I was surprised when I read that Marvel was developing a series based on its comic book series What If for the Disney+ streaming service. At certain periods in my life I’ve been a weekly comic book buyer, but for the most part growing up I was a casual reader. What If? was a favorite series of mine for awhile, but I never took it particularly seriously, because you weren’t supposed to. The series looked at pivotal moments in the history of Marvel Comics, and presented them with some sort of twist. Alternate reality in what was already a fictional universe always struck me as sort of silly, but the series was fun and for people like me who didn’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the company, it exposed me to events and storylines that I was only vaguely or not at all familiar with. It was sort of like a Marvel Comics Cliff’s Notes.
My first exposure to comic books occurred around 1990, when I was 10. Our friendly neighborhood Drug Mart had a comics rack in the toy aisle, where I was first exposed to your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, along with Hulk, the X-Men, Ghost Rider, and other titles that soon became favorites of mine. The other place I encountered comic books was Marc’s. Marc’s is an Ohio-based discount chain that is akin to a Big Lots, another Ohio-based discount chain, but one that has some nationwide presence. I’m realizing now that it also resembled Gold Circle, yet another (defunct) Ohio discount chain, and this has become a paragraph about Ohio dirt mall stores, of which there were many. To make a comparison that everybody will understand, Marc’s is a cheaper Target. To get back to the point prior to this digression, Marc’s carried comic books. There was no rhyme or reason to what it had in stock. It would sell collected four and six packs featuring an assortment of comics, ideal for a little kid who knew he liked comic books but didn’t know anything about what was available out there.
It was in one of these four packs that I discovered What If? (vol. 2) #25 “What if The Marvel Super Heroes Had Lost Atlantis Attacks?” published in 1991.
What If? #25 was set during the Atlantis Attacks storyline. This meant nothing to me at the time and honestly doesn’t mean much more today because I never sought out the actual arc. I’m aware that it isn’t a major event, just one of those crossovers used to fill the pages of a bunch of titles’ annuals and link most of the heroes of the Marvel Universe together in one arc. This is why it was perfect for me, and why it became my favorite comic book issue for a long time despite my never having read a book featuring the Atlanteans or a Namor title, or Atlantis Attacks itself. It put all of the heroes together in one book and also exposed me to heroes that were new to me, like Cloak and Dagger. Bigger than all of this, the heroes in the story died. Practically all of them died. I didn’t know at the time that Marvel superheroes are constantly dying when the story calls for it or the title needs a sales boost. Even though this was an alternate timeline this was a big deal.
After reading Atlantis Attacks I was a What If? fan, and I sought out more. Thankfully it was a monthly title that Drug Mart carried for awhile so I began buying it monthly. Here are a couple more of my favorites.
What if (Vol. 2) #33 “What if Phoenix Rose Again?”
This title demonstrates some of the creative laziness of this title considering that Marvel did “What if Phoenix Had Never Died” a couple of years before, but I didn’t see the first one so it was great for me. By this time I was a monthly Uncanny X-Men reader and had also gotten into X-Force and X-Men, and I was eager for more exposure to the Dark Phoenix saga.
In this particular story, Jean gets her Phoenix powers back but keeps them hidden until the Sentinels attack all mutants following Henry Gyrich becoming present after the current president is assassinated. Jean turns into Dark Phoenix and goes off, wrecking every Sentinel before flying off to be one with the cosmos in order to protect everybody from herself.
What If? (Vol. 2) #50 “What if The Hulk Had Killed Wolverine?”
This one checked so many boxes for me. #1 it featured Hulk. The early 1990s part of Peter David’s Incredible Hulk run was my favorite comic at the time and one of my favorite runs of any comic series I’ve ever read. #2 it’s got Wolverine. As I just mentioned, I was reading several X-Men titles at the time, so you’ve already covered about 40% of my comic book interest. #3 Foil cover. Comic book companies figured out in the early 1990s that if they started issuing variant covers or foil or holographic covers for #1s and anniversary issues kids would buy them because they looked cool and important and casual adult readers would buy them thinking they were collector’s items, because people are dumb and we never stopped to consider how massive the print runs were. This is why you can buy this issue now on eBay for around the $2.50 it retailed for in 1993.
All comic book readers know the set of circumstances that form the basis for this story. Wolverine was introduced in the pages of The Incredible Hulk. Hulk is in the Canadian wilderness fighting Wendigo, Wolverine shows up, they team up to take down Wendigo and then fight each other. Hello world, I’m Wolverine. I’m short and hairy and I smoke cigars and say “Bub” a lot. You’re all gonna love me.
In this issue, however, Wolverine doesn’t survive the fight, thereby changing the course of X-Men history and Hugh Jackman’s career. The world will never be the same because The Greatest Showman never gets made, and my friend Patrick Reilly is sad.
So that’s a look at the world of What If? It’s always served as a way to dig into old events and present them to new audiences, and tell new stories without hardcore comic book fans having rage strokes due to messing with continuity. I will probably sign up for Disney+ and most likely watch the show. Hopefully they do Atlantis Attacks.
Did you read What If? What was your favorite issue? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.
Unfortunately my favorite What If? volume isn’t available in trade form, but if you’d like to check out the series from the beginning you can start at the link below. I actually bought this for myself recently.
This was a bit confusing to me having not grown up with comics, but I love sharing your childhood again, It kind of makes me want to buy comic books.