Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What if DocStout Wrote About Alternate Marvel Universes? - A Look at Marvel's "What If?" titles.

Even back in the late 1980s when I started reading comic books and following several storylines, there was a whole lot of catching up to do for anyone just getting started in order to fully understand what was going on. No one had thought of publishing trades to collect popular stories and the internet wasn't yet up to the task, so hanging around the comic shop looking at back issues and listening to the conversations of older comic geeks was one of very few ways to fill in major events in comic continuity. Fortunately, it wasn't the only way, as one of my very favorite titles Marvel ever produced showed key events as they happened... and then examined what would have transpired if things had gone differently.

The very first issue, nearly as old as I am.

What If? from Marvel has run off and on as a regular series or limited editions (one shots or short runs) from February 1977 through a five issues published in December of 2010. The cover typically shows a classic moment from Marvel history with some shocking twist, and the question is posed 'What if...?' things had gone just a bit differently, and in many cases, the point of divergence seems minor or very nearly happened in this alternate way, and the story is taken to a logical, if extreme, conclusion. Typical rules set up for characters in Marvel stories do not apply in the alternate universes and fan favorites can (and do) die, commit murder, destroy worlds or realities, etc...

For quite a long time, Uatu, a member of an alien interdimensional race called The Watchers who observe all realities but whose laws permit them from interfering, served as the series' narrator. The first few pages of each issue would provide a concise summary of events as they really happened in the Marvel Universe, which is what drew me to the title initially, and then the story focuses on the point of divergence. Uatu walks the reader through the tale pointing out important events necessary to comprehend the changes in the alternate story, and usually wraps up the story whether the ending is happy, tragic or bittersweet. Uatu himself has appeared in many other titles over the years, most notably in Fantastic Four comics, where he has broken his non-interference oath at least once.

For a character that turns up mostly as a plot device, he's been in a lot of  comic books.

More recently, the standard framing and plot device of a character narrator and focusing on events as they happened and a point of divergence has been phased out over time. After the end of What If? as a regular monthly or bi-monthly title, individual issues may have a narrator or not, and frequently the issue covers are made to look like issues within the comic series they are diverging from. On occasion, realities focused on in particularly popular issues of the comic have returned for “sequels” of a sort, where a new tale is told in the world that resulted from a particular What If? scenario. One of these, “What If?” #105 told the story of Spider-girl, daughter of Peter Parker, and spawned the MC2 spinoff continuity.

I found through the years of reading What If? that I had a better grasp of key moments in a lot of titles that I never collected than some of the fans of those particular comics did. Character motivations become clear when you see the same hero thrust into many different crises, some with no possibility of any happy resolution. The issue that hooked me initially was titled “What if Wolverine Had Become Lord of the Vampires?” and it made the strengths and relationships between a host of different heroes and villains apparent in the rise of a Vampire Lord with all Dracula's powers as well as all of Wolverine's tenacity, instinct and his admantium skeleton. This series, and how it captured the imagination was the precursor for Marvel events like Marvel Zombies. Showing how a hero fails sometimes tells you more about them than consistently seeing them win.

Aside from 1990s Ghost Rider comics, this was one of the most important comic issues for me, ever.

More recently, the title has been revived for limited runs of one-shot comics, typically giving the alternate universe treatment to whatever major Marvel event is taking place at the time. These titles will likely fall into the “must have” lists of the collectors who seek out every issue in crossover events like Civil War or House of M, and I would expect that within the next few years we'll be seeing a What If title for Fear Itself (which I'll return to once enough of it has come out to warrant a full review.) Other one-shots have returned to the classic formula with titles like “What if this was the Fantastic Four?” featuring Spider-Man, Wolverine, Ghost Rider and Hulk, which was dedicated to the passing of Mike Wieringo in 2008.

I haven't read this one, but I like to believe that it is really
"What if Tony Stark wasn't such a douche during the Civil War story?"

It has been a little while since I gave out more of my 10 required nominations for The Stylish Blogger Award, so I figure I'll take this opportunity to nominate two more. Another link back here (near the bottom) to the “strings attached” rules for this award, and congratulations to the deserving recipients!

First up, we have The Lead Will Walk The Earth, an amazing blog about zombies, and more particularly gaming with zombie miniatures. Great photgraphy, scenario battle reports, and lots of rotting flesh.

My second nomination is to Rob's Nerd Blog, which goes from Song-a-Day to movie reviews and quite a few miscellaneous interesting articles.

Check these guys out, let 'em know I sent you, and sound off in the comments about Marvel's What If? or anything else in today's post.
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The Angry Lurker said...

I have a lot of these bad boys still, already follow those blogs.

Zombie Ad said...

These are great. I'm a big fan of the Star Wars Infinities line - similar theme, but in a galaxy far, far away.

Zombie Ad said...

I almost missed it, how foolish of me. Thank you for the nomination Sir :)

Alpha said...

That patriotic Iron Man looks pretty tight, I must say.

A Beer for the Shower said...

Tony Stark was such a douche during Civil War, in fact, that I gave up buying Marvel titles altogether. Actually, I just got tired of the non-permanent plot results of the increasingly tired storylines that plague the big two. Everything should come to an end. It's better to burn out than fade away, right? Even The Walking Dead is starting to get on my nerves. Sorry to rant.


Jay said...


i'll look for more titles like this. :)

Rob said...

Thanks for the nomination :D

I find the what if stories to be a little silly sometimes, but they are all pretty good.

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