Continuing Neil Gaiman month here at Graphixia, I’m pretty excited to talk about Marvel 1602, an eight-issue series penned by Gaiman and published in 2003. It won both a 2005 Quill Award and 2003′s Worst Comic of the Year rating from Time Magazine, so it’s a controversial title and certainly not one that appeals to everyone. But I really enjoyed it, particularly as someone who likes to talk about September 11 and its cultural impact — because 9/11 is all over this book.
In the Afterword to the trade paper edition of 1602, Gaiman discusses how after September 11, he didn’t want to write a traditional Marvel storyline with explosions and death and war. He wanted to do something different — but still needed the conflict and tension that war stories provide for comics. So he went back in time to 1602, setting the Marvel characters in an England under Queen Elizabeth, now aged and dying. Elizabeth doesn’t love the mutants — she doesn’t know quite what to make of them, and she’s concerned by their powers — but as British subjects, she seeks to protect and tolerate them, even as the Spanish Inquisition hunt them as witchborn.
But James is coming to power, and he hates himself some witchborn, so the mutants are undercover and on the run.
(I find this choice really interesting, given that the opposite was basically true for Catholics at the time and instead of having the mutants at odds with the Pope, Gaiman could have had the mutant experience acting as analogous to non-Protestant experience in England; instead, the rising power of Catholics in England is absolutely the worst thing that could happen to the mutants.)
Just as Marvel’s Civil War was all about anxiety around power and authority in the post-9/11 era, either with us or against us era, 1602 is ultimately a comic informed by immediate post-9/11 anxieties and fears. The thrust of the comic centres around being able to change history — to go back and fix a wrong that has been committed. It’s also about America as the space of freedom: the mutants eventually must flee to Roanoake to find a space where they can escape the tyranny of King James (America, we are unsubtly told, has no need for the machinations of kings and queens). And finally, its about wishing and hoping for someone to intervene in the tragedies of the present, in the form of Marvel’s Watchers.
The Watchers are here, in this series, and what makes them interesting in 1602 is their willingness to betray their own policy of non-interference. The Watchers exist in the Marvel universe but typically they do not meddle. Here, in this post-9/11 historical space, they do meddle. They repair the Earth so it may continue. That the Watchers lift a hand here is typical of post-9/11 art that seeks to show a hand out there, somewhere, that can and will intervene on our behalf and protect us from trauma. The Watchers are ambivalent about their choice to act, but they do it — and the sense of resolve in the series and its happy ending suggest this was the right choice.
Marvel 1602 is an interesting read; the art is beautiful, and as with all alternate histories, if you’ve put your time in as a Marvel fan there are a lot of in-jokes for you. It feels too easy, the resolution — too quick and too straightforward — but as a product of its temporal moment, that makes sense.
Also, one time it was on Jeopardy:
Gaiman, Neil. Marvel 1602. Marvel, 2005.