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Incommensurable Ontologies and the Return of the Witness in Neil Gaiman’s 1602

By James R. Fleming

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11th 2001 attacks, many literary and cultural critics pronounced postmodernism,1 as both an artistic and an intellectual movement, to be fitfully and finally dead. With the casualties from the attack mounting (and threatening to climb all the higher in response to the pronounced anxiety and rage that quickly swept throughout both the Western and Eastern worlds), and the crowning symbols of Western capitalism and empire destroyed by what might best be described as the most fundamental of fundamentalists, the great age of irony and play in Western art and thought seemed, to many, to have reached its ultimate, horrible conclusion.

Representing the popular conservative, right-wing critical consensus of the time, Richard Wolin argued that “amid the confusion and uncertainty of 9/11’s aftermath, one fact that stands out is the Left’s total disarray and disorientation” (40), with the Left (who Wolin identifies as being virtually indistinguishable from postmodernists) widely seen by a variety of anti-postmodernist reactionists as having “written off ‘history’ and ‘the event’ as anachronistic” and “its proponents [as]… clearly … at a loss as to how to respond” to the attacks and the sudden, drastic shifts Western and Eastern culture were about to undergo and perhaps, moreover, as having lost any adherence to “the imperative of morality” (Wolin 46).

As Terry Eagleton noted with some remaining measure of postmodernesque irony and jest, in the wake of the September 11th attacks, postmodernism, with its penchant for theorization and flagrant questioning of supposed norms and fundamentals, was now viewed as “the prerogative of soft-spoken, long-haired intellectuals, most of who are no doubt it cahoots with al-Qaida” (8). With the age of postmodernism seemingly at an end, many, like Wolin, called for a return to supposed “fundamentals” and “morals” (notions which both postmodernism and Poststuctrualism had effectively called the logic of into question over the past forty years of Western thought) and to full-hearted allegiance to the American empire, without question or doubt, in order to preserve the suddenly threatened Western (and more particularly American) way of life.

It was under these unique cultural and historical circumstances that Neil Gaiman began to compose the work that would ultimately become 1602. In his Afterword to the 1602 hardcover edition, Gaiman discuses the origin of the project and asserts that “September the 11th happened, and while I wasn’t certain what I wanted in [the project that would become 1602], I suddenly knew what I didn’t want. No planes. No skyscrapers. No bombs. No guns. I didn’t want it to be a war story, and I didn’t want to write a story in which might made right – or in which might made anything” (201). After spending some time in Venice in the weeks following the September 11th attacks, pondering how the project could and should move forward, Gaiman states that “the past seemed very close to me … I came home from the trip knowing exactly what kind of story I wanted to tell” (201). He claims that he decided to write a story in the spirit of the Marvel comics of his youth, which were marked by a particular sense of what he calls “playfulness and of a world borning … something that would not be pastiche, but which Stan Lee or Jack Kirby would have recognized” (201).

At the same time as the postmodern age of irony and playfulness was seemingly beginning to slip away, Gaiman decided to create a text that would offer, in effect, a story grounded firmly in both the rich traditions of the Marvel Comics universe and of postmodern storytelling and thought, particularly in the tendency of postmodern literature and art to foreground ontological questions concerning the nature of being and textuality in order to perform what Annie Dillard refers to as “unlicensed metaphysics in a teacup” (11). With postmodern fiction’s penchant for textual play, the celebration and ready manipulation of authorial power, wide divergence of notions and theories, and outright rejection of pre-imposed artistic and intellectual norms and standards, seeming to be under the threat of outright rejection and annihilation in the wake of the various reactionary intellectual responses to the September 11th attacks, Gaiman’s 1602 offers a story rooted firmly in the tradition of postmodern storytelling, yet serves, nevertheless, to offer something of a revision of the guiding principles of such.

1602, it must be noted, does not call for a mere return to the traditions of postmodern storytelling, despite Gaiman’s own implicit claims to the contrary. Instead, Gaiman offers something of a critique of postmodern fiction’s adamant focus on exploring and responding to ontological questions, namely questions of world-making and the nature of being, often at the expense of rejecting or deprivileging epistemological questions of textual knowledge and meaning.

While Gaiman’s narrative is particularly concerned with exploring the disorder produced by the intersection of two entirely separate realities, the temporal and textual disorder in 1602 is ultimately resolved by the efforts of the figure of the Watcher, who acts in the text as a witness par excellence, and is able to right the wrongs of the heterotopia created by the combination of these incommensurable realities by renouncing (as he so often does) his vow of ontological non-interference. It is by offering a testimony to what occurred that the multiverse is saved from ultimate annihilation and that history, such as it is, is preserved.

The story of 1602, at the outset, appears fairly simple and not entirely atypical of the plethora of other cross-world and cross-temporal stories that Marvel Comics (and DC Comics as well) has presented over the past fifty years. As the story opens, it is the early 17th century and Elizabethan England is on the verge of sweeping cultural and political change. Queen Elizabeth is being plotted against by a variety of parties, including James VI, who is hotly pursuing her throne and collaborating with the Spanish High Inquisitor to assassinate her. Furthermore, a variety of bizarre natural occurrences begin to occur throughout Europe and North America, such as earthquakes and blood-red skies and the sudden appearance of elements from other temporalities. The age of the Marvel superheroes begins quite suddenly, only three hundred and sixty years too early. Various super beings who are obvious analogues to the popular heroes and villains of the Marvel universe (circa 1968 or so), both in name and general appearance, begin, seemingly at once, to arise and integrate themselves into this new world, in turn interacting with and shifting the history of “our world” and “our history” at the expense of changing the principles of their own reality and history.

In effect, 1602 charts the intersection of two contrary realities, specifically the textual/historical reality of early-modern England and the fantastic/textual reality of the postmodern Marvel superhero age. Despite their shared spatial and temporal zone, these two worlds are presented by Gaiman as being utterly incommensurable with each other, to the extent that they risk fully negating each other once they are combined. The “world” or order that results from the combination of these two fundamentally opposed realities can be best classified as a heterotopia, the concept of which comes from Michel Foucault, who, in The Order of Things, argues that

There is a worse kind of disorder than that of the incongruous, the linking together of things that are inappropriate; I mean the disorder in which fragments of a large number of possible orders glitter separately in the dimension, without law or geometry, of the heteroclite; … in such a state, things are “laid,” “placed,” “arranged” in sites so very different from one another that it is impossible to find a place of residence for them, to define a common locus beneath them all. … Heterotopias are disturbing, probably because they secretly undermine language, because they make it impossible to name this and that, because they destroy “syntax” in advance, and not only the syntax with which we construct sentences but also the less apparent syntax which causes words and things (next to and also opposite to one another) to “hold together.” (xviii)

Within the confines of the heterotopia of 1602, fragments of the two incommensurable worlds are superimposed upon each other without any adherence to the laws or principles of geometry or, for that matter, of reality. No common locus connects the two realities and their alignment quickly proves disastrous, with history – both of Elizabethan England (connected, implicitly, to the history of our own reality) and of the Marvel multiverse (which is a fictional reality within our own reality) – being radically restructured and reconstituted.

In his book Postmodern Fictions, Brian McHale argues that the dominant mode of postmodernist fiction is primarily ontological in nature:

That is, postmodernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions like the ones Dick Higgins calls “post-cognitive”: “Which world is this? What is to be done with it? What of my selves is to do it?” Other typical postmodernist questions bear either on the ontology of the literary text itself or on the ontology of the world it projects, for instance: What is a world?; What kind of worlds are there, how are they constituted, and how do they differ?; What happens when different kinds of worlds are placed in confrontation, or when boundaries between worlds are violated?; What is the mode of existence of a text, and what is the mode of existence of the world (or worlds) it projects?; How is a projected world structured? And so on. (10)

McHale insists that postmodern literary texts show a marked tendency to focus on matters of world building and questions of existence. A variety of narrative devices are employed in postmodern literary texts in order to solve whatever questions or mysteries they might raise, including the highlighting of the role of the author in the creation of the world(s) at hand; the portrayal of what Umberto Eco aptly refers to as “Transworld Identity” (in which characters from projected worlds interact with personalities from the real word); and the outright projection of alternate, imaginary worlds with little to no connection with the world we know. The postmodern author, according to McHale, often acts as something of an ostensible god within the literary texts (greatly radicalizing Sir Philip Sidney’s notion of the poet being capable of “making things either better than nature bringeth forth or … forms such as never were in nature” [Sidney 8]), and often presents him or herself as being the ultimate, singular master of the text, capable of manipulating and acting within it at will across various ontological planes and of twisting the game, such as it is, to his or her own ends without the least adherence to any traditionally pre-set principles or rules.

On the other hand, McHale identifies the dominant mode of modernist fiction as being primarily epistemological in nature:

Modernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions such as those mentioned by Dick Higgins. “How can I interpret this world of which I am a part? And what am I in it?” Other typical modernist questions might be added: What is there to be known?; Who knows it?; How do they know it, and with what degree of certainty?; How is knowledge transmitted from one knower to another, and with what degree of reliability?; How does the object of knowledge change as it passes from knower to knower?; What are the limits of the knowable? And so on. (9)

In Modernist literary texts, then, mysteries and questions within the narrative are often solved by engaging in particular epistemological processes: weighing evidence and engaging in investigation and consideration, and tending to refuse to engage in imaginary projection in order to solve the problems or questions at hand in the text.

