Marvel plays with rewriting history in ‘What If? Age of Ultron’

(CBR) The Avengers first assembled in order to battle threats to the Marvel Universe that no hero could face on his own. The team proved to be exceedingly formidable because each founder was already a force to be reckoned with. Each brought something different and unique to the team, making the collection of heroes that much stronger and the Marvel U a safer place.

This April, writer Joe Keatinge and a team of acclaimed artists will explore what could have happened if one of those founders was killed before the Avengers had a chance to form, and what the Marvel U would like in their absence in “What If? Age of Ultron,” a five-issue weekly miniseries. CBR News spoke with Keatinge about the series, which uses the fracturing of the time stream at the end of “Age of Ultron” to tell five unique tales exploring alternate histories that connect to form one larger epic.

CBR News: Joe, Marvel's “What If?” stories are generally done as one-shots, but “What If? Age of Ultron” is actually a five issue miniseries. What can you tell us about the structure of this series? Are you telling one long form epic that arises out of things playing out differently in Marvel's “Age of Ultron” event?

Joe Keatinge: Each issue is an individual tale which builds toward a larger story. Little moments in each one run parallel, alternate versions of similar events play out. The idea of what the Avengers are to the world and to each other get explored in ways you won't fully see unless you read them all. Like a shorter run version of the “Seven Soldiers of Victory,” even though the approach is extremely different in execution.

The idea is — well, in “Age of Ultron” you saw what happened if Wolverine killed Hank Pym long before his time, but you also saw what happens when people mess with the time stream. There were actual ramifications. Time was revealed to be an organism that can be torn and effects arise from that. We've seen some already like the Spider-Man of 2099 showing up in “Superior Spider-Man” and Galactus coming to the Ultimate Universe.

So, I'm using “What If?” a little different from the typical scenarios featured in those stories in that these all technically tie in with the ending of “Age of Ultron.” The time stream is falling apart and the timelines of the founding — and in Captain America's case close-to-founding — Avengers are forever altered creating all these alternate universes.

In the first issue, the Wasp one-shot drawn by Raffaele Ienco, Janet Van Dyne is eliminated from the timeline early on in her career. That results in Hank Pym trying to increase the scale of his then still germinating Ultron designs, in order to prevent what happened to Janet ever happening again. And the scale gets out of control, creating an Ultron unlike any other we've seen.

Our second go 'round has Iron Man dying just before the Armor Wars, drawn by Ramon Villalobos. We pick up decades later, as Wolverine discovers the last remaining Stark-designed armor exists and unites a Fantastic Four consisting of himself, a Shaolin Monk Hulk, an all-new Ghost Rider and a retired Spider-Man to find the armor before it starts a new war.

Then in our Thor tale drawn by Mico Suayan, Thor's taken away from the timeline right before he fights the Midgard Serpent before the dawn of Ragnarök. With the gods shortly wiped out, the apocalypse myth plays out and all the super powered beings of the Marvel Universe taking their place. It's up to the small band of non-powered characters that are left including Black Widow, Nick Fury, Silver Sable, Shang Chi and The Falcon to take down the Midgard Serpent.

We follow that up with a Captain America story drawn by my “Marvel Knights: Hulk” collaborator Piotr Kowalski where the timeline falling apart kills him before he's ever unfrozen by the Avengers, changing America for the worse, leading the Illuminati to create a Captain America of their own, using Frank Castle.

In the final issue, which Ming Doyle is drawing, the idea of Ultron is eliminated before it's ever created and Hank Pym still lives. So it's a world without characters like the Vision and that starts disrupting things enough so that it changes the point and the idea of what the Avengers are. That one-shot will tie all five of them together. Again though, it's built to be read on its own.

Does that also means the reader can determine how much they want to invest in the story? If they want to just read one or two particular books they can, but if they also read all five they'll get something larger, right?

Right, obviously I recommend that everyone pick up all five, but if you're a huge Thor fan though, or if you hate him and want to see what the world is like without him, you can just pick up the Thor issue.

I imagine the other draw of this project was the chance to work with so many great artists. A lot of that came down to editor Jonathan Moisan being so damn in-line with me on pretty much everything. That guy and I see so eye to eye on a lot, especially artistic choices. It just happened to be that we were both aesthetically interested in the same comics. We both created lists of who we wanted to work with and they were virtually the same. Good guy, that Jon Moisan.

