Because comic book continuity wasn't confusing enough, Marvel doesn't have just one universe. In addition to the primary universe, designated 616, there are an incalculable number of alternate realities. Each of these examine familiar faces and events from a fresh perspective. Some of these universes give the creators a chance to tell stories that wouldn't fit in with the established environments or characterizations of 616. Others are just plain fun. And still others answer such critical questions as "what if so-and-so married anyone but who they actually married?" or "what if so-and-so was a banana?"
Every alternate universe will seem strange to us to some extent. That's the whole point. But some universes are inherently weirder than others, and that's where this list comes in. We'll steer you through 15 of the strangest alternate realities ever to grace the pages of a Marvel comic. We learned about some of them when characters from the main 616 universe accidentally paid them a visit. Others still exist in an isolated timeline of their own, apparently unknown to the residents of 616. But thanks to the magic of comic books, we readers can visit them any time we like. Of course, whether or not we'd want to is another issue...
15 PLANET OF THE APE-VENGERS
Super-intelligent apes are a staple of superhero comics. It is therefore unsurprising that Marvel has an alternate universe where all of the characters are various species of non-human ape. In the miniseries Marvel Apes, gibbon-like mutant and wannabe superhero Marty Blank conveniently gets zapped to this, the one world where he fits in perfectly.
At first, Marty is excited by the new world.
He's even asked to join the local superhero team, the Ape-vengers. But things are not what they seem: Captain America is a secret vampire who drinks the blood of whichever villains he can't rehabilitate. Except Captain America isn't really Captain America; he's a shapeshifting Nazi vampire who drank Cap's blood and stole all his powers years ago. Wow. That's a lot darker than we were expecting when we heard the phrase "AU where everyone is a monkey."
14 THE MOST UNCOOL ZOMBIES EVER
There are plenty of stories delving into what might have happened if the Axis Powers won World War II. Marvel Zombies Destroy! came out with their own take on the subject in 2012. No prizes for guessing that their answer involves zombies. In this universe, the Nazis chomped their way to victory by becoming zombies and slowly taking over the world.
So what could possibly be worse than zombie Nazis running a planet? How about zombie Nazis who want to run every planet in every dimension? That's exactly what happens here, and it's up to Howard the Duck and our own Earth's Dum Dum Dugan to prevent the imminent invasion. As you may have guessed by the fact that the main Marvel universe is not currently overrun by zombie Nazis, they succeeded.
13 A PLUSHIE LINE WAITING TO HAPPEN
Ever wanted to see your favorite superheroes as cute, fuzzy little animals? Of course you did. Fortunately, Marvel has a whole universe for that: Larval Earth. Here, four-legged versions of Marvel's characters mostly go about their business in similar fashion to their bipedal counterparts. There are still villains trying to take over the world and heroes trying to spoil their fun.
It's just that evolution took a wonky turn in this world and now everyone is a lot more cuddly.
Denizens of Larval Earth include Spider-Ham; Deerdevil; Nick Furry, agent of S.H.E.E.P.; and, inexplicably, Black Panda. On the villainous side of things, we have Magsquito, Sandmanatee and Kangaroo the Conqueror. Yes, the wordplay is as plentiful as the allergens, and we wouldn't have it any other way.
12 PARTY TIME
In JLA/Avengers, the villain Kronos mucks about with both the Marvel and DC Universes and ends up haphazardly mashing them together. Our heroes, not remembering what reality is supposed to be like, obliviously continue to live their lives even as reality shifts around them. One minute they're fending off cross-dimensional supervillain attacks; the next, they're hanging out at a joint JLA/Avengers luau.
It's a fan's dream come true, and most of the heroes seem to be enjoying themselves, but it can't last. Superman and Captain America realize something is wrong and literally smash through the new reality. After that, both teams of heroes slowly come to realize that their own realities, as painful and imperfect as they are, must be restored lest they lose everything.
