Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Graphic Novels Challenge: Marvel 1602
Whereas DC Comics has its Elsewhere books, Marvel Comics had its What If? series. Rather than creating an alternate world like the Elseworlds books, most of the What If? stories explored a diverging timeline beginning at a point in the mainstream Marvel continuity, producing such groundbreaking comics as What If Conan Walked the Earth Today? and What If the Original Marvel Bullpen Had Become the Fantastic Four? Most of the What If? titles are one-offs, with a few short arcs, but beyond the point of divergence, there is no lasting or meaningful connection to the Marvel Universe. They are speculative fantasies.
Neil Gaiman does a fascinating job bringing these heroic alter-egos to life, far better than Chuck Dixon did in the Captain Leatherwing book; with a few exceptions, the characters feel real in their setting, perhaps because the setting allows the cruft of expectations built up around about these too-familiar heroes to be stripped away. They are reborn, and they are, for the most part, better for it. Nick Fury as the alternate Sir Francis Walsingham is brilliantly written, as is Matthew Murdoch as one of his agents, but my favorite character, both in 1602 and the Marvel Universe generally, is Dr. Strange. This is one of the very best Dr. Strange books I've read; the Sorcerer Supreme is singularly suited to both the period and Mr Gaiman's tale of supernatural intrigue.
And it is a tale of intrigue. There are only a handful of battles between heroes and villains in 1602. This is a story of an existential threat and the ramifications of it, and if the ending doesn't quite live up to the events which preceded it, it is satisfying nonetheless.
Andy Kubert and Richard Isanove's artwork is dark and claustrophobic and lush, and their depiction of the characters and the setting evocative and period-worthy, though I found the digital coloring to have a weird sort of soft-focus feel at times.