WHAT IF…? Marvel Comics throw out conventional storytelling and let your imagination run wild! Let’s face it, when you’re a kid playing with your toys, making the good guys bad and the bad guys worse always makes them more interesting. Marvel took this idea to the comic book world in the late 1970s and never looked back. Here’s the background on Marvel’s WHAT IF…? comics and a comprehensive list of volumes to delve into!
About WHAT IF…? Comics
Marvel’s WHAT IF…? is a comic book anthology series published by Marvel Comics whose stories explore how the Marvel Universe might have unfolded if crucial moments in its history had not occurred as they did in mainstream continuity. Since WHAT IF…? debuted in 1977, the comics have been published in 13 volumes and occasional one-shots. The inaugural series (1977–1984) featured the alien Uatu the Watcher as a narrator. From his base on the Moon, Uatu observes both Earth and alternate realities.
Most WHAT IF…? stories begin with Uatu describing an event in the mainstream Marvel Universe, then introducing a divergent point in that event and then describing the consequences of the divergence. Uatu was used similarly in the second series (1989–1998) until, in the Fantastic Four, Uatu was punished for destroying another Watcher. This made the use of Uatu improbable, so the character was phased out to its last appearance in issue #76.
Without a framing device, the stories themselves became the focus. In later series, some writers chose to introduce alternative narrators. For example, in volume 3, in WHAT IF…Karen Page Had Lived?, WHAT IF…Jessica Jones Had Joined the Avengers? and in Daredevil (2005), Brian Michael Bendis, the writer himself, makes a cameo as narrator.
In the early 2006 series, a hacker opened the six issues using his online alias, the Watcher.
Marvel has given several WHAT IF…? stories official numerical designations to make them contiguous with the Marvel Multiverse and differentiate them from the main Marvel Universe of Earth-616. Marvel Comics occasionally issued backup features, Untold Tales From the Marvel Universe. These stories explained the origins of some of Marvel’s superhuman races.
Marvel Comics WHAT IF…? Volume 1
The initial 47-issue series ran from February 1977 to October 1984. The first WHAT IF…? story was WHAT IF…Spider-Man had Joined the Fantastic Four? It presented an alternate version of events seen in The Amazing Spider-Man #1 (1963). WHAT IF…? #24, which is titled WHAT IF…Gwen Stacy had lived?, focuses on the consequences of Spider-Man’s secret identity being publicly exposed, is one of the most highly regarded WHAT IF…? stories.
After its cancellation, Marvel published a one-shot WHAT IF…? Special (June 1988) with the story WHAT IF…Iron Man Had Been a Traitor?
WHAT IF…? Volume 2
WHAT IF…? (vol. 2) #105 (February 1998), debuted Spider-Girl, with cover art by Ron Frenz. From July 1989 to November 1998, Marvel published 115 monthly WHAT IF…? stories (114 issues plus a #-1 issue). The second series revisited and revised ideas from volume 1. In volume 2, stories could span multiple issues (every issue in volume 1 contained a complete story). Also, some of the volume 2 stories would offer multiple plots and endings, and the reader could decide which one to adopt. For example, in WHAT IF…the War Machine had not destroyed the Living Laser? three conclusions were offered.
The humorous aspect of volume 1 was retained through volume 2, particularly in issue #34, an all-humor issue containing several single-page gags and two complete stories. Issue #105, What If…? introduced Spider-Girl (Mayday Parker), the new character was famous enough for a spin-off series. From this, the MC2 line of publications was developed. For a brief period between 1995 and 1996, all What If…? stories were labeled as Marvel Alterniverse, including Ruins, The Last Avengers Story, and Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe.
Marvel Comics WHAT IF…? Volume 3
In February 2005, Marvel published a further six issues of WHAT IF…?. They were all in the “one-shot” format. The editor, Justin Gabrie, attributed volume 3 to a suggestion from C. B. Cebulski. Marvel also published a single parody edition called Wha…Huh?!? in August 2005.
WHAT IF…? Volume 4
In February 2006, the publication of volume 4 began. Again, there were six issues in the “one-shot” format. However, rather than follow the WHAT IF…? tradition of using divergence from a specific plot point, Volume 4 more closely resembled the DC Comics, Elseworlds, which presents continuities based on alternative versions in canon. For example, Superman: Red Son is a story where Superman was raised in the Soviet Union instead of the United States.
All but one of the volume 4 issues uses this format, explained by Uatu the Watcher having discovered historical documents from an alternative dimension. From the Japanese feudal era, the divergence of a shared alternate universe, Earth-717, begins. This divergence is the time when a Daredevil hero known as “the Devil Who Dares” appears. It is also the realm where characters are given alternative life histories and proceed in alternative historical periods.
Examples from volume 4 include Captain America battling the White Skull during the American Civil War; Wolverine taking on the role of the Punisher and fighting mobsters in 1920s Prohibition-era Chicago; Namor the Sub-Mariner being raised by his father on the surface during World War II; Thor becoming a herald of Galactus; and a Soviet version of the Fantastic Four, known as the Ultimate Federalist Freedom Fighters, consisting of Rudion Richards, Colossus, Magik, and the Widow Maker, during the Cold War.
