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The Greatest What If…? Stories Ever Told!

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Every day in April we will reveal the greatest stories ever told starring a particular character or written/drawn by a particular creator (and throughout the month, you’ll get daily chances to vote for NEXT week’s lists). These lists are voted on by YOU, the reader!

Here is the list of characters/creators featured so far (along with the rules on how to vote).

Today’s list is the Greatest What If…? Stories Ever Told!

Enjoy!

10. “What If Conan the Barbarian Walked the Earth Today?” What If…? #13

There was definitely some vote-splitting between this one and its sequel. I didn’t combine the two, though, since they were so dramatically different from each other. This issue, written by Roy Thomas and drawn by John Buscema and Ernie Chan, was basically like an issue of Conan where Conan did, indeed, end up on Earth in modern times. The later story took the idea to a WHOLE other level.

9. “Matt Murdock, Agent of…S.H.I.E.L.D.” What If…? #28

Written by Frank Miller and Mike Barr, with art by Miller and Klaus Janson, this was a fun action adventure story with great artwork from Miller and Janson.

8. “Legacy” What If…” #105

Written by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz with art by Frenz and Bill Sienkiewicz, this was the only What If…? issue to be so popular that it got its own spin-off series! This is the series that introduced Spider-Girl, daughter of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson-Parker, who went on to have her own awesome series for over 100 issues!

7. “What If…the Avengers Had Become the Pawns of Korvac?” What If…? #32

Written by Mark Gruenwald (with an assist from Peter Sanderson) and drawn by Gruenwald (layouts), Greg LaRocque (finishes) and likely more than a literal TON of inkers, this was a dark follow-up of the famed Korvac Saga. This took the idea of “Everyone dies” (a recurring What If…? trope) and took it a whole other level.

6. “What If Gwen Stacy Had Lived?” What If…? #24

This issue was lucky enough to have the original artist from the death of Gwen Stacy, Gil Kane, do the layouts for the issue! Frank Giacoia finished Kane’s layouts and a bunch of inkers inked it. Tony Isabella wrote the issue, which was a strong melancholic approach to Gwen surviving. Yes, she lives, but this is Spider-Man, if one thing goes right something ELSE must go wrong, and the issue does not end happily. At least everyone makes it out of the issue alive!

The top five is on the next page!

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42 Comments

First one isn’t a surprise at all, but I’m really surprised that the second volume didn’t get more love. I actually preferred that run quite a bit over the other, but perhaps that was just because I read them at a younger age the first time.

My only guess from looking at the votes cast is that everyone generally agreed on certain volume 1 stories while everyone had their own particular favorite from volume 2.

Terrific list. I always loved the What If? series because there were literally no limitations to what could happen. For instance, in the real Spider-Man series, you know Spidey isn’t REALLY going to die, but in What If?, you might turn the page and discover that he has. (It’s not always about death — someone might quit, or turn evil, or whatever. Anything goes.)

My favourite was #45 of the original series … What if the Hulk went Berserk? But almost all the issues were great.

My impressions on the list:

#10 — Not surprised. Great story. The sequel was also excellent, as was the Thor vs. Conan issue also from the original volume.

#9 — Somewhat surprised, but also somewhat expected this. I knew it’d get votes for being Miller on DD (as well as for being really well written), but I also sort of expected his other issue to overshadow it in the votes. Nice to see it on the list either way, because it’s a fun alternate take on the character.

#8 — Totally saw this coming. Kind of surprised it didn’t rank higher actually.

#7 — Biggest surprise on the list. There are a lot of issues that are more famous than this. I really did not expect to see this one. I’ll have to check this out.

#6 — Kind of surprised this ranked so high.

Top 5 — I could have predicted all of these except #2. I really thought the remake of this from volume 2 would have made it onto the list instead.

Count me in as being surprised at the under-representation of Volume 2–particularly the early stories. I think we can universally agree that the series went dramatically downhill over time, with exceptions. Some of my favorites:
– What if the Alien Costume Possessed Spider-Man? Mostly because it killed Spider-Man, so it depressed the heck out of me as a kid.
– What if Professor X of the X-Men had become the Juggernaut? Another freaky one where an empowered Xavier results in a horrible world.
– What if Wolverine was lord of the vampires? Vampire X-Men…score!
– What if the Avengers had fought Galactus? Not a particularly “great” story, but it was written/drawn in a really Silver Age way that was a lot of fun.
– What if Doom became Sorcerer Supreme? Kind of poor art, but another fun, hokey Silver-Age styled story. It’s surprising no one thought of this in Volume 1.
– What if Ben Grimm stayed in Liddle-ville? Fun because it was really done in a John Byrne style and even billed itself as a tribute to Byrne. Plus, it had one of those classically-depressing What If endings.
– 114.What if… starring Secret Wars: 25 years later. Another fun one dealing with the kids of the Battleworld heroes. This one screamed for a sequel, and we never got it.

