1602 is a good year that falls flat

1602 is a good year that falls flat January 26, 2024

Image: Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s 1602 is a clever idea, well-written (as we should expect from Gaiman), and generally faithful to both sets of its source material. If you’ve not heard of it (either because you don’t follow graphic novels or because this came out almost two decades ago), this is basically the story of the colonization of America with the Puritans dropped out and superheroes put in their place.

And again, this is faithful to both sources its drawing on. The Marvel characters are generally accurate, as adjusted for time and place of course. And the history is pretty close, with some liberties taken (obviously, aside from the big liberties of importing superheroes into the past)–but not more than necessary for plot purposes. What’s more, this is a generally respectful narrative from a time when hating on the Puritans (and general indifference to comic books) was the norm.

This is really the interesting point I think. The Puritans were a diverse (and fascinating!) group, who have something for everyone to love and everyone to hate. They were loyal subjects of the crown and revolutionaries; they were concerned with freedom and with authority; they were theological titans and they were incredibly naïve about political theology; they were intent on settling in the New World and they kept tight bonds with the Old World; they sought toleration and they refused to tolerate when they were in power (depending on which Puritan and which time we happen to be looking at). We could go on. I’m not enough of an expert in the Marvel universe to know how well the complexities found there track with the Puritans, but I get why the appeal works, at least up to a point.

The point where it stops working, however, is the general absence of religion in this narrative. Not to say there are no religious figures–the Pope, many clergymen, and religious references abound. But religion here is at best a political tool wielded to achieve Machiavellian ends. In the place of the piety the Puritans lived is the mere desire to survive of the superheroes. And while these are not unrelated drives, faith in the Gospel is not the same thing as basic survival.

It’s less important, but I think it’s interesting that this wouldn’t have worked as well in the DC universe (though Gaiman has now published in both comic book worlds, for whatever that’s worth). Yes, you can put Batman in Victorian Era London. But that doesn’t work nearly as well with Superman or the Green Lantern or any of the other DC Heroes (even Wonder Woman has to be left on an island until the modern world kicks off)–though of course it’s been tried with some success.

All that said, this is still a Neil Gaiman joint and as such worth reading. The plot is clever and it is worth your attention. But keep in mind that this is penultimate Gaiman, not ultimate Gaiman.

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast an Amazon Associate (which is linked in this blog), and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO

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