Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Underrated/Overlooked: 1602: Fantastick Four

Neil Gaiman’s 1602 and the sequels it spawned are stories that involve incredible occurrences and unearthly shows of power taking place in a time ill-equipped to explain them as anything other than witchcraft, but when you got down to it, they were really about seeing which enduring Marvel figures could swim rather than sink on the strength of character alone.

1602 focuses on the Marvel pantheon of the Silver Age, a group whose collective origins generally came from atomic experimentation gone awry and other radioactive catastrophes we’d probably dismiss as hokey were they used as start points today, but at the time both fit into the tropes of popular science fiction and reacted to the general populace’s fears when it came to nuclear Armageddon and the like. In 1963, getting bit by an irradiated spider or caught in a gamma blast played on real world anxiety while also fitting into a fictional tapestry that somehow projected reason into the most unlikely of places.

Take those same origins and try to apply them in 2003 to a 17th century setting and you start to strain. However—and this is my take, as there is no deeper evidence so far as I know—Gaiman wasn’t trying to validate the timelessness of Marvel origins, but rather that that personas created alongside the super powers could stand any test even when relocated across the decades one way and centuries the other.

My prime example would be that Daredevil’s genesis does not travel well into the world of 1602—rather than being blinded by radioactive isotopes, he touches strange green goop in a cave to get his super senses—but the swashbuckling spirit of the character tempered by tragedy and laughing in the face of danger made the sightless Irish troubadour Matt Murdock maybe my favorite character in the series.

While Gaiman only just got to the Fantastic Four in his first story, Peter David would dig in three years later with Marvel 1602: Fantastick Four and show the First Family to be perhaps the most adaptable of all the Marvels.

The Fantastic Four are one of the best examples of character over powers in comic book history. By the time the FF was born in 1961, their abilities—super strength, flame, invisibility, stretching—had all been done and even their explorers of the fantastic deal had been done to an extent by the Challengers of the Unknown, but the personalities and rapport Stan and Jack bestowed upon Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben was the heart of what made them great, helped revolutionize comics and propelled their adventures to dizzying heights of awesome.

In Fantastick Four, David zigs where Gaiman zagged as far as exaggerating the bold and heroic qualities of 1602 over the dour skullduggery of Nicholas Fury and his lot. Where 1602 was a period drama, FF is in many ways equal parts comedy and adventure, both of which PAD is expert in. Gaiman had the Four trapped in a dungeon for most of his series and foreshadowed their arrival on the scene to perfect effect; David has them out in the world and enjoying what it has to offer.

Each individual has their persona tweaked just enough to puff them up to fit the stage: Reed is even more oblivious to anything save discovery, Susan is reflectively more dogged in her pursuit of his attention, Johnny’s romantic nature bubbles over to recklessness and Ben’s propensity for drama takes him down a different and interesting path as a performer in the troupe of William Shakespeare—who figures prominently in this tale, by the way. In a time where bizarre and outrageous occurrences have sprung up like wildfire seemingly overnight, there’s no better way to explore the altered landscape than alongside the Fantastick Four.

And of course if ever a character was suited to take his rightful place in a 17th century pumped full of pomp and pageantry on the super level, it’s Doctor Doom. The not-so-good Doctor was handsome—that was even his nickname—throughout Gaiman’s 1602, taunting the captive quartet and cavorting with The Black Widow, but here he’s wearing the iron mask and speaking in all his third person glory. I’m always entertained by reading a good Doom-as-pompous-royal story regardless of the chronal backdrop, but in an age where kings and queens really did rule, David’s take shines the perfect storm of regality, arrogance, and absurd overconfidence.

I could talk about the characters all day—I haven’t even gotten to the clever weaving in of the Frightful Four (the Four Who Are Frightful) and their powers or why an even more detached than usual Namor (Numenor) fits the period nearly as well as Doom—but the story is a hoot as well.

Doom captures Ben’s buddy Shakespeare, so the Four take off in hot pursuit of the villain’s flying pirate ship in their own flying pirate ship. The Doctor has hired the Frightful Four to take him to the edge of the world and wants the Bard along to tell tale of his triumph. Johnny absconds with Doris Evans—yes, there’s a 1602 analogue of Dorrie Evans and she’s awesome—pulling her along on the journey against her will so she doesn’t marry Wyatt Wingfoot. I thought the ultimate destination was Attilan—and I daresay PAD makes a game of playing it that way—but it’s actually Atlantis—or what passes for 1602 Atlantis—where fights with sea monsters, palace intrigue and much more ensue.

Pascal Alixe’s art is as beautiful as it has ever been on this book. He’s a master of capturing facial expressions, portraying texture and setting scenes that need to be larger than life, such as the aforementioned flying pirate ship vs sea monster kerfuffle. I love his Thing and his Human Torch, but c’mon, those are the easy ones; that I love his Sandman and Medusa speaks more to how much work he puts in.

Again, I could go on, but I’d just spoil the whole book. I could mention the Shakespeare-Doris Evans dynamic; I could expound more on how the Four Who Are Frightful’s “powers” work and how Peter David really gets The Wizard; I could tease the Black Widow’s fate; I could mention that amidst the fun, the jokes and the wonder, there’s a genuinely heart-wrenching storyline for Johnny that winds up ending the story.

I could, but instead I’ll just say 1602: Fantastick Four is a wonderfully buoyant little tale with smart flourishes, dynamite art and the wit you’d expect from something written by Peter David.

I’ll also note that while I’ve observed 1602 to be an acquired taste—I’ve obviously acquired it—you should really not stop with just the original, as you’re missing out on truly underrated and overlooked work by Greg Pak, Jeff Parker and a host of brilliant artists.