I also have to credit “What if General Ross had become The Hulk?” from the 2000s annual releases. Again, this was one of those comics that was hokey as all heck (a 3-star General would never run out onto a test site to arrest a teenager), but it worked and was fun.

Biggest omissions:

What If The Avengers Had Never Been? — REALLY? This is a classic. I thought this story was a shoe-in. Even Mark Waid has called it one of his “five favorite comics of all time”.

Any of the other Conan stories — I’d imagine these missed out because they split the votes with each other.

What If Spider-Man Had Never Become a Crime Fighter? — Spidey stops the burglar that (would have) killed Uncle Ben. Result: He never leaves show business. Both funny writing and a genuinely interesting premise makes for one of the original series’ classics.

The OTHER humor issue (#34 from the second volume) — Galactus getting amnesia and thinking he’s Elvis is worth the price of admission alone. Punisher telling Dr. Doom to sit in a corner and think about what he’s done is just icing on the cake. Honestly expected this to make the list, but I’d imagine it probably lost a lot of potential votes due to people voting for the (superior) first humor issue instead.

What If Iron Man Sold Out? — Maybe the most underrated tale out of the entire second volume. The blog “4thletter!” named it as the best What If? of all time in their Top 100 What If? Issues countdown a few years back.

What If Hulk Was a Barbarian? — This issue has become somewhat of a classic retroactively due to Planet Hulk. One of the coolest out of all of the What If?s that actually predicted future events (and there were surprisingly quite a few of them that did).

What If Spider-Man Joined the Fantastic Four? — The very first issue of What If? ever and one of the most famous.

What If the Original Marvel Bullpen Had Been the Fantastic Four? — Jack Kirby writes and draws this genuinely funny issue that shows us what would have happened if Stan, Jack, and Co. (e.g. Sol Brodsky and Flo Steinberg) had been exposed to gamma radiation and become the world’s most ludicrous superhero team. SHOCKED that this didn’t make the cut.

The second “What If Phoenix Had Lived?” story from the volume 2 — As mentioned already, this probably lost votes to the first version of the same story.

Anything with The Punisher from the second series — These aren’t quite “classics” per se, but they do tend to be surprisingly well written in large part due to Kurt Busiek, Chuck Dixon, and Simon Furman handling writing duties on most of the stories.

John Chidley-Hill

April 5, 2013 at 9:30 am

I love the “everybody dies” trope. It’s like in Choose Your Own Adventure books where, no matter what you do, everything is terrible. I remember the What If surrounding Cyclops and Jean Grey’s wedding. I think the universe was destroyed in two of the three stories and Cyclops went on to lead the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in the other.

Harsh lessons for kids!

Why does the date say April 3rd when this was only released today? In fact, all of the comments are from today.

Yeah, there were certain concepts that reappeared over and over and over again throughout What If? across both ongoings (and maybe some of the one-shots). Aside from “everybody dies” there were also…

“[insert character here] is an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

“X kills Y”

“[insert story arc here] ends differently (usually with only one minor difference effecting the outcome)”

“[insert superhero here] never becomes a superhero”

“[insert superhero’s ally here] becomes that superhero instead”

“Dr. Doom can do anything” (Doom was used in a bizarrely broad array of circumstances throughout the series, even including several of the one-shots from later years)

“EVERYONE fights/is a herald of/is associated with Galactus” (even DAZZLER got in on the action)

“Written by Nostradamus” (there are literally dozens of stories that unintentionally predicted future events in the Marvel Universe)

“Spider-Man dies” (Spidey had pretty hard luck in What If?. I’d bet he bit the dust 20+ times across the first two ongoing easily.)

“Something is wrong with the Fantastic Four” (Marvel’s First Family were given different powers/members almost too many times to count. They were also satirized more than once and even went to The Land of Oz [!!!] on one occasion.)

On top of those frequently used concepts, there was also massive whoring out of Punisher during volume 2, albeit in a wide variety of stories.

Only five of my choices made this list, but four of these were in my 11-15 choices. And like TB, I’m utterly shocked that the Avengers story from issue #3 (v1) didn’t even make this list – it was my no. 1 pick and I thought it would make the top 5 for sure.
Otherwise, the absolutely best bit in that humor issue was Spidey Intellectual Stories – wherein Spidey foils the Thinker’s plans to rule the world by besting him in a philosophical debate. I think Roger Stern wrote that little gem.

