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Annotations to Marvel 1602

Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by Andy Kubert and Richard Isanov

Published by Marvel Comics (HC), Panini Books (SC)

In 1602, Neil Gaiman’s latest foray into the comic book medium, a mysterious object from the future has caused the Marvel Universe to occur four hundred years early! In the final days of Queen Elizabeth, Sir Nicolas Fury and his page, Peter Parquah, are engaged to protect the treasure of the templars, even as plots converge to kidnap colonist Virginia Dare and assassinate the queen herself! Court magician Stephen Strange may yet save the kingdom, but it will take an alliance with Carlos Javier’s Witchbreed and the aid of long-lost heroes of song…

The amazing thing about 1602 isn’t so much that all of the characters speak in Shakespearean dialogue (they should; they’re contemporaries), but that they’re also as witty as the Bard’s rakes and clowns. It’s nice to think there was a time when everyone had a sharp tongue and could engage in bawdy humor that the groundlings would grasp but would also make the elite smile. Daredevil as an Irish bard is the highlight of this series, singing the Song of the Fantastick before sneaking off to perform espionage for the Crown, all with a wry smirk on his face and a barb for his listeners.

Andy Kubert’s art is surprisingly fitting, giving a warm candle-lit glow to each panel and with a bit of an “illuminated manuscript” feel to it. Most of the characters are easily-recognized versions of their modern counterparts, but again the design for Daredevil necessarily diverges, and the blind poet’s design is inspired.

As a work of historical fiction, 1602 is magic. Substitutions and amalgamations between Marvel’s cast and real-life corollaries allows characterization of personages such as Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth and King James VI and I consistent with how they may have behaved in the presence of winged mutants. Setting Magneto in the role of Grand Inquisitor also provides an interesting commentary on seventeenth-century Catholicism.


Why Annotate 1602?

1602 is significant in uniting two worlds: that of the Marvel Universe of super-heroes, all with their own history, and that of Neil Gaiman, who brings to the project literary respectability as well as his revered writing skills. The publication of the series was not only a major event in comics, but a significant event in all publication due to Gaiman’s considerable talents and reputation as a best-selling novelist. In both comics and novels, Gaiman maintains a considerable readership tending towards the intelligent young and willing to embrace clever takes on marginalized media, such as comics, and genres, from fantasy to super-heroes.

So why annotate 1602? First, why not? Fairly few annotations of comics are available, despite the maturation of the medium and the attention it increasingly receives in both scholarly and entertainment circles. Moreover, 1602 is an important work in comics by an incredibly important writer in multiple media. But 1602 is by nature a work that ravenously absorbs references and traditions: while featuring Marvel characters in alternate forms, it takes place primarily in late Elizabethan England. Any reader may not get this wide range of resonances, many of which are not necessary to follow the story (as narrowly defined). Any reader, but particularly those of Gaiman’s best-selling novels, may not get 1602's resonances with Marvel Comics’ many decades of history. And any reader may not understand the historical background into which the series is set. For these reasons, annotations are of particular value in the case of 1602.

An ancillary question is why I should be the one doing the annotations. First, there’s not a lot of competition. Second, my own background seems perfectly suited to 1602, with both Renaissance English literature and comic books being areas of particular expertise. While my formal academic training has been in English literature, with more training in Renaissance literature than most other experts in the field, I have privately studied comics even more intensely -- in an age in which they are academically marginalized if not non-existent -- and have both published and presented on comics at international scholarly conferences. The apparently strange mix (perhaps not as strange as one would immediately think) of the Renaissance and super-heroes is shared by both 1602 and my biography. My point, I trust, made, I now stop burdening you with my credentials.

