Marvel 1602 (2004)
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Graphic Novel (Superhero)
The year is 1602, and a host of characters from the Marvel Universe—including Dr. Strange, Nick Fury, Daredevil, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Von Doom, Spider Man, and Captain America—have been reimagined into the last year of Queen Elizabeth's reign. In England, the queen is assassinated through the machinations of Count Otto Von Doom, and James of Scotland takes the throne. An ally of the Spanish Inquisition, James attempts to eradicate the superheroes, here known as "witchbreeds." Meanwhile, young Virginia Dare travels to England from the Roanoke Colony with her protector Rohjaz to ask for the crown's help, because the weather there has become otherworldly and the colonists are starving. Doctor Strange discovers that the cause is a temporal anomaly, which must be sent back to its own time. England's witchbreeds set off on a quest to save themselves—and the Americas. SPOILER: The temporal anomaly is Rohjaz, who is actually Captain America, sent back from the 20th century. The witchbreeds discover the place where he came through time and are able to send him back, apparently splitting reality into several parallel universes in the process.
Geographical Setting: England; Roanoke colony
Time Period: 1602
Series: Followed by Marvel 1602: New World by Greg Pak and Greg Tocchini (2006) and Marvel 1602: Fantastick Four by Peter David and Pascal Alixe (2007)
Marvel 1602 is a complex, plot-driven story; the multiple plotlines may seem to have little common ground, but Gaiman has expertly woven this tale, and the plotlines fit together nicely after one final unexpected twist. The multiple plotlines create a densely written narrative, but the elements of mystery and suspense keep the pace compelling. Gaiman's writing style is polished, and he manages to naturally capture the jargon and other details of Elizabethan speech. Between the speech, clothing, and habits of Marvel 1602's characters and the well-inked settings, this alternate history has a happily surprising level of historical detail. This detail remains constant while the tone fluctuates from dark to hopeful and back again. Of course, the characters of Marvel 1602 steal the show—Marvel fans will recognize many of their old favorites. The heroes all have unique speech patterns that the reader begins to recognize, and many also have their own lettering as well. Therefore, individual characters are exceptionally vivid, even in the midst of so many other characters. The artwork, drawn by Andy Kubert and digitally painted by Richard Isanove, is marked by rounded lines and an extensive color palette. The colors vary from dark and muted to bright and eye-popping, depending on the mood and action.
Read-alikes: Of course, fans of Marvel 1602 might want to try the newer installments written by other authors, Marvel 1602: New World and Marvel 1602: Fantastick Four. Readers who enjoy familiar characters in a different context, English historical settings, and a hint of mystery and suspense should try Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In 1898, Mina Harker, Allan Quartermain, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and the Invisible Man must help the secret service protect London from a criminal mastermind. For another Marvel Universe graphic novel that uses more rounded lines and color, try House of M by Brian Bendis. Like Marvel 1602, it is about different groups of superheroes joining together to solve a problem and features cameos of many other Marvel heroes. The Scarlet Witch is out of control and killing heroes, and the Avengers and the X-Men must join forces to stop her before it's too late. For a detailed alternate history with a compelling pace and good plot twists, try Mark Millar's Superman: Red Son from the Elseworlds series. Instead of landing in the U.S., Superman lands in the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Cold War, and he turns the world into one big Socialist community. Readers who enjoyed the artwork and abundance of vividly characterized superheroes in Marvel 1602 will enjoy Kurt Busiek's Astro City series. The first volume, Life in the Big City, follows the Samaritan—the busiest hero in the world—through the adventures of his average day. Gaiman's Sandman series is an even better example of his engaging storytelling abilities and it is regarded as a benchmark series that helped to elevate the literary status of comics and graphic novels; try The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes (1993). In the same vein, Gaiman's first full-length novel Neverwhere (1997) is a dark fantasy set in London, in a parallel universe. Three titles that put a new twist on familiar characters in very different ways are Fables: Legends in Exile (2003) by Bill Willingham, Black Thorn, White Rose (1994) edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, and Identity Crisis (2005) by Brad Meltzer. The first is a graphic novel where fairy tale characters reside in New York City; the second is a collection of familiar fairy tale retellings for adults; the third brings together some of DC's familiar superheroes together to solve the murder of one of their own. If an alternate history is the main appeal and comic book superheroes are not a requirement, Ruled Britannia (2002) by Harry Turtledove is a popular and award-winning alternate history where William Shakespeare makes an appearance (just as he does in the Sandman series).
