What If… ?: the infinite Marvel possibilities

What If… ?: the infinite Marvel possibilities

What If… ?

An old proverb from our part of Italy, states "With the ifs and buts, history is not made", and like many pearls of popular wisdom, it is easy to find the truth hidden behind this simple rhyme but in the world of reality, of things and of material people the past is immutable, and as much as we would like to be able to go back in time to choose another solution to one of the great crossroads of life, this is precluded to us by any law of nature known to us. But when we talk about stories, the world made of paper and ink, then obviously everything changes, and this was also the opinion of Marvel comics in 1977 when it launched a new newspaper called simply What if…? .


The origins of the myth

The idea behind the project was by Roy Thomas, former editor-in-chief of the publishing house, an extremely expert screenwriter and right-hand man of Stan "The Man" Lee, who has always been fascinated by old comic stories and even more by characters in general. Thomas loved playing with a very large cast in his stories, but after years of working on the infamous comic continuity, he was tired of having to coordinate with everything that had happened in the Marvel universe, even though it was just the great cohesion between the stories that it meant that every action that took place in a comic had consequences in other newspapers as well, one of the factors that came to make the publishing house the giant it had become.

The fact is, that Thomas thought about the various editorial meetings of the house of ideas, and remembered that Lee often used the expression What If ...? or "What if?", referring to the adventures of the various men and women in overalls implying a whole plethora of narrative possibilities (What if we changed Spider-Man's costume? What if we killed Captain America?), and the good Roy knew very well that if a series with a catchy title were presented to Lee and hit him, the bulk of the work to get the boss to accept the project would have been good. The rest of the pitch was very simple: this new series would have hosted adventures outside the general continuity of the stories, but based precisely on the focal points of the life of some leading characters, exploring what would have happened if a different choice had been made than the “correct” exploration that you too can do by reading the collections of these books.

Over the years, the idea of ​​creating hypothetical stories based on impossible What If…? it had also been used often by the competitor DC comics, which usually published this adventures not in a special register, but directly within the regular series of Batman and associates, and the gimmick was so widespread that it even appeared in the legendary "Ultima Superman adventure ", that is" What happened to the man of tomorrow? " by Alan Moore and Curt Swan, who in a caption on the front page assure us that we are not faced with “A dream, or an imaginary story”, but no one had yet thought of giving much more space to this concept. Lee found the proposal interesting, and he found it even more intriguing when Roy Thomas told him that each story would be introduced by Uatu the Watcher, a humanoid alien created by Lee and Jack "King" Kirby on the pages of the Fantastic Four, the whose main task was to observe and record all the events in the history of our planet. The presence of Uatu would have been the perfect anchor to reassure the reader that he is reading a Marvel comic story, linked in some way to the universe of the house of ideas, and not some ramshackle project, and so the first will be put in place. issue of this new epic, which will directly take inspiration from the first issue of "The Amazing Spider-man" by Stan Lee and Steve Dikto, wondering what would have happened if, Spider-Man had decided to join the Fantastic Four at the beginning of his career?

Once the door to the impossible was opened, ideas started pouring in: What would have happened if the Avengers never got together? What would have happened if Nick Fury had fought World War II in space ?, and at times it even took the time to create some totally humorous releases, made up of gags and crazy stories. After all, What If…? it was the first Marvel newspaper to represent new narrative possibilities for its characters, but there was talk of serious narrative possibilities.

The comic side of the story

If instead we wanted to take a very brief detour into the past, we could easily take a leap in 1967, when Stan Lee, in his quest to compete with the historic humor magazine known as "MAD", he will not decide to launch himself into the field of comic and parody comics, parodying himself ... himself and his collaborators.

In a cult series called "Not Brand Eech ”, Stan Lee explored a world where all the characters of the publishing house were notable jerks, delighting us with stories and adventures that, although dated, contain some jokes that still make us laugh out loud today. Furthermore, Not Brand not only had a comic verve on his side in writing, but also boasted the same great authors on his drawings that we could see on the "regular" series, in a refined metatextual game that saw artists make fun not only of their creations , but also their tics and their idiosyncrasies, with a self-deprecating spirit, symbol of the Marvel style, and which also permeated What If…? , which was a rather complex series after all. Indeed, it was possible that the deviation from the canon was written by the person who built the canon, showing us within the series, for example, how Frank Miller would change his own iconic cycle dedicated to Daredevil.

The first cycle of What If…? will be published for 47 bimonthly issues, ending its run in 1984, without too much fanfare, interest in hypothetical series seemed to have calmed down, but when in 1988 Marvel will publish a special issue called "What would have happened if Iron Man Were was a traitor? " , something moved. And that something was the birth of "What the– ?!" , a new humorous series, inspired by both What If…? , and from “Not Brand Eeech”, which featured a new batch of very un-serious stories and parodies. Originally started as a miniseries, "What The– ?!" in a short time it will become a regular series, and will come to have 26 issues to its credit, being closed in 1993, not before having given us pearls like the coolest superhero duo ever: the liquid Latte, and the very toasty Biscotti. She can make your teeth stronger, he punches your teeth.

A welcome return, in black

The arrival of “What The - ?! " Combined with the success of the special What if…? , combined with four years of silence will rekindle the old fire in readers who will suddenly ask for more, will know they want more and so in 1989 the crowd will be heard and we will see the birth of What If…? volume 2, a brand new series that proposed new stories and solutions for these impossible worlds. First of all, if in the first series the stories were always self-contained adventures, in this new version it was possible that some hypothesis took more consecutive numbers, and secondly, the hypotheses could also ... multiply, since it happened to come across some stories that they presented themselves with more than one ending, in a sort of inception of a “What would have happened if”, inserted inside another “what would have happened if”.

