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Marvel legends explain how What If... ? broke the mold and remade comics history
What if Rick Jones became the Hulk instead of Bruce Banner? What if Spider-Man managed to save Gwen Stacy? What if Professor X became the Juggernaut? What if Thanos joined the Avengers?
Sitting atop all the fantastic, dramatic storylines in Marvel Comics is What If...?, a speculative series that captured readers' imaginations in 1979 by skewing the known Marvel Universe. Now, 40 years later, the comics are set to become part of Phase 4 of the MCU as an animated series on Disney+ simply titled What If...?
While not much is known about the upcoming TV version of the series, we do have a few key details. First and foremost, Jeffrey Wright (Westworld) is set to voice the Watcher, a member of an alien race (the Watchers) that keeps an eye on the multiverse. The series is also expected to feature tweaked tales starring tons of original MCU cast members, such as Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Mark Ruffalo, Michael B. Jordan, Sebastian Stan, Josh Brolin, Karen Gillan, Chadwick Boseman, and Hayley Atwell. While none of these actors or their characters are necessarily confirmed for the series, the possibilities, as we know from Marvel's comics, are endless.
According to Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, the first season of the What If...? series on Disney+ will focus on “everything you know about the 23 movies in the Infinity Saga and [add] one twist to them [to see] how everything turns out different.”
And if the studio takes any inspiration from the original Marvel comics, then it will have a treasure trove of stories to mine.
The first What If...? series ran for 47 issues, with highlights including “What If the Original Marvel Bullpen Were the Fantastic Four?” and “What If Dr. Strange Were a Disciple of Dormammu?” But the series hit peak popularity from 1989 to 1998 with Volume II, which ran for 114 issues and included stories such as “What If Venom Possessed the Punisher?” and "What If Daredevil Killed Kingpin?”
As of last year, Marvel had released 14 volumes of the What If...? series. At this point, there are so many What If...? books that many — including “What If Wolverine Joined S.H.I.E.L.D?”, “What If Jane Foster Picked Up Thor’s Hammer?”, and “What If Spider-Man Joined the Fantastic Four?” — have seen their theoretical events actually happen in the mainstream Marvel Universe and become canon.
Speaking with SYFY WIRE via his business manager John Cimino, writer and former Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Roy Thomas explained how he created the series in 1975.
By 1975, Thomas had stepped down as Editor-in-Chief at Marvel Comics but was still writing and editing dozens of comic books a month. Thomas told us that his main motive at the time in creating the What If...? series was that he would be able to play outside of regular Marvel continuity. And play he did.
“Around the same time I conceived The Invaders, I came up with another way to handle major characters and yet not have to coordinate my stories with those of others, which I wasn't particularly in the mood to do just then,” he says. “With What If...?, I would have a different cast, even a different artist virtually every issue, and regular Marvel continuity wouldn't be affected.”
Thomas pitched the idea to Stan Lee with the name What If...? attached, knowing it was a name Lee would like, as he used that phrase often in story conferences.
“I always found it was easier to sell Stan on the idea to a series if I used a name [or] phrase that I knew he liked,” Thomas says. “Half the battle was already won. I included the idea that the Watcher would be the narrator because that would create a connection with the ongoing Marvel Universe. And I mentioned the first couple of stories I wanted to do: 'What if Spider-Man had joined the Fantastic Four' in that story in the Amazing Spider-Man #1? And ‘What if the Hulk had kept Bruce Banner's intelligence?’”
When it came time to decide on stories for the What If...? series, Thomas says there was so much Marvel history at that point, coming up with ideas was fun.
“The Spidey/FF thing was a no-brainer. The Hulk followed almost immediately, and the idea of 'What if Bucky hadn't died?' and perhaps one or two others,” Thomas explains. “I'd love to see some of the same situations [in the new show] that were dealt with in the early issues of What If...?, although the producers should feel free to put their own spin on things. After all, that's the beauty of What If...?; there's not just one alternate history for every Marvel event, but an infinite number of histories!”
