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Something Witchbred This Way Comes...

1602 #1
writer: Neil Gaiman
artists: Andy Kubert and Richard Isanove

Neil Gaiman swears that somehow, this is all actually going to fit into regular Marvel continuity. For right now, though, it looks suspiciously like an Elseworlds - excuse me, "What If -- ?" tale. Not a diversion from established stories but a wild flight of fancy, on par with the classic What If -- ? #14, "What if World War II had been fought in outer space?"

Yeah, I bought that one. It had something to do with Leonardo DaVinci actually building his designs, leading to Nick Fury and His Howling Commandos taking on The Badoon about a thousand years early - it was goofy but it rocked when I was eleven.

Comics fans are older and perhaps (no promises here) wiser, and demand something a little more sophisticated. And despite the somewhat ludicrous question "What if the Marvel Universe appeared in Europe in Elizabethan times?" Gaiman is one of the very few writers who can make us want to read the answer.

Aided by Kubert and Isanove in the same lush digital inking over pencil style they used for Origin, Gaiman delves into a politically uncertain time. The "Virgin Queen" Elizabeth I has less than a year to live (she doesn't know that - it's history). Spain and France plot against England, under the aegis of religious reasons.

It's clear, though, that within the Catholic halls of The Inquisition, all may be forgiven even if the Protestant James of Scotland ascends the British throne. Unlike Elizabeth, James has no tolerance for magicks and witchcraft, a predilection that makes court physician Dr. Stephen Strange more than a little nervous.

For Strange and head of the Secret Service Sir Nicholas Fury, the times are about to get more troubled. A mysterious and terrible weapon is on its way from Jerusalem, and it must not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. I'm guessing it's some sort of Renaissance Cosmic Cube, but that seems almost too mundane for Gaiman.

And therein lies the strength and the weakness of this issue. We have to trust that the grand design of this book will boggle our minds, but right now, it's little more than a highly literate game of "Where's Waldo?" with Marvel Universe characters standing in for the bespectacled happy idiot.

It's clever and not without its charms, especially when it goes without comment. Kubert, for instance, throws in a cutpurse assassin that looks like The Vulture, but we'll never know for sure. Maybe it's just his attacking Peter Parquagh that draws the association.

For total comics nerds like myself, this sort of game works. However, if you've wandered into this book just to see what all the hype is about, it may leave you confused. Unless you're an Elizabethan scholar (I know you're out there, and reading Fanboy Planet), then you may be fascinated by the immense detail Gaiman gets right before leaping off into the world of the Witchbreed, this century's version of mutants.

Stick around through your confusion. Gaiman deserves every bit of hype he gets, and the reality of a first issue is that it's just a small piece of a larger tapestry. Give the man time to deliver the whole picture.


Derek McCaw

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