From a narrative point of view, however, one thing was clear: What If…? volume 2, it was much, much more serious than its first incarnation. The possibility of being able to play with very expensive toys, and being aware of being able to break them without consequences, is indeed quite tempting, and many of the fictional 90s stories ended up being all in all grim, thus culminating in an advertisement that appeared. on the cover of issue 75 of the magazine, which announced not only the latest appearance of the Observer as presenter of this selection of divergent universes, but also a new course for the possible: the stories told were no longer simple variables, but precisely according to the editorials of the book had evolved into tales of the darker sides of the Marvel universe. We will thus have stories with horror tinges, deaths, blood and all that spirit that wanted to make everything mature at all costs typical of the 90s, in a cycle that alternated stories that were all in all valuable to others less interesting, to put it mildly. For example, it would be criminal not to mention the number 10 of the second series who wondered “What would happen if the Punisher's family had never died”, revealing to us that… she would still die, only a few months later. Because varying a little is good, but varying too much instead not apparently. Furthermore, from 1995 all the alternative stories of Marvel will take the name of "Marvel Alterniverse", almost to make a mockery of the DC competition, which had also begun to publish a whole series of hypothetical adventures under the brand "Elseworlds", but this rebranding will be of very short duration, being then shelved in 1996 (just in time to welcome some adventures published in prestigious formats such as "Ruins", "The Punisher Kills the Marvel universe" and "The Last Avengers Story"). >

Paradoxically, in the midst of the period of black themes, What If…? will also host a wave of positivity, which will arrive in number 105 of the magazine, a book that will present the adventures of May "Mayday" Parker, the daughter of the famous Spider-Man, who fights evil with the name of Spider- Girl. This single album will be so appreciated by fans and critics, that Marvel will not only decide to give Mayday its own regular series (which will be the first Marvel series with a female protagonist to exceed 100 numbers), but will launch a whole line based on the world of this hypothetical future called MC2, or "Marvel Comics 2". The line will feature the adventures of numerous children of art, and old glories, but that's another story, for another moment.

Possible futures, and impossible choices

The run of the second volume of What If…? will end with number 114, in 1998, dubbing the original series, with another story that told of hypothetical sons and sons of superheroes, perhaps with the hope of repeating the success of Spider-Girl, or perhaps just to send a message of positivity in the face of the end of this ride, we are not given to know. This time, the press blackout about ifs will last until 2005, when six What If…? published as single issues, with a second publication of six other books in 2006 (these, however, very different in structure; instead of talking about a small difference based on the canon, he told pindaric adventures such as "What would have happened if Captain America had fought the civil war ”), And from that moment the business model of the series (and of any humorous spin-offs like Wha Huh?!?) Will become rather erratic. What If…? will be released aperiodically, often in the form of miniseries, often as a "companion" to recent events of the Marvel canon, such as the megacrossover "Age of Ultron" or "Infinity".

This is not only to make the series more appealing to new readers, and to capitalize even more on the big events, but also because, with a kind of delicious irony, many old What If…? , it was no longer hypothetical stories. Let me explain, in the first issue of the series, we were told what would happen if Spider-Man had become a member of the Fantastic Four, seen from the perspective of 1977. Here, the wall climber will enter the Fantastic Four in 1990. Let's take another example, in 1981 we asked ourselves: "What would have happened if the Spider-Man clone had remained alive", and we had an answer in the 90s with a very long epic called "The Saga of the Clone". And the examples certainly do not stop there, or to Spider-Man or Spider-man if you prefer.

Going a little beyond the simple reading of comics, and perhaps also browsing through editorials and interviews, is It is easy to see how many ideas that had been proposed in a certain period of the characters' life, and promptly rejected for this or that reason, were then accepted years later if proposed at different times and by different authors, and paradoxically What If…? it had become a mine of this casuistry. After all, the stories, adventures and situations that a 70's audience would have found crazy, can have a completely different flavor for us, and some ideas are too strong or interesting to remain in the drawers of dust, or confined to 22 pages, and it is perhaps the natural course of things that linger in the minds of readers and insiders until they have a chance to jump out, and steal their place in the sun. Only time will tell, if sooner or later the alternate versions of Marvel reality that we have seen from 2005 to today, will come to life in the canon like their 70s counterparts, but it is certainly a good start to note how from 2018 the most recent What If , have returned to the original formula, which you can explore here, therefore disconnected from major events, and in some cases as in some recent miniseries, disconnected from the What If…? brand. , in short, surprises when it comes to this publication are always around the corner

What If ...? , in all its incarnations, it was a very interesting experiment, under multiple levels of reading, although it was obviously a series that based all its appeal on the hard core of the fans, on who the old stories had loved and made their own, leaving a novice readers, or those less accustomed to the superhero style, who reading the magazine could certainly find a lot of quality, but also a bit of confusion. The fact remains that, we were faced with not only a series that allowed us to fly with the imagination and hope that, in another world, some historical events had gone differently, creating new situations and revitalizing old stories, but it was also a starting point for readers to think, and to go beyond their comfort zone, perhaps pushing them to invent stories, adventures, imaginary stories themselves. Also because, as Alan Moore said, we talk about imaginary stories, but aren't they all?

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