A Look Back at What If #4 (1989)

Disclaimer: This is my original work with details sourced from reading the comic book and doing personal research. Anyone who wants to use this article, in part or in whole, needs to secure first my permission and agree to cite me as the source and author. Let it be known that any unauthorized use of this article will constrain the author to pursue the remedies under R.A. No. 8293, the Revised Penal Code, and/or all applicable legal actions under the laws of the Philippines.

Welcome back superhero fans, 20th century arts and culture enthusiasts, Marvel Comics fans and comic book collectors! Today we go back to the year 1989 and explore a part of Marvel Comics’ universe through the reimagined tales emphasized in the What If monthly series (Volume 2).

For the newcomers reading this, I previously reviewed a variety What If comic books which you can find by clicking here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. The joy of reading a What If comic book was the exploration of alternate outcomes in relation to the stories that have been counted by Marvel Comics as canon or official fictional history within their shared comic book universe. In this retro review, we will explore a key event from Spider-Man’s time with the alien costume (symbiote) which is related with the events of Secret Wars and the eventual establishment of his deadliest nemesis Venom.

With those details laid down, here is a look back What If #4, published in 1989 by Marvel Comics with a story written by Danny Fingeroth and drawn by Mark Bagley.

The cover.

Early story

The story begins with the Watcher examining Spider-Man’s involvement with the Secret Wars that took place on a faraway planet created by the Beyonder. There, his costume got damaged beyond  repair and he acquired a new one made of what he perceived to be an advanced form of material. After successfully returning home, Spider-Man goes through some mysterious developments and he could not understand why he remains fatigued even as he spent more time sleeping.

With the help of Mr. Fantastic at the Fantastic Four headquarters, Spider-Man learns that his new costume is a living entity that has attached itself to him mentally and physically. As Mr. Fantastic uses a sonic blaster, Spider-Man and the alien costume got separated at last. Some time later, the alien costume re-attached itself to Spider-Man who eventually used church bells loud sounds to separate it. The alien costume would go on to the find Eddie Brock to form Venom.

The alternate reality begins with Spider-Man having a joyful reunion with Black Cat shortly after coming back from Secret Wars. Learning from her advise to have himself checked properly, he visits Dr. Connors (the Lizard) for examination and testing…


The possessed Spider-Man takes on Dr. Strange and the Hulk without hesitation.

To say that Danny Fingeroth’s script is very deep is an understatement. Specifically, this story is a great exploration of alternative events that not only affects the iconic Spider-Man/Peter Parker but also other elements of the Marvel Comics universe of the time. The concept of the alien costume fully bonding with Peter Parker with Mr. Fantastic and even Dr. Strange failing to help is indeed suspenseful and intriguing to read thanks to Fingeroth’s very solid writing. In fact, the story even shows Spider-Man as being possessed by the symbiote (complete with dialogue) and when you witness Peter Parker struggling to control himself consciously (while wrestling with the alien costume), you will really feel his pain. I should also state that there is a lot more about Spider-Man told here that goes beyond the possession which really turned out to be very compelling to read in my experience. This is easily the most engaging alternate portrayal of Spider-Man as we know him and it should be read by as many people as possible.

Along the way, this comic book portrays the alien costume as an insatiable being and the implementation of dialogue for it (structured in a way as using the vocal ability of the powered being it bonded with) gave it a very unique personality of its own. This is something that was not portrayed in the early appearances of Venom in which Eddie Brock does the talking and reacting to unseen messages from the symbiote. That being said, the alien costume here symbolizes possession within the Marvel Comics shared universe and its unknown state really challenges not only the intelligence of the superheroes but also their ability to decide on what final action to take with regards to sentient life.

As staged by the writer, the story’s narrative occasionally shifts away from Spider-Man to follow other characters such as Black Cat (Peter Parker’s love at the time), Mr. Fantastic (in a great portrayal of his proficiency in science and as a responsible superhero), Thor and others which made the reading experience really immersive in relation to emphasizing how this alternate reality affects others. You will get to see the Captain America, the Hulk, Iron Man, the Wasp, Captain Marvel, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers here.

Those who are fond of superhero spectacle will have a lot to enjoy here. Mark Bagley carefully paces the action scenes and he uses visual dynamism during the right moments.  


Through dialogue, the alien costume is portrayed as a sinister force.

I can say it out loud…What If #4 (1989) is one of the best Marvel Comics alternate reality stories I have ever read and the creative team of Fingeroth-Bagley crafted an epic tale that goes beyond the featured question of “What if the alien costumer had possessed Spider-Man?”. The comic book works excellently as both a Spider-Man story as well as a Marvel superheroes struggle. The story touches on relevant topics such as possession, killing and scientific exploitation. This is a must-have comic book!

Overall, What If #4 (1989) is highly recommended!


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