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Marvel 1602: The New World (Review/Retrospective)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

One of the more frustrating things about the major comic book producers is the general reluctance to let any potential franchise or brand die with dignity. Marvel Zombies was an amusing gag, but the company ran it into the ground fairly quickly – although they did work to keep Robert Kirkham and Sean Phillips around for at least one of the sequels. Marvel Apes went from a vaguely witty cover gag into a spin-off universe of its own. Those two side projects eventually (and inevitably) overlapped.

Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602 was a curiosity. It was a rather simple gimmick, transposing the modern-day Marvel Universe to the seventeenth century. It afforded Gaiman to make some of his typical meta-commentary and was an excuse to play around with novel twists on classic characters. The Marvel Universe is big enough and vast enough that even a rather basic concept like that can be maintained across eight issues.

A smashing time...

A smashing time…

However, spinning that miniseries out into its own alternate Marvel Universe – particularly without any involvement from Gaiman himself – always seemed like a risky proposition. Marvel 1602: The New World is a functional – and generic – attempt to expand that core concept out that doesn’t work any better than it has to. Far from offering any insight or illumination into the characters or their world, it all feels a little bit too rote.

It’s hard to blame Greg Pak for the problems with Marvel 1602: The New World. It’s a four-issue sequel miniseries to an eight-issue series that already stretched its core premise pretty thin. So many of the core Marvek characters had been re-worked or re-imagined that it seems like the series only gets to play with left-overs, while have to slot them all in amid the world as designed by Gaiman.

Charging on in there...

Charging on in there…

Marvel 1602: The New World is primarily a plot-driven story. There’s no room for philosophical reflection or thematic exploration here. There’s no meditation on the philosophy of storytelling, no sense of how stories tend to echo and repeat themselves across history. Instead, Marvel 1602: The New World seems to exist as a laundry list of new variations on classic themes, characters to be reimagined as some sort of quirky alternative to popular iconic characters.

The New World introduces us to the 1602 versions of Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man and even Norman Osborn. It seems to exist primarily to showcase these characters. David Banner is an assassin sent to the New World to kill Nicholas Fury. Peter Parquagh has developed mysterious powers and tries hard to protect the settlers from the evils at play. Lord Iron holds a grudge against David Banner. Meanwhile, Norman Osborn plots to push the settlers into conflict with the Native Americans.

"LET'S GET READY TO..."

“LET’S GET READY TO…”

And that’s about it. With four issues and so many pieces in play, there’s only so much twisting Pak can work in the story, only so much space for reflection. Marvel 1602: The New World plays out pretty much exactly as you might expect, transposing these characters and their conflicts to a vaguely historical setting. Peter still works for Jameson, but he prints “the Daily Trumpet.” The particulars of the relationship between Lord Iron and the Hulk have changed, but they are still brought into conflict by Captain Ross.

All of this is fairly rote. The gimmick was cute when Neil Gaiman wrote the original miniseries. Seeing so many of these characters in unfamiliar settings was playful and novel. However, that novelty only carries the premise so far. Dinosaurs are very cool, and the imagery of dinosaurs attacking the settlers is striking, but there really needs to be more to carry Marvel 1602: The New World across the finish line.

Mast-er and Commander...

Mast-er and Commander…

To be fair to Pak, he does hit upon some interesting ideas. The emphasis on the Native Americans expands from Gaiman’s original work. It’s nice to know that a temporally-displaced Steve Rogers would align himself with the Native Americans, to try to prevent that cycle of oppression and abuse from perpetuating itself. As we’re told, “Rojhaz thought they could avoid the failures of his future.” So it’s nice to see that dark chapter of American history acknowledged.

(It’s also quite nice that all the mysticism that Norman Osborn associates with the local tribes is actually rooted in Steve Rogers. Not only does it make sense from a plotting point of view – Steve Rogers is the nexus of this alternate world – but it also stops the story from wading into the awkward and tired “magical Native Americans” cliché. It would have been easy to use that cliché to justify these sudden transformations and changes, but it would also have been lazy. Pak deserves credit for avoiding it.)

All fired up...

All fired up…

More than that, though, there are points when Pak seems to be criticising the story itself – using The New World as a sort of criticism of the approach adapted to 1602. Forced into the inevitable conflict with the Iron Man character, the Hulk is disgusted that things are playing out so conventionally, so predictably. “There’s more at stake here than you and me. This is a new world. They have a chance to make something better than we ever did.”

As the title of the book implies, there’s really every opportunity to do something new and exciting here – a chance for something radical and distinct. Instead, there’s a tendency to trade on the same tired old clichés, the same familiar routines and images. It seems like Pak is being rather cynical here, delivering a none-too-subtle jab at the way that all of these novel twists wind up following the same familiar pattern. Create a new world, then make it identical to the old one.

The man in the iron suit...

The man in the iron suit…

Pak really anchors The New World on David Banner and the Hulk, which makes a great deal of sense. After all, Pak did some of his most popular Marvel work on The Incredible Hulk. He understands the character. So, writing a four-issue miniseries, it makes sense to focus on a character he appreciates and understands. Particularly notable is the suggestion that the Hulk is really the good part of Banner. Speaking to Peter, the Hulk remarks of his other self, “The one you know was a killer through and through.” It’s a nice hook. So nice that Jason Aaron would make a similar idea the core part of his short run on The Incredible Hulk.

Sadly, that’s really all that’s worth noting about Marvel 1602: The New World. It feels very old hat.

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