I actually like the “What if Wolverine was director of Shield” one because it did have a ‘better than 616′ ending.

Lots of classic stuff here. But I’m sure everyone’s noted some omissions they wish were included. What If? has so much variety, I’m sure everyone’s got personal favourites that aren’t commonly known.

For me, one was in volume 1 #37, What If the Thing had Kept Mutating? which I voted for and remember fondly as the one What If? where EVERYBODY LIVES HAPPILY EVER AFTER. Thing is cured, Alicia is cured, Bill Foster gets to be the superhero he wanted to be…in a series famous for everybody getting killed (or not getting killed but somehow leaving the world worse off…) that was a big deal for me.

I also was kind of excited that What if the Avengers defeated everybody made it, ’cause you used the graphic up top, but oh well.

I didn’t vote for the comedy issue, but I remember it fondly as a 10-year-old. Right up there with Fantastic Four Roast and the No-Prize Book and Assistant Editor’s Month as fun little diversions (again, for a 10-year-old)…

I don’t know if What If…? was ever prophetic. I do think that the fact that so many of its themes were repeated in main books years later shows that the well is only so deep. “What If Spider-Man’s Clone Had Lived?” is a great example.

Two other constant recurring concepts in the book were:
– “What if [Major Event] turned out differently?” A lot of the issues revolved specifically around a major Marvel crossover: Inferno, Atlantis Attacks, Secret Wars, etc. In fact, it seems like that’s the only place they go for the annual What If…? specials. We even have a whole AvX miniseries coming up.
– “What if [Character X] became [Character Y]?” A previous commenter mentioned this happening with sidekicks (Rick becoming the Hulk), but a number relied on a hero or villain becoming a different character: Peter Parker becomes Nova; Dr. Doom becomes Dr. Strange; the Punisher becomes Venom. There was even one issue where the FF all developed one power instead of four, which for whatever reason, had Sue Storm become the Man-Thing. Freaky!

Assistant Editors Month. ~sigh~

Remember when Marvel Comics could be fun?

What If? is almost redundant nowadays, as comic book stories seem able to try anything, then (once we’ve seen that reality) simply have it return to the status quo.

What if Spider-Man never married MJ? (Remember that volume 2 story?) We can see that now! What if the world knew the Peter Parker was Spider-Man? We’ve seen that! (And we can now have a happy ending for What If #24: Dr Strange and co magically make everyone forget.) What if Captain America, the Human Torch, Hawkeye or Aunt May died? We’ve seen it all! And if only we’d known at the time that Jean Grey was stil alive, we could have been spared the true awfulness of What If #27. (I know, it came second on this list, but… I don’t get it.)

Recently, many What If? issues seem to have two stories: one dystopian, one utopian, nothing in between. I liked the Civil War issue. In one story, the heroes band together to bring world peace. In the other, all the heroes are killed and (even worse) Agent Gyrich becomes president. In 616, of course, they’d find a way to resurrect everyone and force him out of office in the next issue (possibly making everyone forget the whole thing).

I agree that What If #3 What if the Avengers had never been ranks as the biggest omission. I’d have to go back and read some these again, but that story always did it for me. Great Gil Kane art, and a story that really grabs you, especially the end. I highly recommend this one.

Considering the revelations about Gwen (love them or hate them) in the Clone Saga, just imagine how warped the “What If Gwen Stacy had lived?” story could have been if redid with the retcons of her involvement with Norman?

Yay! None of mine won! Wait, I meant, “Boo!” How could you guys have resisted that beatnik-talking Rick Jones as the Hulk? Thanks for crushing my faith in humanity, guys.

I was surprised that more of the ones from my list didn’t make it. The only one that did (sorta) was the last one!
1. Captain America were elected president?(26)
2. …Doctor Doom had become a hero? (#22)
3. …The Invaders had stayed together after World War II? (#4)
4. …Captain America and Bucky Had Both Survived World War II? (#5)
5. …Jane Foster had found the hammer of Thor? (10)
6. What If Jessica Jones Had Joined The Avengers? (Special)
7. What If Dr. Doom Had Become The Thing? (Special)
8. The Punisher became an Agent of SHIELD (v2 57)
9. …Conan the Barbarian were stranded in the 20th century? (43)
10. What if Wonder Man were a Woman and Power Man Were a Girl? (34)

The most shocking omission for me is “What If Spider-Man Had Never Become a Crime Fighter?”

