29 November, 2021

What If? and Exiles: Journey Through the Weird of the Marvel Universe

When Marvel’s What If…? was announced as a Disney+ series, my inner fangirl was filled with delight. The What If…? comic stories were among my favorites as a kid, to the point that particular panels are burned into my memory.

The show led me to revisit those stories from the late 1970s, collected in What If…? Vol. 1. I finished the collection with a more complicated view of its contents as an adult than as a child. It is filled with stories by creators who became legends and with concepts that eventually made it to the regular Marvel Universe. Yet it also reads as dated, especially in the lack of diversity in its’ lineup and the portrayal of female characters.

The search for satisfying alternate Marvel timelines, however, led me to the 2018 comic version of Exiles, a Marvel series by Saladin Ahmed and Javier Rodriguez. This series features a team of time-lost alternate universe Marvel heroes seeking to save other worlds and themselves. It also includes the first comic appearance of a character that would lead off the Disney+ series, super-soldier Peggy Carter.

The Marvel Comic What If…?

In a way, What If…? was the beginning of official Marvel corporate fanfiction. Superhero universes are already a collaboration of creators across decades, each affected by their respective generations. Many comic writers grew up reading the characters they were writing at the time this series was created. Heck, Jim Shooter, who wrote one of the stories in What If…? Vol. 1, famously got a job at DC Comics as a teenager writing speculative scripts. This series allowed some of the comic’s greatest legends riffing on what might have been. And for comic historians, the introduction by Ralph Macchio and the letter columns included in What If…? Vol. 1 are a great view of what was happening at the time in comics.

The volume features many of the legends of superhero comics, including but not limited to Gil Kane, Roy Thomas, Shooter, Jack Kirby, Scott Shaw, Herb Trimpe, Sal Buscema, Klaus Janson, and Frank Robbins.

Though the writers created fascinating stories, it was the artwork that remains memorable to me. That’s appropriate for comics, as it is an artist’s medium. When I opened the page beginning “What If the Avengers Had Never Been?” by Shooter and Kane, I recognized Kane’s work immediately by the shape of Hulk’s hair and the various Iron Man suits that Tony Stark creates to help the B-list Avengers to battle Hulk and Namor. The final panel of Stark’s ultimate sacrifice stuck in my brain for years.

There are twelve stories total included in this volume but the ones of most interest to modern readers will likely be “What If the Hulk Had the Brain of Bruce Banner?,” What if Captain America had not vanished during World War II?”, “What If Someone Else Besides Spider-Man Had Been Bitten by the Radioactive Spider?”, “What If Jane Foster Found the Hammer of Thor?,” and “What If the World Knew Daredevil Was Blind?” Many of these stories featured concepts later adopted to the regular Marvel continuity and, eventually, to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

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There’s little wrong with the narrative element of these tales. These comic creators know how to tell a story. But the problematic elements can’t be overlooked. The first What If…? story ever, “What If Spider-Man Joined the Fantastic Four?” ends with Sue Storm/the Invisible Girl, leaving the team because she feels useless, not a bad concept, except she leaves to marry Namor of Atlantis rather than choosing a path on her own. Wasp’s dialogue in “What If the Avengers Had Never Been?” includes this unironic gem: “Henry Pym, can’t you see that this color clashes with my eyeshadow?”

Betty Brant gets bitten by the radioactive Spider and designs the most unfortunate Spider-costume ever. Those are only a couple of examples of the problems. This also includes, alas, the Jane Foster story which ends with her marrying Odin (!).

There are characters and situations that MCU fans will recognize. Jimmy Woo, familiar as an FBI Agent in WandaVision and Ant-Man and the Wasp, leads the team in “What If the Avengers Had Existed in the 1950s?”, a concept that later led to the Agents of Atlas comic series. Jane Foster, of course, is scheduled to wield the hammer in the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder, and now there are lots of versions of Spider-Man, as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse details.

But for those wishing for more modern stories and a continuing storyline, there’s another choice.

Exiles by Saladin Ahmed and Javier Rodriguez

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If you’re enjoying the Disney+ What If…? series and crave more of same, Exiles in the series to collect. There are two volumes of the most recent series that began in 2018: Exiles: Test of Time and Exiles: The Trial of the Exiles that feature a cast that reflects our more modern society. Most of all, these two volumes are a fine story that MCU viewers can read without diving into years of Marvel Comics continuity.

The Exiles are a team of alternate reality Marvel heroes jumping through time and worlds in order to save as many worlds and people as they can. If this sounds familiar to viewers of Disney+’s Loki, yes, the concept has some similarities to the work of the Time Variance Authority, including the fact that the Exiles are led by a mysterious mastermind who may or may not have their best interest at heart.

Exiles also contains the first appearance of Peggy Carter as the super-soldier of World War II, going here by Captain America. This is a case of an alternate version of a character the MCU revived and expanded then, in turn, inspiring an alternate timeline version that first appeared in a video game, and made her way to comics in Exiles and, finally, to television again.

Peggy Carter isn’t the only familiar face to MCU viewers, as the Exiles also include Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarök. I also love the inclusion of an alternate timeline Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel) who appears as an older and more cynical version of her regular self. 

There is an earlier series of Exiles that included over 100 issues but while those stories are of generally good quality, they’re so steeped in the continuity of Marvel Comics at the time that they could be incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with that era, much like the What If…? television series would be of little interest to those who haven’t watched the MCU.

What’s Next?

The good news is that there are other collected volumes of the What If…? stories from the comics. I’d recommend searching through those versions until you find an appealing concept. One fair warning: most of these stories end tragically, much like the television series episodes. The other good news is that Exiles by Ahmed and Rodriguez end on a good, satisfying note. The bad news is that there appears to be no more planned volumes in the series.

Yet, as a reader who loves alternate universes, I’m holding out hope that comics can inspire the MCU again. Perhaps What If…? on Disney+ can eventually morph into an Exiles-style team. It’s a possibility, considering the second season of the series has already announced they’re going to use Peggy Carter/Captain Carter again.

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