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On Marvel's 'What If...?' as Alternate History

Gary Oswald

It was Vampire Unions that got us Vampire Weekend
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This is a fascinating article for me.

Alex has said a few times that he thinks AH is a child of portal fantasy and I see where he comes from on that. I don't agree entirely, I think @Alexander Rooksmoor is entirely right to argue that AH is a child of political tracts. Every political campaign is an argument in AH (5 years ago you voted this and you got this, if instead you'd voted that, you'd have gotten this).

See the meme of the futuristic city and the caption 'the world if [this had happened]'. AH speculation was the forte of Livy and Churchill and Varoufakis and Rooksmoor does a good job in tracking down how much of AH fiction emerged from political history such as Louis Georffroy writing 'if only Napoleon had won everyone would be happy' or Castello Holford writing 'if only the USA had adapted communism as a founding philosophy everyone would'.

Having said that AH is where the falling political story meets the rising pulp story and there is a massive pulp influence to the genre. I wouldn't one hundred per cent blame 'portal fantasy' myself as I think most portal fantasy is more like narnia where the fantasy world is entirely alien. But it's often peoples first introduction to parallel worlds and so a gateway to alternate universes in general. Portal fantasy leads to it's a wonderful life and if you watch that and you're a historical nerd, its inevitable to go ok so thats the world without george bailey, what about the world without george washington.

Or alternatively if you're a sci-fi/comics writer you go so what about buffy without buffy and we get the wish or what about dc comics without superman and we get the nail.

Which is where Alex is coming from in arguing that the what if superhero comics, which have existed since 1944, emerged from parallel evolution to AH from the same inspirations, which is fair. I'd argue myself that it's more complicated than just that, because a lot of online AH writers first encountered the many worlds theory through stuff like star trek and doctor who and superhero comics doing that kind of thing and that became a massive influence on their style and sensibilities. So it's not just parallel, its also an inspiration for online AH.

Fascinating article anyway, gave me a lot to think about,
 

Alex Richards

A musical Hubble Space Telescope
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I think in some ways the What If series (and DC's Elseworlds equivalent) can probably be best understood as a consequence of both the firming up of 'canon' and the way how certain characters were already becoming much more popular.

Early stories can just do new things because there's not necessarily an expectation of what the character's like. Give Batman a time machine and have him fight at the OK Corral in 1939? Well sure that's fine, Batman's got a Time Machine now. Want to tell that story today and you have to come up with a convoluted plot involving a supervillain sending him back in time to get him out the way. Or you make it explicitly out of continuity.

Or, of course, you just have a new character for the new setting, but then that's the issue- it's not that people necessarily want a story about caped superheroes in the Old West, they want to see how Bruce Wayne would deal with that setting.

Although perhaps it's also notable that DC's early affairs were usually told through the concept of being dreams
 

Gary Oswald

It was Vampire Unions that got us Vampire Weekend
Sea Lion Press staff
Published by SLP
Pronouns
he/him
I think in some ways the What If series (and DC's Elseworlds equivalent) can probably be best understood as a consequence of both the firming up of 'canon' and the way how certain characters were already becoming much more popular.

Early stories can just do new things because there's not necessarily an expectation of what the character's like. Give Batman a time machine and have him fight at the OK Corral in 1939? Well sure that's fine, Batman's got a Time Machine now. Want to tell that story today and you have to come up with a convoluted plot involving a supervillain sending him back in time to get him out the way. Or you make it explicitly out of continuity.

Or, of course, you just have a new character for the new setting, but then that's the issue- it's not that people necessarily want a story about caped superheroes in the Old West, they want to see how Bruce Wayne would deal with that setting.

Although perhaps it's also notable that DC's early affairs were usually told through the concept of being dreams
Yes but like its notable that the marvel what ifs tended to be a lot more grounded in points of divergence than the imaginary stories/elseworlds which was all about shaking it up in the way you say.

Like the first what if comic from 1977 isn't 'what if spiderman was born in 1700 ad' but 'what if spiderman joined the fantastic four'. The seventh issue is flash thompson rather than parker being bitten by the spider, etc.

