Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is anachronism done right by Neil Gaiman. The title gives one the jist of this graphic novel’s theme. It’s the Marvel Universe circa 1602. There’s a big cast of Marvel characters in this collection of eight comics. However, those who don’t follow comics might not recognize some of the characters because they are decidedly less comic-esque in this take. The characters mostly go by their given names rather than their superhero nom de guerre and not one of them wears spandex—and even capes are fairly few and far between. While the cast is large, there’re just a few main players and some major Marvel superheroes play only minor or unheroic roles.
The principal heroes in this book are Nicholas Fury (as head of the Queen’s Intelligence Service), Carlos Xavier (principal of a school for mutants), Virginia Dare (the first girl born in the Roanoke Colony), Rojhaz (the–decidedly Caucasian but–Native American protector of Dare), Stephen Strange (close to his modern-day namesake), Matthew Murdoch (think Daredevil), and a smattering of other X-men, Avengers, and Fantastic 4 members.
The principal villains are King James I (as himself), Count Otto Von Doom (similar to the modern character), The Inquisitor Enrique (a Magneto-esque character), David Banner (advisor to James I and–it would appear–the gray Hulk), and Natasha (think Black Widow). Before one bemoans the fact that the slate of heroes seems much stronger than the slate of villains, it should be noted that there is a threat that far exceeds the likes of Von Doom.
The world of Marvel 1602 is quite similar to Earth 1602, but there are differences such as the existence of pterodactyls and dinosaurs in some locales. The plot includes political intrigue in the form King James I of Scotland’s desire to nudge an ailing–but beloved—Queen Elizabeth I out-of-the-way. We soon find out that three assassins have been dispatched to target Fury, the Queen, and Virginia Dare, but finding out who hired them and why takes up a fair piece of story line. There’s a substory that features Matthew Murdoch and Natasha on a mission to retrieve what can only be described as a McGuffin (a highly sought after artifact whose value and purpose remain completely unknown until a big reveal, but for which characters are none-the-less willing to lay their lives on the line on pure faith) that offers its own intrigue. There is also the matter of strange weather that increasingly comes to be considered a harbinger of doom (not Von Doom the character, but actual doom.) Ultimately, this is a bigger threat than is presented by any of the human villains, and it can only be overcome through a combination of Richard Reed’s brilliance, Nicholas Fury’s courage, and Rojhaz’s sacrifice of what matters most to him.
I enjoyed this graphic novel. First, having a top-rate writer like Gaiman was certainly a help. There was none of the juvenile / poorly written dialogue that usually plagues comic writing. Gaiman is his usual clever, witty self. Second, while the anachronisms often border on silly (e.g. 1602 Reed’s noodling out Einstein’s discovery of 300+ years later), they are intriguing and recognize real science. Third, the last being said, there’s a lot of effort put into making the comic appropriate for the era in which it’s set. It’s not just putting frilly shirts on modern-day characters. The blending of fact into the fiction is thought-provoking.
If you read graphic novels–even sparsely–this is one that you should definitely check out.
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