“In Which a Treacherous Course is Plotted”
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artists: Andy Kubert, Richard Isanove
Nick Fury's capture of the witchbreed, Otto von Doom's seizing of the old man and the treasure of the Knight's Templar, Stephen Strange's bizarre visions, and the secret origins of the crew of the Fantastick all interweave to draw us further into this tale of the Marvel Universe reborn in the year 1602. But there is still much to be explained...
After a slightly stilted last issue, this instalment brings us bang up to date with an extremely postmodern recap (indicating that this is one writer who is very secure even when juggling multiple and diverse plot strands) and dives straight back into the story, beginning with Nick Fury's capture of the X-men (or witchbreed), just one of many pivotal moments which really advance the plot this time round, somewhat excusing last issue's slower pace. There is real intrigue and suspense to be found in the castle of Otto von Doom and the court of the new king James, as well as a sense towards the end of the issue that the series is about to kick into higher gear: a great moment where Xavier proposes a solution to Nick Fury's need for a great army to storm Castle von Doom is backed up by a display of the powers of the witchbreed which makes the reader eager to see just what this force can do. Topped off with some pleasing further nods to characters, events and relationships in the regular Marvel Universe (witness Scotius Surrerisle's defensive nature concerning "John" Grey), this is a series where the writing is still the star of the show.
Having praised Gaiman so highly, one would hope that he artwork is strong enough to support the strong writing. Happily, Andy Kubert's style is getting more and more comfortable in this series, with a sense of realism that renders the characters as human and rounded as their regular continuity characters ever have been. Kubert has been given a particular chance to shine this time round, however, as he reveals the long-awaited origin of the 1602 Fantastic Four. Whilst their designs are not a far leap from the originals, there is a real beauty in the way they are depicted here, with special mention going to the image of the four hands laid one on top of the other and the homage to the cover of Fantastic Four #1. The poetry of the text telling their story melds seamlessly with the timelessness of the images on display, giving a sense of quality and depth which pervades throughout the series.
As the miniseries begins its journey to a conclusion, there is still much more going on than is clear in this issue, with the Virginia Dare and Magneto/Grand Inquisitor strands receiving less attention than usual. However, when the plot and characters are orchestrated with this much skill, trust that Gaiman can pull this off is building with every instalment. Even if I am eager to see some Spider-Man action.
It's a tribute to the quality of the writing that, after all novelty value of a Marvel Universe out-of-time has worn off, this title continues to be compelling and hold the reader's interest from one month to another. What's more, one comes away from what is essentially a talking-heads issue feeling more excitement for the story than any all-out 22-page fight could inspire. Whilst part of the appeal of this series is going to lie in the (presumably) action-packed climax, there are some real treasures to be found in the subtler moments of the set-up. What's more, the final image suggests that this tale may have more in common with a traditional "What If?" story than we have been led to believe...
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