• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

Marvel 1602 (Review)

After spending the tail end of last year looking at the tangled inter-continuity crossovers at Marvel, I thought I’d spend January looking at some of the looser “out of continuity” tales at the major companies.

Although DC invented the term “elseworlds” to describe alternative continuities featuring familiar characters in unfamiliar settings, it was really Marvel who ran with it. Even discounting the Ultimate line, Marvel has produced any number of alternative continuity worlds within the past decade or so – not stories or chapters, but worlds. Tales spin-off in so many different directions that these stories become viable alternative versions of the Marvel Universe, just with a variation upon a theme. Marvel Noir offers us the Marvel Universe as seen through a smokey glass-half-empty lens, with tales of Daredevil, X-Men and Spider-Man changed to fit in this strange new setting. Writer Neil Gaiman, however, crafted an especially interesting alternative to mainstream Marvel with 1602. It pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin, transposing the modern day Marvel Universe to 1602.

Take these broken wings...

It looks lovely. Adam Kubert’s pencils give the comic a rough look, like an etching that has aged over the years. However, it’s the covers from Scott McKowen which are truly stunning. They’re beautiful and stunning and classic, capturing a moment from the story as if it were a classic painting, all wrapped in a red ribbon. The covers themselves are just wonderful, capturing the mood almost perfectly – you don’t need to read a page of the book to get what the team are attempting to do.

And Neil Gaiman is a fantastic writer. He’s smart and charming and he’s got a lot of enthusiasm for what he’s doing. His afterword in the collection outlines a lot of what I suspected in reading the volume, that this was his tribute to those early days of the Marvel Universe, as written by Stan Lee. He acknowledges the somewhat controversial reception that the collection received. (“Most of them liked it,” he suggest. “Some of them didn’t, and those who didn’t really didn’t.”) I appreciate what he’s doing here – he’s one of the best writers to work within the medium, even when he’s just writing silly superhero stories.

Beware the Queen's Fury...

However, I can’t help but get the sense that the entire collection is just a little too vast for its own good. In eight issues, Gaiman manages to introduce just about every major Marvel character (from Peter Parker to the Vulture to the Hulk to Thor to the X-Men to Victor Von Doom – with the possible exception of Wolverine). That’s a lot of characters to work in and to pander with – it creates a lot of different dynamics for the plot to work around, and requires a the plot to move at breakneck pace to fit everyone in. One minute we’re dealing with religious persecution and a threat to the British monarchy, and the next we’re in America saving the universe.

I don’t know, maybe that’s just me ending up a bit flustered by everything. There’s a lot to like here – in fact, there’s a lot to love. The large cast means that just about ever important Marvel character gets a moment to shine. Gaiman’s characterisation of the “core” characters (and even some of the extraneous ones) is effective and powerful. Nick Fury, in particularly, serves as the crux of the story – a man trying to balance his own sense of honour with the demands of his loyalty.

The plot, in case you’re unfamiliar with it, essentially recasts the entire Marvel Universe at the dawn of the seventeenth century. Without spoiling anything, something has happened that has made the universe itself unstable. The universe is attempting to counter this instability by developing ahead of time – it is producing the iconic selection of heroes four hundred years before they would appear otherwise. “The universe fights to save itself,” one character observes. To Gaiman, the Marvel Universe itself is alive – it’s a living, functioning organism. He looks at it with the innocent eyes of a young fan, to whom the comic book world must seem to be almost self-aware – so carefully does it run on coincidence and happenstance, accidents always having the most random of results.

Booom.... meet Dooom....

There is, of course, a reason why Gaiman adopted this nostalgic approach to the story. He confesses in the afterward that he was at a loss about what to write after promising Joe Quesada that he’d do a miniseries. “And then September the 11th happened,” he writes in his afterword, “and while I wasn’t sure what I wanted in there, I suddenly knew what I didn’t want. No planes. No skyscrapers. No bombs. No guns. I didn’t want it be a war story, and I didn’t want to write a story in which might made right – or in which right made anything.”

Even if though he wanted to write a story more than a million miles from the attacks on New York, they inform a lot of the book. “We do not torture,” Queen Elizabeth advises her aide, Nicholas, on a topic which has been hotly debated in recent years. “We are not barbarians.” While Doctor Strange’s colleagues try to decide what action to take in response to the King’s order of his execution, Strange’s wife is emphatic that violence must not beget violence, lest it fan the flames of fanaticism. “The king’s fears must be allowed to die away,” she warns, “not be fanned into hatred and war.”

Has Captain America gone native?

The novel’s central theme is the conflict between religious fanaticism against the enlightenment. Von Doom refuses to consider the possibility that light might have a speed, because this is a world of absolutes. “There is light,” he explains, “and there is darkness.” This is the world in which the characters live. It’s the weight of religious oppression which presses down on our heroes – be it the fundamentalist teachings of Magneto or the tyranny of King James. Gaiman’s most telling reinvention is his portrayal of Thor, trapped in the body of an old priest by the name of Donal. Donal is afraid to transform into the Norse god of thunder, because he has been taught that it will damn him (much as the X-Man Angel hides his wings and doesn’t fly).

