April 2005

Lara Apps

fiction

1602 by Neil Gaiman

It is England, in the year 1602. Peculiar weather seems to portend the end of the world. An old and ill Elizabeth I consults her spymaster, Sir Nicholas Fury, and her physician, Doctor Stephen Strange. In Spain, a winged man hangs shackled in a tower, awaiting his execution at the hands of the Inquisition. A blind Irish balladeer named Matthew Murdoch sings the "Ballad of the Fantastick" in a Westminster tavern, while at the bar a young man named Peter Parquagh admires a spider. Thus we enter the world of Marvel in the year 1602, a brilliant and gorgeous interpretation of the Marvel universe. 1602 appeared last year, shrouded in secrecy, as an eight-part comic book series. It is now available in a hardcover single volume.

Neil Gaiman is best known for his DC comic book Sandman and, more recently, for the award-winning novels American Gods and Coraline. It is evident that he enjoyed this return to writing comics. Gaiman tells an ambitious, tension-filled story that is, as the introductory essay by Peter Sanderson points out, as much about present-day America as it is about the 17th century. It is also, however, extraordinarily playful. Gaiman takes the basic premise of Marvel superheroes in the 17th century and crafts a historically realistic, fantastic reinterpretation of several heroes and villains. Some of the characters, such as Nick Fury and Doctor Strange, fit so easily into the 17th century milieu that they seem to have needed very little alteration, while others are incorporated more subtly. Marvel readers will enjoy identifying the characters, but there is more to 1602 than simply spotting the superheroes in Elizabethan costume.

Gaiman says in the afterword that, post 9/11, he did not want to write a story in which might made right. Accordingly, while there is some violence in 1602, the superheroes’ powers are used very sparingly, and the climax relies on knowledge, not on force. This doesn’t mean the story is dull. On the contrary, Gaiman treats us to a complex plot involving assassination; a race to seize control of a mystery weapon; the Inquisition and its crusade against the "witchbreed"; American colonists; and, of course, the end of the world. To say much more would mean spoiling the plot, the skillful unfolding of which is a triumph in itself. Like the Sandman stories, this one requires the reader to pay attention, but it rewards close reading with suspense, humor, and deft characterization.

1602 is visually striking. Graphic artist Scott McKowen’s scratchboard covers, inspired by Renaissance paintings and engravings, provide a unique look for the collection as well as for each issue. The interior work, by penciller Andy Kubert and colorist Richard Isanove, is nothing short of stunning. Historical detail, creative layouts, and glorious colors combine to make a beautiful package that can be appreciated simply as art. Several times since buying 1602, I have found myself opening it to random pages, just to savor the panels.

Finally, this collection includes several extra goodies that make it well worth the money even if you already own the original comics. Comics historian Peter Sanderson’s essay provides useful background and context as well as insightful comments. Gaiman’s lengthy afterword is an intriguing personal reflection on his lifelong relationship with Marvel comics and on the process of creating 1602. For those interested in the art, there are sketches by Andy Kubert and an essay on the covers by Scott McKowen. Finally, the main treat, at least for aspiring writers, is the inclusion of Gaiman’s complete script for part one.

Marvel aficionados might get the most from 1602, but you don’t have to be an expert on the Marvel universe to appreciate this gorgeous and timely book.

1602 by Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert & Richard Isanove
Marvel Comics
ISBN 0785110704
248 Pages