Apr 16, 2015

The 40 Years of Comics Project - Day 51: 1602 #5, February 2004

I broke one of my most sacred rules with regards to comics yesterday. I looked at the solicitation and preview information for "Secret Wars." I only mention this because it's in some ways pertinent to something I want to address from today's comic.

But before we get to that, I'll say that the story is really gripping me now. I finished reading this issue today and was unhappy that I'd have to wait until tomorrow to read the next one. (I know, I don't have to, but this is that discipline thing I mentioned a few weeks back, right?) 1602, perhaps a bit surprisingly, is actually a Nick Fury story. I hadn't really put that one together on previous readings of the series, but he's the fulcrum about which the whole story is turning. Not to say that he's necessarily the most important person to the events that are taking place in early modern London, but he's the focal character through which we're witnessing the unfurling of events. I've never been a huge fan of Fury, though in many respects I think that's because I've read only a  few comics that really did a good job with him. Most of the time, for me at least, he's been a background player in a world filled with far more colourful costumes. Which is, of course, exactly how Fury would like it. But then you read something like this, or more ideally, the Secret Warriors series, which demonstrates just how well Fury actually fits into this world. (And, as an aside, I'm pretty sure that the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series is gearing up to adapt Secret Warriors, and if they do, it'll be amazing.)

I mentioned something I wanted to address about this comic. It's the first page. As a reader of superhero comics, one has to become inured to the recaps that are a fundamental part of superhero storytelling. So to find one done in the creative way that the one in this issue is done is kind of cool:

It doesn't take up story space within the story, it just lays out the characters and situations about which we need to be aware. I can't remember off the top of my head whether or not this was done because the issues were shipping late. The publication dates in the indicia don't indicate that, but that doesn't mean that the series wasn't late in a few places.
I think, however, that this page was added for a different reason. The first sentence from Gaiman's mouth (so to speak) is "We are in the Marvel Universe." He continues with "It's 400 yeas ago. For reasons we do not yet understand, people and events are coming into existence at the wrong time." Further down, Kubert's avatar asks "Hey, Neil, if this is the Marvel Universe, what are all the tiny dinosaurs doing?" My concern with the story, then, is that up to this point there's no indication that the tale is meant to be set in the regular continuity of the Marvel U. It reads far more like one of DC's "Elseworlds" stories, or an extended "What If" tale. Placing it in the main Marvel U makes the story far more interesting, of course, but surely there must have been some way for a writer with as much facility as Gaiman to tell us this without having to step in and basically blurt it out. In fact, had we been able to understand this from the get go, the four issues that precede this one would have had an added depth. The problem is that, as I've noted in the last four posts, there are historical events, aside from the appearance of the Marvel characters, that simply do not jibe with the events of "actual" history, and this pulls us from the notion that all this is happening in the main Marvel U.

So why is this page here, then?

Part of me wonders if maybe there was an editorial intervention that asked Gaiman to place his story in the mainstream continuity in order that Marvel could wring a bit more prestige out of having him write for them. Rather than a one-off "What If" tale, all of a sudden superstar writer Neil Gaiman is telling a cataclysmic story of the main Marvel Universe. I like to think this is not the case, that it was Gaiman's intent all along, but knowing what I do about the way that the editorial oversight of the comics industry functions, I would not be surprised if this was exactly that kind of intervention.

For myself, I choose to ignore this page. I don't need this story to be set in the main Marvel U for it to be a good story. In fact, separating it from that continuity makes it a story. By this, I mean that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that kind of containment of narrative is something that Gaiman himself once argued for in ending The Sandman. I've also noted Frye's complaint about comic strip characters, that they live on in a deathless state, another way of saying that the process of narrative must have that kind of containment. That said, the ones that don't, which really are only serialized superhero comics and religious narratives, move off into the direction of typological reading. But that's a topic for a dissertation (and will be soon.)

The last question I'll pose, and perhaps those who read this blog might know, is to ask whether or not this page shows up in the collected edition of the series? It would serve no purpose other than to shift the setting in a collection, which would be extremely jarring. I'll have to flip through a copy next time I'm at the comic store.

See you tomorrow.

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