By Ben Morse
The Marvel Universe may be a pretty exciting place to be, but as it turns out, just one universe can't contain all the action.
Even before the first issue of WHAT IF? hit the stands in 1977, Marvel creators had been playing with ideas of possible futures and alternate worlds where some things seem familiar, but others couldn't be more different—it's a staple not just of Marvel, but of science fiction.
With the debut of NEW EXILES this week, written by one of the greatest alternate reality storytellers of them all in UNCANNY X-MEN veteran Chris Claremont, Marvel.com decided to find out which stories of the Marvel Universe turned some of our favorite creators and editors upside-down and what they hold up as their gold standards.
It's Friday, so kick back, relax and enjoy.
ROY THOMAS (former Marvel Editor-In-Chief, creator of WHAT IF?):
WHAT IF? v1 #13
As the originator of the WHAT IF? title back in the 1970s, my favorite alternate reality story at Marvel was WHAT IF? v1 #13, "What If Conan Walked the 20th Century?"
Not only was it derived from the very real 1977 New York blackout and featured my then-future wife Dann as the Cimmerian's 20th-century paramour, but I was proud of coming up with the notion that Conan had been hurled into the future in a Shemitish ziggurat—which resulted indirectly in his winding up at the story's climax at NYC's Guggenheim Museum, which has been famously said to resemble "an inverted ziggurat." This occurred because he and Danette were sitting across the table from each other, he drew a ziggurat, and she, seeing said ziggurat upside down, assumed he was talking about the Guggenheim.
JERRY ORDWAY (former writer/artist of AVENGERS):
Days of Future Past
I think my favorite alternate reality story from Marvel is the "Days of Future Past" one that [Chris] Claremont and [John] Byrne did back in [UNCANNY X-MEN #141-142]. It was really fun to see who survived in the future, but the concept itself just spawned a ton of future X-Men storylines, directly and indirectly.
Kitty Pryde and Wolverine were my favorite characters from that run of the book, and Byrne and [inker Terry] Austin were doing some great artwork, giving their future a gritty, dark feel. Obviously, what with the concepts packed into it, it would sprawl out for 10 issues nowadays, but I liked that it didn't overstay its welcome all the same.
MARK PANICCIA (Marvel editor):
I think my all-time favorite alternate reality story was "Days of Future Past." UNCANNY X-MEN was my favorite title at the time and I felt that the terrifying dystopian future caused by the X-Men's failure to prevent the assassination of Senator Kelly cemented how important the X-Men were to the Marvel Universe.
From an editorial perspective, I thought that Age of Apocalypse was a truly
Age of Apocalypse
groundbreaking and genius event. The impact it had across the line, the quality of the books and the sheer gumption it took to do a crossover of such magnitude is truly inspiring. I've always had the utmost respect for the editorial and creative teams that were part of it.
BILL ROSEMANN (Marvel editor):
I was impressed how the "Age of Apocalypse" completely turned the world of the X-Men on their head and created an all-new—but frighteningly familiar—living and breathing world to explore.
People thought [editor] Bob Harras & Co. were nuts to cancel all of the X-Books and replace them with strange new titles, but they pulled it off in Astonishing fashion!
Runner-Up: The interconnected Hostess Fruit Pies ads. That's one tasty story!
AXEL ALONSO (Marvel Executive Editor):
Hands-down, "What If The Avengers Had Never Been?" published in WHAT IF v1 #3, which I bought off the rack at the local five-and-dime for 50 cents, and [which was] collected in WHAT IF? CLASSIC, VOLUME ONE.
WHAT IF? v1 #3
In the story, Hulk and Namor are played as straight-up bad guys on a world conquest kick, and Iron Man is the only guy who can stop them. His plan: He enlists the help of Giant-Man and Wasp and Rick Jones and creates a squad of Iron Men. His problem: They wuss out at the last minute, leaving him to play Gary Cooper at "High Noon."
My 8-year-old spine got a chill when he souped up his armor and headed off to a battle he couldn't win—even more, when his comrades came back and avenged his death. Because Iron Man died in that story—his heart gave out in the final battle—he sacrificed it all. That story taught me that a comic didn't have to "count" to matter.
MARK WAID (former writer of FANTASTIC FOUR):
WHAT IF? v1 #3 from 1977—"What If The Avengers Had Never Been?"—is one of my top five favorite comics of all time.
Drawn by Gil Kane and Klaus Janson, this is without a doubt one of the best-looking art jobs ever produced under the Marvel banner.
