To a casual observer, the comic series What If? might seem like Marvel’s version of DC’s Elseworlds. The big difference is that while Elseworlds stories usually reinvent a character from the ground up (say by placing Superman in Soviet Russia instead of the U.S.), What If tales usually focus on a specific event in Marvel history and how things could have gone in a much different direction.
While the series has has a grand tradition of humor — ranging from quirky back-up stories for padding out an issue to full blown special issues devoted to nothing but jokes — What If could also go to some pretty dark and disturbing places. For example…
5. “Arachnamorphosis” (Volume 2, #88)
In this world, the radioactive spider bite did more than give Peter superpowers, it basically turned him into a were-spider. To make matters even worse, his son Ben seems to have inherited the same condition.
Already a target for bullies at school (particularly Flash Thompson’s son, Butch) Ben Parker’s life doesn’t get any better when he hits puberty and starts mutating. Thing blow up into ugliness one night when Butch attacks Ben. Young Parker transforms into a Spider monster and kills his antagonizer. Just as he’s about to get beat down by an angry mob, his father (who’s also in spider-monster form) jumps into the crowd to distract them long enough for Ben to get away. The story ends with a mentally scarred Ben making his way to the Xavier institute in hopes of putting his shattered life back together.
4. “In the Shadows” (Volume 2, #90)
In this world, Scott and Alex Summers’ parents weren’t abducted by aliens. Instead, their father Christopher managed to land the plane and hide his family from the pursuing aliens. While Alex was young enough the barely remember the event, Scott was traumatized by his brief glimpse of the alien creatures trying to kidnap his family.
As the brothers grow up, Scott becomes the golden boy at school, while Alex is stuck in his shadow. When Scott’s powers emerge — and are controllable because he didn’t have a head injury that would’ve occurred had he parachuted from his dad’s plane — he starts to become scared of what he is and what he can do.
Feeling overshadowed once again, Alex takes refuge in a nearby abandoned barn where he encounters the evil version of Beast from the Age of Apocalypse universe (whose presence in this reality is never quite explained). When dark Beast talks Alex into introducing him to his older brother, Scott has a horrifc flashback of the alien encounter from his childhood. The tension of the moment results in Alex’s powers bursting forth.
In the end, Alex promises to serve Beast in exchange for his family being left alone, and after he leaves, Scott freaks out and mutilates his own eyes so as to avoid ever seeing such terrible sights or having his powers ever harming anyone.
3. “What if The Punisher Had Killed Daredevil?” (Volume 2, #26)
When Frank Castle and Matt Murdock cross paths one night, things take a terrible turn. The Punisher uses a tranquilizer dart to knock out Daredevil, but instead he ends up falling off a roof to his death. When Spider-Man comes after the Punisher to avenge his fallen comrade, things get even worse. Running out of tranq. darts, Frank uses a pistol and shoot Spidey in the shoulder. He gets a few blocks away before passing out from blood loss.
When some bystanders help Spidey and take him to the hospital, his secret identity is discovered. Once the city knows that Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker, some mobsters blow up Aunt May’s house as revenge while Peter recovers in the hospital.
While being chased by the police and other super heroes, Frank starts to piece things together and realizes that Wilson “The Kingpin” Fisk has been using the chaos resulting from Murdock’s death to take out his rivals and get the incoming Mayor of New York in his back pocket. Before he can retaliate against Fisk, Spidey shows up looking for revenge and Frank is forced to kill him in self-defense. This bitter tale of mistakes and revenge gone wrong culminates with The Punisher killing Fisk and the new Mayor, just to be remembered as a murderous psychopath by the citizens he tried to save.
2. “What if The Avenger Fought Galactus?” (Volume 2, #41)
In a world where the Fantastic Four died in their fateful rocket crash instead of emerging with superpowers, things end up a bit differently. Namor is left in a state of amnesia (instead of being found and helped by the Human Torch), so he never discovers Captain America frozen in a block of ice. A much bigger difference is that when the dreaded world-eater Galactus shows up hungry, Reed Richards and the gang aren’t there to save the day.
The Avengers respond to the situation and things go badly. With very little effort, Galactus subdues each team member without taking a scratch. When Iron Man is teleported to the World Ship to steal the Ultimate Nullifier, he sets off a metal-sensitive alarm (which the Human Torch didn’t trigger) and is taken out of commission. With all options exhausted and little hope left, this world’s version of Uatu violates his oath of non-interference and steps into the fray to save Earth.
After defeating Uatu, Galactus compromises by devouring his life force instead of Earth… which apparently means that a Watcher is the nutritional equivalent of an entire planet. Feeling a bit remorseful, Galactus takes the body of his fallen foe to the Watcher homeworld so that he can be given a proper funeral pyre. This tale has the distinction of being so bleak as to disturb our narrator who must ponder the mortality of his own alternate self.
1. “What If The Fantastic Four’s Second Child had Lived?” (Volume 2, #30)
To be fair, since this issue contains two different stories, only half of it’s depressing. But dear god,what a depressing half!
In this universe, Dr. Otto Octavius a.k.a. Dr. Octopus helped Reed Richards to stabilize Sue’s second pregnancy. Unfortunately, there are other complications and Sue dies while in labor. This comes as a shock to everyone except young Franklin Richards, who had a dream foretelling this, and is convinced that his sister (named in memory of her departed mother) is a monster.
Over the next few years, multiple people close to the young Suzy Storm die off from the same illness that took her namesake. Alicia, Johnny and Ben, along with every babysitter, teacher and even classmates that come in contact with Suzy all wind up dead. Try as he might, Franklin can’t get his father to realize what’s going on. When he presses the issue, his dad starts hitting him. So in desperation, Franklin goes to Victor Von Doom for help.
When Doom confronts Reed about the matter, things quickly escalate into a full-on brawl. As Richards is struck down by his arch-enemy, he sees his daughter transform into an H.R. Giger-esque monstrosity and has enough time to apologize to his son before being devoured. Doom sacrifices himself to save Franklin, giving him enough time to blast Suzy through a portal into the negative zone. His victory is hollow and bitter, because now Franklin is all alone.
As I said before, the other half of this issue is a happier story. That makes the first half of this issue the most depressing What If ever written, because even Uatu needed something to cheer himself up afterwards.