What If? is a game that historians have long indulged in, speculating about how altering one aspect of history would change the world. Suppose anti-Communist dogma had never taken off in 1950s America. Suppose Hitler found success as a painter. Suppose there was no smallpox vaccine. Roy Thomas’ idea was to apply the same speculation to Marvel’s then fifteen year old history in 1977, and a good addition is having the series narrated by Marvel’s distant alien voyeur, the Watcher. Unfortunately, although a valid concept, there can rarely have been material so poor collected in such a lavish oversized hardcover format.

The primary problem concerns Marvel’s mid-1970s expansion, meaning their main creative talent couldn’t find room in their schedules for an extra thirty page story. It leaves much of what’s supplied here by then newcomers whose abilities fall well short of house standards (Jim Craig, Don Glut, Rick Hoberg, Alan Kupperberg), or more established artists rushing work (Gil Kane, George Tuska). A few creators maintain their standards, but the of 21 stories presented, hardly any are a first rate combination of script and art.

Thomas, though, is involved with both unqualified successes. The first sees him explain how there were post-World War II Captain America stories when 1960s continuity established him falling into the sea as the war in Europe ended. Thomas ties this in with the activities of WWII super team the Invaders, and it’s drawn by Frank Robbins in a marvellously kinetic action style, the characters constantly leaping from the panels. There couldn’t be a greater contrast with John Buscema’s classic figurative art on Conan the Barbarian transported to 1970s New York, but these are also lush pages. Thomas starts with a brief adventure of Conan in his own era, and while 1970s New York is now another country, Conan’s exploits there are imaginative and entertaining while retaining his character.

Jack Kirby recasting the Fantastic Four as the early 1960s Marvel staff is far from his best work, but stands out here, as does Marv Wolfman having four other people become Nova, drawn by Walter Simonson and George Pérez among others. Tom Sutton supplies great Ditko-inspired art on a Doctor Strange story, while Peter Gillis’ writing is better when considering Spider-Man parlaying his powers into a celebrity career. Also hitting the mark is Scott Shaw’s cartoon Man-Spider, where a human bites a spider to give him powers.

That the story ideas aren’t essentially bad has since been proved by other creators using them to better effect in Marvel’s mainstream continuity. The Hulk has retained Bruce Banner’s intellect, Spider-Man has joined the Fantastic Four for short periods, a 1950s Avengers team has been established, the world knows Matt Murdock as Daredevil, and Jane Foster has had a run as Thor. Here, however, inspiration is at a premium.

This presentation has a choice of three different covers, and the content can be found in bulky paperbacks as What If? The Complete Classic Collection Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, or in slimmer format spread over What If? Classic 1-3.