The crowning narrative figure of modern literature would then be, as McHale suggests, the detective, who, in the course of his or her narrative, investigates, gathers evidence, and constructs a logical, reasonable solution to the questions or disorders s/he is faced with with. I would like to suggest that the figure of the witness (that is, the witnessing subject) is perhaps the even more representative figure of the epistemological dominant in fictional narratives. Shoshana Felman argues that the figure of the witness, who she identifies as “a crucial mode of our relation to events of our time,” testifies to “the bits and pieces of a memory that has been overwhelmed by occurrences that have not settled into understanding or remembrance, acts that cannot be … assimilated into full cognition, events in excess of our frame of reference” (5). The figure of the witness, unlike that of the detective who is usually able to offer definitive conclusions and readings of the events that have transpired within a text, “does not offer … a complete statement, a totalized account of these events … testimony … addresses what in history is action that exceeds any substantial significance” (5).

The narrative worlds of fantastic fictions (such as science fiction stories or superhero comic books) often function, as McHale argues, as “subversive critiques of worlds and world building, anti-worlds rather than worlds proper” (33). Robert Scholes suggests that the “fabulous … is fiction that offers us a world clearly and radically discontinuous from the one we know … speculative fiction is defined by the presence of at least one clear represented discontinuity with life as we know it” (61-62). Fantastic fiction, in some highly pertinent manner, is always marked by a sharp separation from the reality we know by the presence of some scientific, technological, social or cultural element relatively foreign to our own reality which demands the exploration of the ontological basis of both the reality of the text and the reality of the reader’s reality. Umberto Eco notes that

The proper effect of such narrative constructions … is just that of producing a sense of logical uneasiness and of narrative discomfort. So they arouse a sense of suspicion in respect to our common beliefs and affect our disposition to trust the most credited laws of the world of our encyclopedia. They undermine the world of our encyclopedia rather than build up another self-sustaining world. (234)

Fantastic fictions, while often concentrating on questions of world making, usually give little credence to the figure of the testifying witness. While a witness might be present in such texts, his or her primary function is often to serve as a narrative voice of representation, as a springboard for the reader’s own interpretation and conception of what is occurring, as the figurative eyes through which he or she reads. Fantastic fiction, then, serves the primary purpose not of providing a mimetic representation of reality, but of forcing us to consider radically different possibilities of being and existence than our own.

While Gaiman explores a variety of ontological questions and themes in 1602, he breaks quite succinctly from his postmodern literary predecessors by refusing to disregard or deprivilege epistemological questions or concerns and returns, ultimately, to the figure of the witness not only to provide some explanation of the disorder we and the characters within the text are confronted with and forced to attempt to reconcile, but also to preserve such in memory and issue some form of testimony to such.

The standard postmodern superhero comic is marked by a pronounced absence of readily apparent authorship. It appears to exemplify Roland Barthes’s argument that the standard postmodern literary text “is henceforth made and read in such a way that at all its levels the author is absent” (145) and, in turn, provides a “multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend … a tissue of quotation drawn from the innumerable centers of culture” (146). While there are certainly exceptions to this rule in the wide genre of the postmodern superhero comic, superhero comics tend, by and large, to render their authors entirely absent. Foucault questions Barthes’s notion of the death of the author and argues that the author is, in fact, not an entity at all but rather a function of both text and culture (“What is an Author?” 144). For Foucault, the author is not quite dead in the postmodern age, but rather never truly existed in the manner Sidney and a variety of others understood him or her to exist in the first place. McHale expands upon Foucault’s point and argues that in postmodern literary texts, “the author appears as an institution … as a construct of the reading process, rather than a textual given; a plural rather than a unitary” (200). Even when the postmodern author is directly present within a narrative, “s/he is only merely a function, s/he chooses to behave, if only sporadically, like a subject, a presence” (McHale 200).

The central narrative figure in 1602 is the familiar figure of Uatu the Watcher, who serves in the proper Marvel Universe (and its various manifestations) as something of a cosmic overseer or witness, monitoring the happenings and temporal activities of the Marvel Earth and its countless counter-realities, in effect recording and bearing witness to lost or impossible histories. While the Watcher appears in 1602 in only two extended but crucial scenes, his presence looms large throughout the book, serving as our source for constructing a knowledge of exactly what is occurring within the text. The Watcher ultimately serves as a witness to what is occurring within the heterotopia of 1602, as an epistemological authority that provides some measure of subjective explanation to what is occurring and gives voice to the disorder at hand. By inserting the Watcher in such a pronounced role in 1602, Gaiman revises the often minimalized or absented figure of the witness in postmodern literature.

