Since time immemorial, people have always asked that most nebulous of questions; What if…?

What if the sun does not rise tomorrow?

More questions.

What if I married Joe instead of Jane?

What if I was made of donuts? Instead of flesh and blood made mortal and cognizant of its place in the grand cosmos?

And so on and so forth.

As children, we revel in such philosophical and imaginative exercises. This is simply another part of us, as humans. Coming to understand our place in the grand scheme of things—another way to explore who we are as individuals. Since the invention of the superhero comic, kids (and as we all know, angry adults online) have always debated about who could best who in the ultimate match.

Superman versus Batman. Superman versus Darth Vader. Daleks versus Superman. Superman versus Superman (it sure seems like Superman is always in the debate somewhere). The Last Son of Krypton aside, in the late 1970s, at the height of disco, soaring gas prices, cocaine binges, bell bottoms, feathered hair, and America’s disillusionment with the conflict in Vietnam, Marvel Comics sought to blaze that trail of childhood flights of fancy and give the world the spinoff title it so sorely seemed to need; an answer to some of those speculative questions.

What May Have Come to Pass…

Starting in 1977, What If Spider-Man had Joined the Fantastic Four? introduced comic book fans to Marvel’s grand experiment. These What If? comics that ended their initial run in 1984, helped to establish the foundations of what is now known as the Marvel Comics Multiverse. Here, writers and artists were given free reign to take the established Marvel canon and change it up. Over the years, the series has come and gone, always asking those questions and always willing to get answers however bizarre they may be.

More Exposure For The New And The Weird

These comics not only set the stage for so much to come down the pike for the mainstream Marvel comics, but they also put the spotlight on the alien species known simply as the Watchers—most notably on Uatu the Watcher. The Watchers got a brief, fan-pleasing cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 listening to the prattling tales of one Stan ‘Excelsior’ Lee. Each issue of the comic starts with Uatu, observing the events of the Multiverse from his base on Earth’s moon. He recounts to the reader how the events in the main universe unfolded and then gives us the grand what if treatment in another universe.

The Prime universe for the Marvel comics is set in what is known as Earth-616 whereas all the “what if” scenarios take place in various other universes (Earth-1610, Earth-833, Earth-772, etc.) Over the years and many, many different What If? comics, so many alternate continuities formed that eventually, many of them worked their way into the mainstream comics.

Spider-Man has indeed joined the Fantastic 4 on a couple of occasions, Jane Foster did become the Mighty Thor, and Electra was not killed off by Bullseye. 

Basically, what Marvel set out to do as an exercise in letting their writers try something new, much like The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episodes, ended up expanding the Marvel comics universe in ways that made things much more complicated but also much more interesting. If it wasn’t for the influence of What If?, then Miles Morales, Spider-Gwen, and so many other unique and non-spider people would never have been introduced to readers and gone on to become the cultural icons they are today.

What If…?

I will never forget my vary first issue of What If?. I still remember the feelings of trepidation, curiosity, and excitement as I picked up and thumbed through What If? Vol 2 from the magazine rack at the Ralphs grocery store my family frequented. 10-year-old me back in 1993 had yet to read this spinoff and I had no idea what I was about to indulge in was a Pandora’s Box. Sure, I was steeped in Marvel comics lore—my friends and occasionally sister and I would frequent the local comic shop in downtown Orange California and buy up any and all issues that contained Wolverine, Deathlok, Cable, Spider-Man, and basically any of the insanely muscle-bound and many strapped and pouched characters that appealed to us wide-eyed babes.

In retrospect, it was the 90s, everyone in real life wore a fanny pack and all the best comic characters (or so we thought) wore dozens of pouches and belts slung over every inch of their bodies thanks to artists like Rob Liefeld. We were too young and not yet angsty enough for Spawn, but we sure did love Todd McFarlane’s spaghetti-like spider webs.

A Long History Of Asking Questions

Stories of Spider-Man killing the Lizard, and Ironman 2020 being stuck in the past thrilled us with the revelation that in a world of perceived permanence, nothing was truly set in stone. Sure, these tales weren’t canon (at least not in the way they are now) but they stuck with us; haunted our notions of what might be and what might have been.

Basically, there was a deep comfort in the familiarity of what was established and the What If? comics took that comfort and shook it up in a way that was fundamental in gaining an understanding in embracing the different and the unknown.

Now, some 44 years since the What If? titles first hit comic book racks, Disney+ has brought in many of the actors who have been the faces of the MCU for over a decade and thrown their characters into animated scenarios ripped right from the pages in their own What If…? series. It’s 2021 and not only is a whole new generation about to be introduced to Marvel’s signature brand of going beyond the original story, but they’ve ripped open the MCU thanks to the antics of Loki on his show and expanded the world of Earth-19999.

Our Current What If…?

It looks like this new series, hosted by our old friend Uatu/The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright), is not only a direct result of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Sylvie’s (Sophia Di Martino) run-in with He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors); but the introduction and exploration of the Multiverse within the MCU. We will be seeing Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) become a super-solider in place of Steven Rogers. Prince T’Challa (the late Chadwick Bosman) will become Star Lord and find a father-figure in the cantankerous Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker). Based on promos for the series it looks like we may also be seeing alternate versions of Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and even the old Marvel Zombies (another classic spinoff comic). 

Pandora’s Box is opening once again, and it looks like things are about to get very, very interesting…

For more on Marvel, make sure to check back to That Hashtag Show.