Growing up, What If? was a Marvel Comics staple, right alongside Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and Uncanny X-Men. I’d pick it up every now and then if it featured favorite characters or a neat premise, for instance. But the stories featured in this series were always hit or miss. Still, its fresh and often inventive twists on Marvel history were always welcome, which is why it’s always exciting to see the House of Ideas release new What If? comics.
The new What If?: With Great Power trade paperback collects the most recent batch of What If? one-shots and, true to the series’ legacy, it’s another mixed bag that varies in quality from one issue to the next.
For starters, the characters Marvel chose to focus on this time around were certainly… interesting. Out of the six titles, two focus on Spider-Man, two are in the X-Men’s world and the other two center around Thor and Ghost Rider. I realize the X-Men and Spidey are popular, but spread the love around, Marvel! The pacing of this collection also suffers a bit when you start off reading a new twist on Spider-Man’s origin, before moving onto the X-Men and then another twist on Spider-Man’s origin.
With all that said, my favorite story in this collection was that first Spidey tale: What If? Flash Thompson Became Spider-Man. Written by classic Spidey writer Gerry Conway and illustrated by Diego Olortegui, this one-shot captured a lot of the same feelings stirred up by Dan Slott’s Superior Spider-Man run. What happens when someone without Peter Parker’s understanding of great power and great responsibility has spider powers? A lot of bad stuff, it turns out! While Flash went on to become a beloved hero in the Marvel Universe we know and love, Conway was right to focus on teenage Flash, the bully, in this alternate reality.
This comic does what every great What If? story should do–it flips everything we know on its head and helps us appreciate what we have… you know, a responsible Spidey! It’s also the only story in this collection that pays homage to the late Watcher’s narrator role in the original What If? series, only with The Unseen in his place.
Side note: Isn’t it crazy Nick Fury’s still the Watcher? Oh, I mean The Unseen. Crazy!
Also strong is the collection’s last story: What If? Magik Became Sorcerer Supreme by writer Leah Williams and artist Filipe Andrade. Who knew angry, teenage Illyana Rasputin and cranky Doctor Strange could be such an enjoyable combo? Williams knows how to deliver effective dialogue, and it’s all that banter that elevates this one-shot to the top of this collection.
While writer Ethan Sacks and artist Michele Bandini’s story about Thor being raised by Frost Giants served up an interesting role reversal for the God of Thunder and Loki, the rest of this collection’s one-shots left me underwhelmed. What If? Peter Parker Became the Punisher, for example, had too much going on in too few pages for it to be an effective character exploration. Also, it all just seemed like too much of a stretch for any version of Peter Parker to get so extreme.
Meanwhile, What If? The X-Men reads as if writer Bryan Hill just saw Ready Player One and wanted to apply its concepts to Marvel’s mutants. This one also feels more like a DC Elseworlds tale than a What If? comic. I don’t know, maybe you need to be a gamer to enjoy this one. I was just bored. Less boring, but still odd, was What If? Marvel Comics Went Metal With Ghost Rider. I’m not sure who this story was for, but it deviates the most from the What If? theme and is pretty much a straight-up comedic tale designed to appeal to Marvel employees… I guess?
Overall, this isn’t the greatest group of What If? stories available, but as a whole, it’s enjoyable enough. If you’re looking for some light reading for your commute to work, this will do the trick. Honestly, though, unless you’re a What If? completist, I would recommend just picking up the individual one-shots that most appeal to you. It’s likely you can still find them at your local comic shop and you’ll save the $17.99 Marvel is charging for this trade.