One of the greatest Marvel Comics stories ever told took place in the year 1602. And it was written by Neil Gaiman.
Honestly, that sounds like the start of a really shitty April Fool's joke, but I kid you not. Neil Gaiman actually wrote a Marvel superhero story and its events occured during Elizabeth the Virgin Queen's last days on the throne.
In the past, some of the best comic books ever written were done by some guys who pretty much spit upon the super hero, cookie-cutter style and format that had been retread and run into the ground over the past 60 plus odd years. Authors like Neil, Alan Moore, Kurt Busiek and Frank Miller made icons of either unconventional heroes or reworked some of the classics (like Batman) into something cool. Neil, with his incredible and very personal Sandman stories, was actually the last person I ever thought would pen an X-Men tale. Er, excuse me, I meant a Witchbreed tale. He just never seemed to me to be into the whole "heroes in spandex" scene... And well, honestly he didn't even do that here. In Marvel 1602 he takes all of the Silver Age Marvel characters (both good and bad) and places them in very believable 17th Century settings. Nick Fury is now a die hard loyalist to the British crown. Peter Parquah is Fury's inquisitive teenage subordinate. Carlos Javier rescues his mishapen and powerful Witchbreed students from the magnetic Grand Inquisitor in Spain, and then he trains them for a special and secret purpose. Von Doom the Handsome rules Latveria with an iron fist, and he has his eyes set upon the rest of the world. And there's also the first colonist born in the new world, and her giant blonde Native American guardian, who both have the grandest parts to play when all the pieces are on the board and falling like dominoes... And no, Domino is not in the story. That was just an expression. A silly one, but an expression nonetheless.
The way that Gaiman quickly sets everything up, and then has everyone play against everyone else is very impressive. It's a very self contained 8 part story, and it may feel a bit rushed near the end, but this is how I prefer it be. It has a beginning, a middle, a middle, a middle, and an end. And it's pretty epic too. From the global trip of a fabulous foursome that is told in rhyme throughout the narrative, to the main characters from the New World and from the Holy Land, this is definitely not a small plot. What I think I really love about it though is how Gaiman chose to keep it narrowed down to only Marvel characters who debuted in the 60s. There is no Wolverine, Venom, or Apocalypse. It's strickly Silver Age, bunky. Trust me, otherwise it would have been way too convoluted. This way, we actually get some really good character development along with the wild ride. And characters, although out of place and time, are still clearly the people we've grown to love and/or hate in the world that we know them from. There are maybe one or two characters that seem tacked on for completeness sake (i.e. Bruce Banner being the most obvious), but it's forgivable. Some characters aren't who you'd think they'd be too. Those were very pleasant surprises. No spoilers here, mostly 'cause Gaiman's narrative deserves its surprises to be told the way he designed them.
Soooooooooooooooooo, what's it all about, you ask? Well, things are like this. Europe is in the middle of turmoil. The Inquisition that nobody expected is in full swing in Espana. Von Doom is growing powerful in the East, and the Queen is trying her best to secure her country for what could be another big European conflict (England is at the top of the heap at this time, but Liz just wants assurance that they have nothing to fear). Thus, her number one information analyst/spy, Fury, tells her majesty of an item that the Knights Templar are in possession of in the Holy Land. It could be used as a weapon, possibly, to keep the crown safe. So, a blind Irishman, and a venomous redhead woman are entrusted to meet one of the old knights halfway, and bring him and his holy cargo back to England. During this time, Javier builds up his Witchbreed ranks with a man of cold, a ferocious beast, a ruby-eyed leader, an angelic freak, and a young squire named Master Grey. Javier seems to have his eye mostly on both King James of Scotland, who might replace the Queen should some devilry remove her from the throne, and his old friend/nemesis, the Grand Inquisitor of Espana (who, although is running the Inquisition seems to have some ideas/ideals of his own). Von Doom wants it all, and he's playing God in order to do so. It's all a matter of who he will strike first. And on top of all this a little girl, the aforementioned first born in the colonies in the New World, arrives in London in order to plead the crown for more assistance in Virginia, lest the colonists starve and freeze to death through another freezing winter. And just what is up with her bodyguard? And why are there mini pteradactyls in the Americas? And what of those brave four adventurers who are sung about in the ballads of the day? And why does Doom have a giant glass vase in his bedchamber? Well, find the fuck out yourself, dipshit.
The art is pretty nice throughout the whole thing, it's like a mix of digital paint and 17th Century wood carvings. Very atmospheric. The covers take the cake though. Full on wood carvings of your favorite Marvel heroes. Tres cool. The tightness of the plot is impressive as a whole, and the way that it blends in real history with the "altered" history is impressive, but what else would you expect from Mr. Sandman himself? The characters are all believable, and the choices that they make are extremely difficult for them sometimes, so there's always excitement afoot. And the way that the Marvel characters use their powers in the 1602 setting is pretty ingenious. I even liked the whole Watcher subplot, and I usually LOATHE that Uatu guy. The way he gets Professor Strange to bend the Watcher rules gave me a sick giggle.
When I was done with the whole thing (got it in a hardcover collection), I felt very content. Not only did the story NOT ruin anything about the Marvel Universe that I'd already come to love, but I think it actually improved it. Kinky.
What the FUCK?! The Rossman told me that this Marvel comic was really cool, and that it was probably the ultimate cross-over story. Well, fuck! This was just a really gay history lesson in disguise of an X-Men story! What the fuck, Marvel? When I read your shit I don't want to know who the Queen of France was in the year 1492! I want to see Spider-man making fun of Kingpin's belt size while kicking his large, bloated ass out of his penthouse suite during a super fight. When I read a comic book I don't want to know what the relationship between the Pope and the Grand Inquisitor was during the chaotic era following the Spanish fleet's wicked defeat by the British Royal Navy. I DO want to know what the relationship is between Wolverine and Jean Grey's 4th reincarnated hot body. Shit! See, you fucks already made me learn shit that I didn't want to learn! Now I'm going to have to kick all your scrawny asses to make up for my new found intelligence! Assholes!
Arrrrrrrrrr. Would that I could be a part of that world. I felt a little like that redheaded mermaid in that animated tale of yore, while reading this illustrated book of treachery, beheadings, giant sailing vessels and mutants. Arrrrrrrr. I now know what that fiery sea-wench, with the shell-covered knockers, be singing about. That world was just made for this here Skipper. I'd have that giant rock man join me crew, along with that invisible woman, and we'd plunder and crap upon any ship that crossed our path, no matter the flag they flew. Hmmm, that boy with the red-fire eyes could be useful as well. And if I had that bald cripple, I could use him to make iron-forgers give me cannon balls and anchors for free! Arrrrrrr! I don't know when, I don't know how, but I know something's starting right now! Watch and you'll see... Arrrrrr. Someday I'll be, part of that world!