History! Comics! History Comics!

Ok, a confession. I spent Sunday evening reading comics, or more specifically a hardback edition of the comic serial: “Marvel 1602”.

I like comics, but I’m not an avid reader or collector and as the mind crushing march of adulthood drew on I generally lost my childhood interest in them. Recently there has been a bit of a renaissance of interest in comics and most specifically in graphic novels. This resurgence of interest is largely due to the popularity of movie adaptations such as Spiderman, Batman, Sin City and Watchmen. The difference between these recent adaptations and those of the 1990s (such as Tim Burton’s Batman and awful movies like Spencer Tracey and The Shadow) is that they take the spirit of the comics seriously and attempt to adhere to the style or moral theme that runs through them. It’s fair to say that I’ve rediscovered a new enthusiasm for comics, not the fantasy diversion of my youth but as a visual and literary genre to unpick and enjoy in its own right. It is easy to dismiss them, but comics and graphic novels have their own logic and visual identity that some people never really understand or get to grips with. Mrs Gentleman Administrator freely admits to being unable to follow the comic book narrative structure; too much going on visually  and not linear enough is what I think she would put it down to.

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Of the comics I read as a child I was most hooked on the Marvel universe and in particular Spiderman and the X-Men. So the idea of a comic that was set in the Early Modern period was enough to get my geek spidey sense a’tingling and Neil Gaimen’s 1602 is that beast. 1602 is a comic series in which the Marvel universe is created, not in the 20th Century, but in the 17th, and the events of the tale take place in, well you can probably guess which year (the clue is in the title). It includes some key characters from the Marvel comics, including Spiderman, a collection of X-Men and Daredevil reinterpreted in an Early Modern milieu. The artwork is lush and dynamic and interspersed with woodcut styled chapter markers, such as the one above. It makes for a surprisingly Elizabethan/Jacobean feel while clearly inhabiting a visual world taken from the modern Marvel stylebook.

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But what of the plot? What of the opportunity to tackle some meaty Early Modern subjects through the eyes of Wolverine and co.? Comics usually have a moral core to them,  a theme running through their heroes adventures, repeat the sage words of Peter Parker’s Uncle after me “With great power comes great responsibility”. In particular the mutant X-Men are often seen as a parable of how society treats those who are supposedly different to the norm; homosexuals, or ethnic minorities or simply the disenfranchised. It’s just they also happen to have super sweet powers. Certainly the plot of 1602 lays on the ‘differences’ theme quite heavily, equating those with mutant powers to those persecuted as witches in the 17th Century. The mutants are referred to by their enemies throughout as the ‘witchbreed’. But to be honest the message is pretty diluted and it feels to me like an opportunity missed. If there is one thing the late Reformation Europe is thick with it’s suspicion,  sectarian division and fear of ‘the other’, whether it be papists or Quakers or atheists etc etc, the list is long. In the end, and I suppose this was inevitable, the story focuses in on the nascent America and the new colonies there, but even that is not delved into with great aplomb. With a rich historical milieu to draw from its a shame that in the end the comic treats the 17th Century as essentially just a generic olden times backdrop, but then again it is a comic book about superhuman mutants, sooo…

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On  a purely comic book footing it’s a treat, though a grounding in Marvel lore is required to follow the plot. Sadly, Gaiman doesn’t include some of the best characters from modern times, in particular Wolverine is absent. His nonappearance is a shame as I really was looking forward to seeing some Renaissance style berserker rage. To temper my disappointment I have had a go at imagining how Wolverine could be drawn into Stuart history. The example below tackles, I think with great historical accuracy and poignancy, the battle between the ‘puritan’ William Prynne and the high church Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud and Charles I. Here I attempt to capture the dramatic moment that Charles (via his Star Chamber representative) decides that Prynne’s libellous comments must be punished and orders Prynne’s ears to be chopped off… Wolverine style, Schnook!

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Wolverine vs William Prynne

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I don’t think Kate Beaton has much to worry about.

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5 thoughts on “History! Comics! History Comics!

  1. Lucy

    I wish I had known the phrase, ‘Papist nobber’ when I was at school. Will definitely be tracking this 1602 business.

    Reply
    1. thegentlemanadministrator Post author

      I swear, that phrase was lifted straight from the sources *shuffles on feet suspiciously*, it’s a good puritan phrase isn’t it!

      Reply
  2. LillaBrunaElk

    Your drawing skills are beyond reproach sir! *hunts in vain for spectacles* Am also a graphic novel phobe but love Mr Gaiman so may explore.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Return of Early Modern X-Men and Doodles « The Gentleman Administrator

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