Sunday Slugfest - 1602: Fantastick Four #1

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Michael Deeley, Charles Emmett, Kelvin Green, Diana Kingston, Jason Sacks, Dave Wallace
Spoiler Warning: The following reviews comment on the plot developments of the issue.

Michael Deeley

This mini-series follows characters from the 1602 mini-series. Four adventurers, The Wizard, Sandman, Medusa, and Trapster, tell tales of sailing off the edge of the world and finding a city of wonders. Their tales soon reach the ears of Otto Von Doom, king of Latveria. Days later, agents of Doom kidnap William Shakespeare to chronicle Doom’s newest epic quest. The kidnapping is witnessed by Reed Richards. He wants to follow, but he must stay home with his newly pregnant wife.

The first thing you’ll notice is the lack of inking. There are many places where stronger ink lines are needed. Without them, people’s faces look vague and mushy. The bland, identical colors of Rob Schwager run together. Livesay really could have spent more time on this.

Peter David does not bring his A-game. My biggest problem is how it felt like Marvel fan fiction, despite Gaiman’s prose style. This story reads and feels like a generic Fantastic Four story. The Frightful Four are pulling a scam, Doom is using them to gain power, The Thing isn’t working with the team; the team even complains about owing the rent to their landlord, “Mr. Baxter.” Celebrities appear just like in the Silver Age Fantastic Four issues! And there isn’t much in the way of superpower presentation. Yes, we get an army of Vultures and the Thing’s super-strength. Reed is stretching, and Sue is invisible, but these seem like permanent conditions, like Thing’s rocky skin. None of the Frightful Four members use their special abilities (except for Medusa). This issue is mostly a lot of talking that sounds like very fake Shakespearian English. The Thing, who’s supposed to be native to this time, sounds like he slips in and out of the period dialect.

Even if you liked 1602, this story could disappoint you. The art is dull and half-finished. David might get in a few good lines later on, but my expectations are low.

Charles Emmett

Our fair tale begins with a tale. A tale of four travelers with abilities beyond the comprehension of mortal men. Aye, t’was a fantastic group of travelers, but not the ones ye might expect. They have reached the edge if the world, and have lived to tell of it. Elsewhere in our fair tale, the master of all tales, Will Shaxbeard (or something to that effect) hath been abducted by flying agents of the insidious Count Otto Von Doom. And though people report seeing a man with skin hard as rock and as big as a carriage, the flying men still got away. Meanwhile, the brilliant eyes of Sir Reed Richards, he is understandably detained by certain family priorities

I love the concept of 1602. I have all of the original Neil Gaiman miniseries in their little plastic prisons and love to reread them over and over. I love the story, the concept, the language, the re-imagining, All of it. While I have never read 1602: The New World, I was quite excited to hear that the Fantastic Four would be getting their own 1602 miniseries, especially since I thought the re-imagining of Dr. Doom in 1602 was one of my favorite parts of that series. So how does it hold up?

Well, quite honestly, since so little happened in this story, I have no choice but to reserve judgment on this series.

And that’s essentially the main problem with this issue. It’s a solid issue, the writing is good. The dialogue very good (with maybe the exception of the scene between James and Will which feels shoehorned in for laughs of which it gets none). The art does a great job of keeping with the 1602 theme and feel, while not being overly dark and dirty. But when we come down to tone and pacing.......well, that’s where this breaks down. If someone tried hard enough (and wasn’t trying to pad his review), he could summarize this
issue in less than fifteen words. I mean, after you’re done reading it, you can’t help but throw your arms up and go, “That’s it? Where’s Johnny? Where’s Victor....I mean Otto? Where’s the part that makes me give a damn about the first half of this issue? Why does Otto need someone to chronicle his life, couldn’t he do that instead to make sure his tale is given the justice it so richly deserves? Maybe these questions will be answered later on, but if I was charged money for this issue, I would feel very, VERY ripped off. It goes nowhere fast, and while Peter David tries to satiate us with scenes of Reed and Susan’s home life (not to mention a very disturbing image that will not leave my nightmares for years to come), it simply isn’t enough to see our heroes sit back and do nothing. I mean, a playwright was kidnapped, for Christ’s sake! Leap into action! Our children must have culture!

If this was condensed into half an issue, I would be very excited for this miniseries. But seeing as how plodding and dull it is, I just can’t recommend picking it up. If the story does manage to find a direction and some empathy, I strongly suggest holding out until the TPB, but as it stands, this is the prime example of a mediocre comic. Some very strong elements but some critical flaws hold it back from becoming the success it could have been. Buy it if you are an absolute 1602 fanatic as you may get a momentary fix, but the more you read the more you realize this just isn’t the best we could have gotten.

