Wednesday, June 6, 2012

GN Review -- Marvel 1602 / Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert, and Richard Isanove

I've been meaning to read Marvel 1602 for years, but only just recently hit that magical convalescence of having the time, energy, inclination, and proximity to put my hands on a copy and read it.  It's an imaginative take on my favorite superhero universe, by one of my favorite writers, and has an epic span that weaves history and fiction so seamlessly that you're almost convinced it could have been a part of the 1600s.

In other words, I can't believe it's taken me so long to read it.

In the year 1602, it is obvious that the world is in deep turmoil.  In addition to all of the provincial strangeness of the era--from the politics between England and its rival countries to countless assassination attempts on the life of Queen Elizabeth--there are other troubles brewing.  The witchbreed, humans born with freakish abilities that set them apart from everyone else, are hunted and persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition and others alike; strange individuals with fantastic powers and abilities are starting to emerge; and most disturbingly, a large, unusually powerful storm from afar is causing instability throughout the entire world, causing rulers and commoners alike to fear for their lives and very existence.

Warning: spoilers abound in this review.  I typically do spoilers, but if you haven't read this, do yourself a favor and stop.  Read the book first.  Enjoy the story as it unfolds.  You have been warned.

Stephen Strange, court physician
to the Queen.
When the queen's court physician, Dr. Stephen Strange, tells her top spymaster, Sir Nicholas Fury, that a powerful and mysterious weapon must be brought to the court from Jerusalem so that Strange can protect it, Fury employs his top freelance agent, the blind troubadour Matthew Murdoch, to retrieve it.  Strange, meanwhile, seeks answers about the far-off storm, while Fury travels to consult with his friend Carlos Javier about the witchbreed and their relationship to the Spanish Inquisition, headed by a Jew named Enrique.  A ship from the colonies, containing Virginia Dare, the first-born American, and her Indian protector Rojhaz, docks in England, marking the first sign that the strangeness affecting Europe is not necessarily confined to it.

As each of these threads twist, turn, and interact with one another, assassins leap from shadows and betrayals are set into motion as we are introduced to a number of other remarkable individuals and plots.  Queen Elizabeth is assassinated by Count Otto von Doom, allowing James VI of Scotland to assume the throne and enact his anti-witchbreed agenda, which Fury reluctantly executes himself.  Doom, a handsome man in this reality, has kept four Fantastick individuals captive, exploiting their abilities for various purposes; Fury takes the captive witchbreed to help him free his friend.  And Strange, who has been given knowledge of current event from Uatu the Watcher, is beheaded as a traitor by James.  Bound to keep the Watcher's secrets while he lived, he communicates from the dead with Clea's help that Virginia Dare and Rojhaz must be taken back to the New World, to the anomaly that is the source of the disturbances, to make the storms stop and preserve existence.

Rojhaz, revealed to be Captain America from the future, does not wish to return to his present time, and is deceived by Fury into a false sense of security before knocking him out.  With Enrique's help, Thor is able to execute Reed's plan and activate the anomaly, sending Fury and Rojhaz through it, gone from their existence forever.  Uatu, both shamed and praised by the Watchers for his part in preserving existence, is given a gift: an alternate universe, the 1602 universe, which he looks at to see how the individuals in it continue their lives.  Now in the New World, the heroes resolve to make an existence and declare independence from England.

I've said before that Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite writers--hell, he's one of my writing gods, frankly--and this story is yet another reminder of why.  In taking the pantheon of Marvel heroes and moving their existence to the time of the colonies, he weaves history in with the established lore of Marvel, subverting both just enough to craft a tale that is both believable in its execution and touching in its devotion.  The small but pivotal story of how this alternate reality's existence ties in with the other realities also pays loving acknowledgment to both the prime reality and the character responsible for its existence.

It made me wonder if perhaps the 2009 Star Trek film got some inspiration from this story in terms of how it both handled and acknowledged the two separate realities.  Just consider: Captain America is Spock...

Matt Murdoch, Fury's blind
We see both the characters and the historical conventions as they existed, but not quite the same as they were.  Matt Murdoch, blind and superhuman, is not Daredevil in this universe, but nevertheless plays the part with aplomb as Sir Nicholas Fury's go-to man.  The Spanish Inquisition, while it never hunted the witchbreeds that populate these pages, is still executing its historical charge of maintaining the status quo of those in power.  It's a surreal and breathtaking experience seeing each subversion each time it occurs, and one that can make you laugh, cock your eyebrows in disbelief, or in some cases, even shed a tear.

Gaiman also does a fantastic job of taking a measured approach to the heroes in this tale.  There aren't too many, and some fairly familiar faces do not show up in this tale, Iron Man being one big example.  Even Spider-Man, arguably Marvel's most iconic character, is downplayed as Peter Parquagh, Fury's assistant, in this tale.  Up until the last few panels of the story, you're left to wonder if that particular hero will even exist in this reality.  Again, the execution is unforgettable.

Artistically, this is a breathtaking story.  Andy Kubert's pencils, which are already nothing if not fantastic, are taken by Richard Isanove and digitally enhanced to give the artwork a finished, painted look that adds a visual flair to the fantastic narrative.  It really helps hold to the sense of magic and surrealism inherent in the story, and keeps you turning the pages to see what's coming next.  Excellent work!

Overall, I again find myself in the position of raving about Neil Gaiman's writing.  This was a story that made me laugh, kept me intrigued, and very nearly made me tear up towards the end.  Anyone who likes Marvel, likes historical fictions, or just likes good storytelling should check out Marvel 1602.  Gaiman, Kubert, and Isanove collaborate beautifully to bring us an epic masterpiece.  Highly, highly recommended.

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