“Just Do Your Thing”: The Story Behind the Making of Marvel’s Strange Tales Anthologies

One of my favorite titles from Marvel’s past is What If…? Its premise is simple. It takes a specific moment in time from Marvel’s history, a fulcrum point from which a character or title changed forever, and flips it in the other direction, effectively turning fan conversations into out-of-continuity stories. Given that Marvel superheroes largely have existences steeped in tragedy, it’s an idea that has considerable, seemingly inexhaustible depth to it, which might be the reason there have been 13 volumes of the series so far.

Stories like “What if Gwen Stacy had lived?”, “What if Uncle Ben had lived?” and, well, “What if Elektra had lived?” 9 envisioned another reality, one where things had changed, but not always for the better. These stories often suggest that the reality we know in the Marvel Universe is, believe it or not, the ideal result and the way things had to be, despite the aforementioned frequency of misfortune.

I love it, because honestly, who doesn’t wonder about the way things could have been if they had just played out a little differently? Hypotheticals are great, but to see the potential of an idea played out in comic form? That can be even more interesting. 10

While not a What If…? by name or even execution, the 2009-10 Marvel anthologies Strange Tales and its sequel Strange Tales II remind me of that oft-recurring series. And that’s because the publisher dared to ask a very unexpected question within it: what if indie and alternative creators ran Marvel? What would the stories of the Hulk, Captain America, the X-Men and any number of other fan favorites be like then?

It’s a fascinating question, and unlike similar titles from throughout superhero comic history, 11 this series primarily tasked cartoonists – or creators who write and draw their own work – to tell these tales. That’s a crucial distinction, as each piece wasn’t just a short from a somewhat randomly assembled collection of creators, but a real insight into the stories these titans of the form might have told if things had played out just a little bit differently for them.

The cartoonists made it an A-list affair, with a lineup that included *takes a deep breath* Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Kate Beaton, Nicholas Gurewitch, Paul Pope, Nick Bertozzi, Peter Bagge, James Kochalka, Jason, Jhonen Vasquez, Rafael Grampa, Stan Sakai, Becky Cloonan, Jonathan Hickman, Jeff Lemire, 12 Michael DeForge, James Stokoe, Dash Shaw, Gene Luen Yang, Ben Marra, and many, many more.

Not only that, but they were hired to do something rarely seen at the publisher: make exactly the kind of Marvel comic they would create, with effectively zero editorial oversight. While not every story was every reader’s jam, it was a rare experience that meshed superhero characters with creators who rarely worked in that world, pairing wonderfully offbeat ideas with these immensely famous creations to outrageous, delightful effect. In short, it was like the process of a creator-owned project set in a for-hire universe in the purest version of that idea.

Series editor Jody LeHeup told me it was “an opportunity to kind of build a bridge between two worlds,” resulting in one of the most atypical, unexpected comics from the history of the publisher. And it was brilliant because of it.

Naturally, with such an anomaly, I was curious: how did such a thing happen? How did a publisher known for enormous events, often labyrinthine continuity, and occasionally militant character management get into the business of telling the stories of Kraven the Hunter finding a date for prom, Galactus using Magneto as a refrigerator magnet, and Uatu the Watcher visiting a strip club? The short answer is it took a small group of champions, a fateful office visit, and a whole lot of wrangling. The long version is what we’ll be diving into today.

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  1. Marvel could basically power an entire volume of this title just on whether or not Spider-Man or Daredevil characters lived.

  2. Emphasis on “can.” What If…? had its fair share of tough reads.

  3. Like Bizarro Comics and Wednesday Comics over at DC.

  4. That previous trio had done basically zero work for the Big Two at this point, so it was quite the change. Also, unlike most of his work at Marvel, Hickman provided writing and art for his entry.

  5. Marvel could basically power an entire volume of this title just on whether or not Spider-Man or Daredevil characters lived.

  6. Emphasis on “can.” What If…? had its fair share of tough reads.

  7. Like Bizarro Comics and Wednesday Comics over at DC.

  8. That previous trio had done basically zero work for the Big Two at this point, so it was quite the change. Also, unlike most of his work at Marvel, Hickman provided writing and art for his entry.

  9. Marvel could basically power an entire volume of this title just on whether or not Spider-Man or Daredevil characters lived.

  10. Emphasis on “can.” What If…? had its fair share of tough reads.

  11. Like Bizarro Comics and Wednesday Comics over at DC.

  12. That previous trio had done basically zero work for the Big Two at this point, so it was quite the change. Also, unlike most of his work at Marvel, Hickman provided writing and art for his entry.