Comic book continuity at Marvel and DC is notoriously complicated, and if it wasn’t bad enough, both publishers have introduced the concept of alternate dimensions and realities, some of which no longer exist and some of which have been retconned many times over decades.
Marvel and DC have generally echoed each others' major storylines for years now, and likewise, they have both released many “hypothetical tales” for their characters that occur outside of continuity entirely. It isn’t a format that is particularly friendly to new readers, but there is an element of charm to the sprawling complexity of superhero books. Part of the social aspect of comics revolves around rehashing or arguing timelines for many fans, and indeed many zines and podcasts thrive off of attempting to make sense of it all.
DC’s Continuity Crisis
In comics such as Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane and Superman Family, there would be “hypothetical tales” that would usually revolve around Lois Lane marrying someone in Superman’s life that was not Superman, like Lex Luthor or Bruce Wayne. These stories are high camp, like most of DC’s output of the time, and usually end with the narrator reminding the audience that nothing they just read actually happened and the characters they knew and loved would return next month in the following issue.
As DC's output continued from the ‘40s into the ‘70s, the vibe of mainstream comics had evolved in some ways to appeal to more mature readers, and to accommodate stylistic changes many early stories were eventually said to have occurred on Earth-2, an alternate reality in which Superman and Lois Lane were married and the timeline was relatively carefree and campy. Earth-2’s residents ultimately fared very badly, however, when they were wiped from existence due to a company-wide editorial mandate a few years later.
By the mid-’80s, DC’s continuity had become convoluted and self-contradicting, and they made the decision to clean the slate by destroying all parallel universes in their first reality-changing crossover, Crisis on Infinite Earths. Although Crisis is generally regarded as a classic, it wasn’t exactly effective when it came to simplifying DC’s continuity, and it was followed by several other attempts, including Zero Hour, Infinite Crisis, New 52, and Rebirth, all of which have proved to be equally paradoxical. Problems with coherent histories in a massive fictional universe with hundreds of characters and many different creators working under sharp deadlines are understandable, and attempts at corrections of those inconsistencies have been a wild ride, to say the least. Earth-2 was eventually reintroduced to DC continuity, but not before several of its prior residents suffered immensely in Infinite Crisis.
Marvel’s What If…? made its debut in 1977. Unlike many other "hypothetical tales" series, the comic featured a consistent host in Uatu the Watcher, the being that observes realities from his home on the moon and has sworn never to interfere. While Uatu is a purposely frustrating character most of the time, it goes without saying that he was the best person for the job. The series ended for a time but began again in the late ‘80s, featuring Uatu in the role of narrator once more for most of its run. After its eventual end, the book returned with a hacker whose handle was The Watcher as the narrator.
Regardless of storytelling flaws, What If…? was a fun and fascinating book. Questions like What If… Jane Foster wielded the hammer of Thor? have proven to be prophetic, eventually influencing the direction of comics years later when Jane Foster did, in fact, gain the powers of Thor. Stories like What If… Nick Fury fought World War II in outer space? proved the series took no issue with being a little absurd. The stories aren’t always high quality in and of themselves, but asking the readers to interact with Marvel’s classic storylines by imagining alternatives to their endings was what made reading the book interesting.
Hypothetical Stories Evolve Into Elseworlds
DC’s Elseworlds series began with the decidedly steampunk-inspired Gotham by Gaslight in 1989, which imagines Bruce Wayne in the late 1880s. This was followed by many others, such as Thrillkiller, in which we met a vengeful Barbara Gordon, and Catwoman: Guardian of Gotham, where Selina Kyle is the city's protector and Bruce Wayne is a criminal. More questionable storylines revolved around concepts like “What if Green Lantern was in the SS?” and “What if Superman existed during the Civil War?” These stories were typically too short to make much in the way of interesting commentary about the very specific periods they were addressing, and so the tales tended to come off as making light of oppressive regimes.
The initial premise of alternate worlds from the Elseworlds stories continued to evolve into things like the short-lived Tangent Universe, and the bleak futuristic reality of Kingdom Come. In the mid-’90s, Marvel and DC combined their propensity for utilizing possible timelines into the truly bizarre Amalgam Universe, which took vaguely similar characters from either company and merged them into one. For instance, Wolverine and Batman became Dark Claw, while Wonder Woman and the Punisher became Bullets and Bracelets. Although the stories were inherently quite odd and self-referential to the point of being completely baffling for new readers, Amalgam was still an intriguing concept that went reasonably well in practice. A lot of those stories still hold up in quality if not in overall scope or coherence.
And Then There Were Retcons
Whereas DC is prone to company-wide crossovers to address the issue, Marvel is more apt to simply introduce complicated retcons on the fly within their books. One infamous example of the Marvelian Retcon occurred when it was decided that Jean Grey would be brought back from the dead in order to join X-Factor. Jean had died at the end of the Dark Phoenix Saga after destroying an entire planet, and the slate needed to be cleaned if she was going to reappear as a functional member of the X-Men. Years after the fact, it was revealed that she had in fact been in a cocoon at the bottom of Jamaica Bay, and the Phoenix Force had simply duplicated her and imitated her due to its desire to experience life as she did. Thus, Jean Grey had never been the Phoenix, at all, and was free to rejoin the heroes. This is just one example of many of retcons that rewrote continuity to allow for storytelling changes.
Meanwhile, the comic Exiles took a note from the show Sliders and assembled a group of reality-hopping heroes attempting to return to their homes, forced to go from one alternate dimension to another in search of the correct world. Over at DC, the Injustice Universe has been enjoying a solid run, reimagining DC if it were overrun by its villains. Both comics have been successful, proving that the need for out-of-continuity stories at Marvel and DC remain.
Alternate realities in superhero comics are intrinsic to the concept at this point, and it’s hard to imagine the epic scope of these worlds without the context of unlimited parallel worlds. Superhero plotlines have been repeating themselves for much of the existence of the genre at this point, and these hypothetical tales are integral in their ability to show new and exciting possibilities for characters that are many decades old at this point. Part of the appeal of these stories is, after all, the ability to interact with them mentally and emotionally, and the myriad possibilities their respective universes allow their fans to contemplate.