In 1977, Marvel launched a new series of extra-length stories called What If? with a first cover image showing the Fantastic Four—alongside new member Spider-Man—exploding through B&W pages of comic art that featured past pairings of these characters. Here, the spider on Spidey’s chest had a “5” on it, and the Fantastic Four’s costumes similarly read “5” instead of the usual “4.” What the hell was going on here?
What was happening was a series of alternate re-tellings—reimaginings, really—of classic moments in Marvel Universe history. Many of the stories had dark endings, and that made sense to me, because as a reader, who wants to think that the “real” version of events was worse than the alternate-reality version?
The series took a novel approach, in that each issue was presided over by Uatu, the Watcher, he of the “I can only observe and not interfere” credo. Turns out he could observe events as they played out out across multiple dimensions, where even the slightest variation in events could have lasting, mostly dire, consequences.
But while the characters in the stories didn’t always meet happy endings, the series thrilled me to no end. And many of the stories featured great art teams, occasionally even the same art team as that title’s ongoing series at the time. The covers in that first 47-issue run were things of beauty and wonder, too.
As I thought about my favorite covers for this piece, it became clear that I’d have a hard time picking pieces of art alone, without being colored by my feelings about the story within. But in an effort to keep it pure, I’m doing my best to pick just my favorite covers and not let my love of the story color my choices. That’s why you might not see What If? #3’s cover on my top 10 list, despite the fact that I still think that is the single best issue of What If? ever produced. Likewise, the Frank Miller/Terry Austin story of Daredevil and Elektra in What If? #36 is another favorite but the comic’s cover by Ed Hannigan and Austin isn’t as good as the issue’s contents.
Also: I promise to not just spend all my picks on Michael Golden and Bill Sienkiewicz covers that are featured on many issues of the series’ latter half. All are amazing and worthy of inclusion, but I wanted to spread out my choices across the entire run and also limit my picks to no more than two images by any single artist.
So, doing nothing but judging these books by their covers, here are my top 10 favorite What If? cover images:
What If? #1 by John Buscema & Joe Sinnott
The one that started it all. Grabbed me for every reason I mentioned above.
What If? #9 by Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott
Classic Kirby “floating heads” and an all-new team of Avengers that included what looked to me like The Crusader, the villain of the first issue of Fantastic Four I ever owned (#164)? Oh yeah, this one was irresistible to me. Still is.
What If? #15 by Rich “Validar” Buckler & Joe Sinnott
The issue features multiple stories, most of which aren’t that great (but one features some great George Perez/Tom Palmer art) but again, picking just on the cover alone, this one features many of my favorite characters, rendered by Buckler and Sinnott, who were both responsible for a lot of beloved comics from my childhood. Curious that the titular star, Nova—an early favorite of mine—has his back turned to the reader, but since he’s facing down the Kingpin, the Sphinx, Doctor Doom, the Red Skull and ¾ of the Fantastic Four, probably best not to turn your back on that crowd.
What If? #27 by Frank Miller
The covers Miller inked himself always had a more raw, urgent and vaguely sinister feel than those inked by others (like the next selection on my list). And this one promised to be plenty sinister, with a fully powered-up Phoenix front and center while the X-Men looked tortured in the image behind her. And the story would confirm this, in one of the more vivid and gripping tales in What If?’s history.
What If? #28 by Frank Miller & Klaus Janson
Matt Murdock as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. fighting Hydra agents while his usual guise of Daredevil loomed large in the background. I wasn’t a huge fan of the covers showing more than one scene, and this one cut into that impressive image by including an inset panel of Ghost Rider, star of a back-up story in the issue, but I was such a Miller DD fan that I would take any new piece of DD art he and Klaus Janson drew; this one was even better since they also drew the story inside.
What If? #36 by John Byrne & Terry Austin
I was loving Byrne’s run on the Fantastic Four at the time, so the fact that he told this story here was a huge bonus to me. And any time Byrne homage Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four #1 cover—something he seemed to do a lot—it made for something special. This one had the best of both worlds: an alternate reality where the team remained human, but Byrne also cleverly re-designed the corner box—two corner boxes on this one, actually—so we could see the powered-up version on the cover as well. And for me, there was the added bonus of an inset image of Nova, who was featured in a back-up story, too.
Hmm, all these things considered now, this one might be my single favorite cover image of the series.
What If? #40 by Michael Golden
A beautifully drawn and colored cover showing the evil Baron Mordo as Doctor Strange.
What If? #42 by Michael Golden
As mentioned, Golden did other memorable covers (#29’s Avengers issue is also particularly memorable) but this one stands out for me because Reed’s face captures all the anguish and pain of the issue’s premise, which is what if Sue Richards had died. The cover’s composition is amazing, with a chilling Annihilus floating overhead while Sue’s pale corpse lies prone at the bottom.
What If? #43 by Bill Sienkiewicz
A stunningly rendered close-up of helmeted barbarian Conan—he of the long-ago Hyperborian Age—holding a very modern handgun aimed directly at the reader.
What If? #47 by Bill Sienkiewicz
Some of the best lighting—and lightning—on any comic cover ever. Loki, evil smile on his face, in possession of Thor’s hammer? I had to read this one. Had to.)
What If? #19 by Pat Broderick: Spidey the TV star, sporting a completely goofy high-collared cape.
What If? #32 by Bob Layton & Joe Rubenstein: epic, cosmic, and intriguing.
What If #34 by Bob Layton: a humorous jam pic of the Watcher surrounded by very goofy alternate versions of many Marvel characters, a good lead in to this all-humor issue done by a great, wide cast of fan-favorite creators. Genuinely funny throughout.
What If? #44 and 45: Bill Sienkiewicz can do no wrong, from a static image of Captain America through the decades and a savage, shadowy image of the Hulk.