? (2nd series) #40

Issue Date: 
August 1992
Story Title: 
What If Storm Stayed a Thief?

Ann Nocenti (writer), Steve Carre and Deryl Skeleton (pencils), Joe Rubinstein (inks), Tom Vincent (colors), Janice Chiang (letters), Craig Anderson (editor), Tom DeFalco (editor in chief)

Brief Description: 

Instead of travelling to East Africa, young twelve-year-old Ororo Munroe remains in Cairo as a pickpocket. She tries to pickpocket an elderly man, but he catches her, revealing that he too is a thief. The two talk and she assumes the name of Jack Black and decides to go to New York with him, where he teaches her to be an honorable thief. During an overnight stay in jail, Jack’s claustrophobia catalyses her mutant power. Herman sees this as a great opportunity and trains her. Years later, as she is robbing a fancy home, Jack questions her life of thievery, as she and Herman now have a lot of money thanks to her abilities. The next day, she learns that she stole a gemstone that the X-Men were after. At the same time, the X-Men show up at Herman’s apartment to look for the stone. Herman hides, but is frightened when Wolverine spots him. Jack comes back to find a very scared Herman and angrily goes off to get revenge on the X-Men. Defeating them all with relative ease, she finally stops when she encounters Professor Xavier, telling him that she won’t harm a cripple. Stopping the fight, he tells her about the purpose of the X-Men and invites her to join, but she turns him down, feeling that the X-Men represent the elite and that the best people she knows are poor and hungry. Later on, Jack decides to rediscover Ororo and decides to travel to Africa.

Full Summary: 

After being orphaned, Ororo Munroe became a thief on the streets of Cairo. After a chance journey to East Africa, she discovered her powers and assumed the role of a goddess. It was there where Professor Xavier would later recruit her into the X-Men.
But what if she had not left Cairo? What if she had never met the tribes that worshipped her and taught her responsibility? Who would she have become?

Cairo, Egypt

An old man notes that it is dawn, time for him to go to bed. He decides that he’ll have one more cup of coffee, though. He takes note of a young boy pretending not to notice him. The young boy then bumps into Herman, claiming to have dropped his ball. Herman immediately grabs the boy, commenting that his skill is excellent on the unsuspecting, but to an elder, his technique is clumsy. The boy immediately returns the wallet asking to be let go. Herman does so, but says that the boy might not run away.

Following instinct, the young pickpocket follows him, noticing that, despite Herman obviously being poor, he carries himself with nobility and pride.

Herman reveals that he knows that the pickpocket is, in actuality, a girl and takes off her hat to reveal her short white hair. Herman also tells her that he knows she is an orphan from the way she smells and moves. He then tells her that if she spends an hour with him, he’ll tell her more and find out if she is a rotter. Ororo is confused and Herman explains that there are good thieves called ‘yeggs’ and bad thieves called ‘rotters’, and that stealing from an old man was a rotter thing to do. She should at least leave him enough money for a shot of the finest and carfare back to his flop. He then begins to comment on her hand technique.

The two talk more, and Herman explains to her the concept of being an honorable thief. In Ororo he sees himself fifty years ago and reminisces about the early 1900s. He tells her of the anarchist saloons and hobo conventions, and that in those days she would have been taken in by fleetfooted drifters, by sisters of the road and taught how to survive. He tells her of Boxcar Bertha, queen of the hobos and Jack Black, a thief who went on to write a sad, heartfelt book about survival. Herman explains that there are some things one can only learn on the street and, despite the fact that he is often miserable, at least he’s free. He had to disappear for a while, which is why he went to Egypt, but he tells the young Ororo that he is now heading back to New York and asks where she is going. Ororo tells him she was going to go to Africa, but now she is planning to go to New York. Herman laughs and asks what her name is. Ororo, with a sly smile replies “Jack Black?” and Herman laughs heartily.

