Asking the Big Questions: Gabrie asks "What If?"

Wed, January 9th, 2008 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Shaun Manning, Staff Writer

"What If? X-Men: The Rise & Fall of the Shi'ar Empire

The enduring appeal of "What If?" comics, which follow the road not taken in classic Marvel Comics stories, is that anything can happen; that no character is safe. Though the series had lapsed toward the end of the 1990s, a successful revival in 2004 showed that fans were still eager to see alternate takes on major events in heroes' lives. With this year's "What If?" titles -- focused on "Civil War," "Planet Hulk," "Annihilation," and "X-Men: Rise and Fall of the Shi'ar Empire" -- wrapping up, CBR News had the chance to chat with series editor and industry veteran Justin Gabrie about the world of "What If?"

"I wasn't around for it, but my understanding is that credit for bringing 'What If?' back for the 21st Century belongs to one C.B. Cebulski," Justin Gabrie told CBR News. "Ceebs wanted to see the return of the classic 'What Ifs' and the cool factor the original series in the late '70s and early '80s had. They used to have a bi-monthly schedule and each issue seemed special."

As longtime fans of "What If?" might remember, the original title took the form of a consecutively numbered ongoing series. Now, though, fans are greeted with several individually numbered "What If?" specials released in fairly quick succession; an annual mini-event of alternate reality stories.

Pages from "What If? X-Men: Rise & Fall of the Shi'ar Empire"
"I think the '90s version of the series lost its uniqueness, the ideas got generic in order to keep up with the monthly schedule it was on," Gabrie remarked. "So C.B. pitched it and Marvel decided to give it a shot by approving six stand-alone specials at the end of the year. It did well and it was simply renewed for the same time frame in '05, then '06 and finally '07."

The first two years of the revitalized "What If?" saw a bit of experimentation. The 2004 series reintroduced the concept of "What If?" by examining what might have happened if Karen Page (killed by Bullseye during Kevin Smith's "Daredevil" run) had survived, or what Spider-Man's life would look like had Aunt May died instead of Uncle Ben. But the follow-up in 2005 was something quite different.

"When editor Mark Paniccia took over the 'What Ifs?' in 2005, he took the books in a bold new direction," Gabrie said. "These were tied to a theme which concentrated on the stories of Earth 717, seen through the eyes of a computer whiz who hacked into the Watcher's files."

"What If? Annihilation"
This series of one-shots shifted the focus of "What If" from previous incarnations: rather than looking at the consequences of a decision not made or a disaster failing to happen, the 2005 specials offered substantially different takes on the Marvel heroes, such as a Civil War-era Captain America and a Soviet-backed Fantastic Four.

Gabrie said that alternate timeline stories will not return to "What If?" but suggested that fans of the style should look to the Marvel Knights imprints, which is now focusing this type of story with titles including Spider-man: Reign," "Silver Surfer: Requiem," and "Captain America: The Chosen." Similarly, some of the more famous, large-scale alternate history universes have warranted occasional return visit, with "Age of Apocalypse," Onslaught, and "House of M" garnering new stories long after each original epic had concluded. Gabrie sees these events as closer kin to the "What If?" specials than the "Earth 717" one-shots and the newer Marvel Knights titles.

"When you really think about it, 'Age of Apocalypse' and 'House of M' are 'What If' stories, at least at the core-i.e., What If Legion killed Charles Xavier? And What If the Scarlet Witch remade the world in Magneto's vision?, respectively," Gabrie said. "As we've learned in the Marvel U's version of the multiverse/omniverse, once a divergence is created, it exists for the Exiles to visit."

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Pages from "What If? Annihilation"
Gabrie credits David Bogart, Marvel's Vice President of Editorial Operations, with establishing the current "What If?" format, which examines alternate outcomes of recent Marvel events. For 2007, Gabrie said "there were some really easy ones to choose from – 'Civil War,' 'Annihilation,' 'X-Men: Rise & Fall,' 'Planet Hulk,' etc. I was able to split editorial chores with Panic (as we lovingly refer to Mark Paniccia, here) and took the first three. This year coming, I'll be handling all the 'What Ifs?' of 2008."

For Gabrie, editing the "What If?" books at Marvel is the latest adventure in a long career in comics."It's surprising to me at times to think that I've been working in the comics industry for over 16 years," Gabrie said. "I actually started at Marvel as an intern back in 1991 when Tom DeFalco was the Chief. I freelanced as the regular colorist on the Ghost Rider segment of 'Marvel Comics Presents' and even got a shot at penciling the Ghost Rider/Cage arc ('MCP' #131-136). While doing that, I got on staff with the Reproduction & International Licensing Dept. I moved on to Manufacturing before ending up with Don Daley as his Assistant Editor on the 'Punisher' run of books in the mid-'90s.

