Thor week continues with Neil Gaiman’s comic Marvel 1602, featuring a Thor unlike any other!
The first article I wrote about this comic was actually not the review. However, I needed to finish this – and another, unwritten article – before that can be published in a sensible way. That article also wouldn’t have contributed much to Thor Week, so it all adds up. Believe me, I have a lot to say about Marvel 1602, and you’ll probably be seeing additions to this post for quite some time.
Marvel 1602 was born in the aftermath of the September 11, 2011 attacks. Neil Gaiman, contemplating what to write for a commission by Marvel, wanted to write something devoid of modern technology and warfare. From this idea came Marvel 1602, an alternate version of the Marvel universe set in (you may have guessed) the year 1602. While there are elements of modern history thrown in, the majority of the story inserts analogs of popular Silver Age Marvel characters into history and lets what will, happen.
This story feels like more than most comic arcs do. This might be because it consists of eight issues instead of six; it might be because Sandman writer Gaiman wanted to encompass as much of 1960s Marvel as could fit in the story. This begins with a story about Queen Elizabeth, featuring Nick Fury, Peter Parker and the Daredevil. This segues into an Elizabethan X-Men story where Magneto rules the Spanish inquisition, carrying on to a story about the Fantastic Four and Dr. Doom. Throughout all of this a mysterious duo from the American colonies features in the story, up to the point where they go to America themselves and Uatu the Watcher reveals the twist. Oh, and Thor and Black Widow make appearances.
I actually found myself liking this book less and less as I went on, for reasons that the above synopsis might indicate. The first issue is set largely in Elizabethan England, where the liberties generally exist for the sake of telling the story (by which I mean, I have no idea if anything featuring the Queen of England and the King of Scotland are true or not, but it does make for a story with stakes) or for the inclusion of Marvel characters. Having Spiderman be a costumeless page or Daredevil be an intelligence operative, for instance. As the story goes on, however, it starts to become less of “Elizabethan England with a Marvel twist” and becomes more of “Marvel universe with an Elizabethan twist”. The first story is far less known to me, and therefore far more interesting to watch it unfold.
That’s not to say that I dislike the stories completely. At the very least, it’s always interesting to see how Gaiman will introduce established characters. By the time the Fantastic Four finally show up – and you just know a story about 1960s’ Marvel characters will feature Marvel’s first family – they’re built up to almost mythic levels. Interestingly, Reed Richards becomes just shy of comic relief, speculating about things that are well-known to those of us in the 21st century, but the rest of the Fantastic Four are pretty much unstoppable.
The X-Men is another interesting team to see adapted. For some reason, Jean Grey spends most of the story pretending to be a man, which is never really explained in any meaningful way. I’m assuming that there was some issue with a woman attending a school such as the Xavier Institute at the time, but this isn’t really delved into and it just becomes a strange plot twist so that Cyclops (and yes, I’m aware that I’m using better-known names that never appear in the comic) can believe there is a love triangle happening. This was by far the most tedious part of the plot for me.
Another character that feels like a stretch is Thor. More than anything, he makes this feel like an elseworlds story more than one set in the regular Marvel universe (which is actually the tone I prefer this story to take). Despite the fact that in the regular Marvel universe, Thor has had adventures around this time period, he looks completely different in this story. He is summoned the same way he is in modern stories (a stick that is secretly Mjolnir), except that in this case the stick is an artefact passed down and protected, that is even used as a plot secret when an unknown valuable item being moved from place to place is used as a way to demonstrate the various conflicts. Thor appears as an older figure than he does in the normal Marvel universe, and speaks in an old-fashioned, formal manner as many “new to Earth” versions of the character do. Most strikingly, Thor has his own fault, forcing him to make his mark as different from the other characters, and is the person who permanently disfigures Doctor Doom.
All of this leads in to the twist. This is the groan-worthy part for me, and by far the least interesting part in an otherwise pretty good story, if not one as good as its premise could have been. Uatu the Watched joins the story to exposit to Dr. Strange that a time traveler going back in time is responsible for everything that has occurred in the book. This forcibly ties the book into the mainstream Marvel universe, as well as tying one of the characters in the book into being an amnesiac version of his “real” self. Combined with the Watcher needing to provide exposition in order for this to be resolved, it feels heavily tacked-on and dampens the overall story.