The Origin of 1602

In the 1980s and 1990s, when Neil Gaiman made his name working on The Sandman for DC Comics, he expressed no desire to work for Marvel Comics. Indeed, he expressed his desire not to do so for the same reason that his mentor Alan Moore had vowed never again to associate himself with Marvel Comics: Marvel had promised legal action over the name “Marvelman” after that British character, who normally appeared in the British anthology Warrior, got his own Marvelman Special. The fact that Marvelman was published in the 1950s before Marvel Comics was Marvel Comics made no difference to Marvel, and the threat of a suit from deep-pocketed Marvel forced the Marvelman feature to stop appearing and to be changed to Miracleman as it moved to the U.S. to be reprinted and then continued by Eclipse Comics. While disdain for Marvel’s strong-arm tactics in this episode caused both Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman to swear off Marvel Comics, both expressed no real desire to work with Marvel’s characters, who they felt were inferior, or at least less iconic, than DC’s.

More about Miracleman
The story of Marvel 1602’s genesis is also intertwined with that of Miracleman, properly regarded as historically important on the highest level for the evolution of super-heroics and on which Gaiman had succeeded Alan Moore in the early 1990s but not finished before publisher Eclipse went bankrupt. Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn and cofounder of Image Comics, bought Eclipse’s characters in the bankruptcy auction. Gaiman, who had created the characters of Angela and Medieval Spawn for McFarlane, had been in a dispute with McFarlane over royalties for those characters’ subsequent appearances in both comics and toys. McFarlane offered Gaiman Eclipse's rights to Miracleman, though what portion of the rights to Miracleman Eclipse actually held was itself disputed, in exchange for Gaiman surrendering his claim to the Spawn-related characters he had created; Gaiman agreed but McFarlane apparently failed to send the supporting documentation. In 2001, Miracleman’s appearance in McFarlane’s Hellspawn title was announced, and Gaiman had to respond. Now a best-selling writer for his novel American Gods, Gaiman asked readers to boycott the issues featuring Miracleman, initially declining to sue. As others rallied in support of Gaiman and of Miracleman, the limited-liability company Marvels and Miracles was formed to fight the legal battles over Miracleman. Gaiman and other creators transferred to Marvels and Miracles any rights to Miracleman that they held -- or may have held -- in order to fight the lawsuits with the eventual interest of having Miracleman published again.

Marvel would donate its profits to Marvels and Miracles.
By 2001, Marvel Comics had changed dramatically since the dark days of the 1980s when it had threatened to sue over the name Marvelman. Joe Quesada had been brought to Marvel to head its new Marvel Knights imprint, which began renovating characters such as Daredevil, giving those characters a slightly more mature spin. He had aggressively recruited major comics creators, in contrast with Marvel’s early statements marginalizing the role of creators in favor of corporate-owned characters; Quesada even desired to mend the relationship with -- and to recruit -- both Gaiman and Alan Moore. Quesada, promoted to Editor-in-Chief of all of Marvel, continued such recruiting of creators and began (along with Marvel President Bill Jemas) slowly renovating the entire Marvel line. Quesada seized the opportunity of the Miracleman lawsuit to strike a deal with Gaiman: Gaiman would write a mini-series for Marvel and Quesada would donate Marvel’s profits to Marvels and Miracles. In addition, Quesada expressed a willingness to publish Miracleman, despite its adult-oriented content in stark odds with Marvel’s normal oeuvre, and promised to allow the name Marvelman, should Gaiman wish to return to it.

As flights resumed shortly the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, during which flights over the United States were suspended in response to hijacked passenger jets being used in devastating kamikaze attacks, Neil Gaiman was set to fly to a science fiction and comics conference in Trieste, in Northern Italy. Stuart Moore, who had succeeded Quesada as head of Marvel Knights, arranged a meeting between the three in Gaiman’s hotel room before his departure. Quesada suggested that Gaiman write Secret Wars, a planned new version of the mid-1980s 12-issue mini-series that had united Marvel’s characters in a single title to promote a toy line of the same name; Secret Wars was remembered fondly for its trailblazing format as a universe-wide long mini-series, if not its content. Gaiman seemed uninterested but, in Italy, took a day trip to Venice, where he planned to come up with whatever he was going to write for Marvel.

