Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert, and Richard Isanove: B

From the front flap:
The year is 1602, and strange things are stirring in England. In the service of Queen Elizabeth, court magician Dr. Stephen Strange senses that the bizarre weather plaguing the skies above is not of natural origin. Her majesty’s premier spy, Sir Nicholas Fury, fends off an assassination attempt on the Queen by winged warriors rumored to be in service to a mad despot named Doom. News is spreading of “witchbreed” sightings—young men bearing fantastic superhuman powers and abilities. And in the center of the rising chaos is Virginia Dare, a young girl newly arrived from the New World, guarded by a towering Indian warrior. Can Fury and his allies find a connection to these unusual happenings before the whole world ends?

The basic premise of Marvel 1602 is an interesting one: characters from Marvel’s roster of heroes are born 400 years too early, and here we see them as they would appear in the final days of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Nick Fury is Elizabeth’s intelligence chief, Dr. Strange is her physician, and various other familiar characters appear as either “witchbreed” (the X-Men), inquistors (Magneto), freelance agents of the crown (Daredevil), or antagonists (Doctor Doom).

This would seem like a recipe for much coolness, but unfortunately the plot is a rather convoluted. There are no less than four subplots going on at once, and though they do converge at the end, early chapters are rather disjointed and later ones feel rushed. Even though I was never really invested in the story, it’s still fairly decent overall, with some elements that are more appealing than others. One thing that I thought was kind of lame was having characters make prescient comments, like when Professor Xavier remarks, “Sometimes I dream of building a room in which danger would come from nowhere.” Okay, even I get that and know how cheesy it is.

Possibly I would’ve liked this more had I more readily recognized the characters that were being portrayed. Certain ones are easy—I can recognize most of the standard good guys in Marvel’s stable of stars, it seems—but I completely failed to grasp clues as to the Grand Inquisitor’s identity (two major ones being the identities of his two helpers) until his ability to manipulate metal made me go, “Ohhhh.” I’m sure that real Marvel fans had figured it out way before then. I’ve also never before encountered the character of Black Widow so I didn’t recognize her. Kudos to Gaiman for employing her in a role—a freelance agent helping Nick Fury and Daredevil—that seems to be perfectly in keeping with the character’s established history.

In the end, Marvel 1602 is a pretty fun read. It didn’t rock my world or anything, but it did familiarize me a little more with some elements of the Marvel universe, even while presenting them in an alternate time line. I can’t complain about that!

M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman: A-

misformagicFrom the back cover:
Master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a breathtaking collection of tales for younger readers that may chill or amuse, but that always embrace the unexpected:

* Humpty Dumpty’s sister hires a private detective to investigate her brother’s death.

* A teenage boy who has trouble talking to girls finds himself at a rather unusual party.

* A boy raised in a graveyard makes a discovery, and confronts the much more troubling world of the living.

In the style of Ray Bradbury, who collected selected short stories for a younger audience into the anthologies R is for Rocket and S is for Space, Neil Gaiman presents M is for Magic. Most of the stories are available in other compilations—namely Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things—but there are a few exceptions. The stories cover a wide variety of topics, from fairy tails to Arthurian legend, from graveyard denizens to awkward teens, and employ a variety of styles, like the hard-boiled detective narrative of “The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds” or the story-within-a-story structure of “October in the Chair.”

I don’t consider myself much of a fan of short stories, so it was no surprise when some of these failed to thrill me. The aforementioned hard-boiled story was not a favorite, for example, since I don’t much care for that genre and stories that try to be clever by citing lots of fairy tales irritate me for some reason. I also found “Sunbird,” the tale of an Epicurean club in pursuit of meat they’ve not yet tasted, to be rather long and boring, even though its ending very nearly made up for that.

Some, though, are really great, and I’ll take them in ascending order of awesomeness.

1. “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”
Shy Enn and his more suave friend, Vic, are on their way to a party, but they’ve left the directions behind. They end up finding a party, though it’s not the one they’d wanted, and Vic encourages Enn to chat up some girls, which he tries to do. This story’s fantastic twist is that each girl seems to be the embodiment of a concept, like “the universe” or “poetry,” but it also works as a metaphor for how incomprehensible the world of girls can seem to an inept teenage boy. I particularly like the bits where one girl is going on about being an alien tourist or something, and the whole time Enn’s just wondering if he should dare to put his arm around her.

2. “Troll Bridge”
At the age of seven, a young boy encounters a troll who announces his intention to eat the boy’s life. The boy bargains for his release, promising to return once he has experienced more of life. The boy encounters the troll twice more and the culmination of their final meeting is great. I admire that Gaiman allows the protagonist of this one to be a bit of a jerk, offering his first love to the troll in exchange for himself and eventually realizing that he’s incapable of loving anyone. As in “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” Gaiman works human truth and keen observations into his fantastic works.

