The good news is that the script by Mr. Gaiman provoked both charm and terror in just the right places, and had both an original take and slightly macabre overtone that is Mr. Gaiman’s signature hallmark. The bad news is that the ending is weak, which is another signature hallmark of Mr. Gaiman.
The conceit is brilliant, and, like all brilliant conceits in storytelling, simple: the Marvel Superheroes are here shown as their 1602 counterparts. Nick Fury is the Walsingham of Queen Elizabeth’s court, the daring master of intrigue who keeps Her Majesty’s Catholic assassins at bay. Dr. Strange is her John Dee, the royal physician and mage. Charles Xavier runs a school for the ‘Witchbreed’. Magneto is Torquemada of the Spanish Inquisition. Von Doom is unchanged: a tyrannous Medieval Monarch of a Germanic kingdom, practiced in alchemy. And Captain America ... well, the idea for who Captain America is, the idea is simply brilliant, and I will not spoil the surprise.
Here is what Gaiman does right: the mood of the times was authentic. Fury was a particularly well crafted character, who took seriously his loyalty to King James upon his ascention to the throne. The religious wars of the period were presented as serious, as they were to the men of the period, with no one uttering William-of-Orange type calls for moderation, which would have been anachronistic.
Ben Grimm as the salty sea captain was particularly well done. As for what goes wrong? Not much, but I want to complain.
SPOILER WARNINGS and bellyaching Below the cut!
There is only one toad in the soup: the ending is weak. There is also a dashes of political correctness flavoring the brew, which will annoy people on my side of the political spectrum and delight the disloyal opposition.
I will mention two examples: when Captain America, the super-patriot, is forced to flee from the horror-ridden regime that oppresses the United States, the evil President-for-Life is depicted as George Bush. This gesture is a pointless detraction from the story, which takes place in 1602, in a milieu where REAL oppression takes place (such as the Spanish Inquisition, for goodness sake!) The irony of it is lost on those who suffer from Bush Derangement Syndrome.
A second example, which was even more distracting, and more pointless: one of the characters is that reliable standby of Elizabethan literature, the maiden dressed as a youth. There is some charming comedy, when one boy is jealous that his Rosalind and another boy are too friendly, and this second boy is bewildered by the jealousy, as he is too dim to notice she’s a girl.
All comedy is removed in one ill-considered plot-twist, however, when the second boy confesses he was actually attracted to Ganymede after all, and the implication is that one of my personal favorite characters in Marveldom is uncloseted to be a homosexual, or, as they would have said in 1602, a sodomite. Again, no plot point turns on this: as best I can tell, it is merely one more advertisement in favor of sexual malfunction, standard operational procedure for the counterculture.
Pervertarians will be as pleased by this flourish as a healthy and normal man would be by a patriotic slogan coming from the lips of Captain America. True, Cap does not REALLY need to advertise his loyalty to the Constitution every time he throws a punch, but we Americans like America, and do not mind having a superhero uttering sentiments we like. So, too, with the perverts: they like people to tell them they are normal and healthy. It is a sentiment they like.
However, these two things are a matter of taste. Leftwingers will like these little lefty flourishes, and people not over-sensitive to them can read without noticing. On the other hand the weak ending is so weak, I think it is not worth reading.
Remember Captain America, Marvel Comic’s number one best hero of all time? I realize there are those of you who like Spiderman and the X-Men better, or Dr. Strange, or the Fantastic Four, but, trust me, Cap is the most heroic of the heroes. He is like Batman on the Justice League, a normal human walking among the gods and mutants whose tiptop physical shape, fighting spirit, sheer fighting-man ability allows him to outshine Norse Gods, Sorcerers Supreme, and Shiny Aliens on space-surfboards. Batman, however, is a creature of the night: a man twisted by the needs of vengeance. Captain America is a patriot, a soldier of World War II, the icon of the Greatest Generation. He cannot throw a punch at the villainous Red Skull without announcing “Democracy will never fail, as long as free men have the courage to fight on!”
The macguffin in 1602 is that a time-paradox is threatening to destroy all the multiverses. Cap has to leave 1602 and time travel back to origin era in order to avoid the paradox. He refuses. His ostensible reason for doing so, is that he wants to remain behind and help his people, the first Virginia colony at Roanoke, grow into America “without making the mistakes” that characterize our time line.
Got that? Savor, dear reader, the infantile stupidity of this conceit. The most patriotic man in the history of comic books is planning to destroy the entire universe in an attempt to correct the historical flaws of the United States of America. Obviously we as readers as expected to believe that the Sins of his country in the seventeenth century were so besetting that destroying the universe is the practical solution. Um. Huhn?
The logistics of Cap’s plan are not clear. Let us say he lives until 98; he might just make it to 1701 AD. Perhaps he can freeze himself in a block of ice and be thawed out every twenty years by Namor of Atlantis. What is he going to do? Prevent the decimation of the Indians by disease and White expansion? The British Empire wishes to prevent westward expansion by the colonies, and this was one of the causes of the Revolution. Prevent black slavery? Slavery existed in every corner of the world in 1602, and the Abolitionist movement did not even get started until the next generation or two.
To pile stupidity upon stupidity, Cap agrees to return to the future, but then is betrayed by a man he trusts, who clubs him on the head and carries his unconscious body back to the time-gate. Huhn? And again, huhn? I must have simply misread that scene: Cap must have been convinced the other man had volunteered to let him stay behind, and at the same time not been aware that the existence of the universe was at stake.
But even so, why would Captain America flee to another century just because of George Bush (or whoever the comic book version of an evil administration might be)? Wouldn’t he be eager to return and support the resistance?
Instead he wants to protect the English colonial interests in the New World and meddle with history to make America better. So I just don’t get it. Captain America, if he is anything like the soldiers who landed on the beach at D-Day, did not stay behind “to correct the terrible mistakes of the Roosevelt administration!” They did their duty. Why would the man suddenly act this way in this comic?
The writer simply does not have a grasp of the character, who is rather straightforward. Captain America. The name says it all. He is pro-American. He wears Red White and Blue and he gonks Nazis and Commies with this bigass shield make of unobtainium or something. Patriotic. You know. The nuance in the character is that occasionally he suffers what we might call “Marvel Angst” over the death of Bucky, his WWII sidekick.
Things get dumber. There is sort of a Twilight Zone type ending where Cap returns to the future and this whole 1602 timeline is sacrificed so that the rest of the multiverse can be saved. But then, just like Morpheus saving the Baghdad of Aaron the Upright in a bottle (which he did in one eerie episode of SANDMAN), the Watchers capture the dead timeline in a sort of bottle, and leave it on the shelf in lunar palace of Uatu the Watcher of the Moon (You remember him, True Believer! Uatu is the superscientist who warns the ever-lovin’ Fantastic Four of the coming of Galactus way back in FF#48 —Smilin’ Sam)
There is so much to compliment, and so much that is done well in this book, that it will seem petty of me to complain about the weak ending, or the microscopic flydungspecks of political correctness. Nonetheless, a single missing nose on an otherwise pretty girl makes her ugly: so here.
Despite my reservations, I still give MARVEL 1602 my thumb’s up. Read it, but don’t bother reading the last episode.