That story has been a long-time personal favorite and I thought for sure that it would show up.

I’ll accept that my personal favorite, “What If The Punisher Became Venom”, didn’t make the list, but seriously, the 1950s Avengers didn’t make it? It was the basis for “Agents of Atlas”!

A lot of people here are shocked that their choices didn’t make the cut. And yet, if they included even half on the choices given in the comments, this list would be well over ten. Sorry, but this is the kind of stuff that annoys me sometimes.

Yeah, sort of like when the All-Star Game omissions are listed every year in the NBA or the MLB. “How can Player X not make it?” But for Player X to make it, Player Y has to be taken OFF the team. All of the stories being mentioned as omissions GOT support, it is just that these other popular stories got MORE support. I dunno how many of the stories on the list I’d omit if I were coming up with this list myself, and for the record, not that it necessarily matters, but of the stories collected in the “Best of What If…?” trade for Marvel, all but ONE of them made this list (the only one that missed was Spidey joining the FF).

I think the only one that people are consistently expressing surprise over the omission of is “What If The Avengers Had Never Been?” I can’t think of how that could have possibly missed the list. It’s probably one of the five or so most popular issues of the series. The rest of the issues that have been discussed are just “cool issues that didn’t make it” moreso than issues anyone actually thought were assured to make the list, for the most part.

My #1 vote was vol 2 #87, where Sabretooth goes on a deadly rampage in the X-Mansion while chasing Jubilee, killing Bishop and Beast.

Unlike most What If stories, it’s not about one of Marvel’s major storylines being retold.
It’s just a different take on a minor issue of Uncanny X-Men, but with a gruesome tone.

And it’s probably the only time I’ve ever liked a story about Jubilee.

Brian’s comment makes sense, especially the bit about “Best of What If”. That’s probably the exposure most people have to the older stories, while the stories I voted for were mostly ones that made a big impression on me at the time, buying them off the spinner racks (I say as I shake my cane in impotent rage at the young ruffians with their “comic shops” and their comicsologies and their series of i-Tubes….)

As others have noted, surprised the Agents of Atlas lead-in didn’t get more votes, but arguably it (and “The Invaders had stayed together after World War II? (#4)” and “Captain America and Bucky Had Both Survived World War II? (#5)”) weren’t “true” What If stories, but instead “Untold Tales” that wound up being actual canon.

Hmm, I should probably get the “Best of What If” TPB, come to think of it….

Mike Loughlin

April 6, 2013 at 5:25 am

Best of What If…? trade? Ah ha! I knew there had to be a reason two of the greatest pieces of literature known to man did not make the cut! “What if Conan was Stranded in the 20th Century?” and “What if Rick Jones had Become the Hulk?” should be taught at universities. Conan starring in the Warriors, dressing like a pimp, and fighting Captain America… Beatnik Hulk… the entirety of the human condition is captured in those pages.

Tim Rifenburg

April 6, 2013 at 6:25 am

Marvel needs to publish an Essential What If volume soon. Great stuff and a nice mix of stories and creators.I have always liked te 1st volume of What if but found the second run more X-men, Wolverine, Punisher oriented. Made sense from a publishing perspective at the time but not a eclectic and surprising as the 1st run of stories.

Knew this one would be unpredictable with no regular characters or creators and I don’t know of any recognised “classics”…I’ve only read 4 of the winning 10 and I didn’t vote for “pawns of Korvac” which (from my memory) was too one-note nihilistic for me
Not surprised that Deaths Head I living not making it (My British bias led me to pick it)
I also voted for Wolverine killing the Hulk, Dr Strange disciple of Dormammu, Spiderman marrying Black cat instead of MJ, Shang Chi serving Fu Manchu, Jane Foster as Thor

I have fave issues of WHAT IF?, but perhaps the greatest STORY for me was a BACK-UP tale that was a afterlude to an earlier issue…

Issue # 43 (of Volume 1 – the OTHER “What If Conan were trapped in the 20th Century?”) had the BACK-UP story where Doc, Silver Surfer & Phoenix are the ONLY survivors of a destroyed UNIVERSE!
It was a sequel (or sorts) to the KORVAC issue.

If EVER there was a story that told of the mission which Doctor Strange accepted as mystic protector of the universe… this was it.

(And no, I didn’t vote for it, because it was a “mere” back-up story – and it was depressing as all hell.)

~P~
PTOR

Travis Stephens

April 6, 2013 at 3:03 pm

I found pretty much all the first series. “What If” , from 10 – 44, in a comics bin as a kid. I noticed how many of the ones on the list were between issues 20 & 40. I really enjoyed reading those double sized issues and the backstories about the Celestials. Still surprised at some of the non entries like No Avengers or Phoenix living.

