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1602

 

The year is 1602. Queen Elizabeth is on the throne of England, but is not expected to live long. James of Scotland is waiting in the wings. Across the Channel, the Inquisition holds Spain in its grip, and in America, the Virginia Colony struggles to survive. Strange portents appear in the sky and people fear the End of the World is coming.



But strange creatures and people with remarkable abilities are coming too. Some are merely men of remarkable talent and skill, such as the Queen's spymaster, Sir Nicholas Fury. Some are mysterious, such as the Court Physician, Doctor Stephen Strange. Many are downright unnatural, such as the blind bard Murdoch, who is as fearless as the devil; or Carlos Javier, whose school outside London protects the Witchbreed, humans with uncanny powers.



No, the story insists, this is not an Elseworld, not an Imaginary Story. This is the Marvel Universe, except that something has happened. The heroes have arrived four hundred years too early. Something has gone terribly wrong.

MARVEL: 1602 was a limited series written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Andy Kubert and Richard Isanove. It originally came out during a period where I was cutting back on my comics buying, and so I missed the early issues, but eventually picked up the entire series as a graphic novel compilation. I'm a history geek and a Shakespeare fan and I tend to be a sucker for alternate histories, so I could hardly resist this series.

The story begins with Fury and Doctor Strange, whom Gaiman has blended with two historical figures from Queen Elizabeth's court: Francis Wasingham, popularly known as “the Queen's Spymaster”, and John Dee, a mathematician, astronomer and alchemist who studied both science and the occult and served as one of Elizabeth's advisers. Strange uses his mystic knowledge and skills in divination trying to uncover the reason for the weird phenomena. Fury has no muse for magic and is more concerned with more mundane matters, such as protecting the Queen from assassination attempts, and safeguarding the “Templar Treasure”, a mysterious artifact on its way from Jerusalem.

Another historical figure we meet is Virginia Dare, who was the first English colonist born in the New World in the Roanoke colony. In this timeline, Roanoke did not fail and it's colonists vanish from the ken of history. The colony was rescued by a mysterious Indian benefactor, as the Pilgrim Plymouth colony was later aided by Squanto. This Indian is inexplicably blond and blue-eyed and calls himself Rojhaz. I have to admit, I didn't click as to who he really was until it was finally revealed near the very end.

We also meet Carolus Javier, a crippled teacher who runs a school for the children of gentle-folk outside of London. His pupils are what the common folk call “witchbreed” because of their uncanny powers; but Javier calls them his “mutantur”, his “changing ones. We get to see a team of them rescuing a young man, winged like an angel, who is about to be burned at the stake by the Inquisition in Spain.

The one man who might possibly be able to explain the unnatural weather and figure out how to remedy it is Sir Reed, a gentleman and natural philosopher who, with his three companions, encountered a weird phenomenon at sea on board their ship, the Fantastick,which changed their bodies. The Fantastick's Four have not been seen in many years, and we learn that they have been imprisoned by Count Otto von Doom, the handsome ruler of Latveria.



Elizabeth is assassinated by agents of Doom, who also manages to seize the Templar Treasure and its custodian. Fury finds himself in a conflict of loyalties. He has a duty to serve the crown, but the new king, James of Scotland, is chiefly interested in burning magicians like Strange and witchbreed like Fury's close friend, Javier. It is only the news that Sir Reed may still be alive and imprisoned in Latveria that convinces him to betray the King and cast his lot with Strange and the others.

Fury arranges for Javier and his students to be put on a ship to be taken out to sea and sunk; but in a dramatic scene, Javier and his apprentice “Master Grey” (Jean Grey in male drag; c'mon, it's set in Shakespeare times; we gotta have a girl disguised as a boy somewhere), use their witchbreed powers of telekinesis to lift the entire ship into the air and fly it to Latveria.

Count Otto's forces nearly defeat Javier's mutantur, but in the confusion of the battle, the Fantastick Four escape, as do Fury's agent, Murdoch, and Donal, the custodian of the Templar Treasure. The Treasure turns out to be an ordinary staff which, when struck against the ground, transforms its bearer into the Mighty Thor. In a clever touch, Gaiman has Thor, who speaks in faux-Shakespearean language in the comic books, here the Elizabethan Era speak in a dialect resembling Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse and lettered in a style resembling Nordic runes.

From this point, the characters find themselves converging on the English colony in the New World. Fury and Javier's group have no where else to go that is safe for them. Doctor Strange has been executed by King James, but his wife, Clea, has recovered his decapitated head and arranged to sneak out of the country with young Virginia and her protector Rojhaz. In his astral travels, Strange had learned much of what was going on from the Watcher, the alien observer on the Moon who sees all that happens on Earth but is forbidden to interfere. But the Watcher laid a compulsion on him preventing him from sharing what he knew... as long as he lived. Now that Strange is dead, this is no longer a problem. Well, apart from him being dead, but for a sorcerer like him, that's not an insurmountable problem, just a grisly one.

The Inquisitor is also on his way to the New World. The Vatican has learned that he is one of the witchbreed himself and has only been executing the more obvious of them and recruiting those who could pass as human as his own agents. When the Church attempts to burn him for his heresy, he easily escapes – they foolishly thought that fastening him to the stake with iron chains would be more secure than rope. The last ship to arrive carries agents of King James: his lackey Banner, and Fury's former assistant Peter, who has been warned what might happen to his Aunt and Uncle if he does not serve the crown faithfully.

Throughout the story we have gradually learned that the unnatural signs and portents have been triggered by something, or someone, who does not belong in this world or this time. At first, Doctor Strange thought it might be Virginia, but Clea has figured out that the real anomaly is Rojhaz, the big blond Indian. “Well, if you put it like that, Ms Strange...” the normally taciturn Rojhaz replies with a crooked smile.

Yes, Rojhaz is actually Steve Rogers, Captain America. At some point in our future, America is taken over by a dictator who makes himself President for Life. (“Because Life Matters”). Captain America has found himself fighting his own government before; back in the '70s, Jack Kirby had him fighting a conspiracy led by none other than Richard Nixon. Then during the Reagan Era, the Administration decreed that the Captain America costume and shield were government property and so Cap had to toe the White House line. Cap responded by turning over the shield and adopting a new costume and identity, until his replacement did so badly that he was asked to come back. 1602 was written during George W. Bush's administration, and the dictator from Cap's flashback does look a lot like Dubya, although from the coloring I think he was meant to be the Purple Man, a Daredevil villain with mind-control powers. (Also known as Kilgrave, for fans of the TV series “Jessica Jones”).

Cap had led the Resistance against the President-For-Life until he was captured and exiled into the past using an experimental time machine. Cap's incongruous presence in the wrong time is what was causing the reality storms which threaten the whole Earth and could spread throughout not only this universe but all the others as well.

Reed now has all the pieces he needs to figure out what must be done. They must find the rip in reality through which Cap originally came, stabilizing it using the Inquisitor's power of magnetism combined with Thor's lightnings, and sending Rojhaz back to his own time. Sounds easy, right?

Well, things are never that easy. Cap's mission in life has always been to protect America; and here he is in a position to serve as America's Guardian from its very beginning; to guide the country through its very birth. And then there's Banner and Peter, sent to kill Fury. And what about Fury? He is a man without a country, now. What will he do?

Well, the universe is saved, of course, and the universe repaired; but the Brave New World of 1602 is not wiped out. It continues to exist as its own timeline, a sub-universe that the Watcher receives as a kind of souvenir.

The series led to a couple sequels: 1602: THE NEW WORLD continued the story with an Elizabethan analogue to Iron Man coming to America to hunt down Banner, who has been transformed into a huge, Hulking creature. MARVEL 1602: FANTASTICK FOUR, written by Peter David, brings the Four to London where they fight Otto von Doom, who has kidnapped William Shakespeare to make the bard write a play about him. SPIDER-MAN: 1602 takes Peter Parquah back to Europe, where he meets still more Elizabethan counter-parts to Marvel heroes and villains.

There are many lovely moments in MARVEL: 1602, such as the banter between King James and Petros, the messenger who "runs fast"; or the scene in which a certain Mutant Master of Magnetism first demonstrates his power; (yes, I was expecting it, but it was still beautiful). Some of the in-jokes are a bit forced, such as Javier's wish that he could construct "...a room in which dangers would come from nowhere..." to train his students; or the revelation that young Robert Trefusis, the lad in Javier's group with ice powers, is the grandson of Sir Francis Drake, (Okay, Bobby Drake. We get it now). Some of them are wonderfully apt, such as Sir Nicholas' assertion to his young assistant Peter Parquah, "We are the Queen's shield. We are the nation's shield. Never forget that."



"I love to make things," Peter says in another scene. "I once watched a drop of dew in a spider's web, magnifying the blade of grass behind it. Which made me think, some of us can see like hawks, but many of us can not, and if I were to grind some glass to the shape of the dewdrop..." That little bit wonderfully evokes not only Peter's fascination with spiders, but an echo of Uncle Ben's microscope, which symbolizes the Modern Peter Parker's love of science.

Another sub-theme which recurs throughout the series is religion and how it shapes the characters' views and actions. The most obvious examples are how King James and the Grand Inquisitor both justify their persecution of mutants by equating the “witchbreed” with heretics. But Carlos Javier is also a religious man, and we have a scene where he leads a chapel service at his school and offers a prayer which encapsulates the philosophy of Charles Xavier in Christian language:

“Dear God, who made us what we are. Who gave us our talents, making us each different, who gave us our gifts. In your infinite mercy and wisdom, allow us to share our gifts with the world, and not to hide our talents beneath a bushel. Grant us freedom from those who hate us, and would destroy us. And let us, while hated, not in turn give in to hate. Amen.”

Donal, the old man who guards the Templar Treasure, belongs to a religious order. Becoming the Norse god Thor causes him to experience a major crisis of faith; because if Thor is real, then the Church's teachings about pagan gods must be wrong. We don't get to see him resolve this crisis; perhaps it is unanswerable.

Sir Reed, on the other hand, whose brilliant, questing mind would have probably made him an agnostic in the Enlightenment Era, here sees no conflict between seeing the Universe as God's Creation and his own drive to reckon how that Universe works. “As I once told Fury,” he says at one point, “God gave us eyes to see, and hands to grasp, and minds to understand his creation. And perhaps – with God's grace – to save it.”



The artwork by Andy Kubert and the digital painting by Richard Isanove is beautiful and conveys both the story and the period well. Kubert does a good job of keeping the characters distinct, which is not always easy when the heroes are not in uniform. The reprint volume also includes the covers to the original series, rendered in a style evoking 17th Century engravings by Scott McKowen, adding to the Elizabethan atmosphere of the tale.

As I said, I tend to be a sucker for alternate histories, so I'm biased; but I enjoyed MARVEL: 1602. For me, the fun is in Gaiman's beautiful characterization and the game of recognizing the old familiar Marvel icons in Elizabethan hose rather than modern Spandex, and from seeing them fresh through the translation.



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Kurt Wilcken draws the webcomic “Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine” at http://www.kurtoonsonline.com/ and writes a weekly blog about obscure Bible stories, “The Ones You Didn’t Hear in Sunday School” at: http://onesyoudidnthear.blogspot.com/ He also sometimes refers to himself in the third person and he lives for feedback.