In general, Elseworlds stories are the purview of DC Comics. For those not familiar with the term, Elseworlds refers to taking established comic book characters and placing them in a new situation, such as Superman in Soviet Russia. Still, Marvel occasionally dabbles in the proverbial alternate universe pond, evidenced by the widely heralded Marvel 1602.
I first read 1602 back in 2011, and it was the volume that got me back into comics; for that, I am forever grateful. Still, with four years of hindsight, and a lot of comics read in between, I decided to return to this comic to see if it holds up to my now more discerning (read: not-that-much-more-informed) taste. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Marvel 1602.
London, England: 1602. The aging Queen Elizabeth is plagued with worry as wild weather events strike her kingdom. Her advisors, Doctor Stephen Strange and Sir Nicholas Fury, discuss a possible solution to this problem, involving an ancient artifact held by the Knights Templar that an old man is transporting across Europe. Fury and his assistant, the inquisitive Peter Parquagh, meet with the blind balladeer Matthew Murdoch and hire him to meet the old man and escort him safely to London.
Meanwhile, in Spain, the Inquisition focuses their efforts on eliminating “Witchbreed,” humans born with supernatural abilities. Led by Inquisitor Enrique, his acolytes Wanda and Petros plan to execute a winged boy. However, Carlos Javier, proprietor of a school for Talented Gentlefolk, dispatches his students to halt Enrique’s plans.
Far away, Lord Otto Von Doom, sovereign of Latveria, schemes to rule the world through his vicious science. His secret? He keeps the world’s smartest man, Richard Reed, imprisoned in his dungeons. Furthermore, Virginia Dare, a young colonist from Roanoke, has traveled to England to beseech help for their struggling colony, along with her Native American bodyguard Rojhaz.
If that plot summary seems complex, and if the cast of characters seems large, you’d be correct on both counts. However, writer Neil Gaiman deserves commendation for introducing and balancing these multiple characters and plot threads. Gaiman’s narrative involves 1602 versions of dozens of characters, including Nick Fury, Dr. Strange, Spider-Man, Daredevil, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four. Thanks to artists Andy Kubert and Richard Isanove, the characters are brought to life in a manner befitting the time period, yet still recalling their better-known incarnations. Perhaps the best examples is Matthew Murdoch’s hair, which curls at the crown of his head to resemble devil horns.
Furthermore, it’s great that Gaiman didn’t limit himself to England as the port of call for these characters. 1602 features individuals from Spain, central Europe, and the North American continent as well, which adds some great plotlines to the story and allows readers to take a journey across the world’s entirety. The Inquisition features prominently, and leads to some great developments for the characters within, especially that world’s version of the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Mutants.
Still, even though Gaiman makes a valiant effort to give every character his or her time to shine, he ultimately fails to give any one character sufficient characterization. There are some amazing ideas teased, especially related to the Four of the Fantastick and Inquisitor Enrique, but none of them receive more than mentions in passing. It’s difficult to fault Gaiman, as he needed to explore much of the Marvel Universe in a new time period in a limited number of issues, while still providing a challenge for the protagonists to confront.
Another detriment of Marvel 1602 is the ending. The twist revealed regarding both the threat the major players’ face and the true identity of a certain character are both interesting and unexpected, but neither really spoke to me. Even worse, the ending itself felt like Gaiman was trying to make the story too big. I wouldn’t have minded if the threat were something smaller scale, rather than a reality-ending event; with those kind of stakes, the final act of the story feels all the more rushed, and it gets harder to believe that the solution to this problem is handled in only a few quick pages.
Marvel 1602’s art team, to use a term from Hamlet, is the nonpareil. Kubert and Isanove make each page sing, portraying the pages in a style that makes them feel drawn out of the early 17th century. Everything from panel layouts to color choices immerse the reader in the comic’s world. My only gripe about the art is that characters’ facial expressions are sometimes odd and off-putting. Letterer Todd Klein, one of the best in the industry, displays the highest level of his craft, especially when it comes to the fonts for Victor Von Doom and a certain Norse deity. Scott McKowen provides 1602 with gorgeous covers whose style resembles the artwork of Elizabethan England, presenting beautiful and strange artwork that would feel at home on the comic book shelves of the year 1602, if such a thing had existed.
Marvel 1602 is certainly a comic worth reading. For all of its faults, it’s still one of the most interesting and creative Elseworlds stories to come out of a major publisher in recent memory. For anyone who enjoys history or the reimagining of characters in a different time period, 1602 is certainly something you will enjoy. However, without prior familiarity with Marvel’s heroes, you may miss some key pieces, as I did on my first reading years ago. Nevertheless, this comic is a great addition to anyone’s library.
-beautiful artwork that creatively reimagines the Marvel universe
-succeeds in displaying multiple characters
-good characterization and plot progression
-teases great ideas that are never explored, and often promise to be better than some of what appears on the page
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