In the environment of car-less Venice, in the aftermath of 11 September 2001, Gaiman came up with 1602. Gaiman later recalled his thinking in a 27 June 2003 press conference held by Marvel: The idea for the story came about in part because I was plotting it immediately after September the 11th ... in Venice ... I decided that whatever I did, given the mood I was in at that point, it wasn’t going to have skyscrapers, it wasn’t going to have bombs and it probably wasn’t going to have any guns or planes in it. That was simply what I felt like at the time. ‘I don’t think this is stuff I want to put into my fiction right now.’ As soon as I put that together, the ideas of 1602 sort of fell straight into my head.

Some consideration here is due to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks with their images of planes slamming into the World Trade Center towers, which quickly collapsed with then-untold thousands inside. Planes and skyscrapers had instantly become traumatically present symbols of the ideological mass murder of civilians. Movies and comics dealing with terrorism, crashing airplanes, or threats to buildings were rapidly delayed, altered, or aborted; from dramatic writers to comedians, many acknowledged the need for a less violent if not outright escapist period in narrative art. The environment of Venice, in which one finds a thriving but pleasantly non-modern environment without skyscrapers or cars, is also worth noting.

Gaiman had come up with a different idea, but one that, like Secret Wars, also took in Marvel’s wider universe of characters. In a sense, the plot of 1602 would be a kind of “secret war” -- so secret, in fact, that even its characters would not understand it. 1602 was originally a working title but one that, like American Gods (the title of Gaiman’s best-selling novel), Gaiman and his editors simply came to like as it stuck in their minds.

The title of 1602 was announced for publication in 2002 without description of the mini-series’s contents. In an industry where developments within various titles are typically leaked, publicized, and discussed months in advance, Quesada orchestrated the utter media shut-out over the contents of 1602. In fact, had already practiced secrecy to ensure surprise, including on the afore-mentioned Origin mini-series. For a long time, the ambiguous title was all anyone knew Gaiman’s mini-series. Industry journalists and fans speculated wildly about what this name meant, some investigating what happened in the year 1602. The artistic team of illustrator Andy Kubert and colorist Richard Isanove, who had developed a new artistic style, in which color is applied in subtle gradations on the computer in a manner mimicking painted art, for the blockbuster mini-series Origin (which told Wolverine’s origin in expanded form and was held in similar secrecy), was assigned to 1602. The mini-series was planned for publication in 2002, but kept being delayed -- apparently as Gaiman and Marvel expanded its length and consulted on its content.

Besides that it would take in the entire Marvel Universe in the year 1602, yet somehow ingeniously not take place in an alternate universe, no one knew anything more about the title when Marvel 1602 -- the series’s official title -- was solicited, with a few ambiguous pages altered to serve as advertisements, in the June 2003 issue of Previews, published in the last week of May. Many retailers felt that they did not have enough information to accurately order the book.

On 27 June, Marvel held a press conference on the series. For the occasion, Marvel released the following written statement by Neil Gaiman: 1602 is an 8-issue mini, set in a Marvel Universe in which, for reasons which will take a while to uncover, the whole Marvel Universe is starting to occur 500 years early: Sir Nicholas Fury is head of the Queen’s Intelligence, Dr. Stephen Strange is her court physician (and magician), the Inquisition is torturing “witchbreed”, many of whom have taken sanctuary in England under the wing of Carlos Javier, and now a mysterious treasure -- which may be a weapon of some kind -- is being sent from Jerusalem to England by the last of the Templars. Something that may save the world, or destroy it, which has already attracted the attention of such people as Count Otto Von Doom (known as “The Handsome”)...

1602 thus hit the stands on 13 August 2003 with massive publicity but with its contents almost entirely unknown.

The Process

Gaiman had originally envisioned 1602 as a 6-issue series. The first issue had grown to 34 pages instead of the company’s normal 22. During the process of writing 1602, however, Marvel instituted a new policy discouraging extra-long issues. This prevented the conclusion from being similarly expanded. On 17 January 2003, Gaiman noted in his online journal: Back to writing 1602... on chapter 4 now. The big question is how many issues come after this. I’d originally thought of it as a 6 issue miniseries. At his point I’m just hoping I can finish the body of the story in 8 issues. (ME: What if the last issue’s a double-sized one, like the first? JOE QUESADA: What if it’s just two issues instead?)