Kelvin Green

The original 1602 was not one of Neil Gaiman’s best works, but what Gaiman did do well in that series was to develop a rich and full setting, and through it deliver a rousing adventure based around a compelling mystery. Peter David relegates all that world building to mere set dressing for a somewhat generic and conventional Fantastic Four story with superficial historic trappings. None of what was interesting and compelling about the scenario has remained, and the whole thing feels limp and unimaginative; while the parent series occasionally strayed into generic What If? territory, this is firmly ensconced there, making use of the setting’s unique features in only the most mundane ways.

As a Fantastic Four story, it’s solid, if unimpressive, stuff; the characters act in accordance with their Marvel Universe counterparts, and Doom’s kidnap scheme is vaguely interesting. There’s nothing groundbreaking on show here, but it’s competently written. Similarly, the art does its job adequately, the storytelling is strong, and Pascal Alixe does well to bring his own style to the world while maintaining the general look originally developed by Andy Kubert. Alixe does have an unfortunate tendency towards giving his characters malformed grimaces for no good reason, but I suppose it could be worse.

While DC are rightfully vilified for their obsessive stripmining of Gaiman’s Sandman mythos, the original work did at least have a level of depth and complexity that would have been worth exploring further, had stronger creative teams been tasked with that exploration (Lucifer being the exception that proves the rule). 1602 was a well constructed bit of fun and little more, making Marvel’s flailing attempts to follow up even more anaemic by comparison. Fantastick Four isn’t bad, but it just feels so very pointless.

Diana Kingston

There’s a major flaw inherent in 1602 stories: when Gaiman wrote the original miniseries, he didn’t exactly go the distance in redefining any particular characters or themes from the Marvel Universe. Peter Parker was Peter Parker, Nick Fury was Nick Fury, the X-Men were the X-Men. Now, this wasn’t a problem for Gaiman because the point had been to play on familiarity. It was, to a certain extent, all about “Spotting The Super”: look, Steve Rogers is Virginia’s bodyguard! Wow, that assassin was the Vulture! And the combination of novelty, nostalgia and superficial tweaking was enough to distract us from the fact that it wasn’t exactly groundbreaking.

The novelty has all but worn off by now, and sequels by definition require some kind of step forward. That’s where things always go wrong: last year, Greg Pak (an excellent writer under any other circumstances) botched a follow-up titled New World. It wasn’t really his fault; he had no room to maneuver, so we got a Jonah Jameson analogue and a Green Goblin analogue and a Hulk analogue and an Iron Man analogue, and not much else. After five issues, New World quietly sank like the hopes of Dr. Phil’s dietitians.

Now Peter David (also a very talented writer) steps forward to deliver yet another tale set in 1602, this time focusing on the Jacobean versions of the Fantastic Four and Doctor Doom. Unfortunately, if this first issue is any indication, he doesn’t fare much better than his predecessor: we get 1602 versions of the Inhumans, and Ben Grimm goes about being the Thing, Susan Richards is pregnant, and Doom wants to rule the world/live forever/impress everyone with his genius.

There’s no imagination here, no inspiration, no real use of the historical setting to do something different with overly familiar characters. Yes, David’s usual wit is present, most notably in the scenes where he depicts William Shakespeare, but at the end of the day I just don’t see anything that substantially differentiates this from any other Fantastic Four adventure. And doesn’t that defeat the purpose of the whole exercise? The question asked is “What if the Fantastic Four were created in 1602?” and
the answer we’re getting is “They'd be the Fantastic Four in 1602.”

Overall, I suppose it’s a passable read if you’re a Fantastic Four fanatic, and you really need your next fix, but aside from artistic representations of a quaint English backdrop, there’s nothing here you can’t find in any other series about the Richards family.

Jason Sacks:

Along with artist Pascal Alixe, Peter David delivers a fun and slightly frustrating return to the 1602 Marvel Universe of Neil Gaiman.

It’s fun because the comic is full of clever moments. I really enjoyed a scene between William Shakespeare and King James I. “You know what the play [MacBeth] needs when you finally get down to writing it? Witches,” the King asserts to a stammering Shakespeare. I certainly didn’t expect the comic book to provide a little background on Shakespeare’s plays, but when I read the scene it somehow seemed inevitable.