Red Flags: Violence, mild language
The Sandman: Endless Nights (2003)
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Graphic Novel (Fantasy)
The capstone to Gaiman's acclaimed Sandman series, this volume is a collection of seven unconnected stories each focused on one of the Endless siblings: Death, Desire, Dream, Despair, Delirium, Destruction, and Destiny. "Death and Venice" tells the story of a group of hedonists who try to escape Death. "What I've Tasted of Desire" tells the story of woman who gets all she desires, but that's not necessarily a good thing. "The Heart of a Star" tells the story of the love between Dream (the central figure of the Sandman series) and a mortal woman. "Fifteen Portraits of Despair" is exactly as it sounds; fifteen different depictions of Despair. "Going Inside" describes Delirium's fragmented mind and the effort put into making her whole again. "On the Peninsula" tells of Destruction and his attempt to escape who he is. "Endless Nights" is a brief glance into the mind of Destiny.
Geographical Setting: Various fantastical settings
Time Period: Various, from the dawn of time to the present day
Series: #11 in Sandman series
The Sandman series is one of the classics of the graphic novel genre; many fans of graphic novels were introduced to the genre by Gaiman's series. The stories are the big grab here. Gaiman creates an incredible fantasy world with depth, complexity, and feeling. Gaiman draws heavily from a vast array of mythologies, which makes his created world of the Sandman more real and immediate to the reader. The tone of the text is very literary; Gaiman, after all, is also an award-winning novelist. Norman Mailer characterized the series as "a comic strip for intellectuals," which I think is quite fitting. The pace depends on the story being told. Some tales are leisurely paced, and some are quickly paced. The art of the volume is difficult to describe because each story has a different artist. However, one can say that each artist clearly utilizes his particular style as best he can to tell the story, and the result is uniformly arresting.
Read-alikes: If you enjoyed Endless Nights, you should also enjoy the rest of the Sandman series (which starts with Preludes and Nocturnes). Also, after finishing Gaiman's work in the series, you should enjoy Bill Willingham's Taller Tales, which explores the lives of some of the secondary characters in the Sandman series. If you liked the dark, fantastic, and literary tone of Endless Nights, you should try Alan Moore's classic graphic novel Saga of the Swamp Thing. Another classic of the genre by Moore that Gaiman readers should enjoy is Watchmen, which is another sophisticated, literate story that portrays the intersection between the real world and the unreal (in this case, superheros). If you enjoyed the dark, complex nature of the Sandman series, and also enjoyed the fact that its main characters were higher beings of a sort, you should also enjoy Grant Morrison's The Invisibles series (starting with Say You Want a Revolution). If you liked the use of multiple different time periods as well as the themes of mythology/mysticism in the Sandman series, you should also enjoy Darren Aronofsky's fantasy The Fountain.
Red Flags: Explicit sexuality; violence and mild gore
The Sandman: The Wake (1997)
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Graphic Novel (Fantasy)
The Dream King, also called Dream of the Endless, has died and been reborn as a new, slightly altered version of himself. The Dream King's "family" of characters, including Despair, Death, Delirium, and Destiny, hold a wake for the dead king. All dreamers, including humans and non-humans, attend the wake in their dreams...including, as Gaiman insists, the reader! The nature of death and dreaming are discussed as mourners of the king's passing have individual conversations with one another, remembering and recounting meetings with the Dream King. Matthew, a crow who was a loyal servant to the old Dream King, must work through guilt and sadness over the cause of the Dream King's death. The "new" Dream King, meanwhile, prepares himself to meet and care for his "dreamers". Matthew returns to the Dream King's castle and decides to continue serving the new king rather than willingly die and transform. Finally, the story, and The Sandman series, ends as Robert Gadling, a human who has lived for thousands of years, and who was good friends with the old Dream King, is visited by Death while with his girlfriend at a Medieval re-enactment camp. Robert decides to go on living and dreams of walking into the sunset with his old friend, the Dream King. The collection also featured two stories unrelated to The Sandman series. Exiles is illustrated by Jon J. Muth and tells the story of a man who finds his soul as he journeys with a kitten through the desert. The final, untitled, story, illustrated by Charles Vess, is a fictitious tale about Shakespeare's process of writing "The Tempest", as he is visited by a ghost-like figure who helps him write the play. These stories, however, are perpheral to the overwhelming center of the collection, The Wake.
