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Fundamental Comics: ‘Marvel 1602’ and the Power of Myth

“Fundamental Comics,” a monthly editorial series that introduces readers to comics, graphic novels, and manga that have been impactful to the sequential art medium and the comic book industry on a foundational level. Each month, a new essay will examine a familiar or less-known title through an in-depth analysis, exploring the history of the title, significant themes, and context for the title’s popularity since it was first released.

Marvel 1602
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artist: Andy Kubert
Colorist: Richard Isanove
Letterer: Todd Klein
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Publication Date: Nov 2003-Jun 2004
No. of Issues: 8

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The end of the Elizabethan era and beginning of the Jacobean (with the death of Queen Elizabeth I and the rise of King James) were a tumultuous time, and every part of the UK was affected, even to such extremes as impacting Shakespeare, whose plays suddenly turned against the Tudors and towards the Stuarts to match the changing of the times.  Into this mix, Neil Gaiman drops another set of great heroes and villains: those of the Silver Age Marvel universe.

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The Plot
The world is ending.  Queen Elizabeth I sits on the throne of England riddled with a wasting disease, asking for advice from her Spymaster Sir Nicholas Fury and her physician Dr Steven Strange.  Each man seeks answers to the issues of the crown, Fury to the machinations of the Count of Latveria and Strange to the unnatural weather and energies that have begun to spook royal and common alike.  Strange also tells of an ancient and powerful weapon traveling to London from Jerusalem, and Fury is directed to bring it safely to the crown, as it may be the most powerful relic ever seen by human eyes.  Fury and his ward, a young Master Parquagh, engage with a blind Irishman of considerable acrobatic ability named Murdoch to secure this treasure, who in turn invites fellow rogue Natasha to join him in his quest.

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James I of Scotland is waiting for the death of Elizabeth so he can take the English throne and add it to his own, while making overtures to the Spanish Inquisition led by Head Inquisitor Enrique, who has been burning those known as Witchbreeds, people with unusual and powerful abilities and sometimes hideous visages and forms as enemies of the church.

Looking to request more support from the crown for the American colonies, Virginia Dare, the first British citizen to be born in the New World, and her indigenous bodyguard Rojhaz travel to England.  While they meet with the Queen, a Vulture-like creature attacks, revealing that Miss Dare has a secret of her own, now known to Dr Strange.  While Fury interrogates the would-be assassin, another plot to remove the queen is successful, and her reign ends.  James, having waited for this opportunity, demands that Fury capture the wards of Carlos Javier, witchbreeds that have been hiding in his special academy.

Once Fury finds that Count Otto von Doom created the mechanical horror that brought Elizabeth down, he makes a deal with Carlos to take the fight to Castle Doomstadt, using the powers of young John Grey to levitate a ship over the mountains.  Strange is brought to the Moon by Uatu, the Watcher, and told of the reason for the unnatural happenings on the world and indicates that if a being known as the Forerunner, a powered person out of time who has precipitated the appearance of powered people about 400 years early; however, the knowledge to return this person to their own time is bound with the condition that Strange may not speak of it to anyone while he lives.  Luckily, King James is on it and beheads the good doctor and mounts the head on a pike on the wall.

Staying true to her roots, Natasha betrays Murdoch and gifts the cart carrying the treasure, the driver named Donel, and the unconscious Murdoch to Doom.  Once the Witchbreed ship reaches the Latverian capital, Fury and company attack, to be aided by the Four of the good ship Fantastick, who under the guise of their death at contact with unknown energies were actually held captive by Doom.  This first family aids in defeating Doom, who is stuck down by a diversionary device that mars his face while Donel wields the true weapon, a walking stick that is a disguise for Mjolnir, turning him into Thor, God of Thunder.  Victorious, the assembled heroes agree to leave for the New World where they’ll be free from the persecution of James.

During these events, High Inquisitor Enrique is outed as a Witchbreed himself, and though he is sentenced to burn at the stake, he uses his control over metal to escape, bringing Pietro and Sister Wanda along with him on another ship to America.

James is furious at the actions of the witchbreed and his former Spymaster, and sends Lord Banner and Peter Parquagh after them to finish him off.  The race to America is won by Fury, Carlos and the crew of the Fantastick, where they are met by Clea, who has removed Strange’s head from the pike and brought it to America, where the Forerunner must be returned to their own time.  Strange is able to tell the heroes of this because death has released him from the conditions set by Uatu who stated he could not speak of it while he lived, yet still being able to speak telepathically through Clea from beyond the grave.  Carlos invites Enrique to help return the Forerunner, who is not in fact Virginia Dare but Rojhaz, who is really Steve Rogers sent back in time from a future where a fascist regime has taken hold in America and superheroes have been captured or killed.  Reed Richards figures out how to use the anomaly that sent Cap back to return him to his own time and thus prevent the destruction of all things.  Needing the help of Enrique, Carlos reaches an accord to bring him into the fold, while Banner’s ship arrives with orders to kill Fury.