Or take the introduction of the comic’s villains. “Their Captain was the greatest scientist alive in the year of Our Lord 1602,” and he wasn’t named Reed Richards. It’s a cute scene that takes place right in the beginning of the comic and sets the tone for what was about to follow. And I thought it was a clever twist that the Medusa in 1602 really has snakes in her hair and can turn people to stone with her sight. Fun, cool, clever. Those are three words that one expects from Peter David.

One thing I usually don’t expect from Peter David is for him to write for the TPB, but that is also true in this comic. The villains and the Shakespeare/King James scenes take up the vast majority of this comic, and in fact, readers never actually see the whole Fantastick Four together in this first issue. What readers obviously get in this comic is only one part of the story. It’s an entertaining first chapter, but it somehow feels like empty calories since we don’t get our full serving of our heroes together yet.

Pascal Alixe's art is really clever here. I wonder how many of the clever scenes come from him and how many from David. For instance, who suggested the Invisible Girl’s pregnancy is, umm, exposed to the world, or for Reed to be eternally stretching as if he couldn’t help himself from stretching in every direction, as his thoughts run free? If it came from Alixe, he’s adding great touches. If it comes from David, Alixe is doing a nice job of conveying David’s ideas.

This comic has every sign of being a terrific TPB. This first chapter whets the appetite but doesn’t fill me up much. It does have the feeling of being the first course of a very filling meal, though.

Dave Wallace:

Neil Gaiman’s original 1602 might not have been a perfect comic, but it did its job extremely well: Gaiman crafted a multi-level historical mystery which presented the Marvel characters of the 1960s transposed to Elizabethan England, lovingly rendered by Andy Kuberts’s pencils and Richard Isanove’s lush, lavish digital paints. Sadly, 1602: Fantastick Four isn’t in the same league, as whilst both the writing and the art are serviceable enough for a run-of-the-mill What If or Elseworlds type of story, they compare poorly to the high standards of the series which spawned Marvel’s 1602 Universe.

Peter David’s script lacks the subtlety of writing which was a big part of the original 1602. The fun that was had with guessing which players of the Marvel pantheon Gaiman had chosen to use in his story and of having to “find your way” in a new setting is instantly dispelled here, as David introduces us to a ship of villains whom he instantly identifies as “Wizard,” “Trapster,” “Medusa” and an albino sailor who seems to be known as “Sandman” for no discernible reason. After taking the time to establish his 1602 Frightful Four, David proceeds to do almost nothing with them before switching to a silly scene which casts Ben Grimm – the Thing – as an actor in one of Shakespeare ’s plays. David has some fun with some sub-Shakespeare-In-Love allusions to plot points in Shakey’s plays, but when the Bard is abducted by a flying boat crewed by a legion of Vulture-men, you can’t help but stifle a yawn. The ideas used by David were fresh and original when Gaiman created them in the original series, but can’t escape feeling worn and recycled here. What’s more, the issue’s cliffhanger (that Reed and Sue Richards are going to sit back and do nothing about the villains’ threat) is so laughable that I have to wonder whether the whole book is a tongue-in-cheek pisstake of what a superhero book should be.

Axel’s art is reasonable enough, but his style just doesn’t convey the attention to detail that is necessary to put across the differences and parallels that exist between the 1602 world and the regular Marvel Universe. The flat, muted colouring leaves the pages feeling lifeless and washed-out, and although the 1602 concept wouldn’t be well-served by garish, bright colours, there are certainly ways of making the visuals warm or attention-grabbing which just aren’t employed here. Simply put, both the writing and art lack the sophistication of the book’s predecessor – and 1602: Fantastick Four suffers as a result.

Maybe I’m hamstrung by my enjoyment of the original 1602, but this issue just doesn’t work for me. We’ve yet to see David’s plot come together, and although there are some elements that could raise the level of the story above the mundane (namely the appearance of Dr. Doom), that’s only assuming that people are still reading the book after a first issue which will disappoint casual readers with its lack of substance and action (and of the FF themselves) and will frustrate 1602 fans as a pale imitation of a great miniseries that simply didn’t demand a sequel. I left Greg Pak’s 1602: New World well alone for the same reason. Ultimately, the novelty of seeing Marvel characters transplanted to another world just isn’t enough to make me want to shell out a couple of quid on yet another directionless spin-off book, and sadly David doesn’t do enough to hook me back in for a second issue. Can we leave the 1602 universe alone now, please?

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