Geographical Setting: Dream-world interspersed with characters in present-day England
Time Period: present day
Series: Volume 10 of the 11-volume series of The Sandman collections which collect all 75 individual issues
The Wake is dialogue-heavy and relies on vignette-style stories in order to move the main plot along. There is not much action focused on, rather nuanced conversations between characters create meaning and theme for the story. There is very little exposition or explanation of characters and setting, context for the exchanges between characters must be based on nuance or prior knowledge of The Sandman series's plot. Most of the appeal of The Wake is its exploration of ideas and concepts, particularly regarding philosophies of death and the meaning of dreams. While the Dream King is mentioned by all characters in the story, he does not appear very often. Mostly the story centers around many different characters' conversations and personal stories about their experiences with the Dream King. All characters presented are extremely complex and emotional, there are no idealized characters. Additionally, one is not able to form emotional bonds with the characters presented since there are so many short vignettes. One of the most interesting appeal elements of the story is the explanation of the dream-world in which strange characters like Death, Destiny, and Delirium exist. The dream-world of The Wake includes some details of landscape like catacombs that cannot be mapped since they move like living creatures, as well as descriptions of the Dream King's castle that is reminscent of other medieval-like fantasy settings. Gaiman's portrayal of the ways in which the dream-world is connected to life, death, and reincarnation via interactions with and messages from the Dream King and his family, is extremely compelling. Another very strong appeal element is the way in which the reader is made to participate in the story. Several mentions of "you", the reader, are made in order to include "you" in dream-meetings. Gaiman (convincingly!) insists that everyone has interactions with his characters in their dreams, it is only a question of whether or not the dreamer can remember them after waking. The ending of the story is open-ended, but much explanation is given about the fate of the old Dream King and the ways in which he is still connected to the new Dream King. Appeals to a more adult audience as the story contains philosophical and complex themes.
Read-alikes: Within Gaiman's The Sandman series, try The Sandman: Dream Country because it includes the series's issue #19, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" which won the 1991 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction. Also try Roman Dirge’s Lenore series, starting with Lenore: Noogies, that explores the strange world of a little dead girl, Lenore. This title combines the surreal, dream-like world of The Wake, with challenges to the idea of death meaning an ending of soul. The Lenore series is also humorous and features strange characters (like Despair and Destiny) including limbless cannibals and cursed vampire dolls. Try Serena Valentino’s Gloomcookie series, starting with Gloomcookie, Vol. 1 because it includes ghostly, otherworldly views on death and dreaming as found in The Wake, also try Valentino’s Nightmares and Fairytales series for a “gothic” take on popular fairytales. Try Crab Scrambly’s The 13th of Never, because it is a the story of a human who “leaves” his waking life (as dreamers do in The Wake) in order to escape drudgery and become more in tune with other aspects of himself (including strength and insight). Zazil, the lead character, must face strange creatures such as soul-stealers and ghost trains, in what turns out to be an inner journey projected onto dream-world (as in The Wake). Also try Terri LaBan’s The Dreaming: Beyond the Shores of Night for those readers interested in illustrator Michael Zulli’s work. Also, this title includes some recurring characters from The Sandman series including Cain and Abel, although Gaiman did not write, only consulted, on this series. Try Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing series, beginning with Swamp Thing Vol. 1: Saga of the Swamp Thing because it features a tortured, complex central character (with many similarities to the Dream King), who must deal with supernatural characters and forces to maintain order. This title is most closely associated with The Sandman series as included in the rise of sophisticated, complex, adult comics. Finally, try Garth Ennis’s Preacher series, beginning with Preacher Vol.1: Gone to Texas, because, not only is it part of Vertigo publications, a comic book publishing company that publishes The Sandman that was formed because of The Sandman’s popularity in order to serve The Sandman’s adult audience, but also because the story features a long list of recurring characters (as does The Sandman series) and deals with supernatural characters such as vampires who work toward a moral, philosophical goal. However, this series is much “rougher” and more violent than The Sandman series, many similarities lie in the themes The Preacher series tackles.
Red Flags: some nudity, some cursing