Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]
Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert's Marvel 1602 stands out as the best "What If?" story by not really being a "What If?" in the first place. This isn't a case of the Watcher pondering what life would be like had the Age of Marvels begun four hundred years earlier. It's instead a rare case of the main 616 timeline getting modified in a destructive and bizarre way, setting up a core mystery that Gaiman can build a world around. I found this to be a great change of pace compared to the many stories -- Powers, Watchmen, Old Man Logan -- centered on a murder investigation to explore their world.
One facet of 1602 that truly impressed me was the research put into the era. Gaiman could have easily put a counterpart of a Marvel villain on the throne of England; had the story been published a few years later, it likely would have been King Norman of Osborn. Keeping Queen Elizabeth I and King James VI and I promoted the story's authenticity. While the story makes sense on its own, resources like the Marvel Universe Appendix helped shed some light on the secret inspirations for certain characters. Dr. Strange and Nick Fury, for instance, outright replace the magician John Dee and Elizabeth's spymaster Francis Walsingham, and James VI and I never invaded Ireland due to his fear of 1602's version of Daredevil.
Strange and Fury are ostensibly the main characters of 1602, but the book follows a few major plot threads that cause the cast to rotate every few pages. Virginia Dare, the real-life first child born in the Roanoke colony, travels to meet with Elizabeth accompanied by her mysteriously white Native American bodyguard, Rojhaz. Carlos Javier protects his "Witchbreed" students at his Select College for the Sons of Gentlefolk, while in Spain, the Inquisitor Enrico hunts down Witchbreed children with a pair of familiar twins. Some characters exist to tie these plots together, such as Peter Parquagh, Sir Fury's page, and Matthew Murdoch, the blind balladeer and secret agent for the crown.
After a massive character drop of the above characters over the opening issues, Gaiman ratchets it back a bit for reintroducing the rest of this brave new Marvel Universe. A ballad that Murdoch sings about the "Voyagers of the Fantastick" sets up the eventual appearance of the Fantastic Four and Doctor Doom. In between, the characters are threatened by Doom's henchmen: multiple, crazed versions of the Vulture, which seem out of place as if the universe is reaching for any pre-existing character to fit a certain role. Doom ends up being only a subplot with a set-up for an eventual sequel; unfortunately, Gaiman didn't return for the average follow-ups to 1602, but the upcoming 1602: Witch Hunter Angela series looks to redeem the universe's narrative promise.
A clever use of historical prejudices drives another subplot. As James VI and I takes the throne, he plans to get rid of the Witchbreed by claiming that Javier's students assassinated the Queen. Replace "Witchbreed" with "Jews" and it's a classic blood libel. Enrico's backstory ties into this: he was stolen from the Ghetto and baptized by a priest, a practice documented numerous times in historical record. Strange essentially quotes The Tempest when this plan comes out, but that's because Shakespeare based the character of Prospero on John Dee, so the Bard might be quoting Strange instead. The geekiest reference is made unsurprisingly by a version of Mr. Fantastic, who has designed a periodic table using the Knights of the Round Table, leading to puns based on, amongst others, Niels Bohr and Sir Bors.
Gaiman doesn't ignore 1602's Marvel heritage either. Sir Fury comments about his experience in "open combat and secret wars," a joke that's even more on the nose now than it was at publication time. Murdoch teams up with Natasha, the most dangerous woman in Europe, akin to the Daredevil/Black Widow partnership of the 1970s. Virginia Dare is a shapeshifter who turns into white animals; it's possible that she's the timeline's version of Alpha Flight's Snowbird. Dinosaurs and sabre-tooth tigers roam the New World as if it's some sort of savage land. Perhaps the most subtle detail is that the guards at the Witchbreeds' prison are wearing green and yellow like the armored Guardsmen at the Vault.
I was honestly surprised that Wolverine didn't appear in 1602, especially since it was drawn by the same artist as Origin. Andy Kubert's art in this mini-series is truly beautiful and his character redesigns are well-executed ... with one exception. The costumes given to the Witchbreed are too on-the-nose as Medieval versions of the '90s Jim Lee X-Men costumes. I think this is made up for by Pietro wearing versions of Quicksilver's green and blue uniforms at various points; this was at a time when Quicksilver hadn't worn green in decades and wouldn't don it again until Mighty Avengers a few years later. After the true identity of Rohjaz is revealed, the face paint he dons could have been ridiculous, but Kubert pulls it off. Todd Klein's lettering in 1602 is also fantastic as he uses about half a dozen different fonts, including a custom runic one for Thor's dialogue. One subtle touch is having the Thing's dialogue be bolded constantly as if he's bellowing everything he's saying.
Like last week's Old Man Logan, it's not a stretch to say that Marvel 1602 is one of the modern Marvel classics. With its setting and potential, it could possibly be launched as a television show to rival Game of Thrones, or even a crazy alternate universe episode of Daredevil. Next week I'll take a look at the star of a recently-released Secret Wars tie-in as Captain Marvel takes on some of her weirdest adventures yet.