Marvel’s What If…? series is one of my personal favorites. Every issue is a crapshoot and you’re usually going to either find something entertainingly good or entertainingly bad. When the writers aren’t tripping over themselves to do stories where every hero dies because it’s so edgy, there are some cool, creative incidents in there. We’ve seen Richard Fisk become Daredevil, Flash Thompson become Scorpion, Sue Storm become Man-Thing, and Galactus become Elvis Presley. We’ve seen Norman Osborn conquer his demons, the Kingpin love Matt Murdock like a son, and Kraven the Hunter eat Spider-Man’s face. All good times.
With so many good ideas, it’s no surprise that Marvel has ended up incorporating some of them into regular or Ultimate continuity, whether accidental or not. They even created an entire segment of standalone long-running continuity out of the Spider-Girl issue. Now, a lot of these have become punchlines for years. Every now and then, someone will post a bunch of covers with issue titles that have come true in some fashion. “What If Spider-Man’s Clone Had Lived?” “What If the Hulk was a Barbarian?” “What If Spider-Man Didn’t Marry Mary Jane?” “What If the World Knew Daredevil was Blind?” Since those make this too easy, I’m going to exclude any instance that comes from the issue’s title spelling it out.
10. Skaar: Son of HulkWhat If: Planet Hulk (2007)
Greg Pak was pretty smart with this one. In this alternate universe, the spaceship explosion doesn’t kill Hulk’s queen Caiera the Oldstrong at the end of Planet Hulk. Instead, Hulk throws her out of harm’s way and dies in the ensuing fireball. That leads to World War Caiera, as the vengeful queen gathers Hulk’s Warbound together and invades Earth. They kill the Illuminati in mere minutes and dominate the rest of Earth’s heroes. Caiera ends up enslaving the world so that they can honor her fallen king.
Years later, Caeira is informed that the giant stone statue of the Hulk is complete. The one telling her this is her son, all grown up. He isn’t named and we barely get a good look at him. All we know is that he looks like a green Nathan Explosion. What a tease!
Only a month or so later would we see Skaar appear at the end of World War Hulk, showing that we would be getting to know him after all. Well played, Pak!
9. Xaviernaut: Onslaught Meets House of M“What If Professor X of the X-Men Had Become the Juggernaut?” (What If volume 2 #13, 1990)
Despite being written into one of the worst event stories you could imagine, you have to admit that Onslaught is a pretty sweet concept on paper: Charles Xavier gone mad and megalomaniacal with immense physical power to go with his unbeatable psychic abilities. We get to see something just like this in the story where Xavier grabs the Ruby Gem of Cyttorak before his step-brother Cain can. As the Juggernaut, Xavier is buried in rubble for years and thanks to his psychic radio-like mind, he’s able to see what’s going on as Magneto makes a huge mess of human/mutant relations, leading to all-out war. All of this understandably drives Xavier just a little insane.
Xavier gets himself free and takes over Magneto’s operation. He ultimately takes over the world through both his invincibility and ability to predict the actions of his enemies. Due to mankind nuking the planet in response, Xavier saves the world and the resulting radiation causes an increase in mutants. Mutants rule over all and humans are treated like second-class citizens, just like in the House of M universe. The main difference is that in this world, the likes of Cyclops are able to see that this is bad and that they need to make a stand against this unstoppable dictator. You know, without the Layla Miller plot device.
8. Venom: Murderous Vigilante“What If Spider-Man Kept His Cosmic Powers?” (What If volume 2 #31, 1991)“What If Venom Had Possessed the Punisher?” (What If volume 2 #44, 1992)
Due to the character’s popularity, Venom spent a good 5-year stretch as the Lethal Protector, using vigilante justice as an excuse to satiate his hunger for violence. It turns out Marvel tested this idea out in two What If issues. In the first one, Spider-Man keeps his Captain Universe powers from the Acts of Vengeance crossover. After being completely humiliated and outclassed by this new form of Spider-Man, Venom gives up his quest for revenge, especially because the symbiote senses that Parker is no longer the man he once was. Being a cosmic force, Spider-Man is no longer a street-level hero, so he asks Venom to take up his mantle as New York’s resident wall-crawling crime-fighter. Venom takes him up on the offer and goes around killing a whole lot of criminals.