Fury ends everyone on that ship save Banner and Parquagh, and he gives the latter a chance to take him out for good.  Finding his better nature, Parquagh runs from the scene.  Once everyone is in position, Cap decides that he’s not going to return, but stay where he is and guide the nascent nation that he will serve with his heart into something more pure and perfect.  Using his friendship, Fury gets close enough to deck the good Captain and drag him into the rift.  Banner shields young Peter from the energy released by the event, but takes the full brunt himself.  With the timeline safe, Uatu is allowed to keep the reality of this world in a pocket dimension, which is eventually called Earth 311.  The Four of the Fantastick and the Witchbreed settle into life in the new world, and creation continues on.

Reception Upon Release
– Comics Bulletin – “Is 1602 good? Yes, it’s damn good. Is it revolutionary or even ground breaking? No. Sorry, but I can’t go so far as to call a glorified What If? series anything more than what it is; a well done re-imagination of the Marvel Universe.”
– Entertainment Weekly – “The Marvel Universe hasn’t been this engrossing in ages.”
– – “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.”

The mix receptions was very diverse, and much of the negative seemed to deal with the expectation of what a Neil Gaiman story would be versus what was put on the page.  Most fans were rabid for a Marvel version of The Sandman, and this was wholly different which turned some people off.

Critical Analysis

A lot of ink was spent on decrying 1602 as a What If? story, something that was more an exercise in playing with characters with in-jokes and witty adjustments to retell the same old stories.  I think that was fairly accurate, but the exercise as a whole demonstrates the resilience of the core factors of these characters that have lasted for so long.  There’s something elemental in these characters that can feel right in so many different ways, much as heroes like Hercules and Beowulf, whose exploits and deeds expand beyond what can be reasonably believed, to where they become a shorthand placeholder for a kind of character encountering a situation.  A way the author can connect to the audience quickly and establish the type of story they’re going to tell.  Even Thor, Loki, and Odin are themselves of myth, and Captain America, the Wasp, and even Rocket Raccoon can stand next to them without feeling like the latter are reaching.

Though there’s much to appreciate, the characters do sometimes feel pigeon-holed into going the way that we expect them to.  For instance, there’s not necessarily a lot of trust happening with Natasha and Matt on the road from the reader, as we’ve just been down that particular path too often.  Fury doing his spy shtick and Dr. Strange communing with all of the various extraordinary creatures and powers feels so rote.  Yes, it’s the fate of these characters and the will of the author that guide us to the conclusions that we know have to take place, but the most fun is young Peter Parker, who serves as a foil for all of the predictability going on in the world.  When he draws a dagger on Fury, it feels so genuinely wrong for the character that it’s a jarring step for us, and though he doesn’t act, it still gives us a moment of pause, a disbelief in the character straying so far from his moral compass because of the circumstances he finds himself in, especially prior to attaining his “great power.”

These stories have been around a long time among Marvel fans, and thanks to the last decade of the MCU, more of these characters have entered the public consciousness and will endure through time, as well.  I look forward to someone doing a treatment of Black Panther in this timeline and finding him unchanged from what we know the character to be, as the ancestors were already doing their thing while all of these English were mucking about.  There will be characters that can thrive in Earth 311, and those that don’t perhaps are the ones that will fade into the obsolescence that so many others find themselves (snap?), but it seems a great proving ground to see what characters really have the legs to stand the test of time.

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Relevancy Today

This story was Gaiman’s reaction to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11th, a story in which he wanted “no bullets, bombs or wars.”  He found a setting where he could remove those elements from characters he deemed to have attained mythical standing and show that the core of them would still be valid even in a world we didn’t recognize.  It’s a recognition of the power of these characters and the tenacity of the human race to find reasons to hate, mistreat, and demonize each other that makes these outsiders valid in any century.  It’s why they’ve lasted the last 60 years plus, and why they’ll hang on likely for decades to come.

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The finale for Steve Rogers, I believe, resonates today with remarkable and upsetting accuracy.  Perhaps Gaiman envisioned the worst that America could become after the attacks, perhaps he has a crystal ball, or perhaps he’s just unlucky to envision a reality that Rogers dealt with that feels closer than ever.  If given the chance to take action at the beginning, to craft the young nation in ways that would have closed certain loopholes that provide for such animosity and division now, to simply escape the awful with a hope that it could be prevented…it’s a move that didn’t make so much sense in Steve Rogers the first time I read this series, but today it feels valid and real.  This is what marks great stories, ones where interpretation can evolve with the shifting realities and still hold meaning and value.  That’s the whole point of the series to begin with, and it can hold itself as the standard that it sets for every character within.

Other Points of Interest
The series won the 2005 Quill Book Award for Graphic Novels.
The first issue was also awarded the 2003 Diamond Distributors Gem Award as “Comic of the Year.”
The series spawned several sequels, though none with the same team as the original, continuing the stories of the characters remaining at the finale, most recently in 2015’s Secret Wars: Witch Hunter Angela series.

Erik Cheski, Fanbase Press Contributor



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