Back when I first started reading comics, in the 90’s (thunder noises), I was a bit too young to have any real income and was mainly relegated to read comics that had Spider-Man and/or Venom on the cover. One of said covers was for a What If about the New Fantastic Four, made up of Spider-Man, Wolverine, Hulk and Ghost Rider. I had never heard of this team, but the concept was too rad not to look at, so I got the issue.
That, from what I recall, was the only one I ever did get back then. I remember passing on one about Cannonball’s brother Josh because, hell, I didn’t even know who Cannonball was. Didn’t he show up once during the really shitty final season of the X-Men cartoon?
Like many comic readers, spider-clones and evil, magnetic Xaviers pushed me away from the hobby for years. I can’t really remember when I got back into it again, but I know it wasn’t long into it that I remembered the What If series. With nearly 200 issues out there, I only looked at those based on characters I knew about. X-Men and Spider-Man mostly. Then, over time, as I started to understand more about guys like Iron Man and Dr. Doom, I’d read their stories. Then Dr. Strange and Captain America. Then Fantastic Four and Namor. And so on and so forth.
Until Wikipedia came around, these comics were some of the best ways to get background on characters and storylines. I didn’t know a thing about how Strange became a sorcerer until reading these. I didn’t know the story behind how the Silver Surfer became Galactus’ flunky, only to be given independence. In fact, most of Captain America’s backstory I’ve learned from his What If issues. So thanks for the help, Uatu the Watcher.
After realizing how many of these I’ve read, I knew I had to finish the series off. And so, at the time of this article, I have about 30 issues left to go through. Once I’m done with those, it will be time for me to reflect on it with my list of the best 100 issues.
So what makes What If comics so fun to me? There’s a lot to it. For one, you know you’re going to see something unique inside each issue. Some ideas are just so great that you just have to take a look at it, like Xavier as the Juggernaut or Frank Castle as Captain America. Each story is different and is self-contained, meaning you won’t feel so cheated if one of the stories is crap. It’s not like reading four issues of an on-going and realizing, “Hey, wait a minute! This story isn’t even going anywhere! Fuck you, Bruce Jones!”
The thing that really makes it fun to me is that you really don’t know what you’re going to get. In regular comics, we know that some things will never change. Spider-Man will never truly die. Any major shake-ups in the character will be related to his job or his supporting characters. In the end, he’ll still be Peter Parker wearing his webbed costume and any attempt at change will almost definitely be rubber-banded back into the status quo. What Ifs are immune to that.
Spider-Man can lose. Spider-Man can die. Everybody can die. There are no rules. Though on the other side of the coin, undying villains like Dr. Doom and even Galactus can be torn to pieces without the revelation that they somehow found a way out of it issues later. Good vs. Evil doesn’t always have to be a never-ending battle.
There is, of course, the comparison to DC’s Elseworlds stories. All in all, barring the epic events like Dark Knight Returns, Red Son and Kingdom Come, most Elseworlds are a bit underwhelming. The different between Elseworlds and What Ifs, for those who don’t know, is that What Ifs are based on one event being changed, which leads to a different story. Elseworlds change far more, which kind of feels cheap. For instance, Speeding Bullets was a story based on Kal-El’s rocket landing in Gotham, where the Waynes picked it up and named the baby Bruce. The way it played with the Joe Chill murder and Bruce’s ascent into becoming Batman were well done. But once they revealed that Lex Luthor had become the Joker, the concept started to fall apart because it didn’t feel natural anymore.
The short of it is that What Ifs feel like the slightest change in continuity could lead to unheard of stories. What Ifs are usually more fun than Elseworlds because they allow nature to take its course rather than outright forcing change.
Now that that’s out of the way, what weird shit can you expect to find in the upcoming articles?
- Sabertooth murdering a reptilian Frank Castle.
- Vampire Juggernaut.
- Conan the Barbarian dressed as a pimp.
- Kraven the Hunter sitting naked in a room filled of spiders while eating them.
- The Mighty Thor wearing the Venom symbiote.
- A 30-foot-tall Rowdy Roddy Piper.
- Lots and lots of evidence that Reed Richards’ sanity is being held together by a thread.
While I may not have finished off the issues (consisting of two volumes, a one-shot and two batches of issues released during the last two Decembers), I can at least tell you what issues certainly won’t be on the list.
WHAT IF THE AVENGERS LOST THE EVOLUTIONARY WAR?
Issue: Volume 2, #1
Spider-Man death: Yes
Background: Once upon a time, the Avengers took on a villain called the High Evolutionary. The battle in question involved fighting a giant Hercules and a bomb made of evolution-inducing stuff. I wasn’t up to following this recap. Anyway, Hercules ends up dying somehow and the bomb is exploded in the air, causing its contents to float around the globe. A couple Avengers die, but Namor shows up to save Captain America’s life.
Back in the 70’s, Volume 1 started off strongly with the very interesting What If Spider-Man Had Joined the Fantastic Four? You’d think they would have gone with something nearly as interesting or well put together as that when starting the second volume. Instead, we get a laughable pile of crap with some Wolverine masturbation tossed in for good measure.
