Jun 24, 2019

The Best of Marvel's What If?

Of all the exciting things Disney announced as part of their upcoming streaming service app Disney+, one of the most intriguing was that Marvel Studios will be producing an animated series based on the What If? comic book. What-If? was a comic book series that began all the way back in 1977, and explored what would have happened if different decisions had been made at key inflection points in the history of the fictional Marvel Universe. While the animated series will probably focus on the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that doesn’t mean we can’t look at some of the better stories from the comics.

(Duy's note: The excitement level is, in order: Falcon and Winter Soldier, Loki, What If?, Wanda and Vision, and Hawkeye.)

The Best of Marvel's What If?
Ben Smith

The premise of the What If? comic revolves around The Watcher showing us alternate timelines where a key moment in the history of a Marvel hero or villain had a different outcome, sending the character down a new path.

The first issue of the comic asked the question, What If Spider-Man Had Joined the Fantastic Four? It was written and edited by Roy Thomas, with Jim Craig and Pablo Marcos handling the art. In Amazing Spider-Man #1, Spider-Man infiltrated the Baxter Building and fought the Fantastic Four in an effort to prove himself worthy of joining the team. However, when he found out the FF was a non-profit group he quickly left, disappointed.

In this story, Sue calls out for him to come back, and they work out a deal where they can pay him to be on the team. Everything works out great for a while, as combined they easily handle some of the canonical villains that Spider-Man and the FF went on to face separately.

But eventually Sue begins to feel overshadowed by her new teammate, so when it comes time for her to choose between Namor the Sub-Mariner and Reed Richards, this time she picks Namor.

One of the themes of the What If? series was that the alternate timelines almost always end badly. It was a subtle hint to the fans that the way the comics originally played out was the best option, and not to second guess it too much.

Another early highlight was the tenth issue, which asked What If Jane Foster Had Found the Hammer of Thor? Written by Dan Glut, art by Rick Hoberg and Dave Hunt, and edited by Roy Thomas.

This time, instead of going on a Norwegian vacation alone, Dr. Donald Blake is accompanied by Jane Foster. When they get separated, Jane finds the mysterious walking stick, and is found worthy of the power of the mighty Thor.

Her going by the name Thordis, and the hammer becoming a hairbrush when she’s not using it have not aged well, but it’s still an intriguing story.

(Intriguing enough that in recent years Jane did become Thor for a period of time, much to the chagrin of a small contingent of grumpy internet fans. They don’t like when you bring up old comics like this as proof that they’re wrong.)

Sif and Donald Blake end up falling in love, and Odin eventually “rewards” Jane for helping to defeat Loki by giving the hammer to Blake and making Jane an immortal goddess of Asgard, at which point he puts the moves on her and she becomes his queen. Needless to say, it gets weird at the end there.

The twenty-third issue asked What If the Hulk Had Become a Barbarian? Written by Peter Gillis, art by Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito, edited by Denny O’Neil and Mark Gruenwald.

Hulk at one point had a girlfriend named Jarella that died saving a young boy. In this story, she doesn’t, and they both return to her world in the microverse (the quantum realm for our MCU-only fans) where he becomes a barbarian warrior.

I included this because it was a precursor to Planet Hulk which became partial inspiration for the Hulk’s story in Thor: Ragnarok, and he also melds the mind of Banner with the body of the Hulk in this story, like he does in Avengers: Endgame. Lots of reference points for MCU fans.

The backup story by Steve Skeates and Alan Kupperberg shows us what would have happened if Aunt May had been bitten by the radioactive spider, which is surprisingly not the last we’ll see of a spider-powered May in the comics.

The very next issue plays off of my favorite comic of all time, Amazing Spider-Man #121, in which the Green Goblin causes the death of Peter Parker’s long term girlfriend Gwen Stacy. What If Spider-Man Had Rescued Gwen Stacy? was written by Tony Isabella, with art by Gil Kane and Frank Giacoia, and edited by Denny O’Neil.

