Trying to make my way through Neil Gaiman’s oeuvre, I finally picked up Marvel 1602 this week. The premise here is that events in the Marvel Universe are happening about four hundred years too early, in and near the England of Elizabeth I. It seems like every character from the Silver Age makes an appearance here, from Nick Fury as the queen’s chief spy to Peter Parquagh as an intelligent young man with a fondness for spiders. There is even a race of ‘Witchbreed’ (branded with the letter X) taught at a school by Carlos Javier. Through the eyes of new rescuee/recruit Angel we get to see the Witchbreed, and the depiction of Angel was the most resonating of the novel.
But what do we learn by placing heroes out of their context? Rather than defenders of major metropolises from threats they would otherwise be unequipped to handle, these superpowers are used by nation states in order to attack and/or spy on others. But more interestingly, rather than the struggle with the dual-self, these heroes only have one identity: Matthew Murdock is always himself with a red blindfold; Sue Storm is always invisible; Peter never makes a change into Spiderman. Even Bruce Banner, the poster boy for dual personality in comics, doesn’t change into the Hulk until the last page.
However, superheroes were never meant to be pawns between nation states. In fact, when a superhero does work for the government, like Superman in Frank Miller’s The Dark Night Returns, it is meant as a form of degradation of the archetype. Though we often see villains ties up for the police at the end of a fight, superhero justice subverts the political and legal system in all sorts of ways: from the obvious masked vigilantism to inability to be controlled by society. Whereas the average person would have to worry about the consequences of their actions, most superpowers can carry out whatever agenda they please without fear that society will be able to lock them away, expel them, or even kill them. Gaiman tells us more about the superhero as he is depicted in modern times than he does concerning the rise of superpowers four hundred years hence.
I’ve done a bit of a disservice to the plot here. It is quite complex and complicated, especially by interweaving historical figures with their Marvel equivalents. I was incredulous by the big revelation finding it almost impossible to believe, but perhaps this is due to my relative inexperience with the character in question. I also thought the conclusion served the sales department at Marvel more than the story itself. Gaiman also did not make it all that easy for a novice reader to determine whom certain figures are supposed to represent in the ‘real’ world.
The art team of Andy Kubert and Richard Isanove provide the same breathtaking artwork as they did in Origin. The etchings used as the cover art are exemplary, setting the tome for the series in a way that seldom is the case. In all, it is a fairly well done story with a disappointing and seemingly forced conclusion, something that may have been a result of shifting publishing demands from six 35-page issues to eight 24-page ones. But that is no excuse for what might have been one of the best superhero stories ever.