The 4 Most Influential Marvel Alternate Reality Stories
Alternate reality comics allow the writers to play with their company's toys without permanently breaking them -- they can render these variant characters completely depressing or completely ridiculous, but the "real" versions will still be safely tucked away in the main universe (and, more importantly, the official merchandise). But some What If-type ideas turn out so irresistibly good that they'll eventually drop the "alternate" part and get folded into the main reality. Such is the case with ...
"Days Of Future Past" Went From A Throwaway Story To Reshaping The X-Men Franchise
"Days of Future Past" started as a mere excuse for Uncanny X-Men artist John Byrne to draw some giant killer robots, and it ended up becoming one of the most influential comics ever made. Byrne wanted to do a story starring the Sentinels, but writer Chris Claremont said, "Nah, Sentinels are wimpy," to which Byrne replied, "No, you write them wimpy." To prove Claremont wrong, Byrne plotted a story about a possible future where the X-Men have all been murdered by the Sentinels, which were at least considerate enough to place their headstones in a neat sequential line for plot exposition purposes.
Only Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, and a few others are still alive in the far-out year of 2013, and by the end of the story, even the unkillable canucklehead gets turned into a metallic skeleton. Luckily, a familiar-looking telepathic mutant called Rachel manages to send Kitty's mind back in time to prevent the assassination that convinces the U.S. government to pour its entire budget into mutant-killing devices. And so, this dark future is prevented ... or is it? "Days of Future Past" was so popular that it spawned several grammar-defying sequels, including but not limited to "Days of Future Present" (1991), "Days of Future Tense" (1996), "Days of Future Now" (2005), and "Years of Future Now" (2015).
Also, the mysterious Rachel (now confirmed to be the daughter of Cyclops and Jean Grey) traveled back to the X-Men's present and became a major player in the various X-Teams. The fact that Jean had just died when Rachel was introduced made it seems like Marvel was playing the long game and already planning her resurrection since "giving birth while death" was never one of her mutant powers. Of course, they were actually making it up as they went along -- Rachel was only there because Jean's death was a last-minute change. Still, there's no doubt that "Days of Future Past" brought a more epic aura to X-Men comics. These aren't just random stories but a grand, decades-long saga, and you're not just wasting your allowance by buying these comics, no matter what your mom says.
This little two-part story's influence even extended beyond comics: it's been adapted by two X-Men cartoon series and one of the non-sucky X-Men films, but its greatest honor was the time it was used as a special stage in one of Marvel Vs. Capcom fighting games.
In a more general sense, the storyline's success opened the floodgates for X-Men writers to play around with possible futures and alternate timelines, leading to the creation of popular characters like Bishop and Cable. Oh, and it directly influenced another storyline that would end up becoming pretty influential on its own ...
"Age Of Apocalypse" Became The Template For Marvel's And DC's Crossovers
After the '90s X-Men cartoon adapted "Days of Future Past," and perhaps just looking to give Bishop more stuff to do, they came up with another alternate reality episode where a time-traveling villain kills Professor X in the past, turning the present into a dystopic hellscape where Apocalypse rules the world and Magneto leads a gang of mutant rebels. All because Chuck Xavier wasn't around. It's the most badass adaptation of It's A Wonderful Life yet.
Marvel Comics heard about the episode while it was still in production, and they liked it so much that they didn't just turn it into a comic -- they turned it into like 40 comics, making up the "Age of Apocalypse" crossover. Now, mega-long crossovers were nothing new for '90s Marvel, when every other issue had at least two storylines from other comics butting in and taking out pages from the character you actually wanted to read. What set "Age of Apocalypse" apart was that Marvel went all-in on the "alternate reality" part and replaced the entire X-Men line with new series set in that Xavier-less parallel reality as if the readers themselves had slipped through an inter-dimensional portal while walking into their local comic book store. Hell, some of the alt-series were better than the ones they replaced.
After four months of these new titles, Magneto's X-Men manages to send Bishop back in time to prevent Professor X's death, and the "Age of Apocalypse" timeline is erased from existence ... until Marvel decided that no, it wasn't, because people liked it. The "AoA" reality has been revisited multiple times through prequels, sequels, and spin-offs, and several characters who originated there have ended up moving to the regular Marvel Universe, like hunky Cable and Dr. Mengele Beast.
But the main legacy of "Age of Apocalypse" was pioneering a more immersive type of crossover event. In 1996, Marvel and DC pulled a similar stunt in the middle of their Marvel vs. DC series, right after an issue where the two universes are merged by cosmic forces. When readers walked up to their newsstands the following week, the only new comics waiting for them were set in the shared "Amalgam" universe, featuring remixed versions of characters from both companies. For instance, Spider-Man plus Superboy equals ...
Marvel went back to the alternate reality crossover formula with House of M (2005) and Secret Wars (2015), the latter of which replaced all regular Marvel series for six months. DC did the same thing with Convergence (also 2015, by total accident) and most famously in Flashpoint (2011), soon to be a major motion picture starring Michael Keaton and, if we're remembering those rumors correctly, Andrew Garfield.
Another by-product of "Age of Apocalypse" was Marvel's long-running Exiles series, a sort of evolution of the What If concept: instead of simply showing random alternate realities with no common thread except for the voyeuristic toga enthusiast narrating them, Exiles featured a hodgepodge of heroes from various timelines (including "AoA") jumping to a new one in every issue, or what's technically known as "doing a Sliders." Hey, speaking of What If ...
