The Negative Zone: What If... & Continuity
Something that (most) of us lose as we get older are those “What If?” conversations, born waiting for the bus before school or in the cafeteria: “Dude, what if MODOK killed the Avengers?” or “What if Batman just used guns and killed the Joker?”. Every serious fan has had these conversations at one point or another, some of them lead to more serious conversations (What would you do if there was a real zombie outbreak?) and some not so much (Do you think Plastic Man can just make his dick look like a truck and drive it?), but no matter the case, it’s a big part of the culture because it's both fun and escapist and in a roundabout way, dead serious and connects all kinds of ways to the real world.
Marvel’s What If series has been putting those thoughts into print since 1977, before many of today’s readers were even alive. Stories like What If Spider-Man Joined The Fantastic Four and What If The Beast and The Thing Had Continued To Mutate? give us a look at what could have happened, maybe if a different writer had been behind the wheel or the company was in a different place. It's officially-sanctioned fan-fic and it's awesome.
While these issues are “alternate” story lines or character developments, there are also the stories that are just for fun, like What If Captain America Had Lived In The Civil War? and the classic What If Sgt. Fury had Fought World War Two in Space? which have no real basis in anything, even if they stem from an original issue or story line. These are the gems of the series, what makes What If exciting.
Although outside of 616-Universe continuity, there have been a few issues that have spawned their own series, such as Spider-Girl, a fan favorite that always manages to get cancelled, and the many steps into Marvel’s New Universe and other alternate realities.
While Marvel still does What If stories, they remain alternate paths to mainly event comics, the two most recent being What If? Secret Invasion and What If? World War Hulk. These books give two or three different endings to what could have been, like what if the Skrulls had won?
While these are still interesting, they honestly aren’t worth the print, simply not as entertaining as older issues like What if Wolverine Was Lord of the Vampires?, or even What If The Gamma Bomb Spawned A Thousand Hulks. In their own way, these "What If" stories are in continuity even as they're set-up to be out of continuity. It's weird. They're contained in their craziness so they just don't really work. Like, how do you make something like What If? boring?
DC Comic’s Elseworlds stories, like Superman: Red Son, deliver here where Marvel doesn’t, and it’s pretty rare you see me praising the “other” company. Something we need, all comics fans--hardcore and novice--are issues we can pick up without strings attached. Something that's both a breather from all the super-involved week-to-week, month-to-month event and sub-event craziness and just kinda hits you as a pure, awesome comic. And you get that when a What If? is done right and by "done right" I mean, "done like the old ones".
What If issues of the past were either self contained or at most one or two issues, current character continuity was never important to the story within. We, as readers, want these stories. Non-continuity, original, although sometimes strange, really works. It’s why Jesse loves Marvel Fanfare and why we all tried to love Wednesday Comics and Strange Tales.
Our new way of finding these stories are through comics like Mark Waid's Superman-like Irredeemable, where one day the strongest hero in the world decides to kill everyone. While the series is good, possibly great, it would be better if it were actually about Superman, and not a newly created character. At this point, there shouldn't be anything Superman--iconic hero for decades or not--can't do in a comic book. It's almost as if he should be part of public domain or something, so Mark Waid could use the caves of history and context Superman has behind him for something like Irredeemable or so your favorite indie weirdo could draw him all weird, doing stuff Siegel and Schuster never imagined. What If? comics of today should follow the thirty year old formula, it's changes like these that make you think "What If they listened to their fans once in a while?"