Alternate history is not a new genre. Writers have been wondering how history could have played out differently since as early as 27 BC. From alternate versions of the world had the Allies lost World War II to different outcomes in the American Civil War, alternate history fiction has become one the most popular genres in today's modern climate. In comic books, Marvel’s anthology series What If? has asked its titular question since the first volume of the series debuted in 1977. Throughout the years, and multiple volumes, What If? has taken a poignant, strange, scary, and at times wacky stance on Marvel’s own alternate history.
Maybe the book was never as controversial as some examples, but it sure had its own "head-scratch-worthy" moments. Over the years, the book has provided fertile ground for creators to explore interesting concepts without the fear of company-wide continuity complications. Additionally, these stories could have tones and outcomes that didn't correspond with the "real" stories featured in the other books. Interestingly, some of the concepts (like a Jane Foster Thor or a Spider-Girl) went on to take root in canon books. Here are 15 times the book’s answer to its own question was note-worthy, interesting, provocative, or puzzling.
15 WHAT IF SPIDER-MAN WAS TRAINED BY THE KGB?
The first entry on our list features everyone’s Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man getting trained by the KGB to be a stone-cold killer, a la the Black Widow in What If: Spider-Man vs. Wolverine. After Spidey accidentally kills someone while on a mission, a part of Peter Parker dies, too. He abandons his old life and teams with Wolverine and a woman named Alex to form a potent strike force.
When SHIELD arrives to bring them all in, Nick Fury decides a better approach would be to hire them. As a black ops team, they continue to kill their way through the world. Spider-Man as a killer assassin type plays completely off-character, especially when he shoots someone in the head. His new costume for his new role, though, is equally killer.
14 WHAT IF IRON MAN SOLD OUT?
In a world where Tony Stark invents the Iron Man technology and then patents and sells it, shady villains take advantage of the free market to bring a new sort of death and destruction. Though Tony eventually realizes the folly of his ways, it isn’t before a bevy of Marvel characters get involved that he takes action.
This issue has the hippiest-sounding title in the history of comics, but despite its flippant title, the story gets bat dung crazy. Eventually Magneto has to start kicking some tail. The most interesting tidbit of divergence is the retirement of Peter Parker as Spider-Man. Since Stark’s technology has been used to create a legion of Iron Guard soldiers, Peter sees taking the risk of being Spidey as unnecessary. That is, until he has a run in with the completely jacked Beetle.
13 WHAT IF THE VENOM SYMBIOTE BONDED WITH DEADPOOL?
The most surprising thing about this issue is that it hasn’t become a Holy Grail, combining the internet’s two favorite anti-heroes in a story written by Rick Remender with cover art from Skottie Young. That’s all some high-level fanboy pandering, there. The book opens with a version of The Watcher who looks like Boy George, and it just gets more unhinged from there. Other alternative versions of Marvel characters slip by, including a mummified version of Moon Knight and a young man bitten by a cosmic roach.
We also get to meet a Beyonder who yearns to be relevant again, and a stereotypical '90s hero who calls out Venompool's lack of "ponytail, leather jacket, goatee, or thermonuclear eye gear." The story ends the only way it could, with Venompool using the Retcon Expungifier to just make it all go away.
12 WHAT IF THE VISION CONQUERED THE WORLD?
When the Vision takes control of computers, machines, communications, and other electronics, the people of Earth band together to make life better for everyone and beat back cosmic threats. Or, conversely, everything goes down the toilet. According to this issue, either outcome is possible. Like several issues of What If?, this issue offers multiple potential alternative outcomes.
The first possibility creates a golden age, as well as Commander America, a version of Captain America who's been promoted. The second story features the Vision finally having enough of everyone’s crap, malevolently taking over, and then making plans to expand his dominion. Though this issue takes place before the rise of the internet in public awareness, the Vision’s reach into everyone’s electronics craftily predicts today’s Internet of Things.
11 WHAT IF AUNT MAN GOT BITTEN BY THE RADIOACTIVE SPIDER?
Spider-Granny? The Unbreakable Hip? ArachAunt? The venerable Aunt May receives none of these codenames after she’s bitten by a radioactive spider instead of Peter Parker in this back-up story from the '80s. Aunt May struggles to balance her responsibility to her constitutionally-challenged nephew with the power she now finds she possesses. Not to mention, sometimes villains like the Leapfrog attack, interrupting her television stories.