TODD NAUCK (artist of FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD SPIDER-MAN):
My favorite alternate Marvel universe would have to be Squadron Supreme. I really enjoyed Mark Gruenwald's SQUADRON SUPREME maxi-series from the 80's. I was intrigued by the idea of super heroes trying to create a utopia and all the problems that arose during that attempt.
MIKE CAREY (writer of X-MEN):
Sorry to go for the obvious, but for an old school X-Men fan there's only one contender—"Days of Future Past."
It's no accident that the very title has lent its name to a dozen spin-offs, [revisits] and re-inventions. It was 34 pages full of brain-fusing wonderment, and subsequent time hasn't taken away any of its luster.
KAARE ANDREWS (writer/artist of SPIDER-MAN: REIGN):
WHAT IF v1 #28
One of my favorite alternative reality stories was WHAT IF? v1 #28: "What If Daredevil Became an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Love the S.H.I.E.L.D. spy stuff and Frank Miller drew this! What more could you ask for? Not the most extreme twist on alternate realities but an enjoyable one.
Love Daredevil's bright yellow spy suit with bright purple belts and webbing and black blindfold. I'm thinking the blindfold was to let people know he didn't pick those colors himself. That Nick Fury, always pulling pranks.
STEVE SCOTT (artist of MARVEL ADVENTURES HULK):
As a kid, I remember picking up "Days of Future Past" from the corner store spinner rack and being so excited to get the next issue. It was amazing. A couple of months ago I was really
WHAT IF? v1 #39
blown away by Greg Pak and Leonard Kirk's WHAT IF? PLANET HULK.
GREG PAK (writer of INCREDIBLE HERCULES):
While I remember it but hazily, I loved the "What If Thor Battled Conan?" story from [WHAT IF? v1 #39].
As I recall, there's an awesome scene wherein Conan exerts the terrible power of Cimmerian peer pressure to assuage an amnesiac Thor's guilt for helping him mug a priest. But by the end, Conan's proved himself worthy to hoist Mjolnir and ascend Crom's big mountain, possibly to claim godhood himself. Awesome!
JUSTIN GABRIE (Marvel editor):
[My] favorite [alternate reality] story of all time has been and will always be WHAT IF? v1 #35—What If Elektra Had Lived?—by Frank Miller.
WHAT IF? v1 #35
Based on DAREDEVIL #181, Bullseye gets killed escaping Ryker's and isn't around to kill Elektra. What happens after that displays one of Miller's best-choreographed [fight scenes] ever. I enjoyed it so much I felt the need to incorporate a framing sequence into WHAT IF? CIVIL WAR that was reminiscent of the framing sequence in his story.
In general, I've always been a fan of the Daredevil mythos after Miller redefined the character. To have that very same person create [an issue of] WHAT IF? based on one of his best storylines ever made it as vital to read as the original. Check it out in DAREDEVIL VISIONARIES: FRANK MILLER VOLUME 3.
DUANE SWIERCZYNSKI (upcoming writer of CABLE):
KILLS THE MARVEL
Hands down, it's Garth Ennis' THE PUNISHER KILLS THE MARVEL UNIVERSE. Yes, there's plenty of giddy violence as Frank mercilessly greases everyone from Wolverine to Spidey. But amazingly, throughout the mayhem, everyone stays true to their character, which is probably the toughest part of any alternate universe story. Ennis also pulls off the neat trick of making you feel bad for Dr. Doom. I can still hear the sound of hammer on metal.
CHRISTOS GAGE (writer of HOUSE OF M: AVENGERS):
I know everybody is going to say this, but "Days of Future Past" blew my mind when I read it as a kid. The idea of a future ruled by Sentinels where mutants are hunted, all the Marvel heroes have been exterminated, and Magneto is a good guy was just too much.
This was before the Terminator movies—this kind of thing was revolutionary! That story hooked me on Marvel comics for life.
A close second would be the world of Killraven, where Earth has been conquered by Martians. That whole series was a fantastic sci-fi adventure, full of mutants, aliens and post-apocalyptic awesomeness!
ANDY LANNING (writer of NOVA):
For me the best alternate reality/timeline story has to be "Days of Future Past."
Not only is it a classic but is still one of the very best examples of this type of story and made all the [more] memorable for me because, due to the hit and miss nature of getting U.S. comics in the [United Kingdom], I had to wait five years between UNCANNY X-MEN] #141 and 142! It was well worth it though.