SYFY WIRE also spoke with several Marvel Comics creators, including Will Murray, Tom Defalco, Christos Gage, and Robbie Thompson to ask them to weigh in on their favorite What If...? issues. Read on for their takes.
What If...? Vol. 1, #4: What if... The Original Marvel Bullpen Had Become The Fantastic Four?
(Words and art by Jack Kirby)
Wil Murray (Squirrel Girl, Doc Savage): “No doubt it was the goofiest What If ever, but I loved it because it was Jack Kirby returning to his longest-running series. Since he wrote it as well, it was goofier than it needed to be, but that’s part of its charm. Stan Lee subbed for Reed Richards and secretary Flo Steinberg was The Invisible Girl. Even after all these years, I still think Roy Thomas should have been The Human Torch instead of Sol Brodsky. But Jack as a cigar-chomping Thing was perfect. Bonus background inks by Dave Stevens!”
J.M. DeMatteis (Amazing Spider-Man, The Hulk, Captain America): “It’s a ridiculous premise — Stan Lee is Mr. Fantastic! Jack Kirby is the Thing!— but it’s written and drawn by Kirby himself, which means it’s both off-the-charts weird and absolutely wonderful.”
What If...? Vol. 1, #35: What If... Elektra Had Lived?
(Pencils and words by Frank Miller, Inks by Terry Austin)
Christos Gage (Superior Spider-Man, Spider-Geddon): “I have a soft spot for 'What If... Elektra Had Lived?' It's by Frank Miller and Terry Austin, both Hall of Famers, and it came out very soon after the actual "Death of Elektra" issue in the regular Daredevil series. Unlike a lot of What If...? [stories], which take tragic turns, this one has a happy ending, with Matt and Elektra running off together to live happily ever after. I liked it as a kid, probably just due to the talent involved, but I like it even more now, as a professional writer who knows the feeling of guilt over the horrible things you have to do to your characters. I can imagine it felt good to Frank to give them a happy ending.”
Ron Marz (Thor, What If...?, Secret Defenders): “While it's tempting to self-congratulate and pick one of the half-dozen of so What If...? issues I wrote, I have to go with the classic Frank Miller 'What If... Elektra Had Lived?' Great story, great art (obviously) that manages to make Elektra's death in Daredevil even more tragic by showing the happiness that was taken away from Matt Murdock when Bullseye murdered Elektra. Required reading if you're perusing the masterwork that is Miller's DD.”
What If...? Vol. 1, # 36: What If... the Fantastic Four Had Not Gained Their Super Powers?
(Art and words by John Byrne)
Robbie Thompson (Meet the Skrulls, Spider-Man/Deadpool): “As a lifelong Fantastic Four fan, I always loved What If... 'the Fantastic Four Had Not Gained Their Super Powers?' Written and drawn by John Byrne, with colors by Bob Sharen and letters by Joe Rosen, this story wonders what would happen had Reed and his friends not taken their fateful trip into space and were never hit by gamma rays.
"Despite not developing powers, they end up on crazy adventures which reveal their heroism in a different form. The point being, they were always destined to do good. It's a classic story that sheds light on what makes Marvel's First Family so fantastic — it's not the powers that make them heroes, but rather who they are as people.”
What If...? Vol 1, #13: What If... Conan the Barbarian Walked the Earth Today?
(Words by Roy Thomas, Art by John Buscema and Ernie Chan)
Roy Thomas (Avengers, What If...?, Thor, Invaders): “As a concept, I loved What If...? #1 with the Spidey/FF theme. What If...? #4, was a story that 'really happened' in the Marvel Universe, with the Invaders staying together after WWII and two Captain Americas swiftly taking Steve Rogers' place. [I also liked] What If...? #13, that asked what if Conan had 'walked the 20th century?' The latter was, so far as I was concerned, the one and only time I wanted to bring Conan into the Marvel Universe.”
What If...? Vol. 2, #105: Starring... Spider-Man? Who is She?
(Words by Tom Defalco, Art by Ron Frenz)
Tom Defalco (What If...?, Amazing Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Thor): “It introduced May 'Mayday' Parker, the daughter of Spider-Man to the world... and it had some terrific Ron Frenz artwork.”