11 ALL HAIL QUEEN STORM
After the first superhero Civil War, Mr. Fantastic went looking around the multiverse for Earths where that little tiff over the Superhuman Registration Act didn't end so badly. But of course, things don't go to plan.
An ill-timed power outage causes Reed's machine -- and reality -- to go haywire.
In an alternate timeline created by the machine, Invisible Woman, as Queen Storm, rules a medieval world with an iron fist, with the help of her brother and the Thing. But this timeline doesn't stay stable for long. Thanks to Mr. Fantastic's poking around, this universe soon merges with others where the Fantastic Four are pirates, cowboys and World War II soldiers. Still, it's all worth it just to see Chamberlain Grimm utter the immortal line, "Milady, 'tis the clobbering hour."
10 A LITTLE OF THIS, A LITTLE OF THAT
As the name implies, the Amalgam Universe is a combination of two different realities. Specifically, it incorporates elements from Marvel's 616 and DC's New Earth. This occurred after the embodiments of the Marvel and DC Universes got into a spat, requiring powerful supernatural entities from both universes to orchestrate a compromise. That compromise? To merge the two universes into one.
This led to such mash-ups as Clark Kent receiving a serum that turns him into Super-Soldier, Hal Stark being gifted with a Power Ring and becoming Iron Lantern, and Thanoseid being his usual power-mad self. Uh, selves? Anyway, the Amalgam Universe ceased to exist when Dr. Strangefate -- a combo of Dr. Strange, Dr. Fate and Professor X -- convinced the two universes to quit squabbling. It has since been recreated as a pocket dimension.
9 APPROPRIATE TITLE IS APPROPRIATE
Superhero comics are fantastic, supernatural adventures featuring magic, aliens and often hilarious pseudoscience. But they are, apparently, missing one thing: realism. Warren Ellis decided to fix that with 1995's Ruins, a two-part story exploring what would "really" happen if, say, one was to get bitten by a radioactive spider or exposed to massive amounts of radiation.
Needless to say, things don't go well.
Instead of becoming the Hulk, Bruce Banner develops all of the cancer. Instead of leading the X-Men, Professor X becomes president and horribly mutilates all mutants to keep their powers under control. No one is immune from the misery. Every Marvel character you've ever loved is either dead, soon to be dead or wishing they were dead. It's, um, a bit of a downer.
8 NIGHTCRAWLER IS A BAMF
In Uncanny X-Men #153, Kitty Pryde has to tell Colossus' sister a bedtime story. She comes up with an adorable yarn recasting her friends as pirates, wizards, genies and, in Nightcrawler's case, girl-crazy Smurf-like creatures she calls Bamfs. This being comics, where even the tiniest detail can be expanded into a plot point for future stories, Kitty's fairy tale doesn't stay a mere tale for long.
Thanks to a mishap in the X-Men's Danger Room, Nightcrawler is transported to another dimension where the characters from Kitty's story -- including the Bamfs, who welcome Nightcrawler as their "daddy" -- really exist. But then all of the Bamfs are kidnapped by an evil shark wizard who mutates them into a giant Dark Bamf that serves as his minion. It gets weirder from there. The Bamfs are pretty cute, though.
7 NICE HAT
In the real world, Nelson Rockefeller never achieved a higher office than vice president. But in Avengers #147, we're introduced to a universe where he won the presidency. Just how much power Rockefeller really has is up for debate, however, as he wears the Serpent Crown, an ancient relic that controls the mind of whoever wears it. As a bonus, the wearer also has access to the mind of everyone who has ever worn the crown in all universes.
It's like having an evil help desk forever at your fingertips.
This causes problems for our Avengers, who have to convince the Squadron Supreme, the only superheroes in Rockefeller's world, that their president is not as upstanding and worthy of protection as they think he is. The Squadron isn't exactly receptive at first. But they soon realize they've been played and let the Avengers leave with the Crown.
