My Misspent Youth: What If? by Mike W. Barr, Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

I was so completely enamored with the complex history of the Marvel Universe when I jumped headlong into superhero comic books that I was even driven to the alternate universe stories, the imaginary story suppositions of what might have happened if the interstate of continuity had taken a different route. Launched as a bimonthly, super-sized series in 1977, What If? was devoted to tracing these paths not taken, using the conceit of the moon-dwelling Watcher, who can peer into a myriad of realities where different choices redirected the fates. He related the tales that were often steeped in irony, as seemingly beneficial turns proved to lead to disastrous ends and vice versa. The Watcher just needed a sharp suit, an edgy theme song and a door floating ominously in space to complete the Twilight Zone vibe.

The first issue I can recall purchasing asked the provocative question “What If Captain America Were Elected President?” This wasn’t exactly a burning question for even the most maniacal of the Marvel mavens, based as it was upon a not especially vital issue of the Star-Spangled Avenger’s title from the year before. But apparently someone in the Marvel bullpen thought it would be a good yarn, and while the credits was adorned with names of people who apparently had their fingerprints somewhere on the story, writer Mike W. Barr and artists Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito were primarily charged with the telling of it.

As the story’s title implies, Captain America runs in the 1980 presidential election, a surprising choice that even causes the first family of the Marvel Universe (or at least one particularly rocky member) to take a rare political stance.

WhatIf FF

It’s not exactly as catchy as “I Like Ike,” but it’s still a passionate endorsement. Almost thirty years before Barack Obama made history, Captain America proved his own progressive credentials by inviting African-American senator Andrew Jackson Hawk to be his running mate, which wasn’t all that surprising given Cap’s long, admirable history of teaming up with black guys named after birds (although there were admittedly a few race relation and…um…werewolf-related issues along the way). Naturally, the America-Hawk ticket was tough to beat.

WhatIf win

After fulfilling his first campaign promise at his inauguration by revealing his secret identity of Steve Rogers, Captain America gets down to the business of running the country. Foreign policy is always a sticky area, and Cap finds himself needing to choice sides as a revolution takes place in the South American country of San Pedro. Captain America ventures down to discuss matters with “guerrilla philosopher” Jacinto Morez after he leads his fellow insurrectionists to victory, taking over the country. Since this is a Captain America story, there’s one foe who’s bound to turn up.


The diplomatic mission turns into a hand-to-hand skirmish between two adversaries who’ve been at each other since World War II. Though Captain America had successfully extricated himself from danger many, many times before when scrapping with Red Skull, this time is different as the villain’s evil lair is apparently equipped with some faulty wiring.


While that last panel kind of makes it seem like the nation has developed an entire branch of the military dedicated to shield recovery under President Captain America, I’m fairly sure that’s meant to be S.H.I.E.L.D. troops. Regardless, Captain America discovered the hard way that sometimes victory can lead straight to defeat…in…The What If? Zone.

If I recall correctly, I acquired this comic book as part of a bundle meant to sate me on a trip to the Seeger family dairy farm in Kennan, Wisconsin, the many miles traveled to a remote location used as justification for allowing me to splurge on such a pricey issue (seventy-five cents!). I read it repeatedly and voraciously, reducing the paper to crumpled scraps. Weirdly enough, it sparked a near-addiction to the What If? series in me, and I collected it fervently over the next few years, often reading stories that riffed on old adventures with which I had only passing familiarity. I still take it as proof of how deeply Marvel had set the hook in me that I couldn’t even get enough of the stories that, by their very nature, existed well outside of established canon and continuity. I think the term for that, true believer, may very well be “sucker.”

Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum
Alpha Flight by John Byrne
Hawkeye by Mark Gruenwald
Avengers by David Michelinie and George Perez
Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire
The Thing by Dan Slott and Andrea DiVito
Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Marvel Premiere by David Kraft and George Perez
Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck
Micronauts by Bill Mantlo and Butch Guice
Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland

28 thoughts on “My Misspent Youth: What If? by Mike W. Barr, Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito

  1. Meh, some of the What If’s were pretty good, but most were pretty unexceptional. My favorite What If issue, of course, is the hilarious #34. It was even justified somewhat by The Watcher’s explanation of “The Difference”.

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