What If

By | Monday, March 09, 2020 Leave a Comment
I was going through some of my collection recently for some research and scanned through my collection of What If? issues. I only have a smattering of issues from each of the two runs, and because of the issues I actually have, it occurred to me how strangely niche a title like that was. A little back story to explain myself...

I started collecting comics in earnest beginning in August 1983. With my eleventh birthday to be precise. I had had comics before then, but it was a copy of Fantastic Four #254 I received that really grabbed me and made me say, "What happens next?!?" After checking out the local drug stores and such for the newest issues, I decided this was a thing I wanted to pursue and, oh, hey, look -- there are 253 issues that came before that I don't have! After a couple months, I was able to persuade my parents to take me to a dedicated comic shop for the first time. The Cleveland Comic Book Company in Parma, Ohio. (Apparently, long since closed.) I'm pretty sure that was the closest shop we had at that point, and it wasn't exactly conveniently located, so I didn't get out there often.

In any event, the first time I stepped in not knowing what to expect. Like many (most?) comic shops at the time, it was dark and crowded and looked a bit dodgy but it was absolutely amazing in that there were so many more comics than I'd ever seen before! My primary interest at the time was Fantastic Four and, in scanning the racks of new books, What If #42 popped out. As I was still pretty new to comics, though, I didn't realize exactly what it was when I picked it up. I saw the Fantastic Four on the cover and just thought it was another adventure of theirs.

Upon reading it, it was clear that it wasn't a canonical story (not that I knew the word "canon" at the time) and the narration stated that it was a departure from a previously told story (Fantastic Four Annual #6). But since I was still a fairly new FF fan, I hadn't read that yet to know when/where/how this What If story was different from the original. I knew from other stories that the Invisible Girl did indeed survive, as did her child, but I had no idea how or why.

I eventually did get FF Annual #6. As well as pretty much all the other FF stories. Including those in various What If issues. In fact, those were largely the only What If issues I got... the ones with the Fantastic Four in them. I never picked up "What if Elektra had Lived" or "What if Spidey Never Became a Crimefighter" or "What if Peter and MJ Never Married"... Pretty much all of the What If issues I have -- from both series -- are related to the Fantastic Four.

See, the problem was that I didn't have the points of reference for non-FF stories. I had never read the original Korvac saga, or the Phoenix saga, or Days of Futures Past, or any of that. What If offered me these alternatives to stories I had little to no knowledge of, much less affection for. And while I was more of a Fantastic Four centered fan, I don't doubt there are others who only picked up the Spider-Man issues, or the X-Men ones, or whatever their favorite heroes were.

The series, as a whole, appeals to Marvel fans who know the canon across all of Marvel's characters. The people who read virtually everything Marvel publishes. The stories in What If, by design, "don't count." They're sold as alternatives to the Marvel canon. But an alternative is only useful if it's an alternative to something. Without that to, Marvel has little to promote the series on. I think it's somewhat telling that the second series (1989-1998) lasted over twice as long as the first (1977-1984) -- Marvel's fan base, encouraged by Marvel itself, became more devoted fans as time wore on. While fans were encouraged, even in Marvel's early days, to buy as many Marvel titles as they could, the stories were still independent. Beginning in the latter half of the 1980s, Marvel switched gears so that buying all of the Marvel titles wasn't encouraged so much as demanded -- stories that wove in and out of multiple titles and, in order to read a complete story, the reader needed to pick up several titles they might not normally buy.

And while that might lead to creating fans that can appreciate more what's going on in a What If title, it also leads to them having less money they can afford to spend on a What If title. They're spending so much of their money on titles that "count" they can't afford the one that doesn't... even as it becomes a title they can more readily enjoy and appreciate.

Frankly, I'm kind of surprised the title lasted as long as it did either time.
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