It's very much treating the canon as we do history and looking at possible changes, rather than the elseworlds stuff of imagining an entirely different set up. Though again it requires a much firmer canon in terms of timeline of events to exist. It's a thing marvel could do because they had those soap opera subplots, and a small bunch of writers, in the way golden age comics which were throwaway and written as standalone by many different work for hire writers didn't.

When I talked about AH in fanfiction, I noted the difference between Alternate Universe stories of 'what if superman was instead in different world without superheroes where he's just a reporter' and au stories of 'what if this story from this issue had gone differently'.

The same divide is there in superhero comics and 'what if' is mostly the latter and so it's a bit different to 'gotham by gaslight' and the other wilder elseworlds which are more the former. And as a result it's much closer to internet AH.
 

Alex Richards

A musical Hubble Space Telescope
Patreon supporter
Published by SLP
Location
Derbyshire
Yes but like its notable that the marvel what ifs tended to be a lot more grounded in points of divergence than the imaginary stories/elseworlds which was all about shaking it up in the way you say.

Like the first what if comic from 1977 isn't 'what if spiderman was born in 1700 ad' but 'what if spiderman joined the fantastic four'. The seventh issue is flash thompson rather than parker being bitten by the spider, etc.

It's very much treating the canon as we do history and looking at possible changes, rather than the elseworlds stuff of imagining an entirely different set up. Though again it requires a much firmer canon in terms of timeline of events to exist. It's a thing marvel could do because they had those soap opera subplots, and a small bunch of writers, in the way golden age comics which were throwaway and written as standalone by many different work for hire writers didn't.

When I talked about AH in fanfiction, I noted the difference between Alternate Universe stories of 'what if superman was instead in different world without superheroes where he's just a reporter' and au stories of 'what if this story from this issue had gone differently'.

The same divide is there in superhero comics and 'what if' is mostly the latter and so it's a bit different to 'gotham by gaslight' and the other wilder elseworlds which are more the former. And as a result it's much closer to internet AH.
True indeed.

Makes you wonder how much is down to the different cultures in DC and Marvel and how much is down to Elseworlds starting in a time period where It's a Wonderful Life hadn't been filmed yet, whereas What If? is in the era of the Mirror Universe.
 

Gary Oswald

It was Vampire Unions that got us Vampire Weekend
Sea Lion Press staff
Published by SLP
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True indeed.

Makes you wonder how much is down to the different cultures in DC and Marvel and how much is down to Elseworlds starting in a time period where It's a Wonderful Life hadn't been filmed yet, whereas What If? is in the era of the Mirror Universe.
We haven't written an article on It's a Wonderful Life as the first mainstream AH fiction yet, have we?
 

Alex Richards

A musical Hubble Space Telescope
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We haven't written an article on It's a Wonderful Life as the first mainstream AH fiction yet, have we?
I think it gets that title only because it kept on being repeated so stayed in the public consciousness.

What's annoying me is that I'm pretty sure there's actually a really good breakdown of the history of how AH treats the Nazis (as in going back to literally WWII itself) in Durham Uni Library and I can't for the life of me remember the title.
 

Gary Oswald

It was Vampire Unions that got us Vampire Weekend
Sea Lion Press staff
Published by SLP
Pronouns
he/him
There's actually a really good breakdown of the history of how AH treats the Nazis (as in going back to literally WWII itself) in Durham Uni Library and I can't for the life of me remember the title.
'The world Hitler never made : alternate history and the memory of Nazism' by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld possibly? A quick search of the catalogue dug that up, might pop by in my lunchbreak and read it.
 

Thande

Catch '22
Published by SLP

Gary Oswald

It was Vampire Unions that got us Vampire Weekend
Sea Lion Press staff
Published by SLP
Pronouns
he/him
I've found you get better engagement if you can throw humour into it, he said, like a sinister robot algorithm.
Yeah when I interviewed @Ysengrimus, the picture he gave me was of him holding a hawk so I did the classic dumb joke of labelling it "Charlie (left)" and there was like five twitter comments on that joke, which is way more engagement then we normally get.

