Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Marvel Unbound - Marvel 1602

Marvel 1602. I was skeptical about this one. Maybe it was the cover art. Maybe it was the premise. But what I saw when I flipped through this book at the big box book stores didn't look like my cup 'o Marvel tea. But I was checking out at the library with the kiddo, and there it was in a stack of just-returned books: the hardcover edition of Marvel 1602. I figured what the hell, and told the librarian to throw that in with our other stuff. And I'm glad I did because this was such an entertaining read!

Prior to Marvel 1602, I had never read anything by Neil Gaiman; his body of work is completely (and embarrassingly) foreign to me. I have, of course, heard of The Sandman, Gaiman's most famous creation, but have never read it for a couple reasons: That series began after I was out of comics in the late '80s, and it was published by DC's Vertigo imprint which, until recently, would have been an immediate turn-off for me.

Peter Sanderson seems to think pretty highly of the preface he wrote for the Marvel 1602 hardcover collection. Admittedly, it does a nice job of contextualizing the eight issues that follow, but it is hardly required reading for enjoying the series. In spite of the lengthy essay, you still get the feeling you're jumping right into the middle of the action when you turn the page and hit the first panel. And that's a good thing!

I was surprised by just how consumed I was with the story. Far from potboiler territory, it's a clever narrative of intrigue that spans multiple countries and continuities. It seems that super heroes have begun appearing on Earth 360 years earlier than expected. This is noticed by figures throughout Europe and beyond, including Queen Elizabeth I, her head of intelligence, her court magician, the Spanish High Inquisitor, the leader of England's witchbreeds', James VI of Scotland, the ruler of Latveria, the Earth's Watcher, and others. The shifting allegiances and political machination were gripping, keeping me guessing from one page to the next.

Marvel 1602, like the experience reading Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross' Marvels, had me paying closer attention to the details than I otherwise might. I was constantly trying to identify the present-day Earth-616 counterparts to the less obvious characters throughout the book -- but it did not distract from the story itself, instead enhancing the reading experience for me. And there were three characters whose mainstream continuity equivalent, when revealed, was a complete surprise to me: Donal, Rojhaz, and Enrique. How fun is that? To be thinking one thing about a character, then have the reveal throw you for a loop? It was surprises like these that made this read even harder to put down and all the more enjoyable.

The major reveal at the beginning of issue #8 -- the one that explains why things are unfolding the way they are -- was initially a little worrisome. When I read it for the first time I groaned a little, fearing the hokey conceit I thought I had avoided was now rearing its ugly head. But having time to digest it and revisit parts of the story and really get my head around the plot twist, it's grown on me more and more.

By design, Gaiman uses only characters that existed in the 1960s Marvel Universe to craft his tale in the year 1602, so we see incarnations of Doctor Doom, Nick Fury, Doctor Strange, Peter Parker, the original X-Men, and more. It's a fantastic idea that pays off in execution.

Much like the major plot turn grew on me, I now find the covers, which had originally been so off-putting, strikingly beautiful. I'm not much for issue script extras in my collections (and this hardcover edition contains the full script to issue #1), but I do like extras that delve into things like the process Scott McKowen went through to create the books' covers and the influences that inspired them. With this additional information I have more admiration for McKowen's use of the scratchboard illustration techniques that originally were so unappealing to me.

And explanations on the period source materials and inspirations for the covers -- specific maps and a famous "Gunpowder Plot" conspirators engraving and the use of ribbons -- all add to my growing appreciation. I also love the descriptive titles of each of issue, reproduced in the collection with the cover art, like "Part One, In Which We Are Introduced To Certain Of Our Players" and "Part Four, In Which Much Is Explained And Things Do Not Always Work Out For The Best."

Andy Kubert's interior art is beautiful and, when combined with Richard Isanove's digital painting, colors explode off the page. The technique -- enhanced pencils -- amounts to pages being drawn and sent directly to the colorist, removing the middle-man work of an inker. The result is described by book co-editor Nick Lowe as "tighter, more elaborate and more finished." These stunning interiors work perfectly with the tale they depict.

I had serious reservations about Marvel 1602 before reading it. But this is one of those situations where my doubts were proven unfounded, and I was rewarded with a surprising, entertaining book. The story's unique twist on some of Marvel's most iconic characters is worth the investment and left me longing for more. Ironically, I find myself hesitant to pick up the two sequels -- Greg Pak's 1602: New World and Peter David's Marvel 1602: Fantastick Four -- if only because they are not written by Gaiman. But I may still pick up them up. After all, it seems there's something to be said for taking a chance.

No comments: