13 Stories In Which, Much Like the Hero of a Certain Beloved Holiday Classic, the Characters Get a Glimpse of What Life Might Have Been Like If They Had Never Existed
Fun fact: when it first came out in 1946, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life was considered a flop by RKO Radio Pictures, failing to make back its production budget during its initial theatrical run.
And while some contemporary film critics praised its message of hope, many more dismissed it as sentimental fluff, or even communist propaganda; a 1947 memo from the FBI decried the film for its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’… a common trick used by Communists.” (Those sneaky Communists!)
So how did it become a holiday classic? A clerical error caused the film to fall out of copyright between 1974 and 1993, allowing local television stations to air it for free during that time. And with many hours of programming to fill over the holidays, those stations played this movie a lot. And why not? The film’s messages of “every life matters” and “we’re all in this together” are the kinds of messages more people frankly need to hear.
With so many people aware of the story of the good-hearted George Bailey and the angel who shows him what would have happened if he had never been born, it’s no surprise comic writers have sometimes turned to the same “what if this character had never existed” plot in their own stories. Case in point:
1. “To Have Loved… and Lost!” (Doctor Strange #55, 1982)
Defending reality from other-dimensional threats can wear a guy down after a while, especially when he’s dealing with getting dumped. As this tale by Roger Stern begins, the good doctor is depressed after his lady friend, Clea, returned to her hard-to-access home dimension. In a fit of anger, he lashes out at the choices he made in his life: “Would that I never learned the ways of magic! Even death would be preferable to bearing this loss!” Just like that, a being who claims to be a wizard from “the great beyond” appears to show Strange what his life would have been like if he had never become a disciple of the Ancient One. It starts out as you might expect — the Ancient One doesn’t recognize Strange’s astral form and Mordo still serves as his disciple — but their journey then takes a detour into the bizarre, with Strange’s guide trying to convince him he’s a delusional mental patient who believe he’s a fictional hero from a popular film franchise (wait, a popular movies starring Doctor Strange? Now who’s talking crazy?). There’s even a stop at the office of “Ted Tevoski” and “Les Tane” (ahem) to convince Strange there never was an actual Sorcerer Supreme. No big surprise, his guide turns out to be a malignant entity trying to feed on Strange’s despair, but Strange marshals the courage to resist. “So long as a man can face his deepest fears… so long as he possesses the slightest shred of hope… then can he overcome his despair!” Word.
2. “A Gauntlet Hurled!” (Doctor Strange #31, 1991)
Nine years after his brush with a world without him, Doctor Strange paid it forward by helping the Silver Surfer overcome a case of the mopes. Some background: penned by Roy and Dann Thomas, this issue of Doctor Strange was part of the “Infinity Gauntlet” saga in which the evil Thanos achieved his goal of total omnipotence, and the nihilist’s first order of business is erasing half of all life from existence. The Surfer, thrown into shock by such a massive loss of life, goes into a deep coma, and it’s up to Strange to pull him out of it. Inside his mind, the Surfer moans he should have died the day Galactus came to his planet, which gives Strange the idea of showing the Surfer what would have happened if he had not made the sacrifice to become the world-devourer’s herald. As you might expect, a Surfer-less reality means Radd’s home planet is gone, Earth is toast because he wasn’t around to stall for time while the Fantastic Four looked for a way to save the planet, and Galactus — without the nobility of his herald to subtly affect him — becomes an even bigger cosmic asshole by “indiscriminately devouring life forms by the untold billions.” Naturally, this trip down Might-Have-Been Lane snaps the Surfer out of his funk, at least until the next time he delivers one of his patented woe-is-me soliloquies.
3. “Howard the Duck’s Christmas” (Bizarre Adventures #34, 1983)
For real, Howard the Duck tried to commit suicide in 1983? Maybe he saw the dailies from his upcoming movie. In a not-too-subtle parody of It’s a Wonderful Life, the beginning of this tale by Steven Grant finds our foul-mouthed fowl jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, only to be snatched back to safety by a white-suited angel. He wants Howard to see his life is worth living… except this heavenly helper probably should have done some research before taking Howard under his wing (heh), because a quick look at the new lives of Howard’s friends reveals they’re all doing pretty well… in fact, they’re even more fabulously happy and wealthy in the world where Howard never existed. This leads the angel to… well, you can see for yourself here. But this twist ending on the original raises some questions… like what if the angel had committed suicide over his failure to do his job? What are the metaphysics involved here? Can an angel die? Is there an afterlife for beings who already reside in heaven? And how would a fall from a bridge hurt an angel, of all things, especially one who just five minutes ago was flying Howard hither and yon? I’m probably giving this more thought than a story about a pants-wearing duck deserves.
4. “World Without Batman” (Batman: Gotham Adventures #33, 2001)
The Phantom Stranger never made an appearance in the original Batman: TAS episodes, but he makes up for that in this TAS-based comic story by Ed Brubaker. Standing by his parents’ graves, Batman muses about the life he could have led if they had not been killed; without warning, the Phantom Stranger shows up to reveal what that life might have looked like. In the reality where Batman is never “born,” the Waynes don’t take that alley shortcut and Bruce grows up the average son of a billionaire couple. Things get tense, though, when his father, fearing the soaring crime rate in Gotham, sends him off to boarding school and then to Europe where Bruce marries a reformed Selina Kyle and fathers two sons. So far, so good. Except Batman wouldn’t be Batman if he’s only concerned about his own happiness, so he asks the Stranger to show him what’s happening in the rest of his city. That’s where things start going sideways: Gordon is dead, Dick became a petty criminal without someone to guide him after his parents’ deaths and Tim is working for the Joker, who plans to… hold on, how does that work if Batman was never around to help the Joker become the Joker in the first place? In any event, the Caped Crusader gets the message: wishing for a world without Batman means accepting the loss of all the good things Batman has done. “Let’s go home, Stranger,” he says. “Maybe there’s still time in the night to do some more good.” The never-ending battle.
5. “The Sacrifice” (Detective Comics #27, 2014)
“World Without Batman” isn’t the only time the Phantom Stranger dropped in on Gotham’s favorite bat-themed vigilante; there’s a classic tale in which the Stranger invites Batman to prevent his parent’ deaths on a parallel world where it hasn’t happened yet, and there was that one team-up with Batman and the Outsiders in the ’80s to prevent one of the Stranger’s mystical foes from hatching a Christmastime scheme that would have made the Grinch gasp at its evilness. But it’s this five-page tale by Mike Barr in a 2014 comic commemorating Batman’s first appearance that sees the Stranger return to his role as Bruce Wayne’s personal Clarence. Like before, Bruce gets a glimpse of a world in which his parents didn’t die, but without Batman around Gotham has fallen in ruins from constant super-villain gang wars, Gordon is a quadriplegic, Dick is on death row and R’as al Ghul has conquered most of Eastern Europe. Again, message received: quit yer mopin’, Bats, there’s work to be done.
6. “The Duck Who Never Was” (Donald Duck #286, 1994)
If you’ve never had a chance to read Don Rosa’s Disney work, then you really should so something about that. It’s good stuff. Case in point: “The Duck Who Never Was,” a fun tale celebrating the 60th anniversary of Donald’s first animated appearance. Believing his nephews have forgotten his birthday, a depressed Donald meets a “birthday genie” and accidentally wishes he had never been born. Naturally, this leads to him being transported to a Duckburg where almost everyone is worse off. Daisy is a famous romance novelist who’s desperately lonely. Uncle Scrooge is living on the streets. The boys are lazy couch potatoes who never joined the Junior Woodchucks. Even Gyro Gearloose is affected, having lost his genius intellect in an accident involving one of his inventions (because Donald was not around to help him clean up after an experiment). About the only one who isn’t affected by Donald’s absence is Gladstone Gander, who Donald is annoyed to discover is still the same lucky bastard he always was, only now he has the Beagle Boys — who became police officers in this reality — in his pocket. Convinced his life made a difference to the people around him, Donald gets the genie to put everything back to normal… and awakens to find just that. Was it all a dream? Did any of it really happen? Doesn’t matter, because he returns home to find his family has thrown a big surprise party for him, with the boys saying they only pretended to forget his birthday earlier as part of the surprise. Awww…
7. “It’s a Wonderful Prehistoric Life” (The Flintstones and the Jetsons #18, 1999)
Wait, what did Elroy do with this Santa fellow he found? Sorry, that will have to wait because we’ve got a fun what-if Flintstones story to get through first. As fans of our favorite modern Stone Age family might guess, the magical being who zaps Fred into the Land of Never-Was is none other than the Great Gazoo, who yanks Fred out of the timeline just before he accidentally falls into a tar pit. While Fred is depressed because he didn’t get a Christmas bonus he was counting on, Gazoo decides to show him what a Bedrock without him would look like. Fred protests he never said anything about a wish not to be born, but Gazoo won’t be deterred. Things look pretty good at first: Bedrock is a much larger city named Slaterock, Barney has a sweet upper-management gig and Wilma is the wealthiest woman in town thanks to her marriage to Mr. Slate (not Barney, as the cover above might lead you to assume). But not all is what it seems: Crime is way up because the city grew “too big, too fast,” and because Fred was never there to introduce the Rubbles to each other Barney spends all his time at the office while Betty is single and homeless. Meanwhile, Pebbles is a spoiled brat and Wilma finds her wealth can’t fix her unhappy marriage. Gazoo then returns Fred to his own reality, where he declares he’s alive and in pain from having fallen into the tar pit. He returns home with a sunnier attitude and — hey, what do you know? — Mr. Slate arrives with Fred’s missing bonus. So all’s well that ends well… except for that burning question about Elroy’s plans for St. Nick. Because you just know that little weirdo has plans. Eerie plans.
8. Richie Rich’s Christmas Wish (1998)
A direct-to-video sequel to 1994’s Richie Rich, the cast of this film includes a slumming Eugene Levy and Martin Mull, but none of the actors can be blamed for the script in which the world’s richest kid gets the It’s a Wonderful Life treatment courtesy of a wishing machine. Yep, you heard right: a wishing machine. Why? Why the hell not? Even for kid’s entertainment, that’s mighty lazy writing. The story: after a trip into the city to deliver presents to orphans goes horribly awry, Richie sits down in front of the professor’s wishing machine and wishes he had never been born. The machine grants his wish and Richie is whisked away to a world where his spoiled cousin has taken his place, his parents don’t recognize him and the entire world is a sad and miserable place. (All because of one rich kid no longer existing? Man, and you thought Richie had a swelled head before this jaunt through realities.) Wait a second. If everything in this new reality is the same except for Richie’s existence, then how did his parents end up giving birth to his cousin? And if Richie’s cousin took his place, then how did he grow up to be the same little shit he was before despite Richie’s parents presumably raising him the same way they parented Richie? Would it help if I told you the Professor Keenbean in this reality also built a wishing machine, and Richie and his friends have to steal a rare dinosaur bone to make it work because reasons? No, probably not.
9. “Veronica’s Wonderful Life” (World of Archie Double Digest #12, 2012)
I’m on record preferring Riverdale’s richest brunette over her blonde rival for Archie’s affections. It’s nothing personal against Betty, I just think Veronica is the better match for Archie and a better overall addition to the Riverdale gang. Based on this story, Dan Parent would seem to agree. After Veronica finishes watching “It’s a Pretty Darn Good Life” on TV, she wonders what the world would be like if she never existed. Enter the Sugar Plum Fairy, who whisks her away to… well, you know. Riverdale is now a dump because the Lodges never moved there to give Veronica a normal life, Archie is dating an overbearing Cheryl Blossom while Betty settles for dating Reggie, and the local mall shut down after six months because Veronica wasn’t there to keep it afloat. Most surprisingly, without Veronica around to turn Jughead off women, he’s now a swinging ladies’ man. “You mean I’m the main reason Jughead swore off women?” Veronica says to the fairy. “That’s my proudest feat ever! I’ve saved dozens of girls from that goon, just by existing!” Happy to know her existence makes the world a better place, she wakes up/snaps back to our reality to revel in her newfound relevance, squeezing Betty and Archie in a group hug while saying “May our love triangle live on forever!” I can think of a few fan-fiction sites that would heartily echo that sentiment.