"What If? Planet Hulk"
"The layoffs hit hard but I was able to bounce back with an editorial job at Archie were I was charged to bring back the Red Circle superheroes. A year of development later, the industry really tanked and the brass at Archie got cold feet. Next thing I know, I'm editing 'TMNT' and 'Sonic the Hedgehog.' This was done at a time when I went by Freddy Mendez before I changed it for familial reasons to Justin F. Gabrie (and yes, my middle initial does stand for Freddy). That 'Sonic' gave me connections with the folks at SEGA who then hired me to work in their Licensing Dept. before somehow, years later, making my way back to Marvel as their new Managing Editor. Whew."

Throughout this extensive history in comics, Gabrie has had the opportunity to work on a variety of projects-including the famous curiosity, "Archie Meets the Punisher." Of course, he has a long list of his own favorites. "The projects that stick to my head: 'Punisher: Circle of Blood' by the great Joe Kubert; 'Punisher: Year One' by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning, Dale Eaglesham & Scott Koblish; and the inter-company crossovers 'Punisher/Batman: Deadly Knights' by Chuck Dixon, John Romita, Jr & Klaus Janson and 'Punisher Meets Archie' by Batton Lash with legendary artists John Buscema, Stan Goldberg and Tom Palmer."

"What If? Planet Hulk"
Gabrie has also enjoyed getting to know the industry's various personalities. "The moments that stand out are the people I've met over the years," he said. "Interning for Dan Slott (who now is a big-time writer of 'Amazing Spider-man' and 'Avengers: The Initiative'), who was the Art Returns Coordinator back then; interning with Joe Madureira (yes, that Joe Mads), Mark Powers, Mike Marts, Karl Bollers, Ben Raab, Matt Idelson, etc.; working for future industry leaders Dan Buckley and Alison Gill; witnessing the birth of Event Comics with Joe Quesada, Jimmy Palmiotti and former Archie Editor Nanci Dakesian – all three would eventually head Marvel Knights (their early holiday parties were most memorable); as well as many other artists and writers. Just witnessing how far their careers have gone over the years is amazing.

"What If? Civil War"
"One personal moment I can take full credit for was the day I was able to introduce Tom Palmer to Joe Kubert," Gabrie recalls. "Shockingly enough, these legendary artists, who for one reason or another never connected during their long careers, not at industry functions or conventions, were at the Marvel offices on the same day. When I found out, I ran over to Tom who was dropping off 'Avengers' pages in the Macchio office and I dragged him over to the 'Punisher' office where Joe was dropping off the next issue of 'Circle of Blood.' To see Tom turn into a fan boy in Joe's presence and feeling their mutual respect for each other's work as they shook hands -- priceless! That's a moment I'll never forget."

As "What If?" stories come out towards the end of the year, Gabrie has yet to determine 2008's offerings. But with nearly 70 years of stories to choose from, it would seem there is limitless source material for Marvel's hypothetical histories. Sifting through the major turning points for each character, looking for new twists and turns on fan-favorite classics, can be difficult work, and here too the direction of "What If?" has varied through the years. "In the past, the choice of stories always depended on the editors and creators involved. They pretty much had the entirety of the Marvel Universe to play with in that respect," Gabrie said.

Pages from "What If? Civil War"
It is this approach, showing how the "butterfly effect" plays out on a grand scale in a universe populated with superheroes, that the editor finds most compelling, and he wanted his writers to apply this technique to the modern "What Ifs."

Explained Gabrie, "I wanted to go back to the concept of the original 'What If?' that Roy Thomas set in motion: to concentrate on the decision made or not made, the second in time that zigs instead of zags. This was best exemplified in the movie 'Mr. Destiny' with Jim Belushi, Linda Hamilton and Michael Caine. If he hit the home run or didn't changed everything. I always thought those type of stories were the best 'What Ifs.' Finding that moment in the stories we wanted to tell -- therein laid the challenge."

Determining that perfect moment for divergence depends on what sort of story is being told, and what the dramatic conclusion should be.  "What we did was ask the question first and then looked for the moment in time that would spark that kind of outcome," the editor said. "The specifics of the story come from that moment chosen."

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