To an outsider, that is, a non-comics reader, there may seem little difference to the two major publishing houses, Marvel and DC. And to be fair, there are more things they hold in common than keep them separate. But all through my life, I’ve never cottoned to Marvel’s material.
Superheroes are, for the most part, one’s initial experience in comics, and most readers are turned off at the get-go. This is unfair, rather like rejecting television out of hand because of Life with Jim
. Sure, the show is shit, sure there are far too many shitty shows just like it, but then there are gems all throughout.
Nevertheless, Marvel, the newer of the two publishing firms does differ from DC in part because the focus is so all encompassingly on the superhero genre with precious little else in their roster’s history. The tights, the silly costumes outside of that, the ridiculously suggestive and unnatural physiognomies, and the preponderance of exclamation mark leaden dialogue of the “Gee Whillikers! It’s smashin’ time!” variety are only half of the story. The other half is, unfortunately, just as bad.
So it was with quite a bit of surprise that I happened across the title Marvel 1602
the other day and noticed the author’s name on the cover.
Neil Gaiman is best known for his work with various DC titles, most prominently his long running, successful and award winning Sandman series. He has written so long for DC that one kind of thought of him as an in-stable talent, a loyal DC’er with the kind of freedom to do some small independent work. Not the kind of person to jump ship for the competition.
And not the kind of person to want to associate himself with a company with major characters bearing such ludicrously personality telegraphing names as Nick Fury, Doctor Strange, Captain America, Magneto, and most absurd of all, the villain, Doctor Victor von Doom. Is it any wonder adults dismiss graphic novels as kid stuff?
But the cover was intriguing. The 1602 alluded to in the title, based on the artwork, seemed to suggest Gaiman was working in an historical vein. Which is exactly what the man did. He took classic Marvel characters and transposed them upon seventeenth century Britain, tweaking them considerably.
I myself was relatively unfamiliar with a number of the major players, such Fury and Strange, who play competing and at times allied advisors to Queen Victoria, though the lesser roles were more known to me. The X-Men one can’t help to have some familiarity with these days with the glut of movie tie-ins, nor should Bruce Banner (the human guise of the Incredible Hulk) be entirely unknown, nor less Spiderman or The Fantastic Four.
Gaiman twists all of these associations, denying Banner and Spiderman’s alter ego, Peter Parker (here, amusingly Celted up to Peter Parquagh) their special powers, adding an Inquisitional touch to the persecution of the X-men mutants, and mixing all of this up in the waning of Elizabeth’s powers alongside the rise of the Scottish king James and the joining of the two kingdoms.
The story is delightfully suspenseful, entertaining even if you don’t know (or care to know) the whole Marvel mythology, and satisfyingly rich. Gaiman has a knack for creating comic book characters with depth, who have a kind of off-the-page life of concerns and worries that he can gingerly allude to so as to give you the entire story in a line of dialogue. Gaimain’s long-standing interest in mythology serves him well in this regard, as he distills down the archetypal aspects of the characters, tossing aside their modern day fanfare and fripperies, and translating them to a much earlier epoch in a well carried through form.
Kubert and Isanove provide a nicely textured page with illustrations both as heavy as a woodcut and as light as the most delicate tracery on an illuminated manuscript. Some of Isanove’s computer generated color has at times a moderately plastic feel, though thankfully this is rarely overt. The whole thing reads as divertingly as the old comics of yore Gaiman praises in his afterword, which is probably the biggest surprise to me of all.