3. “Chivalry”
A widow makes a weekly pilgrimage to the Oxfam shop, and one day picks up a golden goblet that would look swell upon her mantel. Shortly thereafter, she’s visited by a knight on horseback, who claims to be Galahad on a quest for the Holy Grail. He offers many treasures in exchange for the grail, but none would look so fine upon the mantel in the widow’s eyes, so she refuses. Eventually, he tempts her with a fruit that would promise eternal youth and, wanting him to go away, she finally accepts some very powerful stones that would make lovely knicknacks and sends him away. I love this one for the subtlety of the widow’s reaction to the promise of the fruit and her quiet decision to resist it and continue to pursue her quiet existence.

4. “October in the Chair”
The first description of this story that comes to mind is “bloody brilliant.” We begin with a gathering of the twelve months of the year, sitting around a bonfire and telling each other stories. Each month has got a particular personality, like February, who’s a stickler for the rules, or April, who’s both cruel and sensitive. When it’s his turn, October, who is in charge this month, tells a story of a boy who’s teased by his brothers, runs away and encounters a ghost, and then possibly chooses to live a ghostly life himself. October’s story has no definitive end, which may bother some, but I thought both tales were excellent. The concept itself is supremely creative, too, and reminds me a bit of the Sandman comics.

Even though there were a few stories that didn’t do it for me, on the whole, the collection is so good that I’ll probably be checking out the compilations from which these stories were selected. I guess if anyone could make me into a short story fan, it’d be Neil Gaiman.

The Sandman 2: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman: B

From the back cover:
Rose Walker finds more than she bargained for in the doll’s house—long lost relatives, a serial killers convention, and, ultimately, her true identity. The master of dreams attempts to unravel the mystery, unaware that the hand of another, far closer to home, is pulling the strings.

There were several things I quite liked in this volume. Two more of Morpheus’s siblings are introduced, and Desire (who can’t be satisfied with just one gender) is a really neat character. I also liked avuncular Gilbert, not a sibling but with mysterious origins of his own, who comes to Rose’s aid and reminded me of Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor.

The best part, though, was the chapter called “Men of Good Fortune,” which takes place in the middle of the Doll’s House arc but really doesn’t turn out to have much to do with it. In it, Morpheus and his sister, Death, encounter a man in 1389 who claims that he won’t ever want to succumb to death. And so Death decides not to claim him until he desires it, and Morpheus makes an appointment to visit with him every hundred years, accidentally befriending the fellow along the way. The story is neat, but I also really liked how their surroundings and wardrobes changed each time they met.

On the whole, though, I found this arc pretty damned depressing. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for so much darkness and surrealism. I also feel like there are probably some big, deep themes here that I’m just not getting.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman: A

From the back cover:
In the tranquil fields and meadows of long-ago England, there is a small hamlet that has stood on a jut of granite for 600 years. Just to the east stands a high stone wall, for which the village is named. Here, in the hamlet of Wall, young Tristran Thorn has lost his heart to the hauntingly beautiful Victoria Forester. And here, one crisp October eve, Tristran makes his love a promise—an impetuous vow that will send him through the only breach in the wall, across the pasture… and into the most exhilarating adventure of his life.

It was about time I read this! It had only been recommended to me a dozen times.

Stardust is a fairy tale that doesn’t always do what one expects, though sometimes it does. Indeed, there are fantastic lands and a large cast of characters, including a garrulous air ship captain, a scheming poisoner, a wicked witch, a captive bird, a purveyor of miracles in a silk top hat, and little hairy man with a bag of useful objects. The story is more adult than the typical fairy tale, though, as Gaiman manages to incorporate sexuality and violence without either being gratuitous. It is obvious that certain things will happen, but not how they will happen. All of the plot threads intertwine and wrap up neatly.

I absolutely love the ending. The final images of the epilogue are wonderful, the type of conclusion that makes one love the whole that much more. Definitely recommended, especially the unabridged audio read by the author himself.

The Sandman 1: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman: B+

From the inside flap:
Enter a dark and enchanting world of dreams and nightmares and meet the Sandman, master of dreams, and his kin—the Endless.

This first collection of Neil Gaiman’s unique and multi-award-winning Sandman saga introduces key themes and characters, combining myth, magic, and black humor.

This volume collects issues #1-8 of the Sandman comics. Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, was inadvertently captured by some occultists who were attempting to trap and contain his sister, Death. They imprisoned him for 70 years and stole his stuff, and when he finally escaped, he wanted it back. He took the next few chapters to complete the quest.

I was occasionally lost when the story veered too far into mythological territory, and one story called “24 Hours” was incredibly disturbing, but on the whole I liked it. The best, however, was the last story, called “The Sound of Her Wings.” In it, Morpheus was a bit mopey because he’d completed his quest and his spunky sister came to drag him out of his doldrums. And throw bread at him.

As seems to be the case with comic books, the physical appearance of Morpheus was pretty inconsistent. I decided to think of him as Stephen Rea with blue hair, and that worked pretty well.