Columns > Published on July 21st, 2016

The Weird World Of Marvel What If's

Here's the deal with Marvel's What If? series:

Imagine a bunch of comic book dorks sitting around, arguing about what would happen if the Fantastic Four hadn't beaten Galactus. And when you imagine this, I recommend only your visual and auditory senses. Skip on the olfactory.

These nerds start asking each other deeper, weirder questions. "What if Gwen Stacy had a rocket launcher?" someone asks. "What if the Silver Surfer was a pansexual robot?" someone else suggests. "What if Spider-Man fought a vampire?" another says, and then he's roundly mocked for forgetting the seminal Amazing Spider-Man #101, the first appearance of Morbius, a vampire made possible by the Comics Code Authority lifting its ban on vampire characters, not to mention the fact that issue #101 was the first ASM written by someone other than Stan Lee.


Anyway, What If? is a cool concept. Existing parallel to the Marvel Universe we know, the mostly non-canonical series is allowed to ask questions, ponder alternate histories, and generally shake things up without raising too much fan ire. Every issue starts with a question, and then we get 20-some pages of an answer.

The Uncanny

Volume one of What If? ran from 1977 to 1984. The most interesting thing about the first few years of What If? is the number of issues that asked a hypothetical question only to have that question answered several years down the road in the regular Marvel U.

Indeed, they kicked off the entire series with "What If Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four?" something that TOTALLY happened a few years back.

The questions asked in early What If? issues almost read like a grab bag of future Marvel U plots.

"What if the Hulk had the brain of Bruce Banner?" Happens on and off almost constantly.

"What if someone else besides Spider-Man had been bitten by the radioactive spider?" Happened.

"What if the world knew Daredevil was blind?" Happened. Slantways. The world knew Daredevil was Matt Murdock, and they knew Matt Murdock was blind. Even the low level of combined brainpower of Montana, Ox, and Fancy Dan would be able to put that one together. If you're not a comics fan and you're unaware of those gents, just think of them as the Beagle Boys from Ducktales. If you don't like Ducktales OR comics, I have nothing further to talk to you about.

"What if Jane Foster found the hammer of Thor?" What!? Totally happened! When we were all pondering the mystery of who the new lady Thor was, it turns out that the answer was buried in a comic that was near 30 years old. A huge announcement/event from the 2010's was made decades earlier!

What We're Skipping Today

I'm not super interested in going through all the What If's? to find out which ones came true. Because it would probably be something like 30%. 

There are also a couple other things I'm mostly not interested in, and because I'm the columnist here, we're not going to waste time on them.

What if [character X] died?: I swear, every other issue from the 90's is Wolverine dying or the Punisher blowing someone away.

What if [character X] was a bad guy instead?: Eh. Almost all of them die at some point. The answer is they come back, and the way they come back is usually unsatisfactory, but good enough for the sake of getting the character back.

What if [romance X] had occurred?: I want these to be cooler, but they're not. It's not like Galactus and The Watcher give each other handjobs on the moon or anything like that. It's never like "What if Ben Grimm joined JDate?" 

There are some other categories too, but you get the idea. I'm interested in showcasing the stuff that sounds weird as hell. So, without further ado...

Issue 14

Rather than explaining all that stuff up above, I should have just posted this cover. I feel like this image explains What If? and its appeal way better than I can. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this cover is worth a couple billion-thousand, and those words are space words.

This issue mostly took WWII events and locations and put them into space. Which is smart because it opens up the option of placing "space" on every word. "Space-war." "Space-Rifle." "Space-Panini-Press." Plus, you KNOW Nick Fury was having nicotine fits since he couldn't chomp cigars in that astronaut getup.

Also, the alien in the lower-right of the cover...what's that guy doing? Winking? Or is he saying, "Eh, it's a space-living?" Why is he looking straight at me, straight into my soul? Why does he have such a beautiful blue eye?

