Sunday, March 24, 2013

Gaiman's return to Marvel Comics prompts a new look at the ground-breaking 1602

Book 39: Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman

The announcement that Neil Gaiman is returning to Marvel Comics with all his considerable talents seems an appropriate time to revisit 1602. (That, and the fact that I recently stumbled upon a lovely first printing of the hardcover in a local bookstore.)

First issued in 2003 as an eight-part comic book series, 1602 was a groundbreaking work boldly re-imagining Marvel's Silver Age heroes in a 17th Century setting. It featured Gaiman's writing and the art of Andy Kubert (Joe's youngest son).

I didn't like 1602 when it first appeared. I read the first four issues of the series, but never completed it until this month.  

I now admit that I erred in my initial judgment of Gaiman's work.  Then I found the re-casting of the Marvel characters that I knew so well off-putting. Now, I find the series, and its fresh look at the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Daredevil, Doctor Strange and other Marvel greats, to be a work of brilliant re-invention.

In 1602, freed from the constraints of our time and of Marvel continuity, Gaiman reveals the essence of these characters we know so well. My favorites include:

  • Nick Fury, head of the Queen's security, is a dark, restless, furtive figure, a manipulative man, foreshadowing the Fury we know, first, as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. and later as the shadowy rebel leader of Secret Invasion, Dark Reign and Secret Warriors,
  • Matt Murdock as a blind Irish troubadour in Fury's service, carefree and fearless, 
  • The Angel as a gaunt, ethereal youth longing for the freedom of the skies,
  • and a wolfish Magneto hiding his own agenda behind the robes of a torturer for the Inquisition.

Perhaps the most brilliant re-casting is Steve Rogers, Captain America, as a blonde-haired, taciturn Native American, who moves through the narrative as an enigma and the ultimate key to resolving the dangers that threaten to destroy the England of 1602.

Kubert's art is the perfect accompaniment to Gaiman's narrative. 

Together the two men have produced an inventive work that casts these beloved characters in original roles, yet which preserves and celebrates the essence that has made them enduring figures for more than a half-century.

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