The church is ashamed and embarrassed by the idea of Thor – not because he invalidates their own beliefs, but because he validates others. “All of the sagas and legends and tales,” Donal confesses, “They’re all true.” It’s the revelation that all the beliefs can co-exist which so threatens these small-minded and petty fundamentalists – the idea that all belief is equally valid and that people may be free to express themselves as they see fit. Donal rephrases the commandment to reflect what he has observed, “You shall have no gods but me, for I am a jealous god.”

The relevance of Gaiman’s point is obvious, and timely. There’s a sense that the author senses things are changing. Although 1602 is mostly set in Europe, it is the story of America. After all, superheroes are an expression of a modern American mythology, a country too young to have its own pagan belief cycles or folk tales. The story hinges upon America, and the potential that it holds. Gaiman does well to die Virginia Dare (the first child born in the colonies) to the story, and he also brings his entire ensemble over there, as if the superheroes were drawn to it.

A Beast of a man...

As much as the story is about a nostalgic past, there’s also a reflection of a damaged future. Perhaps it reflects an early awareness of the sense of insecurity that would grip America during the years that followed, but Captain America’s appearance here stinks of disillusionment. “That America wasn’t my America any longer,” he remarks of the future he escaped, one where he was “betrayed”. He had nowhere to go except the past.

I also must concede a fondness for the way that Gaiman plays with the fourth wall. He’s writing a comic book, but his characters seem to be almost aware of their nature. Though he does explore the divide between reason and science (and even throws in some complicated technobabble for Uatu), there’s a sense that things are simply happening because they are supposed to – because the story needs them to. The whole crisis is caused by the fact that, for a moment, the Watcher missed something – an almost impossible event for an omnipotent being. “Who would stop you watching?” Strange asks his host. “The universe follows certain laws, Stephen Strange,” the being explains, “and, like you, I am a creature of the universe.” In other words, his momentary lack of scrutiny was cause by the one being more powerful than The Watcher: The Author.

All at sea...

Later on, Carlos Javier wonders what brought his opponent to his shores – he wonders if Magneto was giving chase. Magneto rejects the assertion. “I was on my voyage for my own purposes when the currents pulled me here,” he explains. He simply ended up here because the narrative brought him here. He needed to be there for the story to make any sense, so he got there in the end. Reed Richards himself figures out that he doesn’t live in a physical universe. “So, what are these fundamental principles, if they are not atoms?” Sue asks him. “Stories,” he answers, “And they give me hope.”

Sir Nicholas Fury muses on his own nature as he sits on a beach, surrounded by corpses. “Reed says that God made a thousand, thousand worlds,” he remarks, as Peter stalks him. “Each like this one, only different. I hope there’s one of them where I chose to walk another path. But I fear that in any universe my path will be marked with blood.” This is the irony of all these alternate universes – the settings change, but the characters remain mostly the same. After all, what would be the point in reading a story starring Nicholas Fury if he didn’t resemble the character we know?

Reed is able to deduce that the series of random occurences which surrounds them doesn’t fit any natural or scientific pattern. “Yet I posit we are in a universe which favours stories,” he explains. “A universe in which no story can ever truly end; in which there can be only continuances.” This allows him to deduce that the world cannot end – because then they wouldn’t be in a comic book, would they? “Can you restore me to my humanity?” The Thing asks, as has asked in every other iteration. Here, Reed doesn’t bother with technobabble, but offers a surprisingly frank observation. “The natural sciences say yes, a cure is possible,” he concedes. “But the laws of story would suggest that no cure can last for very long, Benjamin. For in the end, alas, you are so much more interesting and satisfying as you are.” 

A blast from the past...

It’s very smart and I appreciate it. After all, if fictional characters were really clever, surely they’d deduce the nature of their existence, right? I really enjoyed this aspect of Gaiman’s work, and it helps make the title seem like more than just another alternative continuity. In fact, the whole thing is cleverly written and reads remarkably well, even if it isn’t ever really exceptional.

However, perhaps I judge it too harshly. It’s entertaining and well-written. The artwork is impressive. It suffers from perhaps trying to condense and rewrite the whole Marvel Universe over the course of eight issues, but having too much ambition is a fault that I envy.

3 Responses

  1. The problem I had with this came down to too many superheroes in the kitchen. Or comic. Or whatever. I understand the conceit that’s introduced in the latter part of the story, but it still feels kind of overwhelming to have just about every single popular Marvel hero and villain out there get thrown into the picture. I feel like Gaiman wanted to play Where’s Waldo? in an alternate timeline with these characters, and while it’s fun, the novelty wears off quickly.

    • Yep. Just too many characters and too many tangents, I think – with the plot moving along due to meta-narrative forces, which is a very clever way of saying “because it needs to”. Still, I liked a lot of it. Just, as you said, far too much for eight issues.

      • Yeah. I would have really fallen head over heels for this, I think, if it had taken more of a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen approach and focused on a more select number of these iconic characters, maybe swapping characters around for different storylines.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: