Marvel 1602: 10th Anniversary Edition by Neil Gaiman (story), Andy Kubert (illustrations), Richard Isanove (color)
In 2001, Marvel gave Neil Gaiman the chance to write in the Marvel universe. Being Gaiman, he didn’t come up with a traditional superhero story at all. There are no tall buildings to be leaped at a single bound, no airplanes or guns, no fancy particle beam weapons. Instead, Gaiman went sideways, developing a story with Marvel characters — many Marvel characters — in Europe and the New World just at the transition from Queen Elizabeth I’s reign to that of James I of England. The result was Marvel 1602.
The collection of the eight chapters of Marvel 1602 is a beautiful book. Gaiman wrote the story, it was illustrated by Andy Kubert and colored by Richard Isanove. Todd Klein’s lettering enhances the illusion of a 17th century book — and still reminds us, at times, that we’re reading a comic. The dust jacket shows an old map of North America, woodcut style, with three figures on it, looking up at us. One is immediately recognizable as Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. The other two are strangers, but they won’t be for long. Before I get into the story, I want to talk a bit more about the book. If you take off the dust jacket you’ll see a group portrait done in a realistic style (inspired by a woodcut of the Gunpowder Plot Gang). All of the artwork in this book is beautiful, with themes for the New World sections and the European sections. The chapter-covers all have the woodcut effect, even Chapter Eight, which starts off narratively with a completely different look. The color feels as if the dyes saturated the paper. It’s a gorgeous thing.
It is 1602, and a frail, aging Queen Elizabeth I invites her new physician, Stephen Strange, who is also a magician, to meet with her and her spymaster, Nicholas Fury (of course!). The weather has been unseasonal and disturbing, with rains of blood and toads, and civil unrest is growing. The Queen has sent for a powerful weapon, guarded by the Templars. The weapon is leaving its home and traveling to Trieste. It will be up to Fury and his men to see that it makes its way safely to the Queen’s court. Elsewhere, a young man with wings hangs suspended in a dungeon, listening through the walls as the Inquisitor burns others at the stake. He knows his day is coming soon. Elsewhere, the Inquisitor meets with a nun in a blood-red habit, and a white-haired young man who can run as fast as the wind. Elsewhere still, aboard a ship heading for London, young Virginia Dare, from Roanoke, prepares to plead the colony’s case before the queen, along with her taciturn native protector Rojhaz.
All of these characters, and more, will meet, will battle, will form alliances and betray one another before the story is over. We will see familiar faces and familiar names; Carlos Javier, a crippled elder who runs a small school for children of gentlefolk; Matthew Murdoch, a blind devil of a minstrel and acrobat; Peter Parquagh, a studious young man who seems to attract spiders; Natasha, a beautiful and deadly young woman; Scottius, who wears a graven metal band over his eyes. People with their abilities, or oddities like wings, are called “Witchbreed” by many, and an unholy alliance forms between radical Protestant James and the Vatican’s Inquisition. It becomes clear to Strange and to Javier that something has gone wrong with the world, with time itself, and it seems that innocent young Virginia Dare is at the center of it.
Everything that Gaiman does well shows here; his wit, his tenderness, his insight, his perfect dramatic timing, which is aided by Kubert’s exquisite artwork. Without creating spoilers, I can safely say that there are two instances, at least, where Things Are Not What They Seem; in both cases the revelation is dramatically sound and emotionally satisfying. Gaiman plays fair with the clues and the motivation of the characters. In one scene involving “Master John Grey,” Kubert’s artwork, an homage to Jean Grey’s X-Men character, is beautiful and heart-melting.
There are plenty of villains to go ‘round, but Gaiman’s interpretation of King James is probably my favorite, since it follows the historical king pretty accurately (although he did commission a really good bible). Nick Fury reads the way General George Patton always wanted to; as a universal soldier, dedicated to the mission above all, in any place or time. The genuine innocence of Peter and Virginia make Fury, Javier and Strange look experienced, martial and just a little jaded.
Marvel 1602 capitalizes on the time period for dramatic effect and also for humor. In a time when guns were rare and airplanes did not exist, a man with wings was a powerful weapon. “John Grey’s” psychokinetic abilities create wonders, and Reed Richards sounds like a scientist part of the time, and a madman the rest.
With Thor II coming out soon and The Winter Soldier ready to be released in the winter, with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on TV, you may think you’ve hit your Marvel-universe threshold. I suggest you reconsider, just for this book. You’ll thank me.