Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Want an excellent vintage? Try 1602.

For me it was Sandman.

I don't know which book it was for other people, but I can remember the very first time that I picked up a copy of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, and I was captivated by the different mood and tone that it took. The book was laced with a freshly created mythology that I found fascinating and while it took place in the DCU, it was set on the fringes where only the least used and (in Neil's hands) most interesting characters ever crossed its path. There were other books after it, like Stardust, but the one that really caught my attention was Marvel 1602.

Neil Gaiman announced that not only was he doing a super-hero book, but that the book was being done for Marvel, not DC. It caught me off guard, and piqued my interest. At that point in time I knew Neil could write, but I didn't see him as a writer who belonged in the super-hero genre. Here was a man who had fashioned a deep, dark and sometimes disturbing mythology that entwined Christianity with Norse, Pagan and other religious beliefs announcing that he was going to do a story that included Captain America, Nick Fury, Spider-Man (BLAH!), the X-Men and more.

It didn't make sense.

I must confess that the first time I read it, I got hung up on the details, and lost track of the big picture.  I liked the book alright, but I wasn't blown away by it. Certain elements of the story struck me as clever and cunning (I was a huge fan of the fact that the legendary 'secret treasure' of the Knights Templar was in fact the enchanted stick that would turn its mortal possessor into the Thunder God - BRILLIANT!) But all in all, I failed to appreciate what was actually going on right in front of my eyes until a couple of years later when I had cause to reread the book in its graphic novel format.

I can admit that the introduction to that graphic novel, written by Peter Sanderson (a cultural critic and historian who specializes in comics) is what opened my eyes to the bigger picture that was being painted within the book.  First of all, as a person who enjoys history, it's embarrassing to admit that somehow I lost sight of the fact that Gaiman had found the perfect era in which to set his tale. Europe was teetering on the brink, with all manner of political and religious forces push and pulling it towards what must have looked like a recipe for Armageddon in those years. He then uses all of these forces as ways to craft a new Marvel mythology.

And there's the piece I always missed.

Marvel has always had its own mythology, just like DC does, and they handed their universe over to Neil and offered him the chance to craft his own mythology. He wasn't switching genres, he was pulling the characters of Marvel's fame into a tale that suited every strength he had demonstrated in the past. I was ashamed when I realized how wrong I was about what he had done.  How had I missed the strength of his interpretations of Marvel's characters, and how seamlessly he brought them into the tumultuous times of the 17th century? He had made them belong in an era hundreds of years earlier than they were created, and never once lost the essences that Stan Lee and others had infused them with in the 20th century.

Having reread this story with fresh eyes, I developed a new appreciation for its richness and scope, its historical narrative and its observation of the dangers of dogma. Are there still things I don't love about the book?  Of course there are. Steve Rogers, knowing his presence in 1602 threatens the existence of everything, does not agree to return from whence he came? Sorry, but that's just not Steve Rogers. But that is perhaps my biggest complaint these days, and it is handled with the guile and cunning that only Nick Fury can bring to a situation.

In the end, if you have read this tale before, or never read this tale, I recommend you take the time this summer to put your feet up on the back deck, maybe get a nice summer ale open for sipping (ice cold wheat ale is suggested) and enjoy a wonderful work of redefined mythology entwined with history.

I'm nominating this one for the Best Story Ever discussion.

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