The latest Secret Wars tie-in is set in the Marvel 1602 universe. This universe was created by Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert and transplanted the major Marvel superheroes created in the 1960s to height of the English Renaissance during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James and just before the settling of Jamestown. Writers Marguerite Bennett and Kieron Gillen and artists Stephanie Hans and Marguerite Sauvage make this universe their own by transposing the angelic bounty hunter (and daughter of Odin) Angela and her friend Sera to the Marvel 1602 world where they hunt mutants or “Witchbreed”.
Witch Hunter Angela #1 is filled to the brim with jokes, Shakespearean-style wordplay, and fun, mainly ironic takes on both Marvel heroes and historical figures. Gillen and Sauvage tell a short lead story showing Angela and Sera taking down a very unlikely Witchbreed. Gillen cleverly plays off both the real King James (who detested witches so much that some think Shakespeare made them the villains in Macbeth to suck up to him) and a dash of X-Men mythos to introduce readers to this brave new (or old) world.
Bennett and Gillen strike a nice balance between literary and more accessible references in their writing in Witch Hunter Angela #1 as everything is tongue in cheek. Even if one (sadly) hasn’t read a play by Ben Jonson or Christopher Marlowe or know that Marvel 1602 and Angela are Neil Gaiman’s sole contributions to the Marvel Universe, the comic is still a witty read with majestic art from Sauvage and Hans. Hans’ painting style and brush strokes are a great fit for the depiction of the angels of Doom, Angela and Serah along with a third act reveal of a big Marvel character. These rich strokes combined with her diagonal panels giving motion to the storytelling wouldn’t be out of place with the Dutch masters’ paintings that King Henry VIII enjoyed.
One of the strengths of Gaiman and Kubert’s Marvel 1602 was its worldbuilding as they melded the birth of the Modern Age with the birth of the Marvel Age. There was a role for basically every Marvel character created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko in the larger plot. Bennett does a similar thing in her creation of the Faustians, people who sells their souls for untold demonic power. Anyone can be a Faustian, and Hans’ beautiful art turns into stark terror during one such transformation sequence. Bennett plays with the superstitions of the Elizabethan age through this concept as well as the well-trodden superhero trope of mind control. And she throws in a connection to the Angela mythos and medieval romances too. Very clever, indeed.
Witch Hunter Angela #1 is a tasty cake with layers of Elizabethan style wordplay from Bennett, impeccable costume design from Sauvage and Hans, and puns and in-jokes from Gillen. Also, there’s finally a reference to Edmund Spenser of Faerie Queene fame and undergraduate toil in a Marvel comic. It is filled with subtle or not so subtle shots at everything from William Shakespeare (and a certain Marvel hero) being overused in pop culture to the fandom and good looks of a certain, once underrated character, but these shots are playful and not biting. And in its own winding way, it continues the arc of the friendship between Serah and Angela from the now wrapped Angela Asgard’s Assassin series. Come for the clever history, literature, and comics jokes and stay for a well-rendered and realized world courtesy of Marguerite Sauvage and Stephanie Hans.