For years, Marvel Comics' "What If?" has given readers interesting glimpses on how Marvel heroes might turn out if fate had dealt them a different hand. These stories usually just examined an event relating to a character's established continuity. This December, "What If?" returns as six one-shot specials: "What if: Captain America," "What If: Daredevil," "What If: Fantastic Four," "What If: Thor," "What If: Wolverine" and "What If: Submariner." These specials not only examine the different lives of each of these heroes, but also their places in history, because all of the December one-shots are set on Earth 717, a world that's an interdimensional next door neighbor to the mainstream Marvel Universe. CBR News spoke with the man who put together this event, editor Mark Paniccia.
Paniccia wanted to follow up last December's "What If" event, but he didn't want to repeat himself. So, he brainstormed a way to take this year's one-shots in a new direction. "The idea of a hacker breaking into an alternate Internet just sounded like a lot of fun," Paniccia told CBR News. "So human 'Watcher' Hector Espejo was born. I jotted down some ideas and started contacting creators after discussing choices with Joe Q.
"Hacking into an alternate universe's Internet happily limited it to being on one Earth," Paniccia continued. "And an alternate Earth allowed us to ask much larger questions and see ramifications with more impact than if we followed regular Marvel continuity. We could ask, 'What if Captain America fought in the Civil War' instead of being bound to a specific event in Cap's personal history. Not that there's anything wrong with stories that spring from Cap turning left instead of right. There's been some great tales that have come from the regular 'What If' series. This just broadened the concept more and allowed us to embrace some interesting concepts."
Each one-shot begins with Hector mining the Othernet for information about the costumed champions of the parallel word. "The characters are different because something drastic has happened to them or their family in their past that alters their 616 trajectory," Paniccia explained. "Reed Richard's father ends up staying in Russia after WWI and he grows up as a scientist for the Soviet Union, ending up in space with his best friend Piotr Rasputin, his sister Iliana and former KGB agent Natasha Romanoff.
"Galactus comes knocking on Asgard's door and forces Thor to make a soul-crushing vow and become a God of destruction.
"Namor's mother dies and he grows up on land instead of leading Atlantis, resulting in an unimaginable horror for that character.
"Millionaire industrialist and best selling writer Matt Murdock tells the story of an incident that happened to his great, great grand father while visiting Japan. And while this fantastic tale is of a different man with extraordinary senses, the Daredevil mythos is surprisingly strong and moving.
"The idea of Captain America is realized several generations earlier in the Rogers family tree when he meets up with another soldier named Wilson who unleashes a powerful Indian spirit to save him, while creating a new threat called the White Skull.
"Wolverine is drawn into a mission of vengeance when an enemy from his past sets out to destroy the things that are close to him."
The December "What If"" event features a variety of different story types. Paniccia feels the multiple genres enhanced the one-shots' common setting. "I think it makes the whole event feel more like these changes have some historical importance in this other universe," he said. "It gives the reader a sense of history and makes it feel like a bigger place and not a pocket universe."
The "What If" one-shots may share a common setting, but each issue is a self-contained story. "They're not tied together by anything more than an observation of how the spirit of the character survives, regardless of the circumstances of this other universe," Paniccia explained.
There's a good chance that December won't be the last time that readers will be visiting Earth 717. "'What if featuring Captain America' writer, Tony Bedard, just happens to write the universe hopping 'Exiles,' so there's always a possibility for a stop by," Paniccia said. "Also, we're going to run an online poll to see what the favorite was. If there's enough support, there's the chance of a mini-series."
Want to know more about the "What if?" books? Don't miss our interview with Tony Bedard, writer of "What If: Captain America."