Issue 11

A group of mysterious strangers sends a box to the Marvel offices, and it turns out this box contains...cosmic rays? Can those be contained in a cardboard box? I feel like this is EXACTLY the kind of thing they're asking about at the post office when they ask about liquids, perishables, all that stuff. Cosmic rays are probably on that list somewhere.

Anyway, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Stan's secretary Flo and Marvel's Sol Brodsky are all bathed in cosmic rays, and they gain the powers of the Fantastic Four.

Little hint, terrorists. Probably a bad idea to send your enemies a box that gives them superpowers.

The most interesting part of this story is that Stan Lee, as Mr. Fantastic, grows a sweet mustache for some reason AND gains Reed Richards' inventing prowess. I'd always assumed that Reed Richards was a great inventor all along, even before the cosmic rays hit him. But it brings up the question, what sorts of characters would have been invented if Stan Lee had the mind of Reed Richards? Probably not Stripperella. Probably not that.

Issue 33

We're skipping over the Iron Man story. That seems like some holodeck bullshit that I just don't care for.

I always felt like this issue asked the wrong question about Dazzler. The real question, wouldn't a disco-based superhero who could create lasers and incredible light shows, not to mention being an outstanding singer and performer, not to mention that she does it all on ROLLER SKATES, wouldn't the existence of that person extend the disco era in the Marvel Universe at least a handful of years beyond our own?

But no one asks that question. Not enough space travel involved, I guess.

Dazzler becomes the herald of Galactus, which means she roller skates through deep space, searching for planets that can satisfy his appetite for planets. Which sounds really stupid, but the Silver Surfer is riding an actual surfboard. These are both beach-adjacent modes of transport. I think we're just used to the board.

Of course, as is always the problem with heralding, Galactus likes planets that are inhabited. And of course, Dazzler tries to lead him towards planets without intelligent life because she's not a total monster.

Without getting too bogged down in the details here, Galactus feels a sort of love for Dazzler and releases her from her duties after a long-ass time of heralding. She goes back to earth, but it's been like a thousand years and everyone is dead. So she decides to go back and try and change Galactus' ways, see if she can get through to him and get him to stop eating entire planets.

This story is crazy for two reasons. Well, for a lot of reasons, but let's focus on two.

First, Galactus is a real ass. His employee works really hard, he sort of loves her, and he releases her, but it's been so long that everything she knew and loved is dead. Wow, what a gift. 

Second, how did this turn into a story about a lady getting back into a bad relationship? "No, I can fix him. He enslaved me and made me find planets for him to consume, wiping out entire species. But I think he can still change." Ugh, read He's Just Not That Into You already, Dazzler. You're better than that. 

Issue 42

What this leaves out is that the Invisible Girl dies while giving birth to Reed Richards' baby. 

Yep, it almost happened in the regular comics. Sue Storm almost died while giving birth to Franklin Richards, but the Fantastic Four managed to pull together and save the day with some kind of weird ray or some bullshit.

But what if they hadn't? Ever think of that, smart guy?

Well, smart guy, Sue Richards dies, the funeral is depicted, everyone is sad as hell, The Thing makes everyone cry, and Reed Richards eventually goes to the Negative Zone and kills the man responsible (sort of) for Sue's death by grabbing onto him and flying both of them into a star. A classic murder/suicide happy ending that leaves every reader with the joyful question, "Did Reed Richards die when he flew into that star, or did he die long before that, when the light went out of his life?"

On the one hand, what the hell, comics? This is not cool. On the other hand, if you can start a Pixar movie with the premise, "What if an old man lost his barren wife before they accomplished any of their life goals?" I guess we can let this slide, right?

Vol. 2, Issue 10

As you likely know, Frank Castle's family was killed during a mob shootout in the park. After that, he became The Punisher.

In this version, the Castle family is saved by clouds. Yep, they're in the park, doing whatever the hell people do at the park, and then the clouds come out and they leave. Because it's cloudy. Vietnam vet Frank Castle is like, "Oh, my. Clouds. This does not bode well. Family, let's leave."