Marvel Comics WHAT IF…? Volume 5
In 2006, Marvel published another set of WHAT IF…? comics, including one based on the Spider-Man story The Other.
WHAT IF…? Volume 6
Volume 6 consists of five issues (2007–2008). A sixth, WHAT IF…This Was the Fantastic Four, featuring Spider-Man, Wolverine, Ghost Rider, and Hulk, was to be released in November 2007, but it was withheld due to the death of Mike Wieringo. WHAT IF…This Was the Fantastic Four was released as a tribute to Wieringo in June 2008 as a 48-page special. All its proceeds went to the Hero Initiative.
The other issues were: WHAT IF…Planet Hulk (October 2007), WHAT IF…Annihilation (November 2007), two WHAT IF…? specials for Civil War and X-Men: Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire (December 2007), and WHAT IF…? Spider-Man vs. Wolverine (January 2008). These issues were collected into a trade paperback, WHAT IF…? Civil War.
Marvel Comics WHAT IF…? Volume 7
In December 2008, Marvel published five WHAT IF…? specials that appeared weekly. They included: Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America, House of M, Spider-Man: Back in Black, and Secret Wars. A new Fantastic Four consisted of the Hulk, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Wolverine. In addition, a storyline featuring the Runaways as the Young Avengers ran throughout Volume 7.
WHAT IF…? Volume 8
In December 2009, a new series was published. Volume 8 focused on three recent events in the Marvel Universe: Spider-Man: House of M, World War Hulk, and Secret Invasion. There was also an edition about the Astonishing X-Men and a classic WHAT IF…? about Daredevil and Elektra. Except for this last issue, each comic in Volume 8 featured two alternatives for the event.
Marvel Comics WHAT IF…? Volume 9
In September 2010, Marvel announced the ninth series of five WHAT IF…? issues in the one-shot format, released in December 2010. Issues 2-5 of volume 9 were not numbered.
WHAT IF…? #200 was an extra-sized edition featuring two stories. It presented an alternative for the Siege Marvel Universe event, asking what might have happened if the Sentry had not lost control and Norman Osborn had conquered Asgard. The second story examined “The Galactus Trilogy” and was written by Stan Lee, the original author.
WHAT IF…? Volume 10
On March 22, 2013, Marvel’s editor-in-chief Axel Alonso revealed to Comic Book Resources that WHAT IF…? was coming back with WHAT IF…? Avengers vs. X-Men, a four-issue limited series written by Jimmy Palmiotti and illustrated by Jorge Molina.
Marvel Comics WHAT IF…? Volume 11
In April 2014, Marvel released the five-issue series WHAT IF…? Age of Ultron, which branched out of the 2013 event and examined the consequences of Wolverine going back in time to kill Hank Pym before he created Ultron. Each issue explored what a new universe would be like, which arose from removing another core Avenger, with the Wasp in #1, Iron Man in #2, Thor in #3, and Captain America in #4. Eventually, the series concluded in #5 with a world where Hank Pym never created Ultron in the first place and, thus, a universe without Ultron’s creation of the Vision.
WHAT IF…? Volume 12
In October 2015, Marvel released another five-part series of WHAT IF…? This time focused on the 2013 event Infinity, which saw the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Inhumans, and other groups dealing with a combined threat of a universal incursion by the Builders (the universe’s oldest race) and an attack on Earth by Thanos and his forces. Each issue is a one-shot, and the first four explore a different outcome to the event. The fifth, WHAT IF…? Infinity: Dark Reign, presents a world in which Norman Osborn and the Dark Avengers had acquired the Infinity Gauntlet during the Dark Reign event.
Marvel Comics WHAT IF…? Volume 13
In October 2018, Marvel released six more one-shots of WHAT IF…?. In addition, Marvel also released several $1.00 True Believer reprints of the classic WHAT IF… ? issues during that month.
So yea, there’s just a few volumes of WHAT IF…? to read if you want to familiarize yourself with the comics as you watch Marvel’s WHAT IF…? series. The good news is none of it is canon, so you don’t have to read anything in any particular order. You can pick and choose what you like, without strings attached. This sort of reading can be liberating. However, you might want to read the mainstream story to get a reference of what really happened.
Star Wars Infinities
From 2002-2004, Dark Horse Comics published a Star Wars series called Infinities, which had a very similar concept. Each 3-4 issue story-arc re-told an alternate non-canon version of an original trilogy movie. These are some of my favorite Star Wars comics because it’s always fun flipping the script and playing WHAT IF…?
For More on Marvel’s WHAT IF…?
For a review on the first episode of Marvel’s WHAT IF…? tv series, check out Review: Marvel’s WHAT IF…?: A Comic Book Brought to LIfe. And for a sneak peek behind the scenes check out: About Marvel’s WHAT IF…? Fun Facts and Behind-the-scenes Stories.