Marvel’s What If… line of comics play with the countless possible timelines and universes that could have been for reality for their many characters. The ideas and decisions that are made to shape the Marvel Universe stand alongside other ideas and decisions that were cast aside. While the What If... series has generally played it straight in regards to how it poses its alternate timelines, 1992’s What If #34 took a radically different approach that, in one very specific moment, asked a controversial and shocking question.
Dedicating itself to a more ridiculous and sillier tone than previous issues, What If #34 featured a variety of wacky scenarios that lampooned everyone and everything in the Marvel Universe. This issue reimagined Galactus as Elvis Presley and Tony Stark as the owner of a laundry store chain in its lighter moments. However, the comic delved into dark territory as well by encouraging readers to envision themselves as the Nazi supervillain Red Skull.
“What If…You Were Spider-Man!?”, asks the comic, with a classic image of Spider-Man swinging through New York City with Mary-Jane Watson in tow. “Paste your photo over Spider-Man’s face,” a text arrow instructs, pointing to the wall-crawler’s head. While not exactly a particularly humorous question, it fits the context of the What If… series. Directly below this question is, on the same page, “What If…You Were the Red Skull?” An image of Red Skull sitting in an armchair is below the question with two women by his side, sporting racy black lingerie and military caps with swastika’s emblazoned on them. While cut off by the edge of the page, a giant tapestry with a swastika can be seen hanging behind them, it’s image perfectly clear.
The gag answers for the questions are on the following page. The answer to the Spider-Man question results in death for the reader, with a collection of Spider-Man’s worst foes standing over his grave, and the answer to the second is, “You wouldn’t be dead, but you’d wish you were!” as some of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes stand over the Red Skull’s beaten body.
It should be noted that within the context of the Marvel Universe, the Red Skull is not a one-to-one comparison to the Nazis of the real world. The comic also makes it very clear that regardless of whatever answer you could come up with, you’d still wind up on the receiving end of every hero worth their salt. The fact that the issue makes that statement is nice, but the idea of putting swastikas in a comic book for kids is still pretty rough, and it’s not the only idea in the book that seems suspect in retrospect.
This same issue depicts Doctor Doom torturing a child and the Punisher brandishing a military-grade firearm as a school hall monitor. The joke is that it’s ridiculous to imagine a world where Frank Castle routinely threatens children for going to the bathroom without a hall pass. School shootings and the rise of violent political radicalization have made the topics of gun violence in school and Nazi imagery far more sensitive today than they were in 1992.
Regardless of how much the times allowed, the casual use of Nazi imagery is in poor taste. The difference between seeing villains wreaking havoc and Red Skull sitting next to a swastika is that the latter is not only real but also associated with a horrible moment in history that cost real people their lives. While we have never had alien symbiote monsters in the real world, Nazis really existed. Watching Captain America punch Nazis in the face is one thing, but asking readers to contemplate being a Nazi is another thing entirely, even in jest. It would have been best for Marvel to stick to punching Nazi’s out instead of creating new ones, even if it was meant to be a joke.
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