November 26, 2009

Getting Graphic: "Marvel 1602" by Neil Gaiman

Title: Marvel 1602
Author: Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Andy Kubert
Published: Marvel Comics (2004)
Pages: 248
ISBN 0785123113
ISBN-13 9780785123118

I will hazard a guess that many Neil Gaiman fans, especially the ardent ones, have been on the bandwagon since his breakout work on the comic book series, Sandman, if not before. I have never read a Sandman comic; I became a fan of Gaiman's writing a few years ago through his novels, namely Anansi Boys and American Gods (two of my very favorite novels). So, to learn that Gaiman has an abundance of work in comic books as well, I had to see if I could track one down.

Gaiman has a remarkable skill at making the fantastic seem perfectly plausible, yet still presenting it in a fashion where you consciously regard it as fantastical. Make sense? Maybe not. But if you're a fan of Gaiman's novels like me, then you're going to want to check out this graphic novel--at this point a very stylized "WOW" graphic should appear over my head.

My familiarity with Marvel Comics comes from the old "Cavalcade of Comics" cartoon that used to play on Saturday mornings. I never had the coin to buy the comic books each month as a kid, so my enjoyment came from 70s cartoons, namely Spider-Man's adventures (Canadian fans of these shows may also recall Rocket Robin Hood). But even though I didn't pour over the epic battles waged between the pulpy pages of those older comics, I still managed to collect a vague understanding of the Marvel universe. And you'll need some kind of understanding of that universe if you hope to follow the storyline in this novel.

The premise is high concept in a way: What would it be like if the heroes and villains from the Marvel universe existed during the time of the Spanish Inquisition?

Queen Elizabeth (the First) is under the guard of Nick Fury, her personal spy and confidant, as there is a plot to have her assassinated. During this time, strange storms are occurring throughout the land and certain people are cropping up with strange powers. The Queen seeks advice from her doctor, Stephen Strange, who has become aware of a disturbance in the world and believes there is a single source to all that threatens the Queen, England, and the world. On the other side of the coin, the King of Scotland secretly plots against the Queen. His nefarious allies include Otto Von Doom and an Inquisitor, later revealed to be one of the major Marvel villains.

The supporting cast is all encompassing at times with appearances by the Elizabethan incarnations of Peter Parker (Spider-Man), Professor X and the X-Men, Thor, Matt Murdoch (Daredevil), and others. If I had immersed myself with present day Marvel comics, I may have caught on to some of the characters sooner, as not all are so obvious in their identities to those uninitiated in all things Marvel.

The story plays out well and there are moments, especially when characters get into soliloquies-of-sorts, that you really feel Gaiman is behind the wheel. Surprisingly for me, what steals the show in this graphic novel is the illustrations of Andy Kubert. Everything was so vivid and alive on each page. It was a style that couple the tried-and-true style you expect from the golden age of comics with the pristine and realistic sense you get from much of today's fare. I loved it, and found myself taking breaks from reading just to pour over every inch of the imagery.

Marvel loyalists and anyone worth their salt in the realm of comics may be better equipped to tell you how this story ranks in the pantheon of graphic novels and comic books. If you ask me though, this is a fine way to spend an evening or two, reminiscing about the Marvel characters you know and savoring a great combination of visual and textual prowess. Now, I suppose I need to track down a Sandman comic to see what Gaiman's most celebrated efforts in the medium can offer.

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