A Bunch Of Silly What If Stories Led To Some Of Marvel's Most Famous Storylines
The original pitch for Marvel's first What If series was showing readers stories that could never, ever happen within the regular continuity. For instance, an early 1978 issue explored the wacky notion of Thor's nurse gal pal, Jane Foster, becoming some sort of She-Thor, or "Thordis." Instead of tapping a cane to power up as Thor originally did, Thordis uses a feminine hairbrush, and she has to put up with being gawked at by the other Avengers.
Male Thor shows up at the end of the issue just to break Thordis' heart, but don't worry, there's a happy ending: Odin, Thor's million-year-old dad, proposes to her out of nowhere, and she says yes, even though he spent the entire comic being a complete asshole to her. Improbably, this ridiculous comic served as the inspiration for one of the best and most emotionally resonant runs of the Mighty Thor series when Jane became Thor (no "dis" this time) for real between 2014 and 2018 -- which, in turn, seems to be the inspiration for the next Taika Waititi Thor movie.
Another "impossible" What If idea that turned out to have legs was the very second issue in the series, "What If the Hulk had the Brain of Bruce Banner?" In that story, the fact that the Hulk is smart somehow results in him merging with Professor X and Mr. Fantastic to become a giant golden being called "The X-Man," because the writer apparently ran out of ideas for things a non-smashy Hulk could do halfway through the issue.
And yet, when Marvel gave the same basic "Smart Hulk" premise a try in 1991, this time as a result of Bruce finally addressing his personality disorders via therapy, it led to the creation of the popular Professor Hulk persona and eight years of acclaimed stories.
Another Hulk-centric What If issue reimagined the character as the barbarian leader of a planet of alien warriors, which became Hulk's real status quo 26 years later in the fan-favorite "Planet Hulk" and "World War Hulk" storylines (partially adapted in Thor: Ragnarok). However, note that What If concepts escaping into the regular continuity isn't always a good thing. The 1981 issue called "What If Spider-Man's Clone Lived?" seems specifically designed to show readers why having two Peter Parkers around is a silly idea. It ends with Peter and the clone deciding they'll simply pretend to be one person, which sounds like the start of a terrible sitcom.
But Marvel didn't listen to its own warning and brought the clone back for the reviled and needlessly convoluted "Clone Saga" that took over all Spider-Man comics between 1994 and 1996. A plot point from that storyline was Mary Jane becoming pregnant and losing the baby, which led to a 1998 What If issue where that baby lives and grows up to become Spider-Girl -- a one-off character so popular that she inspired a 100-issue series and several revivals. So a good thing did come out of the whole clone mess, in a fittingly convoluted way.
It's also pretty clear by now that having multiple Peter Parkers might be a bad idea, but having multiple Spider-People is not. Hence ...
A Forgotten Spider-Man Video Game Gave Us Into The Spider-Verse
Fun trivia fact: back in the olden days, our ancestors believed that there could only be one Spider-Man, and his name had to be Peter Parker. We can't blame them too much, for they had no way to see Into the Spider-Verse, the movie that proved anyone and anything can be Spider-Man if their heart is pure enough. Into the Spider-Verse represented a breath of fresh air for the overall Spider-Man franchise, but it didn't come out of nowhere -- its provenance is almost as bonkers as the movie's dimension-hopping plot.
The film's most direct inspiration is, well, Spider-Verse, the 2014 comic in which dozens of Spider-Men, Women, and Hams from various realities come together to fight multiversal vampires. Sadly, they couldn't get Spider-Boy due to rights issues, but they did get the second-best Spider-Man incarnation: the one from the old Twinkie ads.
But the Spider-Verse comic itself has an unusual inspiration: the 2010 video game Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, which allowed players to alternate between four different versions of Spider-Man (Ultimate, 2099, Noir, and vanilla). According to Marvel writer Dan Slott, the studio behind the game flew him into Canada so he could come up with an excuse for these four Spider-Men to hang out together. Slott wrote the plot for the game but ended up feeling like "four" was an insufficient number of Spideys for a story like this. Well, "five" if you count Spider-Ham in the post-credits scene. Uh, spoilers for a game you should really give up on playing if it's still in your backlog by now ...
Anyway, Slott tried to convince Marvel to let him remake the game's story in a comic, only instead of starring four different Spider-Man incarnations, it would star all of them. A few years later, Marvel said "Okay, fine."
Shattered Dimensions, in turn, was clearly modeled after the "Spider Wars" episodes of the '90s Spider-Man cartoon. Slott says that the show "was off his radar" until people mentioned it later, but come on -- Madame Webb recruits Spider-Men from various realities to save the multiverse? There's no way that idea wasn't living somewhere in that Spider-Man-obsessed brain of his. On the other hand, an important inspiration Slott HAS acknowledged is the 2012 Spider-Men miniseries, which has a lot in common with Into the Spider-Verse: both center around Miles Morales (the then-current Spider-Man of the Ultimate Marvel universe) meeting an older Peter Parker from another reality shortly after his own world's Peter died.
Spider-Men, meanwhile, wouldn't have existed if it wasn't for an uncharacteristically wise decision Marvel made in the early 2000s: absolutely no crossovers between Ultimate Marvel and Regular Marvel. That made Spider-Men feel like it was an event twelve years in the making, and that feeling carried over into Into the Spider-Verse. Ironically, by the time Marvel finally allowed characters to move back and forth between both realities, these crossovers were redundant -- the early Ultimate universe was so successful that the mainstream comics ended up cribbing all of its best ideas. Including, eventually, Miles.
In short, the best parts of the Spider-Man franchise this century have come from creators messing around with alternate reality stories, a format originally intended for throwaway ideas. If a fully live-action Spider-Ham isn't in the No Way Home post-credits scene, we riot.
Top image: Marvel Comics