REVIEW: MARVEL 1602
I mentioned in a post a while back that I wanted to try to read a bit of Neil Gaiman's work. Since I knew him as being quite accomplished both in the world of literature and of comics, I figured I should try one of each. For a novel, I read and reviewed STARDUST which I really liked. In the comic category, I know he's mostly famous for the SANDMAN series, but there are quite a lot of volumes in it and I wanted something a little shorter. So I landed on MARVEL 1602 , a sort of alternate reality where an astounding number of Marvel's most beloved heroes and villains all find themselves existing in a time period centuries before the one they are traditionally seen in. I was drawn to this work partly because of the unique art-style, but also because I love the idea of taking characters that normally exist in a contemporary time period and transplanting them into one from the past. I hoped to see brilliant re-imaginings of these characters, some fun action-packed sequences, and an epic story worthy of this concept.
HOW I RATED IT
4/5 I would say that this is a fairly strong work overall though a general lack of quality action and a rather weak final act left me feeling a bit sour about it all by the time I'd finished it.
CHARACTERSThe sheer number of Marvel icons who make appearances in this graphic novel is genuinely mind-blowing. I hoped to see a fair number of them running around, but never expected the lineup to be so massive. 1602 versions of classics like Daredevil, Nick Fury, Dr. Strange, and Victor Von Doom offer strong presences right out of the gate, but they're really just the tip of the iceberg. It's honestly sort of intimidating to even mention them all because part of the fun of this work is when a new character from the Marvel Universe gets pulled into the action. Some, like select members of the X-men, Black Widow, and a powerless version of Spiderman, are pulled in during the first couple issues, but with others, there's quite a bit more build-up that surrounds their big reveal which I don't want to spoil here. Suffice it to say that there are a lot of quality characters in this story and anyone who grew up with them is probably going to be jumping for joy every-time a new one gets re-introduced.
|X-men reimagined and looking pretty good|
Fortunately, these characters can still be enjoyed, even by those who aren't terribly familiar with them. This is naturally due to the fact that the story doesn't really build upon existing Marvel lore all that much given that none of it has actually happened yet. The flip-side of this is that not everyone is going to be in love with these alternate takes on the characters. Magneto as a leading member of the Spanish Inquisition who's trying to kill off witch-breed (mutants) will probably seem counter-intuitive to his typically pro-mutant agenda. A particular choice that Black Widow makes might make sense for this version of the character but could also upset fans of her. Then there's even just little things like how one or two characters have different sexual preferences from their original variations. Personally, I liked most of these changes, particularly how some of them get names that are a little less modern like Peter Parquah instead of Peter Parker. I think it's cool that Gaiman changed things up a little, but I was definitely disappointed with one character in particular. I can't really spoil who without giving away the end, but I will say that their acting out of character felt very off to me and kind of shattered my suspension of disbelief in a big way. Additionally, I was not all that impressed with the ladies in this world. They came off in a rather week way and did't really contribute nearly enough to the story for my liking. This is especially shameful given how important Marvel's heroines are to its world and is one shortcoming that I found myself unable to overlook.
The setting for 1602 is charming, it's rustic, and overall, just everything I wanted it to be. The first half mostly takes place in England and Spain which are two locations that I don't think the Marvel Universe spends much time in. I wouldn't say that this is at all historically accurate, but there are a couple of historical figures thrown in along with some actual historical events such as the Spanish Inquisition which really sell the whole 1602 thing. I loved seeing the old architecture and beautifully rendered ships. It was also great fun to have the story transition over to the new world where a little bit of colonial America gets its time to shine. What's most interesting to me though is how the presence of Marvel characters changes the world into something brand new. Then there's also how the world changes these characters. The story has this fantastic give and take going on that is brilliantly handled and offers something that I don't think can be found anywhere else.
|Fury as an agent to Her Majesty|
One area where I felt the world was a bit disappointing is in how it is not as separate from the main Marvel Universe as I wanted it to be. For some reason, it was decided that this reality needed to be linked with the rest of Marvel cannon and that was really quite a shame. I won't spoil how or why this is present, but as a reader I was definitely expecting to enjoy an alternate version of Marvel that could stand on it's own rather than be hampered by what came before it. 1602 is at it's best when it sticks to how these characters exist during this time frame and suffers greatly as it starts to veer away from that theme near the end. While this is certainly more of a problem with the plot than it is the setting, it did pull me out of the world that is built up here and that's really quite the opposite of what I wanted to see happen.
|Oh Peter! What a goof!|
As you might have guessed by now, the plot starts of very strong. A plethora of characters in their 1602 forms are introduced, an ominous tone is set, and the world begins to be shaped. The first half of this eight-part work is where I found things to be the most fun. All of the characters are handled well and given ample time to establish themselves and there is a building intrigue that Gaiman masterfully sows. With so many players on the stage, there is a lot going on for readers to enjoy. I'm not even sure I could count all the different subplots that spin off of the main thread, but can assure you that nearly all of them are wonderful. Each is so thoroughly explored that I actually felt like I was getting to enjoy a bunch of different little stories within a much larger one. The problems start when these stray arcs begin to weave into the tale's climax. While it was fun to see all hands on deck for the final couple of issues, there was not nearly as epic a conclusion as I wanted there to be. A lot of this just comes from the plot point which connects this world with the traditional Marvel Universe. With so much hype up to this point, I expected a far more interesting twist than the one I got and was very surprised at this given Gaiman's reputation. A part of me suspects that some Marvel exec demanded to have some of this stuff present, but even with that possibility, I still felt like this was a rather weak effort to surprise readers. The conclusion is also disappointingly inconclusive. I felt like there were a lot more stories that could happen in this space, all of which being far more interesting than the note that this story ends on. It's really just too bad, because I was hooked nearly all the way through with the expectation of this really awesome ending that honestly just never came. I think this story is still pretty good and definitely has a lot of entertainment value even with the ending's failure to impress, but I was left with the bitter feeling that this story could have been so much better had it been given a superior ending.
|Archangel's in quite the bind|
This is truly one of the most unique art styles I have ever seen. It definitely uses modern techniques, but also has this archaic look to it at the same time. And I mean that in the best possible way given that it gives the pages a look that befits the time period it's trying to portray. There's also a lovely range of pallets that are used from bright and colorful to dark and moody. At any given point, I always felt like the panels looked just right and gave off the appropriate mood. One area that this artist definitely does struggle in though is the action. This is kind of a big deal given that the world of superheroes is known for high-flying leaps and hard-hitting punches, not to mention excessive use of zany powers. Sadly, not a ton of that is particularly well rendered here. Yeah there are fight scenes and of course the characters use their powers, but there wasn't any real sense of drama that I felt when looking at those shots. They're staged in a way that definitely has artistic merit, but fails to convey any sense of excitement, perhaps because the shots are framed in a way that's too picturesque. It's a problem that does persist throughout the entirety of this work, I suppose I just foolishly hoped that these images would start looking a little more expensive the closer I got to the story's finale.
While disappointing in a number of crucial ways, I'd still recommend this graphic novel because of it's unique concept and sumptuous visuals. There's a lot to enjoy, especially in the earlier chapters and I think it can probably appeal to a much wider audience than most of Marvel's flagship series in that it is (mostly) removed from the confusing world that is comic book lore. At it's worst, MARVEL 1602 can be chalked up to a collection of pretty images and a story space in which Marvel's cast is re-imagined as Victorian-esque versions of themselves, which is certainly nothing to scoff at. I do wish I could recommend this with a little more gusto, but ultimately, I'm glad I didn't miss out on reading this book and I think others would be glad that they picked it up as well.