August 14, 2003
By Franklin Harris
If it weren't already associated with a certain radio personality, who shall remain nameless, the title King of All Media would belong to Neil Gaiman. The past few weeks have seen the release of Gaiman's newest children's book, "The Wolves in the Walls," illustrated by Dave McKean, and his spoken-word CD, "Telling Tales," on which he reads, or rather performs, several of his short stories. Later this month, Gaiman's mini-series for British television, "Neverwhere," makes its American debut on DVD.
And, of course, this week marks Gaiman's long-awaited return to comics. More than a decade after he made his name writing "The Sandman" for DC Comics, Gaiman is back, this time working for rival Marvel Comics.
Gaiman has given himself a daunting task. He means to restart the entire Marvel Universe, with all of its superheroes, mutants and other costumed adventurers included. Only he means to do it 400 years early.
The fruit of his labor is "1602," an eight-issue series featuring art by Andy Kubert and Richard Isanove. For once Marvel's public-relations machine isn't exaggerating by calling it "the mini-series event of the year!"
"We're dealing with characters who are analogs of the characters we know and love," Gaiman said during an interview in July. The setting may be Elizabethan England, but the characters are all familiar. For instance, a certain Nicholas Fury, like the historical Sir Francis Walsingham, oversees Elizabeth I's spy network. Children with strange powers, including one who has the wings of an angel, are accused of witchcraft. And a young blind man named Matthew is recruited for a dangerous mission — to find a mysterious treasure before someone else, one Otto Von Doom, can claim it for his own.
Gaiman says that "1602" isn't a "What If . . .?" or "Elseworlds" tale set outside the continuity of the regular Marvel U. That means there is a mystery at the heart of his story. Why are the events that led to the birth of superheroes in the present day, beginning with the Fantastic Four's ill-fated rocket trip, unfolding, somewhat differently, centuries before they should? And what can be done to set things right?
But the larger question is, why have a story about Marvel's superheroes set so far in the past, anyway?
"I was plotting it right after Sept. 11," Gaiman said. "I decided whatever I was going to do, it wasn't going to have skyscrapers. It wasn't going to have airplanes. It wasn't going to have guns and bombs."
Also, imagining the Marvel characters in an unfamiliar setting freed Gaiman of years of history.
"A lot of the fun with that was thinking about what I liked about these characters and having them completely free of baggage except for the baggage I wanted to give them," he said.
"Oddly enough, some of the characters I'd never had much interest in over the years became some of my favorites — the joy for me of having enormous fun with Nick Fury, creating this character who is half Walsingham and half Frank Miller's Bruce Wayne. He's older and absolutely ruthless."
Still, Gaiman's newfound interest in Marvel's characters isn't keeping him away from Dream, Death, Delirium and the rest of the Endless. In September, he returns to the world of the Dreaming with a new graphic novel, "The Sandman: Endless Nights," which will feature seven new stories told with the assistance of seven artists, including Frank Quitely, Milo Manara and Dave McKean.