Mike Loughlin

April 6, 2013 at 5:10 pm

Besides the two classics I mentioned above, I voted for “What if the X-Men Stayed in Asgard?” (maybe the most fun of vol. 2 as well as relatively upbeat; my favorite Jim Valentino comic) “What if Prof X became the Juggernaut?” ( gripping, great world-building and character work) “What if the Invisible Girl Died in Childbirth?” ( heartbreaking) “What if the Punisher Killed Daredevil?” (Kurt Busiek & Luke McDonnel go dark to good effect) “What if Iron Man Sold Out?” (as noted above, an underrated gem “What if Phoenix Had Not Died?” (vol 2 version; the art’s not as good but the story worked better for me than in vol 1) “What if Elektra Had Lived?” (no brainier, and I knew it would take the top spot) and “What if the Avengers Had Never Been?” ( my favorite Jim Shooter script and Kane & Janson on art).

Not only can I not believe it didn’t make the top 10 but that no one has even mentioned What if? #9. What if… the Avengers had formed in the 1950’s. It had Marvel Boy, Namora, The Human Robot, Gorilla-Man, Jimmy Woo, 3-D Man and Venus and almost 30 years later, got its own title, Agents of Atlas. The ongoing was great world building and had a great viral marketing weblog by Jeff Parker. The editor of the ongoing was inspired by the original What If? cover.

I enjoyed this list and just wanted to tell you good job.
Now I am off to my comic shop to look for “What If the Fantastic Four Had Not Gained Their Powers?” What If…? #36
Thanks for making this list and keep up the good work.

“Anything with The Punisher from the second series — These aren’t quite “classics” per se, but they do tend to be surprisingly well written in large part due to Kurt Busiek, Chuck Dixon, and Simon Furman handling writing duties on most of the stories.”

The one where The Punisher killed Daredevil by shooting him with a tranq too close to the edge of a roof is great. Spider-Man goes after The Punisher, but gets injured, so his identity is revealed, so somebody blows up May Parker with a bazooka. Peter breaks out of a hospital, drugged out not just because of the pain but because the nurses were scared to tell him about his aunt, and the final confrontation they have has always stuck with me.

Two others I don’t see as I scan people’s choices that I voted for:

What If #46 – What If Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben Had Lived (Instead of Aunt May) ? It was drawn by Ron Frenz, who gave it a very Ditko-esque feel.

What If V2 #5 – What If The Vision Had Destroyed The Avengers? I like how the ending was similar in a lot of ways to the Earth-616 continuity.

interesting picks. though suprised to see the first phoenix had lived story made the cut instead of the second one. plus also no love for the what if the fantastic fours second child had lived .

plus also no love for the what if the fantastic fours second child had lived .

Because that issue sucked, that’s why.

The observation above about how the regular 616 world can do all the What Ifs? and then just reboot stuff is depressingly true.

Joining in the fondness for the Rick Jones Hulk issue (“Soldiers won’t to rumble with Hulk?”) which is another one where everyone ends up happier.

I can’t abide by any list that doesn’t include “What If Iron Man Sold Out?” Plus, I think, despite all the inconsistency that plagued Volume 2, The Punisher issues were all gems.

My Top 10?

10. What If Tony Stark Became Sorcerer Supreme? (Volume II, Issue 113)
9. A What If? X-Men Wedding Album (Volume II, Issue 60, in which Busiek shows us exactly why Wolverine and Jean shouldn’t be together! Heh heh…)
8. What If the All-New, All-Different Fantastic Four Had Remained a Team? (Volume II, Issue 78)
7. What If the Impossible Man Possessed the Infinity Gauntlet? (Volume II, Issue 104)
6. What If the Punisher Killed Spider-Man? (Volume II, Issue 58…wow.)
5. What If Thor Ruled Asgard? (Volume II, Issue 107)
4. What If Juggernaut Killed the X-Men? (Volume II, Issue 94…probably the ultimate “downer issue”)
3. What If Captain America Were Revived Today? (Volume I, Issue 44; remakes were OK but didn’t come close to this baby!)
2. What If? Secret Wars: 25 Years Later! (Volume II, Issue 114)
1. What If Iron Man Sold Out? (Volume II, Issue 64, by an uncredited Simon Furman and Geoff Senior!)

I used to like the What If stories a lot until they got into a long rut where it seemed like any minor change in continuity inevitably led to the end of the universe.

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