52 weeks. 52 different writers. 2 trade paperbacks or hardcovers a week. Each week I’ll take a look at a different writer and read two different collected editions from within that person’s repertoire to help in the examination of their work.
Neil Gaiman has only ever written two limited series by himself for Marvel comics, penning Marvel 1602 and The Eternals. Marvel editor Joe Quesada tracked Gaiman down to work on a project for Marvel back in the fall of 2001. Gaiman had no idea what type of story he wanted to write but following September the 11th, Gaiman realized that he wanted to take it as far away from the modern days as he could muster. After a trip to Venice, everything started to fall into place for Gaiman, being inspired by the city that grips so tightly to its past styles of art.
Set in the year 1602 across both Europe and England, mysterious storms are threatening the fabric of reality. Classic Marvel heroes and villains take root in this Elizabethan era, combatting magic and mystery in ways never seen before. Doctor Stephen Strange, the court Magician of Queen Elizabeth has an unwary sense that danger and destruction is afoot, rapidly approaching everyone and everything. Queen Elizabeth, gravely ill but desperate for a solution, contacts Sir Nicholas Fury to track a secret weapon that the Templar Knights are transporting from Jerusalem, believing it to have some tie to the unnatural storms effecting the world. Fury, along with his young steward Peter Parquagh, contact the mysterious Matt Murdock, a blind man, to track the Templar and then acquire the item. In England, Carlos Javier focuses his efforts on training “witchbreed”, young men and women who have exceptional powers but are revered as witches because of it. King James of Scotland seeks to usurp Queen Elizabeth and become the King of both England and Scotland. With an assassination attempt in place to take Queen Elizabeth’s life, King James sets out to blame the “witchbreed” for the assassination so that he can turn everyone against them as he rises into power. Meanwhile, Virgina Dare and her mysterious bodyguard Rohjaz arrive in England to meet with the Queen, bringing with them even more mystery and intrigue.
Neil Gaiman sets forth to tell a multi-layered and a completely different take on the Marvel universe with Marvel 1602. Witchcraft, sorcery, politics, murder, and many more themes play a dynamic role in this story that tackles just about every classic Marvel character and faction you could think of in this brisk, eight-issue mini-series. It’s the best type of history lesson as it tackles the Elizabethan era with comic book characters and sensibility but feels far more folklore than gimmicky. It would be easy for anyone to toss superheroes in the 17th century and modify their tights or cowls to work but Gaiman does something special with 1602, shying away from the distinct visuals that readers associate with superheroes and instead focuses on making these characters memorable through their actions. That’s not to say that there aren’t visual cues that give way to recognizing a character immediately, like an eyepatch for Nick Fury, Carlos Javier (who is supposed to be Charles Xavier of the X-Men) being paralyzed from the waist down, or even throwing a blindfold over the blind hero Matt Murdock a.k.a. Daredevil. Also don’t take my words as a way of saying that Andy Kubert’s artwork isn’t excellent (because it most certainly is), it’s just that Gaiman puts a larger emphasis on making you recognize characters for the way they act instead of the way they look, which is brilliant yet risky in a creative medium that lives and dies on artwork for interpretation. There are certain characters that Gaiman even hides within plain sight, further proving that you need to trust how a character is portrayed instead of just how they appear.
Obviously, fans of the Marvel universe will take the most away from this series but I implore fans of historical fiction to read this series as well. This book is so much more than a superhero book, feeling more fantasy than superhero as it roots itself in mysticism and witchcraft. Instead of being traditionally known as mutants, the “X-Men” are actually referred to as witchbreed, enhancing the 17th century elements of the story. It makes more sense for people during this time period to believe in magic as opposed to suspending their disbelief and seeing superheroes as something that verges on the realm of possibility. It matches up with the way of life during that time period as witch hunts and anything thought to be magical was often vilified before promptly being destroyed. In spinning the X-Men as witchbreed, Gaiman is able to update the characters so that they are historically sound but he even goes a step further with the way he handles other characters such as Rohjaz, Enrique, and countless others. Rohjaz is a muscular Indian man who is tasked with guarding Virginia Day, exuding all facets of how Indians were viewed at the time. The character speaks with brief words and embodies the supposed savagery that common folk associated with Indian culture upon that time. With the character of Enrique, Gaiman aligns the ideals of the character Magneto with the role of an inquisitor, making his official role actually be “The Inquisitor” for much of the story, hellbent on seeing death brought to those of whom are witchbreed. It’s a brilliant comparative thread between the role of an inquisitor and the key characteristics of the villain Magneto, demonstrating Gaiman’s surprisingly deep understanding of the characters while modifying them for the 17th century.
As I pointed out earlier, Marvel 1602 is a thickly layered story, juggling half a dozen plots and over a dozen characters at any given time. From a narrative standpoint, it’s fairly astounding that Gaiman keeps as many plates spinning at once as he does without fumbling one plot point in favour of other major ones. The plot at any given time follows Nicholas Fury with Peter Parquagh attempting to do the Queen’s work, the cessation of Queen Elizabeth’s reign in favour of King James’ rise, Matthew Murdoch travelling to Europe to track the Templar Knight, Otto Von Doom’s own machinations, the mysteries of Virginia Day as well as Rohjaz, the Inquisitor versus Javier Carlos’ witchbreed, and Doctor Stephen Strange’s attempts to stop the collapse of the 1602 reality. Like I said, plenty of things happening and even more characters associated with it all. The number of plots at play are always fluctuating as well, with Gaiman cleanly wrapping up every single plot at different intervals throughout the story to keep pushing the narrative forward.
Marvel 1602 technically takes place during a fascinating period for the English language. When the story takes place, although not really referenced in the story, Shakespeare is at the height of his popularity, having developed many of his well-known tragedies like Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, amongst other pieces in his catalog of fine work. As such, the story takes place in what is considered the era of Early Modern English, taking place from the 15th century to the late 17th century, all encompassed within the period of the English Renaissance. Early Modern English is a style of speaking and writing popularized during this time period that isn’t too complex for users of today’s Modern English (hence why we’re capable of understanding things like Shakespearean work). With all this in mind, it’s brilliance on the behalf of Gaiman to demonstrate that the language was slightly different during the conclusion of the Elizabethan era from what we understand today, modifying the parameters of certain characters’ way of speech. For example, you can immediately tell the language gap that takes place when someone like Rohjaz speaks versus Doctor Stephen Strange or Nicholas Fury. Strange has an almost scholar-like quality to his way of speech, but is still clear with his words. Fury, on the other hand, uses the language well but never descends into a series of words too complex for the reader. With Rohjaz, the words he uses are sharp and direct, showing that the English language is not his forte but still getting his point across because of which words he chooses. Another fine example is the way Ben Grimm (a.k.a. The Thing of Fantastic Four fame) speaks, having a surprising tempo and manner of speaking that is eloquent but slightly complex. His way of speaking is enough to hammer home the point that this all takes place in the Elizabethan period but is still at least somewhat different from everyone else’s way of speaking that you need to slow down and make sure you take in what it is he’s actually saying.
Collects: Marvel 1602 #1-8
Best Character: Sir Nicholas Fury
Best Line Of Dialogue/Caption: “I am in the heart of a mountain, far from here, a place to hold Earth and Air, Water and Fire…” – Doctor Stephen Strange
Best Scene/Moment: The reveal at the end of issue 7 – Issue 7
Best Issue: Issue 8. It should be a no-brainer that issue 8 is my choice for the best issue as it serves to conclude many of the hanging plot threads Gaiman has in a satisfying manner. Everything weaves together in the end, bringing together characters you didn’t think had a prayer of surviving with characters vital to the future world that is being established. Seemingly every character has their story paid off in one manner or another with the series tipping the hat of it’s major reveal and explaining everything you need to know. Every character gets what they deserve in this story that concludes in an admirable manner.
Why You Should Read It: This is historical fiction at its finest, combining real life events with the deep roster of fascinating Marvel characters to give you an almost academic take on the end of the Elizabethan era. It’s hard to stop talking about all the things this story does right when you start talking about them, whether it be how effectively Gaiman engages the reader into the setting, the fun takes on classic characters, or even the way the dialogue rolls cleanly. If you’re a fan of the Marvel Universe you should love this book. But if you’re a fan who loves being tricked into learning some fun history tidbits you’ll adore this book too. At the end of the day, this story shows why Neil Gaiman is a vital mind to the comic industry, as his creative outlook is invaluable to paving the road for future, ambitious stories.