One of the advantages of reading comic books in graphic novel form is that you can get reviews from those who read the monthly fascicles. So I knew going in that Neil Gaiman’s 1602 had gotten pretty mediocre reviews; I also knew that those reviews wouldn’t stop me from buying it, because 1602 is Gaiman writing in the Marvel Universe, setting the heroes in Elizabethan times. As a fan of 1) the glorious, messy mass of twisted interconnection and inconsistent-but-voluminous history that is the Marvel Universe; 2) Gaiman’s writing; and 3) comic book stories that reconceive the characters in a different setting (whether that be the Ultimate titles, which move 1950s origin stories into the 1990s; or Bendis’ Alias, which recasts Marvel heroes as characters in private-eye comic book noir), I pretty much had this down as an automatic buy.
And as a fan of all those things, I enjoyed the book reasonably well; but I suspect that if I weren’t so enamored of the background and the premise, I’d’ve been unimpressed. This is to Sandman what Kurt Busiek’s Avengers Forever is to his Astro City — an above-average, but conventional, comic book story that utterly fails to shine with the great writing and originality of the more famous work. If 1602 didn’t have Gaiman’s name plastered all over it, you’d never guess he wrote it; you’d probably expect that it was penned by some no-name corporate scribe at Marvel who was deliberately trying to do something vaguely Gaiman-esque with the corporate properties.
And my advice to the potential reader is to pretend that’s actually the case; forget that Gaiman wrote it. If you wouldn’t buy a graphic novel with Marvel characters transplanted to the 17th century that wasn’t written by a super-famous writer, don’t buy this one. And if you do read it, don’t compare it to Gaiman’s better works, because it’ll suffer badly in that comparison; instead, compare it to other Marvel comics, where it’ll rank in the upper echelons — not as good as Busiek’s Marvels, but probably on par with Bendis’ stuff, say.