This weekend sees the premiere of Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the first big-screen depiction of many Spider-characters from across the Marvel multiverse. In anticipation of all the parallel reality Spidey shenanigans, I thought I’d take a look back at some classic comic book stories from What If? that feature alternate takes on Our Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.
For those of you not in the know, What If? is the name of a few different series in which Uatu the Watcher or some other omniscient narrator would give readers a look at alternate takes on classic Marvel stories and characters. Sometimes, these changes were brought on by differing outcomes of Marvel’s big event stories. Other times, the simplest of deviations would alter the course of what we knew to be the “real” story, like…
“What If Someone Else Besides Spider-Man Had Been Bitten By the Radioactive Spider?” (What If? Vol. 1, #7)
(Side-note: “Tintinnabulatin'” is the word I’d like to see at the start of every single sentence in my obituary.)
Unlike other entries on this list, Peter Parker is not exactly the main focus of the stories, even though he ends up playing a major role in most of them. In three separate timelines, we see Betty Brant become Spider-Girl (with Peter as her tech supplier and hypeman), Flash Thompson become the reckless Captain Spider (with Peter as his number one fan), and Col. John Jameson become the reluctant and terribly-named Spider Jameson (with Peter…just sort of there). The real draw in this issue is the fact that, while the Spider adventures of these three end in tragedy, Peter Parker’s drive to be a hero leads to things being the way they should be. It’s a great examination of Pete’s moral center.
Also, the idea of seeing Flash Thompson being bitten by the radioactive spider is apparently so appealing that it has been re-done no less than three times in various volumes of What If?, the most recent iteration having been released just a few months ago!
“What If Spider-Man Had Never Become A Crimefighter?” (What If? Vol. 1, #19)
Easily the silliest issue on this list, this shows us what would have happened if Pete had stopped the burglar who killed Uncle Ben in the timeline we’re all familiar with. According to Watcher, he would have turned into a REAL JERK. Peter parlays his super-powered wrestling career into film stardom and sets about signing every major superhero to his talent agency. This allows him to generate better public relations for heroes such as the X-Men, but the fame goes to his head and his grandstanding leads to him making some of the same powerful enemies that he did in the main Marvel universe.
This one is notable for showing us a Peter Parker whose personality is diametrically opposed to the traditionally selfless depictions of Spider-Man. He’s a hothead who is a little too full of himself, rather than the self-deprecating (and often self-pitying) Pete that we know and love. It takes Daredevil’s heroism and a desperate J. Jonah Jameson to show him the error of his ways. While much of the issue seems to be played for laughs, it’s ultimately an interesting look at how privilege can warp even our greatest heroes.
“What If Spider-Man’s Clone Lived?” (What If? Vol. 1, #30)
Okay, in hindsight, this story is hilarious for many reasons, not least of which because it’s infinitely less convoluted than how the ACTUAL return of Peter’s clone played out in the comics. Pete’s clone tries to make a go of being the real Peter Parker, but quickly realizes he can’t stand up to the real Spider-Man’s enemies without his knowledge and experience.
What’s really wild about this story from 1981 is how often the story here lines up with events we’d actually see in the mainstream Marvel Universe down the line. Peter II is weirdly cavalier about the whole “stealing someone else’s life” deal once he figures out the truth about his origins, but he eventually understands what he must do to save the city. It’s a blast seeing Pete & Pete bro-ing down against the Kingpin and even though most What If? tales ended in a violent or depressing fashion, this issues gets tied up in a bow that’s almost too tidy. It’s bound to make any Spidey fan chuckle to see how the “crazy alternate reality” take on the Spider-Clone story is somehow less melodramatic and ridiculous than the “true” story.
“What If the Alien Costume Had Possessed Spider-Man?” (What If? Vol. 2, #4)
We’re firmly in the late ’80s here, so this story falls a little more on the “grimdark” side of things, showing us not only a timeline where Peter Parker was used up by the black suit and drained of his life-force, but also treating us to a series of battles between the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and various symbiote-possessed members of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes! It’s pretty neat to see a symbiotic Thor and Hulk years before Web of Shadows or Venomverse were a twinkle in Marvel’s symbiote-crazy eyes.
Though he’s not the main focus after around the halfway point of the book, Peter’s storyline in this issue is an emotional punch in the gut. His sense of responsibility doesn’t leave him, even after his great power does.
This issue also gives readers a glimpse into the Black Cat’s character, showing just how far she’d go to not only avenge Peter Parker, but to put an end to the symbiote. No matter what universe it is, Felicia Hardy doesn’t wear kid gloves.
“Arachnamorphosis” (What If? Vol. 2, #88)
(Or, as I like to call it, “David Cronenberg’s Spider-Man.”)
In the latter half of the second volume of What If?, the Watcher was dropped as the narrator and the notion of a specific small change creating new timelines was more or less jettisoned. Many of the stories were now presented as straight-up alternate realities, similar to DC’s Elseworlds comics. A lot of the stories also became much less fun and darker in execution, resulting in tales like 1996’s huge downer, “Arachnomorphosis.”
Everything about this one is messed up, featuring a Peter Parker who is more Seth Brundle than superhero. Having never gained super powers, this Peter has instead spent the last several years attempting to suppress the monstrous mutation that followed him since being bitten by the radioactive spider. He’s transforming at night and growing more and more aggressive by the day. If that’s not bad enough, his young son, Ben, is beginning to mutate as well. Even the architecture in this story is all warped, with Peter living in a dingy tenement building surrounded by scraggly trees, like something straight out of a Clive Barker film. All of the adult characters are drawn with exaggerated, hateful expressions. The whole story is soaked in dread and really gives you a sense of how hopeless Ben feels. Needless to say, this is one of the darker takes on Spider-Man from the pages of What If?
What are some of your favorite What If? takes on Spidey and company? Are you looking forward to seeing the broader Spider-Verse on the big screen? Let us know in the comments!