Monday, January 7, 2008

Wonderful World of What If?

By Chris Buchner

The idea was simple; have Uatu the Watcher, the cosmic being who dwelled on the moon observing and recording history on Earth, host his own series where he could peer into alternate realities. The series was What If…? The main premise of the book was to take a moment in Marvel Comics history and answer what would have happened if the event played out differently than what we had all known to pass.

The series began in 1977, the very first issue dealing with a question stemming from the golden age of Marvel Comics and the very first team-up: what if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four (from Amazing Spider-Man #1). The stories were often told within a single issue focusing on a variety of characters. Because the books had no effect on the other books being published, stories were often allowed to shake up the world of the character, by either killing off an important member of the cast or the character themselves (“What if Wolverine had killed the Hulk?”), or by keeping someone who died alive (“What if Phoenix had not died?”). Abilities (“What if the Fantastic Four had different abilities?”) and roles (“What if Dr. Doom had become a hero?”) were often switched between characters, and origins were tweaked to completely change the path of a character’s life (“What if Dr. Strange had not become master of the mystic arts?”). It also allowed the creators to have some fun within the Marvel Universe they crafted with such tales as “What if the Marvel Bullpen (Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Flo Steinberg and Sol Brodsky) had the powers of the Fantastic Four?”

The first volume ran for 47 issues until 1984 when it was inevitably cancelled. A 1988 follow-up special, “What if Iron Man Had Been a Traitor?”, had opened up the door to an all-new series the following year which lasted 114 issues. While initially following the format of its predecessor, the series soon began to grow into it’s own with the introduction of multi-issue stories (“Timequake” was the unifying story between each What If? scenario from #35-39) and updated retellings of ones featured in the last volume (“What if Captain America were revived today?”). During the Acts of Vengeance multi-title crossover, the cosmic hero Quasar traveled through a few of the worlds presented in both volumes of What If, finally connecting them to the main Marvel Universe in another way other than Uatu.

With the stories beginning to take center stage, and events transpiring within the Fantastic Four issues at that time, a need for a narrator was becoming obsolete and thus Uatu was slowly phased out of the book. Issue #76, “What if Peter Parker Had to Destroy Spider-Man?”, marked his final starring issue of the series. The series began to take more changes as it progressed. No longer were specific divergent points referenced from the original comics. Marvel also started promoting the book as being the “darker side of the Marvel Universe,” as more twisted stories were presented without any indication on what the “what if” actually was (like issue #88, where Spider-Man’s spider bite from Amazing Fantasy #15 turned him into a spider-monster but was simply dubbed by the book “Spider-Man: Arachnomorphosis”).

The most notable issue of volume 2 would be #105, which presented a scenario in which Spider-Man’s baby had lived (or been returned to him, depending on your take of Spider-Man #75 and Amazing Spider-Man #435). She had grown to a teenager with her father’s spider powers, and circumstances led her to becoming the Amazing Spider-Girl. That single issue led to the creation of the MC2 (Marvel Comics 2) imprint where legacy characters roam a Marvel Universe 15 years in the future from the main one, including the Fantastic Five, Avengers Next, J2, the son of Juggernaut, Wild Thing, the daughter of Wolverine, and more. Although, it should be noted that as the main universe progressed, the divergence between it and the MC2-verse became increasingly greater.

The series was again cancelled in 2000 because of plans to launch the all-new Exiles title the following year. Exiles would be about a collection of heroes from alternate universes that were charged with the task of fixing alternate realities before they collapsed and were destroyed, thus saving their own home worlds. Due to their traveling to countless alternate realities with What If…? type environments, it was deemed that having both series would be redundant. This decision was reversed in 2005 when Marvel decided to resurrect the series with a few one-shot issues. Once again, Uatu was back as narrator for a couple of the stories, while the others featured lead-ins by a comic shop worker and a kid surfing the Internet. Like the older comics, these focused around a specific event in a character’s life which changed to go in the other direction. Notably, a few of the ideas were similar to ones done before in concept, but differed in execution.

Following the success of these issues, another two batches were released the following year, the latest of the two focusing around recent events in the comic books like X-Men: Age of Apocalypse, Wolverine: Enemy of the State and Spider-Man: The Other. The 2007 collection also took the same direction, presenting alternate takes on Planet Hulk, Civil War and Annihilation.

With the new issues of What If…?, Marvel has begun releasing the classic issues in trade paperback form. More one-shots are planned on the horizon, and with almost 50 years of history there are many more story possibilities to be told. In the meantime, readers can enjoy alternate versions of their favorite Marvel characters in the pages of New Exiles (coming soon).

What If? Classic vol 1-4.
What If?: Why Not?
What If?: Mirror Mirror
What If?: Event Horizon
X-Men: Alterniverse Visions

For a complete listing of all What If? issues and stories, click here:

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