What If All This Had Already Happened?
The “Alternate Universe” concept has gone from a novelty to a requisite in modern comics. Each month we are inundated by dozens of books that tackle what life would be like in the various comic universes if Thor had been a donkey or Batman was made entirely out of pineapples. We’re faced with strange takes on characters we haven’t even gotten to know yet, and well-known characters have more incarnations than they know what to do with. Even Star Wars has started toying with what would have happened had Luke died at the Wampa’s claws or missed his shot at the Death Star.
Marvel and the Hemingway of sequential art, Neil Gaiman, have teamed to create the be-all, end-all of this genre, an impressive series called 1602 which catapults the Marvel universe back to the Renaissance. Things are happening well before they should, and it results in strange weather that seems to signify the possible end of the world. The Queen dispatched her head of reconnaissance—Sir Nicholas Fury—to retrieve a Templar Treasure from the Holy Land, while her personal Physician, Dr. Steven Strange, attempts to mystically sort out the mess made of the weather and all.
In the midst of this we are introduced to the conflict between the “Witchbreed” and their savior, a one Carlos Javier and his nemeses among the Inquisition who are led by a peculiar old chap with white hair who seems to employ a great deal of the same mutants—er, Witchbreed—he’s supposed to be burning.
Most compelling so far is the grim specter of count Otto Von Doom- “The Handsome”- a dashing Latverian Royal who is all the more megalomaniacal because there is no stately young Reed Richards around to melt his face off. The absence of this tragedy—rather than softening Doom, as one might expect—actually removes what little apprehension he may have once had concerning his own abilities. He’s completely out of control, while remaining steadily in it. Medieval Doom alone would be enough to make this book worthwile.
However, amusing characters are dropped throughout the narrative. Some are obvious, like Matthew Murdock, a blind, wandering bard without fear, and Peter Parquagh, whose entertainingly fruitless run-ins with all manner of potentially super-powered Ju-Ju Arachnids (tm) are inevitably cut short before the moment of glory, (much like some cereal mascot who always gets close enough to gloat over his prize only to have it snatched away before he can actually indulge) are scattered throughout the book.
Inevitably in such a series the writers will include some more obscure characters, so typically Pineapple Batman requires the aid of a pet shop owner with the measles. There’s always the scene with shrouded figures appearing to aid or hinder our heroes and as they leave, Pineapple Batman says something like, “Thanks for the tip Dave.” This is an Easter Egg designed to separate the men from the boys of comic fandom. Those in the know are nodding and going, “Oh, of course! Naturally, in this universe that character would have become a sickly pet monger, since he mentioned he was allergic to pineapple in issue 217,” while the rest of us scratch our heads and go “Who the hell is Dave?” At risk of deluging my inbox with emails beginning “You Cretin” I have to admit that 1602 is peppered with these, starting with Natasha, Murdock’s guide and the “most dangerous woman in Europe.” Another was the young white-haired girl Virginia Dare, who had me pouring through my back issues before a more well-educated friend reminded me that Virginia Dare was a real person, the first English child born in the New World. As with all of Gaiman’s work, it’s not for the plebes. The real Virginia Dare got mixed up with the whole Roanoke Island Mystery, and it’s easy to sense that it will come into play somewhere in the series.
The series introduces plenty of interesting loose ends as well. There appears to be a Savage Land connection of some sort in the New World, and Dare’s strange affliction that changes her into strange beasts also remains unsolved. The exact nature of the great Macguffin of the book—the Templar’s treasure—is also open to interpretation, although I’ve read a pretty convincing argument for it’s being the Cosmic Cube.
The art itself is stunning, as one would expect from a series with so much behind it. Andy Kubert’s style along with Richard Isanove’s digital painting technique grants the book a textured look that seems to convey the time period well without looking worn. In fact, the colors are rendered in such a rich and vibrant manner that it almost appears animated in some parts.
Despite all of the fun, the book is not without faults. The exposition is dry at times, and the dialogue can be hit or miss. Matt Murdock’s opening line concerning a “Devil being one who Dares” is particularly cringeworthy. Throw in various historical references that can scream miles over the head of the average schmoe and you’ve got something of a tricky book to figure out, but still, the whole far outweighs the sum of it’s parts. 1602 is a smart, exciting read that lives up to the hype.