Marvel now preferred expanding the series instead of expanding particular issues, a move consistent with its recent transition of its most popular titles, as possible, to more than 12 issues per year. Marvel seemed willing to expand mini-series at this time (or at least popular ones, such as Truth: Red, White & Black and Ultimate Six) beyond their announced length, a way of accommodating creators without resorting to expanded issues. This preference would alter the form of 1602 and present a challenge for Gaiman as he later concluded the series’s writing.

Gaiman, while praised for his ability, was never known for speedy writing; his classic ongoing series, The Sandman, struggled to keep roughly to its monthly schedule. On 20 January 2003, Gaiman recorded that he had run out of lead time: penciller Andy Kubert needed pages. “Wrote the first 8 pages of 1602 part 4 on the plane, because I have a spare battery for my laptop. E-mailed it to editors, who will, I expect, be very relieved as Andy Kubert finished drawing Chapter 3 on Friday.” A month later, on 19 February, Gaiman noted that he was still writing issue #4. Serious illness conspired to delay Gaiman’s work. Almost two months later, on 12 April, Gaiman recorded that he had recently finished the first third of issue #5. On 9 May 2003, Gaiman noted that he was still at work on that issue. In a 12 June entry, Gaiman looked back on the past months’ production and the delays that illness had wrought: “I had an eight week period where I wrote almost nothing -- I think from February to April I finished three or four introductions, a Fermata rewrite, and a handful of 1602 pages.”

On 1 June, Gaiman reflected on 1602 in his online journal: “So far, I like it, except when it threatens to get too big and I have to remind myself that I don’t have 75 issues to tell this story in, or even 20, just eight.” The editorial mandate precluding an expanded issue was now reaping consequences. On 20 June, Gaiman recorded: “I’m writing the last three episodes right now, which is maddening. Several huge climactic sequences, and lots of information to reveal on the way. And I have to fit it all into the final 66 pages, so I’m being very good and figuring out exactly what goes where. Which isn’t how I’d write it as one 66 page sequence either -- the fact that these are 3 monthly comics changes the shape of things.”

At Marvel’s 27 June press conference on 1602, Gaiman stated that he was working on issue #6. On 13 August 2003, the day the first issue was published, Gaiman noted, “I start writing part seven tomorrow.” On 20 August, Gaiman recorded a conversation with penciller Andy Kubert about the last page of the sixth issue’s script. On the same day, Gaiman recorded that “Part 3 of 1602 arrived today [from Marvel], all lettered for me to proofread.” This gives us a remarkable portrait of the various stages of production as they occurred simultaneously: Gaiman was writing #7 as Kubert was concluding #6, always nipping at Gaiman’s heels; at the same time, #3 had progressed to the proofs stage while #1 was on the stands.

#2 was published on 10 September; Gaiman was still at work on #7 and still struggling with the confinements of the series’s format, decided months before. In a 16 September entry, Gaiman had this to say about 1602’s length: “It probably ought to have been longer. Now I’m in the final act I’m trying to make every panel do several different things, and I’m already wondering about doing an additional story which explains some of the stuff that no-one in the 1602 world really knows, except for one person, and he’s not talking.” In a 25 September 2003 entry, Gaiman noted writing issue #7 while on a book-signing tour. 8 October saw #3 hit the stands. On 27 October 2003, Gaiman recorded that he was still at work on issue #7. #4 was published on 12 November.

