One of my favourite comics from the ‘80s into the early ‘90s was Marvel’s What If? Each month, a different alternate reality would be explored – What If The Hulk were blue? What if the Fantastic Four were five? What if Wolverine was really even-tempered?
What If? was my gateway drug into how wackily vast and imaginative the comics cosmos could be. The first issues I remember getting were ones like “What If Wolverine Killed The Hulk?” and “What If Conan Walked The Earth Today?” (which is solid GOLD).
The biggest geek-appeal of What Ifs were that in retelling classic stories with a twist, characters could die – hell, everybody could die. “What if The Hulk Went Berserk?” was an issue that scarred the heck out of teenage me because I walked in expecting a typical Hulk story and then characters like Iron Man and The Thing started dropping like flies… oh, and it ended with Thor snapping the Hulk’s NECK which is pretty darned grimdark, ain’t it?
The original What If? series lasted 47 issues up until 1984, most of which are pretty darned fun. The second series started in 1989 and ground on until the late 1990s but it got to be pretty darned bad by the end, going full-1990s with utterly horrible art and stories that were less grimdark and more straight-out nihilism.
Since then, alternate realities have become pretty damned boring, mostly because they’re way overused in comics. We saw it with the X-Men “Age of Apocalypse” crossover in the mid-1990s and Jim Lee’s “Heroes Reborn” event, and now you can’t go five minutes without some other dark/doomed/daring reimagining of an existing character. I’ll take a battered 1980s issue of What If? any time where the tragic story of Spider-Man’s marriage is done and over in one issue rather than yet another all-encompassing comics event any day.
A cursory look at comics from the last few months turns up “Infinity Wars” (Marvel characters like Captain America/Dr. Strange mashed up, again!), “The Batman Who Laughs” (what if Batman was REALLY dark?), “Spider-Gwen,” “Spider-Noir” and a hundred more variations of Spider-Man. Not saying these are all terrible stories (although a lot are), but the main thing is that the novelty is gone. Whoa, you just showed me an alternative world where Superman is DEAD? I’ve seen that six times this week already, son.
Amusingly, at least half of the stories in the old 1980s What If? series have actually “happened” in comics in the years since then, to varying returns. Marvel brushes off the What If? brand every few years with a few one-shots but they’re never as memorable as the old issues in my mind. When everything’s an alternate reality in a multiverse of characters, asking What If? isn’t as fun a question as it once was.