It's somewhat sad that the quality of the article seems not to matter so much as completely peripheral stuff like that.
 

Charles EP M.

Well-known member
Published by SLP
One big difference with Marvel's What Ifs from not just DC but a lot of AH (the ones not about the two timelines meeting) is that Marvel's What Ifs are canon. They're not imaginary stories or idle musings or worlds of else, these alternate timelines are happening in Marvel continuity, here's the Watcher to confirm it! It's a pulpy print version of online AH being as plausible as possible. Some of the very earliest issues even do 'rivet counting' as they check off specific old comics and how they're different because Spider-Man's in the Fantastic Five. (This has changed in more recent years both to give more freedom of narrative and because it's nigh-impossible for a creator to remember all the comics)
 

Death's Companion

General Ugg Apologist.
Where does Flashpoint fit into this? Because this has multiple worlds being influenced by Flash breaking time and travelling to a couple of them and its explicitly centered around him so that everything is recognizable but at the same time distinct and the end result is a brand new continuity for the universe as of Apocalypse War ending an era for the DC Animated Cinematic Universe.


Of course the DCAU has like dozens of shows with the same characters just somewhat different and some fit kind of together whilst others explicitly don't and some of the ones that fit really seem more to fit on a whim of later writers rather than actually being in anyway coherent as sharing a timeline.
 

Thande

Catch '22
Published by SLP
Of course the DCAU has like dozens of shows with the same characters just somewhat different and some fit kind of together whilst others explicitly don't and some of the ones that fit really seem more to fit on a whim of later writers rather than actually being in anyway coherent as sharing a timeline.
IIRC in "Static Shock" he's inspired by Batman and Robin as fictional heroes at the start, then teams up with them as actual in-universe heroes a bit later, and then ends up leading the Justice League in a bad future.
 

Alex Richards

A musical Hubble Space Telescope
Patreon supporter
Published by SLP
Location
Derbyshire
Where does Flashpoint fit into this? Because this has multiple worlds being influenced by Flash breaking time and travelling to a couple of them and its explicitly centered around him so that everything is recognizable but at the same time distinct and the end result is a brand new continuity for the universe as of Apocalypse War ending an era for the DC Animated Cinematic Universe.


Of course the DCAU has like dozens of shows with the same characters just somewhat different and some fit kind of together whilst others explicitly don't and some of the ones that fit really seem more to fit on a whim of later writers rather than actually being in anyway coherent as sharing a timeline.
Flashpoint's the 'Soft Reboot but with in universe explanation' route I think.
 

Death's Companion

General Ugg Apologist.
IIRC in "Static Shock" he's inspired by Batman and Robin as fictional heroes at the start, then teams up with them as actual in-universe heroes a bit later, and then ends up leading the Justice League in a bad future.
Yeah I was thinking of that, and also like he works with Batman Beyond as well and Batman Beyond later works with Superman but the Justice League is now six people and then like four people when Terry runs it despite it having like a thousand members thirty years before and hundreds in the future and Batman being alone in the world loses its punch if he has dozens of former collegues floating around the best one of them still actively likes him whilst Dick Grayson's fate is comp-

I'm going to stop because there is nothing really *impossible* in those particular series being grouped together but imo they are a really poor fit in terms of world building, personalities and themes.

I think they only happened because they wanted recognizable super heroes in the future and Batman Beyond was very popular show set in the future so it seemed easier than creating a whole new universe just for a team up episode.
 

Charles EP M.

Well-known member
Published by SLP
I think they only happened because they wanted recognizable super heroes in the future and Batman Beyond was very popular show set in the future so it seemed easier than creating a whole new universe just for a team up episode.
IIRC, this was partly a soft 'pilot' for the JL show - "look, kids, a League of Justice, cor you want to see that" - and they got told they couldn't use Wonder Woman which is why Big Barda's in it.
 
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