Peter is depicted as the walliest of wallflowers who faints dead away at the merest possibility of danger. The story makes you wonder about the Peter's constitution -- his powers have had as much affect on his personality as Uncle Ben's famous lesson. Though this is a bright, goofy tale, it acknowledges the underlying tragedy that marks the “real” Spider-Man origin. Uncle Ben doesn’t die in this version, but he spends the entire story sleeping quietly on his chair!
10 WHAT IF THE AVENGERS FOUGHT EVIL IN THE '50S?
In this alternate universe, observed by The Avengers we would recognize thanks to the Dimensional Transporter, classic characters from the pre-Marvel days band together to fight the villainously stereotypical Yellow Claw. These Avengers include the goddess Venus, 3-D Man, Jann of the Jungle, Gorilla-Man, Marvel Boy, Namora, and M-11 (the Robot). They band together to rescue the kidnapped Dwight D. Eisenhower. In the end, these different Avengers are successful, of course, and the modern-day Avengers are left to contemplate the similarities between the groups.
While many What If stories identify points of divergence in comics history, this story imagines a story that never was. It retroactively applies the Super Team concept to characters that had never banded together before, creating a pleasingly deep dive into Marvel's history. The Avengers of the '50s would return to comics much later as the Agents of Atlas.
9 WHAT IF INVISIBLE GIRL MARRIED THE SUB-MARINER?
This story by comic greats Bill Mantlo and Gene Colan is truly an artifact of its time. The story begins by revisiting both the early days of the Fantastic Four in the 616-Universe, and the universe of What If #1. From there, we visit Atlantis, where Susan Storm is married to Namor, and the couple is expecting a child.
Namor asks Sue if she regrets having given up her life on the surface, and she responds “How could I? You’ve been a more attentive husband than a woman has a right to ask.“ Of course, superheroes have to fight each other, and Reed Richards has always been a pompous jerk. Unlike so many dark What If stories, Sue gives birth to a healthy baby. Given the history of Sue’s treatment in comics, having her pregnant in Atlantis could have gone way worse.
8 WHAT IF THE GREEN GOBLIN HAD THE INFINITY GAUNTLET?
Some people are never happy. Give a guy the ability to manipulate the very fabric of the universe itself, and you’d think he’d find a way to be content. But not Norman Osborn. He’s too damaged by his abusive father to ever be happy. In this issue, Osborn uses his vast resources and powers of manipulation to acquire all the Infinity Gems. Then he’s off to the races, running the world as he sees fit.
In one particularly awful sequence, he uses his ability to control time to force Spider-Man to relive the death of Gwen Stacy over and over. Like all good stories about nigh-invincible characters, Osborn becomes his own undoing. You know what happens when you get so ticked off at your father that you completely erase him from ever existing? Let’s just say you won’t be blowing out birthday candles any time soon.
7 WHAT IF BANNER WAS SAVAGE AND HULK WAS SMART?
In this universe, the Incredible Hulk’s origin story is reframed as a story of domestic abuse. After Bruce Banner is irradiated by the gamma explosion, instead of his innate rage being manifested as the Hulk, Banner manifests his compassion and intellect by transforming into an energy being. That leaves his human form to represent his hurtful side.
And hurtful it is. He abuses his wife, Betty, physically and emotionally. Seeing Banner portrayed this way is extremely off-putting, and it's supposed to be. This story appears on this list because it’s a surprisingly real depiction of the horror of domestic abuse. Hulk’s stories have often had a psychological underpinning, but here readers see just how badly things could have gone as a result of the gamma explosion.
6 WHAT IF SPIDER-MAN MARRIED THE BLACK CAT?
The people in charge of What If must’ve had a cake decorating business on the side, because they sure did like having people get married. In this universe, Peter Parker and Felicia Hardy finally make good on their longstanding flirtatious relationship and dive deep into marriage. But their Niagra Falls honeymoon doesn’t go as planned.
