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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?

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Someone smash me! I’m a year late to the biggest summer comic book blockbuster of the century! Nothing will ever be the same! Wait, it’s a year later and everything’s the same. Oh well, so much for Marvel’s 2007 summer fracas World War Hulk. At least I didn’t pay $300 for all the issues and crossover tie-ins while it was coming out.

Maybe catching up on World War Hulk now is better since it allows me to read it as I like to read everything (a contained literary work) rather than how it must be read when it’s being published (a fan community social event). I’m still halfway through the Greg Pak-written main series and I love it so far. The gist of it is brilliantly simple: a group of superheroes blast the unstable monster of green destruction into space but when he lands in a far-off barbarian planet and starts a new life the spaceship in which he arrived self-destructs, killing his family. What happens next? You guessed it! But I took a sidestep to read Paul Jenkins’s tie-in story, World War Hulk: Front Line, mainly because I needed a respite from hardcore violence but also because Jenkins writes consistently satisfying superhero stories and I suspected I would like this even more.

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I’ve been reading superhero comics since I knew how to read, but it’s only recently that I’ve started to wonder why. For the most part they’re garbage. Today’s more literary-minded super-books are as junky and disposable as they were when the genre was invented in the late 1930s, only today’s stories lack the ridiculous fun and surprise that made the older ones so enjoyable. Yet I keep going back to that comic book store every week or so.

It might be nostalgia, or habit, but I think it’s mostly hope — hope for an immersive reading experience as awesome as Runaways, the ongoing super-book created by Brian K. Vaughan and mostly drawn by Adrian Alphona (NB: Brian recently handed over the writing reins to my personal hero Joss Whedon but I’m not up to those issues yet!)

Whenever a new volume of Runaways comes out (and by that I mean the paperback collections — you can’t beat that “6 Issues for 8 Bucks” bargain, kids!) I’m totally gonzo giddy until I get it home and start ripping through it. I just noticed this for the first time last week when I picked up “Parental Guidance” (Volume 6), and I also noticed how little I look forward to any other superhero comic by contrast. It set my mind to wondering what happened to those days of my youth when every comic brought that same feeling.

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