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I try never to believe the hype, especially in the realm of comic books and especially from Marvel Comics.

I’m not saying that Marvel is not deserving of its spot among the Big Two, since there is a bevy of great storytelling going on at that company and equally astonishing artwork (just nowhere near Chuck Austen), but Marvel has a tendency to over-hype their “comic events.” An example would be Trouble from Mark Millar and Terry Doddson; Marvel lauded it as a romantic comedy that was meant to explain better the origins of Spider-Man’s parents, or something to that effect. It ended up being absolute drivel with little connection to the Spider-Man mythos, made almost readable by the breast-tastic art from Doddson. I did not buy the series, reading a few issues my friend had purchased, and thankful that my usual brand of exclusionary skepticism had finally paid off.

But it doesn’t end there: Who could forget the debacle made of the relaunch of Epic, proclaimed to be Marvel’s attempt to finally give young comic writers and artists a chance, and turning out to be an impractical and poorly handled attempt to make slaves of intellectual property. The MAX line of comics would be another much hyped but less loved Marvel venture; the only book that I can think of that even springs from the adult-oriented line that garnered some recognition is Alias, and that’s really more about Bendis’ writing than anything else that made the book popular. Does anyone remember War Machine fondly? Howard the Duck? I thought not.

The hype is usually never worth believing, so when news trickled down that Neil Gaiman was going to write for Marvel, I wasn’t unimpressed, but rather scared. Gaiman is one of the great writers of our age of funny books, not to mention a damn fine novelist in his own right, and working for Marvel seemed a likely black mark to put on his record should the project fail. That project was 1602.

Imagine if the Marvel Universe had happened nearly four hundred years ago. Imagine a world where toxic chemicals did not blind Mathew Murdock, but, still blind and somehow special, he is no less the daring devil he ever was. Imagine a world where Queen Elizabeth still rules, aided by her court doctor Stephen Strange, and her master of spies Sir Nicholas Fury. Imagine an Inquisition that is both burning witches and “witchbreed,” the “devil-spawned” individuals that display extraordinary abilities and powers. Imagine a New World, not even a country yet, but still protected by an American sentinel. Now imagine these characters and more thrown into a vicious web of assassinations, monarchial power plays, and world-ending catastrophe if the cause for the chaos ensuing in the 17th century is not discovered.

It’s a rather good book, but it isn’t a great book. It’s intricately plotted and Gaiman takes the time to, not only transplant the names of his characters from the modern time period to this early version, but also their personality. Nicholas Fury is a cigar-smoking bastard, only he has no cigar and despite his penchant for straightforward speech, his character has been a noble too long to speak without some intelligence. Angel is not a spoiled rich boy in 1602, but there is an air of haughtiness that surrounds his character. Murdock is brash and flippant, no matter what clothes or era he might be wearing.

Maybe the problem is that Gaiman does so good of a job transplanting the characters that the reader ends up bored, because we already know these characters inside and out. Is Carlos Javier going to be a rational, kind man who believes all disparate people can get along? Yes he will, and he might just gather around him a group of young witchbreed and train them to help him in that respect. Oh look, is Count Otto Von Doom going to be a despotic maniac with a past tied to a certain ship with four voyagers on it? You bet your graphic novel collection he does.

I will admit that two things threw me for small loops and I did not expect them. One being the “package” being delivered from Jerusalem and what it truly was, and there was the ultimate cause of all of 1602, which while interesting (and I will not spoil it for the fanpersons) seemed somewhat tacked on. What really intrigues me, and what story I would like to be told, since Gaiman has a contract for at least one more project for Marvel, is what happens after the events of 1602, and what it means for the development of America and the world at large.

The artwork is another aspect of the work that I am a little torn on. Andy Kubert is talented without doubt, and his character design is always top notch. Kubert goes above and beyond in crafting Victorian garb to match the characters, not necessarily to recreate the costume of the modern era, but to convey the idea of the character. Fury’s outfit consisted of what could be leather armor, and still looked clothing-like, balancing his role as member of royal court with his cloak and dagger profession. Strange has robes, but no gaudy capes, yet somehow carries an air of mysticism and Murdock, looking far less the sleek daredevil than he is a vagabond in loose fitting clothing, somehow feels no less dangerous.

All of this is helped by the excellent coloring by Richard Isanove, Isanove employing his digital painting technique last seen in Origin (another over-hyped Marvel project). While I do prefer colorists to do coloring in the old fashioned way, the computer allows Isanove to reach an incredible level of detail that is need for the book. Also of note are the scratchboard illustrations for every cover of the eight issue series that form chapter breaks, as well as the cover to the collection, all done by Scott McKowen.

I didn’t believe the hype on 1602, figuring I’d wait for the trade to come out. I grabbed the hardcover version on a whim, and twenty-five dollars for all eight issues, an introduction by Publisher’s Weekly reviewer Peter Sanderson, an afterword by Gaiman himself, as well as the script to the first issue, and two artist process sections from Kubert and McKowen, is not bad. You pay more but you get more. Is it worth a pick-up? If you like the concept of “What If?” (which I do) and want to read the most intricately plotted version of one you are likely to find, then go forth and spend cash fanpeople.

For those looking for a surprise or two, or simply expect everything Gaiman writes to be groundbreaking, this isn’t for you. I leave it to your discretion, readers.

Marvel 1602

Robert Sparling

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