The comic What If? is devoted to showing us alternate universes. The series is narrated by the Watcher, who selects a reality seemingly at random and then tells us about how it differs from the main Marvel Universe. For example, in What If? #23, the Watcher shows us what would have happened if May Parker was bitten by that radioactive spider instead of her nephew.
Like Peter in 616, May's first concern is how she can use her superpowers to earn some extra money. But after sewing herself a spider-themed costume and creating webbing out of half-baked bread dough, she decides that she owes it to the world to use her powers for good. Even better, May comes to this conclusion on her own, so Ben Parker gets to live a long, happy life too.
5 LONG AGO, IN A UNIVERSE FAR, FAR AWAY...
In a particularly nasty alternate future, the Purple Man has taken over America and eliminated all superheroes. Only Captain America is left to oppose him, for which crime Purple Man ships him back in time to 1602, where he presumably won't cause any more trouble. Purple Man is clearly not as familiar with Cap as we are.
When he got shunted back to the 17th century, Cap ended up staying with a group of Native Americans near Roanoke.
He takes the name Rohjaz and for some reason, by the time we meet him, he has taken to speaking in stilted sentence fragments like every stereotypically portrayed Native American in every racist movie you've ever seen. For all that the rest of the story is enjoyable, this bit gets uncomfortable real fast. But at least there are dinosaurs! Dinosaurs are cool, right?!
4 BULLPEN TO THE RESCUE
We like to think of comic book creators as their own kind of superheroes. But what if they were actual, literal superheroes? This is the question asked and answered in What If? #11. A mysterious gizmo sent to the Marvel bullpen turns Stan Lee into Mr. Fantastic, Jack Kirby into the Thing, secretary Flo Steinberg into the Invisible Girl and company vice president Sol Brodsky into the Human Torch.
Like any good creators, they use this incident as inspiration for their work. The resulting comic, Fantastic Four, proves a wild success. But what is the source of the Marvel staff's powers, you ask? The Skrulls did it as part of a plan to mutate all of humanity and take over the world. Hey, if the Skrulls exist in this universe, how do you think they feel about their portrayal in the Fantastic Four comics?
3 HOSTESS WITH THE MOSTEST
If you've read a comic book from the Bronze Age, odds are you've seen one of the famous Hostess ads. Both Marvel and DC allowed their characters to star in a series of one-page advertisements for various Hostess dessert products. The "plots" all progressed the same way: criminal does something bad, hero shows up with irresistible Hostess cakes, criminal is happy to surrender so long as they get to take their fruit pies to jail with them.
In Spider-Verse #1, Marvel revealed that the Hostess ads were more than just ads; they were their own official universe.
This announcement came just in time for the villain Morlun to show up and suck out Hostess Spidey's life force. Quick, someone get a Twinkie! That'll revive him!
2 NICK FURY IN SPACE
Before heading up S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury, along with the Howling Commandos, spent World War II in Europe fighting the Third Reich. But that's just in our boring, normal Marvel Universe. In another madcap adventure from What If?, we get to see Nick Fury and the Howling Commandos in space fighting off the Betans, a race of lizard-like aliens intent on, what else, conquering Earth.
Baron Strucker, still as devoted to the Nazis' vile cause as he ever was, teams up with the Betans in an attempt to elevate his own bid for world domination. It's up to Fury, under the command of a sentient computer, to stop both Strucker and the Betans in their tracks. And he does it all while smoking in his spacesuit.
1 IN OTTER WORDS
The alleged star of Marville is Kal-AOL, the son of Ted Turner and Jane Fonda. He travels from the far future to 2002 and does stuff. We really can't explain more than that. Nothing connects to anything else, and none of it makes any sense whatsoever. A few Marvel heroes occasionally pop in and also do stuff, but none of that makes any sense either.
We'd recommend you read it yourself to see what we mean, but we like you all too much for that.
At one point, Kal, a couple of friends and some guy claiming to be God go back to 100,000 BCE, where they watch an otter evolve into Wolverine and father the entire human race. No, you didn't read that sentence wrong. Unless it made sense, in which case you may want to see someone about that.