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February 7, 2011

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Review: Marvel 1602

Posted by on Feb 7, 2011

I think sometimes that superheroes are just intended to explain and embellish what we see in every day life: there are some people who have pretty heroic abilities in certain areas. In the world of movies, Christopher Nolan probably gets the nod, and for comics Alan Moore is probably one of those people. I would argue Neil Gaiman deserves that accolade as well. I’ll tell you why, but first, let me posit a theory:

I think that comics with long established characters – basically all of the Marvel and DC universe – sometimes struggle to come up with new stories to keep things fresh and interesting. The fact is that these characters are predicated on being superheroes who fight bad guys, so most new issues come up with a new bad guy to fight. The problem is that there’s only so much material you can get out of that, and so these characters get less interesting in comparison to new upstart characters that aren’t connected to those worlds, like The Goon.

It’s a testament to Neil Gaiman’s brilliance that Marvel 1602 avoids that problem without creating new villains and without changing the fundamentals of the characters in any way. It just gives them a new background that is refreshing, innovative, and most importantly, fun.

So what’s Marvel 1602 about? Well, it’s got the usual Marvel cast of characters: Nick Fury, the Fantastic Four, Dr. Strange, the X-Men, Magneto, Dr. Doom, and others. The difference is that it’s set in 17th Century Europe, with all the associated styles of dress, speech patterns, and issues. Gaiman even masterfully translates the Catholic-Protestant debate into the classic X-Men mutant vs humans issue.

Recognize anyone?

The artists had a field day with the setting as well, creating some really awesome looks for the characters. Think ruffled collars, excellent hats, and swords. Nick Fury might look better in this style than he does in a modern look. It’s all just excellent. Also – because the United States doesn’t exist, Captain America is a native American…absolutely hilarious.

If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering how on earth they managed to explain all of the Marvel characters showing up in the 17th century. I don’t want to give up the details, but I thought it worked fine and didn’t seem contrived.

All that being said, the best part about Marvel 1602 is that it’s just legitimately fun. This was written just after 9/11, and in the afterword, Gaiman noted that he didn’t want to write something that involved war and guns. Instead he wanted it to be a fun read, and a respite from the craziness of the real world. It works – Marvel 1602 is simply a great read.

  • While I would be the last person to detract from Neil Gaiman’s brilliance, as you put it Chris, I just thought that it should be pointed out that a number of Alternate Reality takes on classic comic characters have also been incredibly successful. Mark Millar and Dave Johnson’s Superman: Red Son and Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola’s Batman: Gotham By Gaslight are the two I really think nail it best.