New York

Herman agrees to take Jack under his wing and teach her all he knows. He tells her she’ll have to work hard, share what she gets with him and that she has to respect his friends, because despite their tattered appearances, they have dignified dreams. He tells her never to trust anyone with money. Just wonder where they got it from and why they aren’t sharing it. He also tells her to always stay true to her word and to never take from the poor or steal a man’s last dollar and to always pay her debts and help anyone who asks. He teaches her that in the world of grifters and hobos, all women are her sisters and all men her brothers, but that doesn’t mean not to keep an eye on everyone.

Jack is then shown putting a wallet in a mailbox, so that the owner can at least get their I.D. back. She then starts to count her money to see if she can buy Herman a nice dinner. As she counts, she is assailed by a man, who, after grabbing her, is surprised to find out she is a girl. With a predatory look, he notes she is a pretty girl. Before anything can happen, a bottle is struck over his head. A woman stands over him and asks ifshe’s okay. Jack thanks her and the woman comments that they have to stick together against such thugs. Before she can help Jack up, several police officers arrive to arrest them.

Soon, both are in the city jail where the woman, Marie, is talking to two other women who comment that they haven’t seen her in a while. Marie introduces Jack and tells her that being arrested is nothing to be ashamed of. Marie tells her to hold her head up high and boasts that her body is her cash box. While she is looked at as a criminal by society, all that matters to her is that she is free. The other two women boast of their clientele, as well, one noting she’s done half the cops on the beat. Marie asks Jack if she feels better, but Jack is still curled up, telling them that it is very hot in there and that she was buried alive when she was young. Marie tells her it’ll be alright because it is only one night. Herman then arrives and tells Jack that he is very proud of her as it is her first night in jail. He becomes concerned when he sees that she looks sick.
Suddenly, it starts raining in the room. Jack stands up and screams that she has to get out. Winds start whipping around in the jail cell. Marie and Herman implore the guards to let them out, but the guard refuses to. Jack screams to be let out and lightning comes from her hands, blowing the cell open. Jack apologizes and runs off, but Herman and Marie catch up to her. Herman is impressed, but asks her if she can turn off the storm she created. Jack can’t seem to, but she manages to turn it off over their heads. Herman says that they can do something with this.

Years later, Jack thinks of how Herman’s training has been good as she flies up the side of an apartment building. She uses lightning to disable alarms and breaks into a fancy apartment. She starts to wonder, though, if she’ll ever use her powers for more. Stealing made sense when she was young and hungry, but now she is strong and can work. Stealing to stay alive and to feed her friends seemed right, but now they have so much money. Jack feels greedy and wants to quit, but then resigns herself to let Herman do the thinking. Guards appear, but she quickly disables them with a burst of wind and lightning, apologizing as she escapes.

The next day, Marie asks Jack if she stole a big rock during her last heist. Jack confirms that she stole a large red stone and gave it to Herman. Marie tells her that the word on the street is that it was a special gemstone and that all kinds of people want it, even the X-Men. Jack asks who they are and Marie tells her that they are mutant super heroes. Jack calls them big guys with big powers and egos to match that run around claiming to save the world. Marie tells her they have to go to Herman’s and tell him to dump the stone.
At the same time, Herman hears people climbing the stairs and realizes they’re coming to his floor. Grabbing Marie’s gun, he hides in a chest next to his bed, lamenting that he never learned to shoot. Herman looks out the keyhole and sees a blast push the door open. He then sees a metal leg, a hand with claws, a blue tail and a leg wearing blue tights. The X-Men are searching the apartment, commenting on how it is a dump. They find the gem in Herman’s shoe and begin to leave. One of them asks Logan if there is anything in the trunk. Logan looks in the keyhole. With a devious grin he tells them there is nothing in there. The X-Men leave.
Herman, still in hiding, hears someone else coming, but it is Jack and Marie. The two women help him out, asking why he was in there. He tells them that he’s just a bit shook up because terrible people searched his place and took the stone. Jack asks what they looked like and Herman tells her all he saw was big black X’s on their belts. Jack turns and realizes they were the X-Men, asking how dare they frighten Herman. She angrily flies off, despite Herman’s insistence that no harm was done.

