Neil Gaiman (writer), Andy Kubert (illustrator), Richard Isanove (digital painting), et al., 1602 (Marvel Comics, 2003 & 2004)
When it was announced that Neil Gaiman would be writing a new comic book, his first for Marvel Comics and first series since the ridiculously brilliant and successful The Sandman wrapped up its 75-issue run in 1996, it was hailed as his "triumphant return" to the form.
But really, what else were they going to say? You're not going to write an obituary saying the person died in tremendous pain, kicking and screaming in the most undignified way possible. No, you're going to use words like "peaceful," "painless" and "brave." That's just the way things go around here.
So, with the premise of 1602 shrouded in so much secrecy, and the anticipation reaching new levels of overwhelming, the highfalutin language was just another way to build the hype. But what if nobody liked it? Or worse, if it turned out to be just plain bad? Boy, would somebody's face be red.
With the series now over, we can all breath a slow sigh of relief. For while 1602 is not without its flaws, it's full of the kind of comic book magic we have come to expect from Gaiman.
The genesis of 1602 involves Gaiman, fellow comic book author Alan Moore and a British comic book character named Marvelman, later Miracleman. Then there's a lawsuit involving writer/artist Todd McFarlane and an agreement that Gaiman would create two projects for Marvel, with all profits from 1602 going directly to Marvels and Miracles, a company established to fight McFarlane for the rights to Miracleman. It's all very complicated.
As with trying to summarize the story of 1602, providing a brief overview of its history would leave out important details. On the other hand, writing a full account would really deserve its own article. Luckily, others have done the work for me. You can learn more in this introduction at Sequart.com, this essay at NeilGaiman.com, or in this batch of Gaiman's archived journal entries.
Right then, moving on.
If you've ever read The Sandman, or virtually anything else by Gaiman, you know that no one can know his stories like he can. And while this may be true of any writer, it applies doubly to Gaiman as every character and scene, every tiny incident he writes they all seem to have a complete history of their own and a myriad adventures just waiting to be written. As a result, who better than Gaiman to introduce 1602?
1602 is an 8-issue mini, set in a Marvel Universe in which, for reasons which will take a while to uncover, the whole Marvel Universe is starting to occur 500 years early: Sir Nicholas Fury is head of the Queen's Intelligence, Dr. Stephen Strange is her court physician (and magician), the Inquisition is torturing witchbreed', many of whom have taken sanctuary in England under the wing of Carlos Javier, and now a mysterious treasure which may be a weapon of some kind is being sent from Jerusalem to England by the last of the Templars. Something that may save the world, or destroy it, which has already attracted the attention of such people as Count Otto Von Doom (known as The Handsome') . . . .
"... Fury sends his top agent, a blind Irish ballad singer named Matthew Murdock, off to bring it back safely. That's where everything begins."
Intrigued? You should be. You should also recognize at least some of the names Gaiman mentions. But don't be fooled. 1602 does not take place in an alternate universe. It is not a "what if . . ." story. It is an intricately woven tale with very definite, calculated reasons for its mysterious occurrences. It is a puzzle, a mystery, with Marvel characters as analogues for early 17th-century personages, some of whom figure prominently in the history that we know as true.
Intimate knowledge of the Marvel Universe is not a prerequisite to reading 1602, though at least some familiarity with the characters will certainly heighten your enjoyment of the story if only to delight in reading about Peter Parquagh, a young assistant fascinated by spiders. There are other, similar examples, some obvious, some much more subtle, but in the end, knowing exactly who's who on your own is not germane to the outcome of the story, especially since all the principal players are sufficiently introduced as their roles become clear.
In some cases a solid knowledge of history is more beneficial. The Knights Templar, the Spanish Inquisition, Queen Elizabeth I, the Colony at Roanoke and Virginia Dare, the first child born to English parents in America, all figure prominently. Again, it is not absolutely imperative that a reader be familiar with the specifics of all these people, places and events, but it is fascinating to see how Gaiman can bring together and play with so many historical details to form a coherent, cohesive whole.
This being a Neil Gaiman work, there are clues everywhere. Even Scott McKowen's striking covers are not only part of the story, but also pieces of the greater puzzle. The series may be a joy to read, but it's an even greater joy to read again as you watch it all come together, and all those little things you missed the first time around suddenly jump out at you as vitally important. Still, even the most astute, learned reader is bound to miss some little detail. For those interested in the exhaustive approach, Jason Pomerantz has compiled in-depth and fascinating annotations to each issue in his Mysteries and Conundrums column at Comic World News.
Visually, the series is breathtaking. The combined technique of illustrator Andy Kubert and digital painter Richard Isanove produces some of the most stunning images in comics today. It may not be immediately apparent in every frame, but a closer look reveals just how intricate and detailed the visuals are. Resembling paintings more than simple drawings, the style is perfectly suited to the period and subject matter as there are obviously no photographs from that era, painted images bring it to life in our minds. Even if the story isn't quite to your taste, you'd have a hard time arguing the shortcomings of the visual aspect.
The few problems that 1602 runs into have mostly to do with the complexity of the story and the limited run of the series. It is clear that as Gaiman was writing, the story grew and grew until it breached the confines of eight issues (in fact, it was originally supposed to be only six). By the end, the pages and individual panels are packed as tightly as possible. Even Gaiman himself has admitted that certain pieces of information had to be omitted. Some may work their way into the graphic novel, some will have to wait until if ever Gaiman decides to revisit the story, others still will probably be lost forever.
There is an aspect of the story, a climactic scene that takes place at the beginning of part six, that disappointingly seems like a deus ex machina. This turns out not to be quite the case I should have had more faith in Gaiman and is furthermore consistent with the Marvel Universe. It does, however, allow a bit of the author's voice into the story, at least in that we are given information not available to the other characters.
Where Gaiman uses himself to great affect is the first page of part five where he and illustrator Andy Kubert are depicted and Gaiman tells the story so far, in his own words. The splash page ends with the following exchange:
Kubert: Hey, Neil, if this is the Marvel Universe, what are all the tiny dinosaurs doing?
Gaiman: Later, Andy.
Kubert: Okayyy. I just hope you know what you're doing.
Turns out he did. Exactly.