You see, the evolution-inducing rain immediately causes two effects: those with superpowers have their abilities enhanced while regular humans turn into bald dudes with giant heads. In only minutes, they all accept that mutants are actually pretty great and are the next step in evolution. Even Dr. Doom has a new outlook, as well as a cleared-up face. He and the other former megalomaniacs just aren’t up to taking over the world.
Here’s when things get weird. Wolverine, elected leader of the superhumans, says his goodbyes to humanity before he and all the other mutants and the like go flying into space. Throughout the issue, they go around, getting more beings to join their mission, such as the Inhumans. Then they begin to smack aside all who would get in their way, including the Kree, the Skrulls, the Shi’ar, the herald Nova, Silver Surfer, Galactus, Death and eventually Eternity.
Meanwhile, the humans evolve more and more to the extent that once the Celestials come to judge Earth, the one with a mug for a head gets vaporized with a single thought. Humans become cold, emotionless beings with no physical difference. Back in space, the superhumans cause another Big Bang for some reason. Hell, I stopped caring.
Man, what the hell was that issue even about?
WHAT IF FEATURING DAREDEVIL AND CAPTAIN AMERICA
Issue: Volume 1, #38
Spider-Man death: Possibly
Background: This issue is about three stories that take place decades into the future. The only one that really is a What If is Captain America’s story, which was based on the idea of Sharon Carter not dying. Of course, after the issue was printed, it was eventually revealed that she didn’t die after all.
Funny how they give top billing to the two least interesting stories on the cover, when the other story is the only thing I don’t hate about it. In it, we see the Avengers in 50 years, where Vision is still Vision, but Scarlet Witch is beginning to die of natural causes. Since the writer wasn’t exactly feeling original, the members of the team include Thor, Jocasta and Jim Rhodes’ son as Iron Man. I honestly haven’t read too many comics involving the Vision/Wanda relationship, but this one definitely puts it in a good light. While there isn’t any real action, we still get a good character piece that’s redeemed by a well-done and hope-filled ending.
The second story talks about Captain America 30 years into the future. While still a family man, Cap still goes around fighting crime here and there. This makes his wife Sharon uneasy, as well as Steve himself once he realizes how bad his shield aim has gotten. Cap comes across a dying Red Skull and proves his worth by defeating Red Skull’s newly-revealed son. The Rogers family realizes that with this new Red Skull still out there, Captain America is still needed. All in all, pretty pointless and uneventful.
The final story is about Daredevil. A friend of Vice President Foggy Nelson, Matt Murdock had quit being Daredevil about 30 years ago due to something tragic that they don’t even come close to explaining. Due to the time of the issue, I’m guessing they may have meant Elektra’s death, but no matter. In no time, we’re blinded by the over 50-year-old Black Widow who is both the President of Russia and still wears her tights. Good God, I’m thankful that the artist lacked the talent to be too detailed in his work. The story doesn’t go anywhere, except for a fight with Wilson Fisk who shows up because, hey, this is a Daredevil story. All in all, it’s just a big, geriatric mess.
WHAT IF… STARRING CYCLOPS AND HAVOK: THEIR EARLY YEARS, THEIR DARKEST FEARS!
Issue: Volume 2, #90
Spider-Man death: No
Background: Years ago, Christopher Summers was piloting his family around when aliens attacked. He ended up sending off his sons Alex and Scott to safety in a parachute. Here, his wife insists that he’s a good enough pilot to make it out of the situation alive. Christopher proves her right and successfully lands the plane.
The idea of a What If where Scott and Alex grow up together with their parents is decent enough. It’s not so well done for the most part, with Scott afraid of his newfound powers (which he can control) and with Alex feeling lesser than his big brother. While mediocre, it’s interrupted out of nowhere by an appearance of the Dark Beast. I had learned later that Dark Beast was around 616 Earth (or “mainstream Earth”, for you who haven’t heard the term) during that time due to weird time travel gibberish, but it really would have been nice for the writers to tell us what the hell he was doing there. Plus it gives you a headache when you think of how this What If issue takes place in an alternate universe that is not 616, which means Dark Beast shouldn’t even be there. I’m getting dizzy again…
Anyway, once we get to something that resembles a climax, the writer realizes that there’s only two pages left and quickly churns out some depressing resolution rather than give it any real content.
WHAT IF… STARRING SPIDER-MAN: THE MEN BEHIND THE MASK
Issue: Volume 2, #99
Spider-Man death: No
Background: Er… I’m not exactly sure what the turning point here is. It seems to me that Peter just never broke up with Felicia Hardy and continues to fight crime with her as Spider-Man and Black Cat.
The public still hates Spider-Man, yet they love Black Cat. She does have a better ass, so I can buy that. She tries to get Peter to go public, but he whines about what will happen to Aunt May. They never do point out that Felicia has a public identity and the two of them are normally seen in public together. I guess I could explain that and the bad art by pointing out that it is the late 90’s.
Black Cat comes up with a truly retarded plan where she makes everyone think that Flash Thompson is Spider-Man. There are more holes in this idea than in Tommy Monaghan’s corpse, but Felicia thinks Peter should be happy about it. Like clockwork, the Scorpion goes after Flash Thompson and hilarity ensues. I’m genuinely surprised that it took over a year after this issue for the series to get cancelled.
That’s enough for now. The countdown will be starting as soon as I finish all my reading, but in the meantime, here is a list of every single What If issue.