“1602 Part Six: Alarums and Excursions”
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artists: Andy Kubert, Richard Isanove
OK, now is perhaps not the time to jump on board this series, but for anyone who's still following: Carlos Javier and his Witchbreed pilot Nick Fury's sailboat to bring battle to the castle of count Otto Von Doom. The Fantastic Four work to free themselves, and Stephen Strange gains enlightenment from the man in the moon...
This issue takes begins by taking a short breather - a rendez-vous on the moon for Stephen Strange which serves to enlighten him and the reader as to the significance of the events unfolding in ths series. Gaiman wisely observes that readers are, after five issue, rabid for some explanation to be thrown their way - yet he carefully crafts some vague, nebulous statements which provide major pointers without explaining away the 1602 phenomenon too neatly. There are clearly some surprises being left for the final issues. (The comic realisation that "John" Grey is a girl - a scene that shows that Gaiman is happy to inject some playful fun into the proceedings - isn't one of them.)
Following four pages of discussion with an epic battle of a flying ship of superheroes against Doom's fully-armed 17th-century castle was also a smart move, providing as it does visceral thrills for the audience which simultaneously advance the plot: the old man displays his significance to the proceedings (even if the mystery of the treasure of the Knight's Templar still seems ambiguous) and Doom shows us that he can't hang on to a pretty face forever. If there is any criticism to be made of the writing (and it is only minor), it is that after a luxurious 17 pages of build-up and battle, some important plot developments are rushed into the final page. With luck, they will be given more time to breathe as the series comes to a conclusion.
If it seems as though this review is neglecting Kubert's artwork, it is because there is little left to say about it - save that it is consistently excellent, detailed, atmospheric and a perfect complement to Gaiman's archaic style of writing. Although stretched this issue by more out-and-out action than has been present in the series up to now, the scenes are still rendered in an expert, historically stylised, yet affecting manner. Isanove's colouring really works to conveys the warmth and cold of the various environments as it has throughout, giving a sense of cohesion to the series as a whole.
With the arrival of a hitherto absent thunder-god who is not too dissimilar to his 2004 counterpart and a familiar-looking Fantastic Four, there is a sense that the characters are moving further and further away from their 1602 incarnations - becoming closer to those regular MU character we know and love. However, this is irrelevant in as far as maintaining the reader's interest goes: the 1602 gimmick was important to sell the project in the first place, but Gaiman has succeeded in creating a plot which is more interesting than that simple conceit; indeed, its very conceit may rely on this character shift. I'm loathe to give too much away, but it is as though a generic sci-fi-comic time travel story has been turned on its head and is unravelling itself backwards. And it is intriguing to follow.
Even if some characters are wholly excluded from the action this time round (Peter Paraquha? Rohjaz? Virginia?) and their various plot strands not addressed, there is more than enough plot and action to lap up here before the climax of the final two issues in which everything will surely become clear. Despite this, I'm not looking forward to the time when I can't eagerly await it every month.
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