1602 consistently sold well throughout the series. 1602 #1 was the top-selling American comic in August 2003. The website icv2.com estimated its sales at 150,569. (See http://www.icv2.com/articles/home/3489.html.) 1602 #2 was the third best-selling American comic in September 2003. It was beaten by Batman #619 (the conclusion of the celebrated “Hush” storyline with Jim Lee art) and JLA / Avengers #1 (the premiere of the long-awaited mini-series teaming DC’s Justice League with Marvel’s Avengers). The website icv2.com estimated 1602 #2’s sales at 132,737. (See http://www.icv2.com/articles/home/3636.html.) 1602 #3 was the third best-selling American comic in October 2003. It was beaten by Avengers / JLA #2 and by Amazing Spider-Man #500. The website icv2.com estimated 1602 #3’s sales at 140,972. (See http://www.icv2.com/articles/home/3873.html.)

These annotations appeared on Sequart.com concurrent with the publication of the issues themselves. The annotations to the first issue were posted on 14 August 2003, the day after the first issue was released. They received a great deal of press coverage, including references in Neil Gaiman’s online journal on NeilGaiman.com, a journal reposted all over the world wide web. Consequently, many other sites referenced these annotations as well. EnjolrasWorld.com, a website specializing in comics annotations and bibliographies of diverse merit and style, also covered on these annotations and their updates. FanboyPlanet.com covered these annotations and reposted their introduction in a major article.

Indeed, what can only be described as a fury of online writing accompanied 1602. In addition to these annotations, Jess Nevins produced his own on his webpages hosted by the free provider Geocities.com. Nevins’s fashion of annotating, which he had practiced before on League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and other series, was to make some initial observations and post extracts from e-mails he received and from other online sources. Jason Pomerantz produced another batch of annotations, titled “Mysteries and Connundrums” and focused on the mysteries of the then-ongoing series, as articles on ComicWorldNews.com. No series had previously received concurrent annotations from more than one source, let alone three sources -- and only one or two series (such as Watchmen and The Sandman) had ever previously been annotated by two sources, even years after the fact.

In addition to websites and magazines covering comics, 1602 garnered attention in the popular press due to its author. Between the conclusion of The Sandman and the beginning of 1602, precious few comics written by Gaiman had appeared. In that time, however, he had become a best-selling novelist, augmenting his presence generated as popular culture increasingly noticed The Sandman, the collected editions of which became a staple in American bookstores hostile to comics. Attention given to 1602 was enhanced by the fact that it appeared almost simultaneously with two other projects: DC / Vertigo’s The Sandman: Endless Nights, a collection of stories written by Gaiman and illustrated by prominent American and European comics artists, and The Wolves in the Walls, an all-ages book illustrated by Dave McKean that made it into bookstores.

Annotations to All Issues

The covers, printed on thick cardstock paper, are illustrated by Scott McKowen (known for his work on theater posters more than on comics), not the interior artistic team. These covers are rendered a style deliberately reminiscent of engravings. With engravings, images are drawn in negative, with lines carved into a wooden block or a metal plate for reproduction in print; ink applied to the engraving imprints paper where the engraving is not, so that one carves or etches what one wants not to print rather than what one wants to appear in print. This fashion of creating images was used for printed books for many centuries, from the late Medieval period and Renaissance to the Victorian era. The color on the covers, of course, is far more subtle than real (or traditional) engraving allowed. Note also that the use of ornamentation, such as the ribbon behind the title, was common to title pages, which sometimes placed the titles, credits, and even a dedication or purpose statement within an ornamented design, sometimes with a central image.

The title page, on the interior front cover, is fabricated in a style reminiscent of Renaissance books. While the artificial aging of the page’s borders makes the page look more like a single page of paper rather than a bound book, the font is instantly recognizable as typical of English Renaissance publications, and the lack of uniformity and smoothness of the characters themselves reproduces the effect of printing, in which ink from the letters’ faces was imperfectly physically transferred to the page. Both the title of each episode and the capitalization within those titles are typical of the English Renaissance, in which capitals were used differently and more frequently than in today’s English. Note that, in addition to the typical indicia included at the bottom of the page, the illusion is broken by the spelling, which is modern rather than that of the English Renaissance, in which spelling was not yet standardized (as demonstrated most dramatically in Shakespeare’s many different spellings, in signature, of his name).

Read the annotations at SeqArt dot com