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Somewhere in Time

 

Marvel 1602

Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert, Richard Isanove

Marvel, 2005

Rating: 3.5

 

Posted: August 13, 2005

By The Gentleman (exclusive to Shaking Through)

Curiosities were certainly piqued a couple of years back with the announcement that Neil Gaiman was at work on a top-secret project for (of all publishers) Marvel Comics. Gaiman, of course, had long ago cemented his reputation as modern comics' premier fantasist with The Sandman, and the notion of the writer bringing his unique sensibility to bear on Marvel's iconic characters was an intriguing one. Soon enough, the comic book press built a buzz around the project, heightening anticipation and, as it turns out, raising expectations a bit higher than 1602, the eight-issue miniseries, warranted.

To be sure, 1602 (retitled Marvel 1602 in its hardcover and recent softcover collection form) boasts the look and feel of Gaiman's signature work. The central premise -- a transposition of Silver Age Marvel characters to the early 1600s -- mirrors Gaiman's penchant for playing with real-life historical figures (particularly William Shakespeare) in Sandman. As illustrated by Andy Kubert and painted by Richard Isanove, 1602 sports a faintly dreamy quality. And Todd Klein's lettering helps ground the series, playing upon our unconscious impressions of the era.

This all contributes to a light-fantasy feel that belies the dark storms and unsettling occurrences we learn of in the series' opening scene -- occurrences many believe portend the end of the world. These events are cause for concern for Doctor Stephen Strange, Queen Elizabeth I's master of medicines, who's been offered a mysterious treasure by an old man connected with the Knights Templar.

Sir Nicholas Fury -- the Queen's "intelligencer" -- dispatches a blind but impressively talented minstrel named Matthew to retrieve the treasure, launching the reader into a serviceably intriguing plot involving mutants (here called the "Witchbreed," under the tutelage of Carlos Xavier), the Spanish Inquisition (led by a familiar figure with a seeming mastery of magnetism), a handsome Latverian ruler named Otto Von Doom, a legendary quartet of heroic explorers, King James of Scotland, and Virginia Dare, a young emissary from an American colony, under the protection of another familiar figure, a presumably Native American bodyguard named "Rojhaz."

But readers hoping for hints of Sandman's literary and historical resonances, or even a grand adventure equal to 1602's early hype, are in for a not-so-rude awakening. 1602 is a pleasant diversion, like an overlong version of one of DC Comics' popular Elseworlds books, which place that company's familiar characters in different settings and contexts. It's not a senses-shattering Marvel epic, but then it's not meant to be. It's nothing more or less than a chance to enjoy reinterpretations of some familiar characters -- like the aforementioned Matthew, whose spry insouciance more closely recalls Stan Lee's original characterization of the pre-Frank Miller Daredevil, or young Peter Parquagh, Fury's preadolescent assistant -- in a different and interesting environment.

If 1602's pleasures are somewhat slight -- especially for fans of Gaiman's other work (Sandman, Violent Cases, Mr. Punch, Neverwhere) who won't get the same geek frisson from spotting well-known Marvel figures in their new guises -- that doesn't mean there aren't pleasures to be had. Gaiman should be given credit for not over-reaching, perhaps trying to fashion an era-spanning epic with ambitions beyond its grasp. As it is, 1602 is an agreeably entertaining chance to enjoy watching a storied creator open Marvel's vast toy box and have a little fun with some of its inhabitants.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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