Each one-shot will have a different look and we've got covers by Chris Stevens. Then we've got variants by Raffaele Ienco, Declan Shalvey, Piotr Kowalski, Ming Doyle and James Stokoe. So it's a good mix of people and it allows me to do five different types of comics under one umbrella banner.

It looks like you have everything from dystopian sci-fi to apocalyptic fantasy.

It's not all dark and apocalyptic. You'll see that it runs the gamut.

So the major turning point in history for each of these issues deals with a missing founding member of the Avengers, and in Cap's case “almost founder.” What do you think these characters all mean to each other? Why do you think losing even one of their number would have such a dramatic impact on the Marvel Universe?

Back when the “Avengers” started in the 1960s these were all very different characters. One of the big questions there is why did the idea of the Avengers take off and endure? And why do these characters keep coming back to each other?

In our first issue, for example, the Wasp's relationship to Hank is just one part of that story. She has a larger significance to the world, as a hero, an icon.

The same goes for all these characters. Thor is a god! And our Captain America story looks at what happens when the symbol of our country is gone. The implications for all of them being gone is huge.

Examining the Fallout from Marvel's “Age of Ultron” Finale The solicits suggest that another interesting element of your Captain America story will be the man who tries to fill Steve Rogers' very large shoes, Frank Castle AKA the Punisher. What made you want to look at Castle in the role of Captain America?

It's an idea explored before, most recently in Matt Fraction's run on “Punisher War Journal,” but also “What If,” Vol. 2, #51. As I thought of these ideas I wanted to see what happened when we shift the chess pieces on the larger board of the Marvel Universe. Like what happens when things happen at the wrong time? Or with the wrong people? And I think there are some interesting parallels between Punisher and Cap that come out of that. There's also, of course, the larger question of can another soldier become Captain America when the world needs him more than ever?

The solicits suggest that on top of presenting an alternate world where a core Avenger disappears from the timeline, these issues will also have some fun with some of the major events in Marvel history like the “Armor Wars” storyline from “Iron Man,” and the Fantastic Four line up that consisted of Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Gray Hulk and Ghost Rider. Is that correct?

Definitely. One of the things that helps me write Marvel books is the fact that I've been obsessed with them since about 1984. [Laughs] There are a lot of obvious and some not so obvious references to big moments in Marvel history.

Although, hot damn, I have also now seen first hand just how Tom Brevoort brings an uncanny knowledge of every last minutiae thing Marvel to the table. He's like a Living Handbook to the Marvel Universe, but more detailed.

This is a big story not just about the Marvel heroes, but the Marvel Universe. I can't stress that enough. The solicits talk about the heroes that were taken before their time but the stories have a much larger context for both the remaining heroes and villains of the Marvel Universe.

“What If? Age of Ultron” seems to stem more from the fracturing of the time stream that came at the end of the event, but will the titular killer robot still be a presence in this story? How large of a figure is Ultron in this miniseries?

He's very prominent in the first and last issues. I don't want to say too much, but I'm very confident that we've never seen Ultron conveyed either way in both issues.

Do the stories that make up “What If? Age of Ultron” happen simultaneously in five separate timelines? Or is there sort of a chronological progression to them where one impacts the others?

It's showing how the “Age of Ultron” impacted multiple realities. The fact that these are all alternate worlds but are all still connected sounds a little out there right now, but it will all come together in the fifth issue. You'll see how everything ties together.

Do each of the stories follow a different perspective? Or will we get a perspective of a central narrator all the way through?

They're all kind of like #1 issues for new series. They're all beginnings that lead to one ending. I know I'm being kind of vague and annoying, but I want people to experience that moment when they read the books.

Finally, it sounds like you really enjoyed building the worlds readers will visit in “What If? Age of Ultron.” If people get behind this miniseries is there room to revisit these worlds you've created in future stories or are things more finite?

Absolutely. There's one story in particular that's sort of my not-so-secret-backdoor-pilot for something I really want to do. [Laughs] I'm going to have to leave it at that. It's something that will have been a long time coming if it happens at all, but there's definitely room for more.

I really hope people check these out. The same month they hit they'll be able to pick up my collection of “Marvel Knights: Hulk” and my new Image Comics ongoing series called “Shutter” that is absolutely essential if you want to understand the Marvel Universe for the next 20 years. [Laughs]