This time, instead of using a webline to break her fall (and possibly breaking her neck) Spider-Man jumps down and catches her, slowing her fall and shielding her with his body as they land in the water below.

When Gwen recovers, she’s shocked to discover that Peter is Spider-Man, but he explains away all the past misunderstandings and asks her to marry him, and she accepts.

Since he was not driven into a murderous rage like in the original story, the subsequent conflict with the Green Goblin ends perfectly, with Norman breaking out of his madness to reconcile with his son Harry, and both ending on good terms with Peter.

Peter and Gwen do get married, and it seems like it will be a happy ending for all, until J Jonah Jameson bursts in with proof that Peter is Spider-Man. Peter is forced to flee, and is now on the run as a fugitive from the law.

Obviously, this is my personal favorite of the What If? comics, and does the best job of providing an alternate story that you’d actually like to continue reading about. It was always great when the writer and/or artist of the original story contributed to the alternate tale, which was legendary penciler Gil Kane in this particular case.

In the classic Uncanny X-Men #137, Jean Grey commits suicide before she can cause further damage with her out of control Phoenix powers, but that was not Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s original ending for the story. They originally were going to have the Shi'ar give Jean a psychic lobotomy, returning her to the X-Men as if nothing had ever happened. Jim Shooter wisely forced them to change that ending because Jean needed to face consequences for murdering an entire planet of sentient beings.

What If Phoenix Had Not Died? explores what would have happened if Jean had gotten a psychic lobotomy. Written by Mary Jo Duffy, art by Jerry Bingham and John Stuart.

In the story, her Phoenix powers eventually return, but she appears to have them under control for a time. When she sneaks off to consume another star, Kitty Pryde chastises her for it. Enraged, Phoenix burns Kitty to ash.

The despondent X-Men attack her once again, but this time she ends up killing them one by one. After killing Cyclops, Jean snaps out of it, and in her grief the Phoenix force expands out, consuming the Earth and eventually the universe. So yeah, this story had a much darker ending.

The thirty-fifth issue of the series asked What If Elektra Had Lived? by the legendary writer/artist Frank Miller, inked by Terry Austin. Frank Miller had what is now a classic run as the writer and artist on Daredevil, in which he created Elektra, before Bullseye kills her on behalf of the Kingpin only thirteen issues later.

This story breaks from the previous format of the series, and has The Watcher speaking to Matt Murdock directly as he mourns at the gravesite of his beloved Elektra.

In this alternate universe, Elektra and Matt run off together and live happily in paradise. While it seems like this would be the better outcome, the Watcher hints that Elektra’s demons will always hunt her down and destroy her happiness, so at least in our timeline the city has not lost one of its heroes.

There were two backup stories in this comic, one by Roger Stern and Steve Ditko, which sounds like it would be much cooler than it is. The other is What If Yellowjacket Had Died? by Alan Zelenetz, Greg LaRocque, and Mike Esposito. In Avengers #213, Hank Pym has a mental breakdown resulting in his court martial from the Avengers and an unfortunate slap that has forever marred the character.

In this short story, Hank dies in battle instead of needlessly killing an opponent that had ceased fighting. His wife Janet Van Dyne loses it for a little while, changing her name to The Black Wasp and using excessive force against criminals. She eventually comes to her senses, but quits the Avengers, and Captain America doesn’t seem to care much that she does. Look, it’s not a great story, but it would have been much preferred to having to argue about whether or not Hank Pym is a wifebeater for the past 30 years.

Let us know in the comments what your favorite What If? comics are, or what episodes you hope to see in the upcoming animated series.

1 comment:

Hogne B. Pettersen said...

They never published these in Norway. Understandably, since the Marvel output was pretty low and the way they had to choose what Spider-Man and X-men stories to publish made things confusing enough as it was. Loved reading this. One point: Didn't Spider-Man eventually join the Fantastic Four at one point?

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