590-1I avoided 1602 for years for no good reason. One of my biggest problems with the big serial mess of the superhero genre today is the “in crowd” exclusivity it seems to revel in, making for a literature of fandom rather than one of universal questions and challenges. Gaiman’s purpose to writing 1602 seemed, at first glance, to be nothing more than this; a “wouldn’t it be cool if” scenario where he gets to put familiar superhero characters in the unfamiliar setting of Elizabethan England and thereby allow himself to reference two of his favorite geeknesses: 1960s low art and 1600s high art. So I passed.

My prejudice wasn’t completely meritless. The first couple chapters are full of groaners, especially with the name-plays. See, in 1602 his name is Peter Parquagh – get it? It’s like Parker but archaic! And why does this boy have such an odd fascination with . . . spiders?! Hooo, I get that reference! Then there’s the muscled-up stranger from the New World who’s an unusually blonde and white captain-like Native American named Rogers . . . oops, I mean “Rohjaz.”

The rest of the set-up pages follow suit as we’re introduced to the cast and settings. Nick Fury is instead Sir Nicholas, and instead of a techy super spy he’s the Queen’s most trusted intelligence aide and protector. Dr. Strange, who normally lives in New York’s Greenwich Village, awkwardly states that he lives in “the village of Greenwich” to someone who already knows where he lives. The Fantastic Four are still a band of friends led by a scientist who gain powers in a freak accident, but here they travel to the New World in a ship called The Fantastick and are never heard from again except in legends of super-powered transformations and do-goodery. The “a-ha!” and “oh yeah!” moments are many and frequently grating.

But then I surprisingly found myself buried knee-deep in the middle of the book without pausing to take a note or breathe or eat a sandwich and I realized that the story is good despite itself. Or is it actually just good despite my knee-jerk presumptions of hokeyness?

Gaiman, as usual, has written a killer page-turner, setting up the stakes right away (the world is in indeterminate peril, Court intrigue threatens the life and leadership of the Queen, and a mysterious doomsday weapon is en route from the Holy Land and could fall into anyone’s hands) and giving us characters whom we instantly love for reasons that are hard to pin down; he just always does that with his magical writing mojo. Other players come into the mix to much less “I get it” eye-rolling, like Carlos Javier and the “Witchbreed” he is trying to protect from the Spanish Inquisition. The Witchbreed, of course, are the mutants we know as Charles Xavier’s X-Men, suffering persecution even in this long-ago and far-away reality, but suffering from the kind of persecution one would expect in such a reality. So as the story moves forward quick-like to the good stuff, Gaiman’s world-building starts to unfold far less clumsily and without your notice – you just want to find out what happens next, and you’re hoping that Sir Nicholas and Dr. Strange and Javier and the rest can figure out what is going down and put a stop to it.

Most of the fun, of course, is in the figuring out what’s going down. Watching the players move into place felt the same to me as reading the “real” comics growing up in the ’80s; the abject wonder at seeing Falcon fly through Harlem, or Daredevil dislocating a shoulder while scaling a wall to the Kingpin’s skyscraper office, or the Hulk holding up a mountain when it’s dropped on him and all the other superheroes. This is the book’s second surprise: Gaiman has changed the setting to give himself a challenge but in the end it’s still a superhero story, one that’s perhaps more distilled and pure than we’re used to. The heroes here are still performing remarkable feats like those I described above, only in their time, their situation, the point being that heroes must save the day, and they must do it against seemingly insurmountable odds, and they will do so regardless of what century they’re in.

Gaiman has been exploring issues of fate and power in all of his work for decades, culminating (in my opinion) with Sandman: A Doll’s House which is literally about being controlled by larger-than-life forces and how ordinary people can rebel against them. In 1602 these ideas manifest themselves in Strange, Fury, Captain America, and the resilient, imprisoned Mr. Fantastic, still affecting change deep within a lonely forgotten dungeon. They’re working against political forces, societal forces, and even the fragile physical makeup of their unusual splinter universe. They do this because of who they are. Right is right after all, at least within the superhero genre.

And this is the last surprise of the book, the most satisfying one: this 1602 story counts. It’s real (or rather, “in continuity” to use the proper fan term). The Watcher, a character in our current recognizable Marvel Comics universe who passively watches and records important events from a celestial perch, uncharacteristically intervenes to help sort out a major anomaly that could threaten all of existence. As he puts it, heroes are appearing 400 years too early, and this must be set to rights very soon before everything goes all ‘splodey. The existence of the Watcher sets this story firmly within an accepted fictional reality and creates an ontological awareness of that fiction within this other fiction. James Fleming wrote a brilliant and concise exploration of Gaiman’s use of postmodern storytelling in 1602 that describes this aspect of the story much better than I can, but for my purposes here as a reader (rather than a cultural critic) the ontological spot the story winds up in leaves us with the coolest of “oh cool!” moments. We are witnessing something of consequence, not a literary thought experiment or a joke or a puzzle. And through the lens of those consequences we get to see the heroes being heroic rather than blank protagonists fighting blank antagonists in the usual endless flood of monthly comic books.

By the end of the book the in-jokes have been completely abandoned for narrative sincerity. The best example is the aforementioned Mr. Parquagh who never quite has any run-ins with radioactive spiders and takes a back seat until the very last scene. The promise of him as a new superhero within a somehow still-existing alternative reality long after the final page is turned leaves us with hope that this world will have its age of protectors, too, that the the days will continue to be saved, that no matter where (or when) the forces of oppression and greed appear, right will always be right in the end .