(Hardcover edition collecting all 8 volumes of the original run)
Marvel 1602 is a “what if” story: what if the heroes of the Marvelverse emerged 400 years ahead of schedule? The world is experiencing bizarre weather phenomena and Queen Elizabeth is dying; the world is quite possibly ending, but fortunately there are heroes to save it.
From what I can gather, this short-run alternate universe story has been divisive; some loved it for its approach to the idea of alternate realities and the ways familiar characters have been reshaped by the historical context, while others thought it was too gimmicky or that the historical aspects were not integrated enough. And, of course, there were those who were just offended that it wasn’t Sandman. Personally, it has been on my to-read list forever, and I’m not at all disappointed.
Starting with Sir Nicholas Fury and Dr. Stephen Strange, both in the employ of the Queen, we are slowly introduced to many, many more variations of the Marvel heroes we know. Some are immediately recognizable, like the X-Men and Daredevil, while others are more subtle nods to their modern day counterparts and take a little more time to pinpoint. Just the sheer number of leading heroes brought together into an eight- volume run is an ambitious undertaking, but bringing all of their various plot threads together at the climax is truly impressive. There were some loose ends occasionally- Master John Grey was a conceit I never fully understood, or the dinosaurs, for that matter- but for the most part everything fits together like clockwork and moves along beautifully. A couple of the characters genuinely surprised me- they slipped under my radar for a while before I realized who they were, but I’m chalking this up more to my lack of Marvel knowledge than any attempt to have any grand reveal (except for one which was very much intended to be a reveal, but I won’t give that one away).
Though the historical setting is perhaps more for fun than function, Gaiman does an excellent job of incorporating super hero hijinks into an already fraught real-life political atmosphere. The death of Good Queen Bess at the hands of a certain Latvarian evil doer ushers in King James- who in this story is a Big Bad in his own right, though he’s weak by comparison. We couldn’t have mutants in the 1600s without the Inquisition being involved, and the parallels that the X-Men story has always had with witch hunts get the chance to play out literally. Dr. Strange as the court physician and Fury as the Queen’s head spy is brilliant, and the only note that seemed a bit off near the end was Reed Richards’ scientific terminology- it was forced into an alchemical framework, but still seemed a bit ahead of schedule, even for a genius- but it still worked. I thought it was an interesting choice to go with the earliest iteration of the X-Men, but I think Gaiman had probably hit a wall as far as leads- add Storm or Wolverine and things just get too big.
I love the inventive edge Gaiman brings to old franchises (Doctor Who!), and the concept and execution of Marvel 1602 combine to make something substantial out of what is essentially a one-off experiment. Gaiman said he wanted to make a story without guns, towers and warfare (it was written after the 9/11 attacks), and he has crafted a story that relies on ingenuity and teamwork rather than force, so I would say he succeeded very well.
(Cross-posted at Goodreads: Marvel 1602)