Some research and many miles later, Jack finds the X-Mansion and bursts in to find Nightcrawler, demanding to know if he is an X-Man and telling him they showed no respect for an elder. Nightcrawler tells her they didn’t mean it as Jack attacks him with lightning, knocking him out. Wolverine approaches, telling her that Nightcrawler is too chivalrous with ladies. Cyclops and Colossus approach as well. Jack asks if Wolverine’s claws are his bones as Cyclops cautions the X-Men as her powers appear to be elemental. After Wolverine confirms that they are his bones, Jack calls him a mutant. Wolverine leaps to attack, asking her what she thinks she is.
Angrily, Jack flies out of the way and tells them that she isn’t a mutant – she isn’t like them. She creates a typhoon and tosses the X-Men around the room. Wolverine hits a wall and tells her to hit him harder as he approaches, claws bared. He tells her play time is over, and Jack warns him to stay back. Wolverine tells her it sounds inviting and lunges, but Jack electrocutes him. Before anything else can happen, Cyclops stuns her and orders Colossus to grab her arms. As Colossus grabs her, Cyclops warns him not to let her point at him because his armour makes him vulnerable. Jack then points at Cyclops and envelops him in a whirlwind. She orders Colossus to let her go, or she’ll smash him to the ground. Colossus complies and Jack runs out, glad to have taught them a lesson for scaring Herman, but
worrying they’ll want to kill her now.
Suddenly, a telepathic voice tells her to stop and calm down. She cries out telling the voice to get out of her mind, throwing a lightning bolt at the direction it was coming from.

Before it can hit Professor Xavier, she deflects it. He asks her why she did so and she tells him to have no fear, as she won’t attack a cripple. He welcomes her to the mansion and tells the X-Men that the fighting is over.
She demands to know why they terrorized Herman, and Xavier apologizes and tells her that the gemstone was needed for a battle for the fate of the Earth. Jack cynically asks whose Earth. She sees the mansion and all its wealth and tells them that they protect and rich, elite world, not hers. Xavier counters that she sometimes scares people with her powers and then offers to train her. Jack eschews the life of a super hero, telling him that she knows plenty of heroes, right in the streets. Xavier asks her to stay and get to know them, but Jack tells him she won’t stay in such a fancy place. The best people she knows have no money and are always hungry.
Xavier accepts this and tells her that the offer is always there and apologizes again about what happened to Herman, also offering to pay for any damages. Jack thanks him, but says that she’ll take care of her own and flies off.
Later on, Jack is wearing a dress, commenting that she hasn’t worn one like that since she was orphaned. Herman tells Jack she looks lovely, but she tells him that it isn’t “Jack” anymore. She wants to find out who Ororo was. Herman tells her that whatever her name is, she always has a home with him.
Marie, crying, hugs Ororo and asks where she’ll go. Ororo tells her anywhere without buildings. She just wants big skies, wind and grass... maybe Africa.
The Watcher looks down on Earth. An alternate path, but was it so different? Even as a thief, she learned to be a hero. In Herman Hassel, a noble grifter, Storm found a mentor as wise as Xavier. Looking down at Ororo, now standing in the African plains, he notes that it doesn’t matter which hat you wear, or if you turn right or left at a crossroad... you’ll always be exactly who you are.

Characters Involved: 

The Watcher

Ororo Munroe/“Jack Black”/Storm

Herman Hassel

Marie, a prostitute

Colossus, Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Professor X, Wolverine (the X-Men)

Two unnamed prostitutes and several unnamed police officers

Story Notes: 

“Boxcar Bertha” is a character from Ben L. Reitman’s novel “Sister of the Road” the story of a depression-era woman who loses her father in an airplane accident. Joining up with controversial union leader Big Bill Shelley ,Bertha is forced into a life on the run when a group of conservative witch hunters target Shelley as a communist. Along the way, Shelley and Bertha fall into a life of underground crime, steal from railroad bosses, and break out of jail. While presented as an autobiography it is in fact a work of fiction.

The novel Hermann refers to is “You can’t win” by Jack Black, the autobiography of a thief during the Depression era who was at the same time a man of honor.

The story several times refers to the “real” Ororo travelling to Kenya via boat. However, actually she journeyed on foot.

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