I'm not sure if the mob shootout still happened in this universe or if they took a cue from the Castles and decided to wait for sunny skies.

The Castle family was spared, but only temporarily. Frank is a cop, and he starts to uncover more and more corruption in the force until someone decides to shut him up, killing his entire family. And then, this Frank becomes The Punisher. Pretty much.

This issue is almost a statement on fate. Like the Punisher really had no choice, and there is no possibility of a cosmic re-ordering of events. Frank was doomed to be the Punisher. Clouds be damned.

The premise is kinda weak because, hell, everything ends up the same. But what interests me is the addition of the clouds. They could have done ANYTHING to change things that day. There could have been no shootout. The Castles could have decided to play laser tag instead (and Frank discovers he's got a real knack for it and becomes the laser tag league's must ruthless player). ANY member of the family could have said, "Wait, the park? Screw that. The park's boring." With any number of choices there, they went with one that's both bizarre and boring.

Vol.2, Issue 34

The guy's got a grotesque baby head, but those gams ain't half bad.

In this humor issue, Galactus becomes Elvis. Which sounds pretty weird, and then you flip to a page that asks what would happen if Dr. Doom were a pediatrician, and it looks like he's got a kid hooked up to a death ray machine that's performing the world's most terrifying bris. There's also an option to paste your face on Spidey's face to imagine yourself as a hero, or to paste your picture on the Red Skull's to imagine what it would be like if you were...a hideously disfigured Nazi war criminal (Nazi babes included!).

Vol. 2, Issue 24

Now it's time to get crazeballs.

Wolverine becomes Lord of the Vampires, which I didn't know was a thing, but apparently you become Lord of the Vampires when you kill the previous Lord of the Vampires. I didn't know any of this information before, and now I'm wondering about this "landlord" I see once a month and how he became lord of the land.

Wolverine starts killing heroes, converting some into vampires, including the Juggernaut, who crushes Dr. Strange.

Enter the Punisher, who is possessed by the spirit of Dr. Strange. Yes, this means we see the Punisher wearing Dr. Strange's crazy red cape on top of his skull jumpsuit thingy.

Anyway, it all works out, pretty much. Who cares? When I saw that cape/skull combo, I'd gotten more than I needed out of this one. 

Also, Wolverine did not have three fangs to match his three claws, which felt like a missed opportunity.

Vol. 2, Issue 42

At one time, Spider-Man had six arms. But then he was cured. You know, as happens to many of us when we don't have the right number of arms.

In the What If? version, the cure is not to be found, despite attempts to talk to all the science nerds Spidey can find, which is a pretty big number of people in Marvel Comics.

Peter Parker starts spending ALL his time as Spider-Man. He can't live as a normal person anymore, so he might as well Spider-Man it up, right?

And what he finds out is that his six arms, though preventing him from living a normal life, make him a way better superhero. Dr. Octopus? More like Dr. Only Has The Same Exact Number Of Hands As Spider-Man Now. Not as catchy a name, that one, but Dr. Octopus will have plenty of time to contemplate a better name on his way TO JAIL.

Spider-Man keeps all his arms forever, although Reed Richards invents a gizmo that turns the 4 extras invisible, which is something, at least, and Spider-Man becomes some kind of outspoken advocate for the disabled or something.

What I like about this one, the premise isn't that exciting, but it actually turns into a pretty good story. It's an ambiguous story. Is this better? Is it worse? And it's not a world-ender like so many others. It's a smaller story about the life of one character.

Another weird twist in the world of What If? is that you can never predict the quality of the story from the premise. A cool premise can be crap. Throw a couple extra arms on a guy, you might just have something. Who knew?

Vol. 2, Issue 68

Well, he would have come back in 1994, in this case, which means he would have been poised to really enjoy Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There It Is)" during the peak of its fame. I assume Cap has heightened senses as a result of his Super Soldier Serum, which would allow him to enjoy the song on an even deeper level. Honestly, every way I look at it, this is the best possible scenario.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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