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Powells.com
Saturday, October 23rd, 2004


 

Marvel 1602

by Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert and Richard Isanove

A review by Chris Bolton

In the afterword to the hardcover collection of his miniseries, 1602 (here retitled Marvel 1602, presumably for clarity), Neil Gaiman writes:

I just re-read 1602...in a small boat, drifting across a lake on a sunny day, and I found, to my relief, it was very much the kind of comic I wanted to write: something for summer, to be read under a porch or in a treehouse...
Coincidentally, I read 1602 in a similarly nostalgic manner that harkened back to my own summer days spent reading comics. Unable to wait for the collected edition, I bought the individual issues as they were released each month, waiting to acquire all eight before devouring the whole series in a single, sun-drenched afternoon. I was seeking to recapture that childlike sense of total immersion in a comic-book fantasy. As the day wore on I found that feeling, yes, and also discovered that the preteen comic fan I used to be has grown into someone who wants more than simple escapism involving grown men in tights.

Fortunately 1602 has no tights. It's a period piece, set in England in -- naturally enough -- the year 1602. Gaiman takes well-known and -loved characters from the established Marvel Universe and transports them back to the Elizabethan age, introducing all manner of intrigue to the usual superheroics. Now the X-Men's mutants are known as "witchbreed" and tormented by the Inquisition. Nick Fury, the secret agent, has become Sir Nicholas, Queen Elizabeth's intelligencer. (As she explains, "All the plots and counterplots, all the words whispered and knives in the dark are his to unravel and employ.") Fury and the "master of the Queen's medicines," Dr. Stephen Strange, are tasked with uncovering the secret of a mysterious artifact belonging to the fabled Knights Templar, and sought by the nefarious Count Otto Von Doom.

For the initiated, half the fun of the early chapters lies in identifying the Marvel characters' historical alter-egos (for instance, the young orphan Peter Parquagh would look more familiar in a red-and-blue costume, swinging through New York City on homemade webs). I can only speculate whether those who didn't grow up knowing Marvel continuity better than their own family histories will understand a single word of it, but I imagine Gaiman's smooth plotting, sharp characters, and clever dialogue will draw them in, as well.

But now I must digress slightly, for introductions are needed. Neil Gaiman came to prominence in the late '80s as the creator and writer of The Sandman, the acclaimed DC/Vertigo series that has been collected in ten volumes (with a few additional one-offs, such as Endless Nights and The Dream Hunters; spin-offs, such as the two Death miniseries; and a raft of wanna-bes that other writers have spun from Gaiman's invention, like The Dreaming). The series sold phenomenally well, not only for an adult comic, and not only for a "horror" comic (which is how The Sandman was initially billed, although it contains almost no horror beyond the first two story arcs, collected in Preludes & Nocturnes and The Doll's House), but for any comic. Gaiman and The Sandman became legendary inside and outside the comics industry, and the books continue to find new and ever more dedicated readers.

After concluding his series with the seventy-fifth issue (the final arc is contained in The Wake), Gaiman embarked on a number of non-comic-related projects. His first novel, Neverwhere, adapted his BBC-TV series into an entertaining fantasy that puts a modern spin on Alice in Wonderland. He followed that with other prose works, including the short story collection Smoke and Mirrors and the fairy tale Stardust, as well as children's books like Coraline and The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish. His bestseller American Gods was hailed as his mainstream breakthrough and won every major fantasy award -- sometimes twice, which has always puzzled me.

Gaiman's post-Sandman work has been solid and enjoyable, for the most part, although I found myself -- with surprise and dismay -- among the readers who were singularly unimpressed with American Gods, which trod some of the same thematic territory as The Sandman (and even reused some of the same gods, to diminished effect) but completely lacked the comic series' compelling characters, riveting storylines, and emotional reverberation. It was, in fact, a fairly tepid affair, bogged down by an uninteresting protagonist and a lousy climax, enlivened by stand-alone vignettes exploring how various gods arrived in America.

1602 was hailed as Gaiman's long-awaited return to comics. This created a great deal of anticipation among fans, as you might imagine, and raised hopes that Gaiman might finally equal -- or perhaps even exceed -- his creative pinnacle in The Sandman. (Never mind that he has authored several wonderful stand-alone graphic novels with frequent collaborator Dave McKean, including Mr. Punch and Violent Cases.)

I can only imagine what it must be like for Gaiman to enter into every project under the weight of his fans' expectations -- knowing, as he must, that they will forever yearn for another Sandman, and that the chances are he will never deliver it to them. Having read his online journal, I get the impression that Gaiman is fairly level-headed about the whole affair and isn't really concerned about meeting or surpassing his high-water mark. Then again, I suspect that, under the cool exterior and calm demeanor, tendrils of rage lash about Gaiman's subconscious, slicing into his skin and leaving scars in the shape of the Sandman's pale visage, for surely some part of him must be hoping for precisely the same thing as his fans -- even if he's proud of his achievement and perfectly satisfied to leave The Sandman as his creative peak.