The other story is easily one of the best What If stories, where Frank Castle ends up becoming the host to the Venom symbiote instead of Eddie Brock. He thinks the costume is some kind of SHIELD tech and doesn’t realize until it’s too late that it’s an alien bonding to him and slowly taking over his mind. It’s rather funny in that the narrative insists that the costume is making Castle more violent when you consider that this is before Garth Ennis made him super vicious. Castle ends up taming the beast and makes it his instrument in punishing the wicked, while wearing the friggin’ coolest logo ever on his chest.
Then a few months later, 616 Eddie Brock would get over his hatred of Spider-Man, move to San Francisco and go bust some heads in the name of protecting the innocent.
7. Ultimate Punisher“What If the Punisher’s Family Hadn’t Been Killed?” (What If volume 2 #10, 1990)
People love to joke about What If the Punisher’s Family Hadn’t Been Killed because the issue is about the Punisher’s family dying. They just don’t die in the way we’re familiar with. They don’t stumble upon a mob hit and get gunned down, instead living to see another day. Because of that, Castle joins the police force and is constantly irritated to see the corruption going on in his ranks. It seems everyone’s in on it except him. When he tries to blow the whistle on it, he and his family are attacked and Frank (you guessed it) ends up as the sole survivor. Castle starts up his one-man war on crime, though more obsessed with taking out dirty cops and judges.
Fast-forward years later when Ultimate Marvel introduced the Punisher. His 616 story doesn’t quite fit as well for a modern-day revamp, since Vietnam was too long ago. Instead, they co-opted his What If origin story to a T. Instead of being a haunted soldier, he’s a vengeful whistleblower cop who wants nothing more than to riddle corrupt cops with bullets for putting his family in the ground.
6. Wolverine Leads the X-Men and I Guess Uncanny X-Force?“What If Cable Had Destroyed the X-Men?” (What If volume 2 #46, 1993)“What If Magneto Took Over the USA?” (What If volume 2 #47, 1993)
The two-parter What If Cable Had Destroyed the X-Men?/What If Magneto Took Over the USA? tells the tale of how utterly screwed up the Marvel world would be if the glue that held the team together – Xavier, Jean, and Cyclops – got taken out. Er, at the time, I mean. Two of them are currently dead and the other is going through circumstances at the moment. So Cable has a hissyfit and assassinates his dad, proto-mom and Xavier. Every X-Men villain is unchecked. Some go to annihilate what’s left of the team while others go mess with the Avengers and the like. Either way, this mucks up mutant relations and brings us to a Days of Future Past reality.
In all of this, Wolverine actually gets a pretty kicking story arc. While Storm wants to continue the X-Men as is, Wolverine starts his own offshoot with Psylocke, Archangel, and some others. Not only do they get revenge on Cable and his crew, but they decide to go take out all threats to mutantkind before they can strike first. That goes to hell and Wolverine becomes more of a raving madman than ever. He eventually smartens up and figures out a way to strike back against the Sentinels running the world. He has one hell of a random team put together with Iceman, Siryn, La Bandera, Sunder and Amphibius. Then again, nearly every named mutant is dead by this point, so beggars can’t be choosers.
5. Crazy Phoenix Rules the World“What If Storm Had the Power of Phoenix?” (What If volume 2 #79, 1995)
The issue about Storm becoming Phoenix is one of the crappier issues in the various runs of What If, but it does seem a little familiar to recent Marvel events. Storm takes Jean’s spot when the X-Men escape to Earth and she ends up becoming the Phoenix instead. Or the Phoenix becomes her. Whatever. Either way, Storm is way too powerful and forces the world to follow her vision of morality. Most superheroes are kept in a tortured, freezing stasis where they can’t interfere, but don’t die. When some whale hunters run afoul of her rules, she teaches them a lesson by wiping out their entire home village, not caring about all the innocent people. In other words, the whole thing has gone to her head.
In the end, it’s still not the absolute worst Phoenix-related What If. I mean, at least this one cost $1.50 against the $16 they expected you to shell out for that piece of crap What If: AvX.
4. Ultimate Wolverine“What If Wolverine Had Killed the Hulk?” (What If volume 1 #31, 1982)
A lot of this list is me futzing around and making connections, but I’m pretty damn sure that Mark Millar just read What If Wolverine Killed the Hulk? and decided to ape it for Ultimate X-Men. Despite the Hulk’s death being in the title, it has exceptionally little to do with his side of the world. There’s merely one page dedicated to others mourning his death and he’s never mentioned again. Instead, Wolverine’s ego gets him in trouble when he kills a man in a bar fight. In other words, any given day in Wolverine’s life. He runs off and gets taken in by Magneto, joining the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. His mission? Infiltrate the X-Men and betray them!
