Thursday, March 18, 2010


Um, I guess that I'm on a Neil Gaiman comics kick now?  Again?

Marvel 1602 was written in the early 2000's, and is an oddity in the best sense of the word.  It isn't typical Gaiman, and it isn't typical Marvel, and it's definitely not what you would expect from a union of the two.  It's a rip-snorting adventure, with a great sense of humor and a great sense of mystery, but largely eschewing both the Gaiman Mythos and the Marvel Mythology.  I really dug it.


So, here's the basic idea: it's England in 1602 AD.  Many characters from the Marvel Universe are represented as Elizabethan doppelgangers.  There's a single, coherent, relatively tight plot that carries through eight issues of beautifully illustrated comics.  It's pretty Marvel-ish in that a lot of the plot focuses on friendships, encounters, and teams coming together and/or fighting each other.

A few cool bits include:

* Carlos Javier, the Xavier equivalent.  There are no mechanized wheelchairs in the 17th century, so people carry him in their arms.  He plays a similar role to his present self, taking in "witchbreed" outsiders who have unhuman talents.
* Matthew, a blind Irish minstrel.  Turns out that he has really, really good hearing, and amazing acrobatic skills.  Daredevil, anyone?
* Count Otto von Doom.  I'm sorry, but that's an even better name than Doctor Doom.  He's the principate of a Bavarian province, and cunningly weaves a web of influence over all Europe.  And, y'know, he has flying vulture creature assassins.
* Peter Parquagh.  An Elizabethan nerd.  He is almost bitten by a spider a half-dozen times throughout the book, finally succumbing towards the very end.
* etc., etc.

For the most part, I loved this.  It's a huge cast of characters, easily several dozen; the X-Men by themselves contribute a good number, and they're just a piece of it.  I did find myself occasionally bemoaning my own lack of culture.  Since I don't read superhero comics, then if there isn't a movie about it, I don't know it.  Nicholas Fury is one of the most major characters; he seems cool, but I have no idea who he is.  Ditto Stephen Strange.  And The Watcher.  I don't think this is necessarily bad - I still thoroughly enjoyed myself - but I'm sure that I missed out on some fun inside jokes.

The writing is generally really strong, especially after the first two issues.  There are a few sections that made me groan, like Gaiman was just trying way too hard.  One of the worst is in Matthew's introduction, where he says something like, "Well, if the devil is one who dares, then you may call me a devil indeed!"  Yes.  You're DareDevil.  We get it.  He eventually settles down, and then it's just good.  Character tend to speak in their own voices, for better or worse.  Cyclops is as much of a whiny bastard here as he is in every other medium where I've encountered him.  Magneto (The Grand Inquisitor) is solemn, clever, menacing.  DareDevil and... the leader of the Fantastic Four (I told you, I'm uneducated!) generally get the best lines.  There's pathos, and humor, and melodrama, and a bit of anger.  It's appropriately Marvel-y in that you feel attached even to many of the villains, and hold out hope that some bad guys might become good guys.

Gaiman's rich sense of history is well on display here - he doesn't spend a ton of time on it, but all the stuff about Elizabeth's fading reign, James' ascension, religious tensions, the Inquisition, the Papal States, the Germanic States, the Great Game, and the microscopic spec that is English settlement in America, all feel real.  That is, he doesn't dwell on background, but what background shows seems authentic.

What's largely missing is Gaiman's most distinctive characteristic, his sense of mythology.  There are a couple of things that he taps here, most notably a plot thread regarding the Templar treasure from Solomon's Temple, but even that ends up having a direct correlation to the Marvel universe.  I'm not complaining about the missing mythos... he's great at it, but it doesn't need to be applied to all stories, and this one is probably better without it.


Just so we're clear, 1602 isn't seminal in the way that Sandman is seminal.  That said. it's a lot more pure fun to read than any given Sandman issue.  There's nothing wrong with well-crafted entertainment, and Gaiman proves that he can be a great entertainer.

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