And here I must type the ubiquitous statement which I can only suppose Gaiman must be sick of reading: 1602 is no Sandman. This can be -- and probably has been -- said of every single thing Gaiman has written without the word "Sandman" on the cover. And while it's certainly true of 1602, I never actually believed it would be The Sandman, or even that it wanted to be. This is clearly a work of escapist entertainment, utterly lacking in lofty pretensions, and defiantly dodging the mythic resonance and emotional impact of The Sandman (which, after all, took ten years to complete and totals more than 2,000 pages; 1602 took two years and clocks in at a relatively paltry 216). I don't hold it against Gaiman that he chose not to replicate The Sandman here, and I think 1602 rests just fine on its own laurels. But anyone who opens the cover expecting The Sandman is in for a supreme letdown and should know this upfront.

1602 is, in fact, a perfect read for a diversionary summer day. (Or autumn, I suppose, or even winter or spring...) Lavishly illustrated by Andy Kubert (son of comics legend Joe Kubert) and sumptuously painted by Richard Isanove, 1602 is a visual treat and a true rarity for a Marvel comic: there are almost no fistfights, and most of the "action sequences" are presented in only one or two panels of kinetic precision. Gaiman devotes much of his tale to the kind of intricate storytelling that marks his work -- but, until reading 1602, I hadn't even realized what a rare quality that was in a Marvel comic. After all, this is the company that virtually trademarked sound effects captions like "Thwack!" and "Ba-da-da-DOOM!" Instead of the frenetic slug-fests and hyperbolic dialogue ("Blue blazes!" is a favorite) that have characterized Marvel since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first blasted a quartet of scientists with gamma rays from space and turned them into the Fantastic Four (and yes, they're in 1602, as well), this series depends heavily on mood and characterization.

To that end, Gaiman's work is a small triumph. He's managed to faithfully translate time-honored Marvel characters while in many respects deepening and enriching them. Rather than the dour avenger we know of as Daredevil, Gaiman gives us a spry, clever blind acrobat named Matthew (who manages to always stay a few steps ahead of the characters who can see). The cigar-chomping blowhard Nick Fury becomes the sardonic, witty Sir Nicholas, and even Dr. Strange, whose personality was flat and bland even in his Steve Ditko glory days, is imbued with a stronger voice and purpose. Gaiman understands character above all else, which may explain why -- freed of the descriptive burdens of prose -- his work tends to shine brightest in the comics medium. The reinvented heroes of 1602 inspire one to wish for a complete makeover of the two-dimensional action heroes who clog the mainstream Marvel line-up.

The plot follows multiple story threads all woven around the same central conflict: a mysterious treasure en route to England, sought by multiple parties, and culminating in a surprising revelation and an action-packed (though still relatively tame by Marvel standards) climax. Gaiman's prowess at interweaving the various subplots is unchallenged in the comics medium; the pace is relentlessly swift and the build-up irresistible. Alas, this leads to what is frequently Gaiman's biggest weakness: his follow-through never quite holds up to expectations. The final chapter of 1602 is its weakest, as Gaiman fails to find a wrap-up that's anywhere near as innovative as its unfolding. American Gods suffered a similar problem; in fact, only The Sandman stands out among Gaiman's body of work as concluding in a manner that befit what came before. (One can reread the whole Sandman saga and actually locate the seeds of its end almost from the beginning.)

Rereading Marvel 1602 in hardcover, I found the ending more satisfactory, if only because I knew not to expect as much. There is perhaps too much pressure on Gaiman to constantly innovate, when telling a good story remains such a unique skill that his merely entertaining efforts deserve to be richly rewarded.

And where the narrative lapses, the visuals maintain their pungency. Perhaps because I paused in my reading of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to revisit 1602 for this review, I now find the two overlapping slightly in my imagination. Certainly the shared last names of the protagonists -- not to mention the alternate-dimension approach that mixes sorcery with British history (albeit two hundred years apart) -- creates a similarity. The differences in style and content are legion, but now I can't read Susannah Clarke's wonderful novel without picturing Kubert's lush illustrations, enhanced by Isanove's gorgeous digital coloring.

The child in me was drawn to Gaiman's skillful use of Marvel icons and situations -- both to the similarities with Marvel continuity and, even more so, the differences -- and couldn't help wishing there were bigger battles and cooler displays of superheroic derring-do. Meanwhile, the adult in me wished Gaiman had eased off a bit on the rush-to-the-final-fight storyline and found a more adult, more satisfying explanation for the events of this story. If the destination left neither side fully sated, both the child and the adult nonetheless find a great many things to enjoy in the journey, and remain eager to dive back into the sumptuous, mysterious, entrancing world of 1602 -- perhaps on another summer day, under a porch or in a treehouse.


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