Wolverine does so, but just like Ultimate X-Men, he finds himself infatuated with Jean Grey and it messes with his conscience. She finds out and gets rightfully pissed at him being a traitor. He ends up betraying Magneto instead, leading to an ending where the two kill each other.
3. Bucky Barnes is Captain America“What If Captain America Hadn’t Vanished During World War Two?” (What If volume 1 #5, 1977)
One of the earliest What If issues went with the question of what would have happened had Cap and Bucky not been blown out of the sky, only to awaken years later. The two keep kicking ass and take down the Red Skull for good, but age does start to take its effect. Steve Rogers becomes too old for the cowl and is asked to lead the new organization SHIELD. Bucky feels himself ready to take up the mantle and becomes the new Captain America with Rick Jones as the new Bucky. Things don’t turn out so well in the end as, just like here, Bucky is killed by a Nazi supervillain. The difference is that there’s no status quo to rubber-band to, what with this being a non-canon comic. Rogers keeps his role as Director of SHIELD while Rick Jones thinks about becoming the next Cap.
God, imagine if Marvel tried to pull that off after Fear Itself.
Coincidentally, the idea of Rogers retiring, Bucky taking over and then dying was also used in House of M.
2. Agents of Atlas“What If the Avengers Had Fought Evil in the 1950’s?” (What If volume 1 #9, 1978)
A fun, early issue shows a world where a team of mostly-forgotten characters from the 50’s are put together by secret agent Jimmy Woo to stop the Yellow Claw. The team of 3-D Man, Gorilla Man, the Human Robot, Marvel Boy and Venus learn to work together and save the day under the team name Avengers. Namora shows up and helps them locate the Human Robot, but opts out of joining. Then President Ike tells them to disband because the 1950’s public just isn’t ready for the likes of them. At the end, the Watcher tells us that just because this happened in an alternate universe doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happened in regular continuity.
The ’50s Avengers made cameo appearances throughout the decades that followed, such as in Avengers Forever and Paradise X. Then in the mid 00’s, Jeff Parker reintroduced them with a slightly different origin. They never called themselves the Avengers and 3-D Man couldn’t be part of the lineup due to the sliding time scale of Marvel comics. Agents of Atlas got a lot of critical love, but didn’t last no matter how many times they tried relaunching it. Just like the 1950’s, the world isn’t ready for the adventures of a talking gorilla whose best friend is a killer robot.
1. Introducing the Mega Crossover Team-Up!“What If the Avengers Fought the Kree-Skrull War Without Rick Jones?” (What If volume 1 #20, 1980)
These days, all superheroes have each other on speed dial. If some huge threat is on its way to destroy the Earth, suddenly you have everyone from Human Torch to Spider-Woman to Songbird hanging out in the same room, getting briefed. While the very first gigantic superhero get-together was the 1982 Contest of Champions, 1980 gave us the first real instance of Earth’s heroes (and Dr. Doom) banding together against a colossal threat.
The Kree-Skrull War ended with one of the bigger deus ex machinas in the history of fiction when Rick Jones summoned a bunch of Golden Age heroes from his mind to beat up the aliens and end the war. Take him off the table and you get an awesome summer event story arc told in 35 pages. If this was told today, it would be six issues bare minimum with at least a couple of tie-ins. Not only are the Avengers doing their thing against the two alien factions, but Charles Xavier gets wind of the situation and calls in everyone! By “everyone” I mean the Fantastic Four, Dr. Doom, Spider-Man, Namor, Dr. Strange, the Inhumans, Daredevil, Black Widow, Black Panther and the Hulk.
You have all sorts of awesome subplots going on. The Avengers are in space, fulfilling separate missions. Thor convinces Asgard to join his cause, leading to a wonderful scene where the Star-Schooner invades a Skrull spacecraft and the Skrulls have no idea what in Skrull God’s name is going on. Silver Surfer is in Earth’s upper atmosphere, zapping down Kree ships, having better luck than Nick Fury and SHIELD. Captain Marvel is super-pissed over Rick’s death and has a big fight to the death against Super-Skrull. The Kree Supreme Intelligence has a battle of wills against Ronan the Accuser. The remaining heroes all band together and board the Kree mothership, leading to an all-out melee.