As they prepare to consummate their union, things don’t go exactly as planned. Though they excite each other as Spider-Man and the Black Cat, the pairing of Peter and Felicia isn’t quite as hot. Add to that the usual complications of Peter Parker’s love life, and you know how it’ll turn out. Peter ends up happily coupled-off by the end of the story, but it’s not with who you’d think it is!
5 WHAT IF DANGER BECAME THE BRIDE OF ULTRON?
Did you get your Save-The-Date card? Because it's time for another What If? wedding! How does a pre-programmed deadly high-tech obstacle course gain sentience and lady parts? It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Ultron has taken notice, and he’s on the prowl. Based upon the stories that featured an “alive” Danger Room, here, Danger is upset that Xavier ignored her blossoming consciousness. As a result, Ultron takes notice, and the two fall madly in love. Emphasis on the “mad” part.
Their union results in the “birth” of a cobbled together Sentinel. It’s a truly horrific mishmash of parts with three faces and utterly devoted to its parents. One of its first actions is to bring its parents a gift: Charles Xavier. Professor X’s powers only work on beings with organic minds, so you can figure out how this ends.
4 WHAT IF WOLVERINE WAS AN AGENT OF SHIELD?
In this version of the story that appears in the famous Incredible Hulk #181, instead of going with Professor X and the X-Men, Wolverine is contacted by Nick Fury and Alpha Flight's James Hudson. Logan is placed on "loan" to SHIELD by the Canadian government.
Wolverine spends the issue slashing and “bub”-ing his way through waves of Hydra robots, before settling in as an agent of SHIELD in good standing. The twist is that Nick Fury dies while fighting Baron von Strucker, and Wolverine gets offered the director job. One can only imagine Wolverine, sitting behind a desk, thinking to himself, “I’m the best there is at what I do, and what I do is file these reports in a timely fashion. In triplicate.” Then he berserker rages on the copy machine because it tore up his originals.
3 WHAT IF NO ONE WAS WATCHING THE WATCHER?
The answer to the title question is only provided on the cover of this all-humor special, and apparently, when no one is watching, Uatu dresses like Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. Turns out, Uatu has got pretty good legs for a . . . whatever he is. The issue includes some other What If gems, like “What if Dr. Doom was a pediatrician?” and “What if industrialist Tony Stark owned a chain of laundromats?” You also get to learn what happens if the Leader decides to buy a hat!
The lead story, “What If Thanos Changed Galactus Into A Human Being?,” is credited to writer Scott Gimple. Scott M. Gimple is associated with The Walking Dead, as well as other comics, but we can’t find confirmation that this gem is one of his. Mr. Gimple, if you’re out there, drop us a line, please.
2 WHAT IF THE PUNISHER BECAME CAPTAIN AMERICA?
In the regular Marvel reality, Frank Castle is a deadly anti-hero, his skills bred on the Vietnam battlefield and his mission born in the park where his family was gunned down. All this remains true in this universe, but instead, the government is on the lookout for a new Captain America, and their choice is Castle.
Frank resists his own selection at first, unwilling to work for the government who sent its young men to a needless war and unable to moderate his approach to villains. But Captain America himself, Steve Rogers, thinks Frank is the man for the job. When Cap tells you you're good enough for a mission, you listen. Given recent events in the Marvel Universe, maybe having a mass-murderer Captain America isn’t that crazy, after all.
1 WHAT IF PETER PARKER WAS BIT BY A RADIOACTIVE SHEEP?
So this isn’t a full story, but one of a collection of fake covers in the back of issue 100 of What If? Volume 2. The collection also includes a cover for Wolver-Wimp (he has a styrofoam skeleton!) and X-SE: Xavier’s Sales Executives, where “80 years in the future, comics sell like hotcakes!” It's a very good example of the freedom to get crazy that the What If? format offered its creators from cover to cover.
Just think of the powers a chew from a radioactive sheep could provide: advanced grass digestion, super-wool, and the ability to taste lovely with curry. What makes the Sensational Sheep-Boy number one on our list? The callback to “The Clone Saga,” of course. It just goes to show that even alternative universes can’t destroy that burning trash heap of a story.
Have a different favorite alternative universe story? Let us know about it in the comments!