JOHN BARBER (Marvel editor):
I never really read much of the other 2099 books, but I loved SPIDER-MAN 2099. As I recall, Peter David was doing INCREDIBLE HULK, X-FACTOR, and this all at the same time, and anything he was doing was just at the top of my must-read list.
Rick Leonardi and Al Williamson's art was cool and gritty—not grim-n-gritty gritty but, like, "Blade Runner" gritty. It was cool seeing super heroes in that grimy cyberpunk setting. It was super hero science fiction, but not like we'd really seen before. I mean, that setting is kinda old-hat now, but I think SPIDER-MAN 2099 had a big role in making that a viable scenario for super heroes.
MATT CHERNISS (writer of SUB-MARINER):
I'm still really proud of POWERLESS, which Peter Johnson and I wrote a few years back and uses the world we live in as the alternate universe.
But if I had to pick the one that had the greatest impact on me I'd have to say it was the "Days of Future Past" story in UNCANNY X-MEN. When I read it the first time, I had never seen anything like it, and it still holds up today.
TONY ISABELLA (former writer of WHAT IF?):
There was that six-page Archie Goodwin story called "What Mad World?" in FANTASTIC FOUR v1 #118 [in] 1972.
Certainly the "Days of Future Past" two-[issue] spectacular from UNCANNY X-MEN #141 and #142 is noteworthy.
There have been lots of great issues of WHAT IF? as well.
But I'd have to go with SPIDER-GIRL and its spin-off titles. Tom DeFalco has done an amazing job sustaining that alternate future reality for well over 100 issues. It's always fun and always full of surprises. I'd rank those comics among the best super hero comics of the past two decades.
DAN ABNETT (writer of NOVA):
For my money, "Days of Future Past" is the all time classic, a defining moment not only for the X-Men but also for the way alternate reality stories can be realized.
I'd also like to mention the recent WHAT IF? ANNIHILATION, which was a well-considered and exciting companion to Annihilation, and ended with one of the most stirring, fan-boy-cheer-inducing spreads I've seen in a long time.
CHRISTOPHER YOST (writer of X-MEN: EMPEROR VULCAN):
I thought the Earth X [trilogy] was pretty amazing.
I've always loved the [alternate reality] stories that try and explain the big mysteries, and Earth X offered an explanation for just about every single aspect of the Marvel Universe.
But come on...Galactus fighting Celestials off the shore of New York? Awesome. Cap killing the Skull? Mar-Vell's Paradise? Hulk in a diaper? Well, that was gross.
And I'm always a sucker for covers that link together.
PETER DAVID (writer of X-FACTOR):
Well, if I weren't going to vote for my own work— HULK: FUTURE IMPERFECT —then I'd have to say "Days of Future Past."
Chris Claremont's story pretty much set the standard for any tale of Marvel heroes set in the future.
WALT SIMONSON (former writer/artist of THOR): My favorite alternate reality story from Marvel is probably the original "Days of Future Past" story from the X-MEN. I don't know if that counts exactly, but when it was published, it was before alternate realities had become as institutionalized as they are now at Marvel and elsewhere. It was a good story, well written and well drawn, and it was pretty gritty at a time when gritty stories themselves had not yet become institutionalized in comics in general. So it stood out from a lot of the surrounding material and seemed fresh and doom haunted. It gets my vote.
TOM BREVOORT (Marvel Executive Editor): I liked many of the early WHAT IF? stories, when the concept was still fresh and new, and the concept was still very elastic and imaginative.
Everything from "What If Rick Jones Became The Hulk?" in which the Hulk spoke like a bad Happy Days refugee to "What If Sgt. Fury Fought World War II In Outer Space?" attempting to cash in on the Star Wars craze.
Days of Future Past
JUAN DOE (artist of FANTASTIC FOUR: ISLA DE LA MUERTE): The first [volume] of WHAT IF? was what did it for me. I had most of the issues but the ones that punched my face were, "What if Conan Were Stranded in the 21st Century?," "What If Captain America Were Revived Today?," "What if the Hulk Went Berserk?" and "What if Loki had found the hammer of Thor?" from issues # 43-45 [and] #47 respectively. Those were really fun stories to read and Bill Sienkiewicz's covers were out-of-this-world! Conan with a gat, that's what's up!
Read classic WHAT IF? and EXILES stories plus much more at Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited.
WHAT IF v1 #43