10. “A Day in the Wonderful Life” (GoGirl! #2, 2000)
Note to self: Typing “Go Girl!” into a search engine to find out more about this 2000 Image Comics series will result a lot of very empowering memes. Created by comics legend Trina Robbins, Go Girl! follows the story of Lindsay, who discovers her mother is a retired superhero who once went by the name Go-Go Girl. Inheriting her mother’s flight powers, she decides to pick up where her mother left off when her friend is kidnapped, and her mother decides to teach her what she needs to know to stay alive while fighting crime. It’s delightfully retro and clearly aimed at a younger female audience, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also pay its respects to a certain classic film. This issue finds Lindsay moping about the fact her birthday is to close to the holidays, and even saving a girl on a bike from an oncoming truck or stopping a kid from a life of crime doesn’t lift her spirits. (Though it might help if she stuck around long enough to hear them say thanks.) But hey, look at that! Just like a certain movie, she finds out what a world without Go Girl would be like. Will she learn something valuable about herself and the positive impact she has on the world? Given what we’ve seen so far, I think it’s safe to say yes.
11. “The Krypton Syndrome” (Super Friends, original airdate 9/24/83)
This episode of Super Friends doesn’t feature a celestial being who takes Superman by the hand; instead, that part is played by a black hole that somehow pulls Superman through space and time to show him a reality where he never arrived on Earth. Close enough. A rescue mission in space ends up with Superman visiting Krypton just hours before it explodes. Though powerless under a red sun, he finds a way to prevent Krypton’s destruction, then travels back through the same space/time warp that took him into the past. He emerges in the present to find a very different Earth: Metropolis is a smoking wreck and the Hall of Justice is barely standing. Robin, having no idea who this stranger is, emerges from the rubble to offer his surrender. He then gives Superman the scoop: the Legion of Doom took over the Earth, enslaved the world’s population and killed all the Super Friends except Robin (presumably because he wasn’t seen as a threat to their plans). Superman realizes his absence on Earth is what allowed the Legion of Doom to triumph — “When Krypton was saved, my father never sent me to Earth! So to this world, there never was a Superman!” — so he goes back in time again to make sure Krypton explodes and his younger self makes his scheduled departure. Two things: (1) Must be awfully nice being Superman, knowing that everything — and I mean everything — turns to shit the second you’re not around to clean up everyone’s mess. (2) Am I missing something here? Who’s to say Krypton has to explode in order to keep Earth safe? Go back in time, save Krypton, kidnap your younger self, fling him into space at the proper time, then come back to the present and enjoy a refreshing beverage. Seems simple to me.
12. “Apocalypse” (Smallville, original airdate 5/1/2008)
“This planet would be better off if I never existed.” Oh, Clark, you know better than to say things like that. Actually, never mind — this is a CW show, after all. It wouldn’t be a CW show if there weren’t a teenager moaning about something in his life every four minutes. Before you know it, a wave of light shunts him into an altered reality where someone else named Clark Kent is living in his parent’s house, Chloe is engaged to a handsome fellow, Lana is happily married and living in Paris with her two kids, and Lex is the President of the United States. But (all together now) things aren’t really what they seem and Clark learns his life on Earth has made a positive difference. It’s an interesting what-if episode that features a lot of callbacks to seven season’s worth of material, but it also raises a few questions. Questions like: how are all these people in Clark’s life still alive in the Clark-less reality, given the number of times he has saved them all from various and sundry dangers? For instance, Lex didn’t know Clark prior to his car accident in the first episode, the one in which Clark saved him from a drowning death — it’s fair to assume Lex would have died in that moment if Clark never existed. In any event: yes, Clark, you’re special. Now stop your existential moping and get back to stopping that Brainiac from whatever he’s doing.
13. “It’s a Wonderful Legion” (Legion of Super-Heroes #100, 1998)
“All my work, all my talent, wasted on these children! It’d be better off if I never was!!” Well, now, who just said the magic words? Why, it’s Brainiac Five, the super-smart member of the Legion who’s smart enough to know how these stories are supposed to turn out, so he rolls his eyes and proceeds with the “shock” of seeing a world without him. Turns out he sees exactly the opposite of what he expects: namely, he see an idealized Silver Age-style world where the Legion are kids in a “hero club” and “that putrid little Koko” — a monkey overly attached to B5 — is a super-intelligent being who hosts his own late-night talk show. This simply won’t do, and Brainiac Five chooses to go back to the old reality to “make them essentially as miserable as they make me.” Strike up the band, Clarence! “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne…”