In Demuere: Fiction and Testimony, Jacques Derrida argues that “a witness and a testimony must always be exemplary. They must first be singular” (40). For Derrida the witness must always be singular and wholly unique in order to produce a sufficient testimony to whatever events or traumas he or she has encountered. The witness, then, is considered not as a plural, but as a singular entity, mutually a function and a subject of the text. In that respect, the Watcher is both a witness and a reader par excellence, for, as Derrida insists, “in essence a testimony … tells, in the first person, the sharable and unsharable secret of what happened to me, to me alone, the absolute secret of what I was in a position to live, see, hear, touch, sense and feel” (43). The witness, as Derrida argues, issues his or her testimony from a position entirely singular to him or her, and testifies to what s/he has been in a unique position to witness; the witness does not stand aside of or above the text, but tends to operate firmly within its primary ontological level, in turn bearing witness to the reality at work within the text.

Breaking his resolve never to interfere with the operations and machinations of a reality and to keep forever silent and indifferent to what he witnesses, the Watcher reveals the nature of what is occurring in the heterotopia of 1602 to the 1602 analogue of Dr. Strange (the leading mystic of the Marvel Universe), stating that his world, such as it is, is under the threat of immediate extinction due to a “paratemporal fault line” (118) which he and his fellow Watchers initially believed would only destroy the heterotopia at hand. But, as he continues, “we concluded that the destruction of the universe, while still bounded by the speed of light, would occur within an expanded simultaneity, which would, paratemporally, have begun immediately following the initial nanoseconds of the universe. And then it would expand outward from this universe – we call it 616 – to engulf the others” (118). According to the Watcher, this force will destroy the entire multiverse, “or, rather, to put it even more simply, everything will never have been” (118). The alignment of these contrary and incommensurable worlds threatens not only to annihilate the particular heterotopia in which they exist, but also to enact a series of chaotic events that will tear apart the entire multiverse.

The Watcher identifies the source of this problem as originating from a time traveler (who, as we learn later in the story, is in fact Captain America, sent back in time from a dystopic future world): “A little more than four hundred years from now, somebody will build a chronal engine, powered by an unstable simultaneity, which will, on its translocation to this era, become a microscopic simultaneity. The Forerunner could be seen as an infection, which the universe must create antibodies for, which then destroy the host organism” (118). The alignment of these incommensurable worlds is ultimately a result of the future colliding with the past, of history being negated. The Watcher goes on, further, to add that “all other methods of time-traveling the Watchers have observed until now make use of the various pliable properties of time. They treat time as a river” (119). This serves as a radical revisioning of the standard notion of time travel in popular superhero comics.

The logical question that will strike the reader, of course, is how the temporal mechanics of the Marvel multiverse have been reversed. The Watcher explains: “An event roughly four hundred years from now, on the other hand, will simply punch a hole through time, a little more than a dozen years ago, and deposit something in our recent past … it is the arrival of this something which begins the current cycle of destruction” (119). Due to the time travel of Captain America (who, Gaiman suggests, embodies the very essence of the Marvel superhero tradition), the Marvel Age, and, in effect, the postmodern Age, have begun nearly four hundred years too early as a reaction, or an antibody, to the temporal violation. The Watcher notes that “the universe follows certain laws … and … I am a creature of the universe. Some laws I understand, some I do not.” The Watcher’s limited, finite knowledge is especially noteworthy and decidedly uncharacteristic of the standard narrative authority we tend to find in postmodern literary texts. In a standard postmodernistic literary text, one would expect all of these questions to be fully resolved (or for a plethora of possible reasons to be offered, as demonstrated in texts such as Nabokov’s Pale Fire and John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman). We would expect the author to have pushed the figurative curtain aside and revealed all of the possible machinations behind the hetertopia at hand. The Watcher does not posses the sort of near-infinite knowledge that the primary narrative figures of postmodernist literary texts tend to possess. Gaiman does not position the Watcher, or himself or any other textual authority for that matter, as the proverbial master of the universe being offered; instead, the Watcher is himself established as a resident of the universe (or multiverse) at hand, and does not exist above, below or alongside of such. His knowledge is instead finite and dictated by the indiscernible rules of the reality in which he resides.

By the end of the story, the Marvel heroes in 1602 have gathered some conception (however limited and subjective) of what is occurring and, after an extended battle, Captain America is sent, at least apparently, back into the future and the ontological zone of 1602 is seemingly annihilated without destroying the entire multiverse in the process. In the aftermath, the Watcher notes that “time heals, and is healed. All will come into existence in its proper time. One small possibility has ended, that everything else may exist” (196). It is due to his interference, his breaking of the Watchers’ pact and issuing of his testimony to Dr. Strange, that this particular world survives. The Watcher asks another Watcher, “if I had not interfered … they could never have mended it themselves, could they?” to which a member of the Watcher’s High Tribunal responds, “We will never know … will we?” (197). As a reward and curse for his intervention, the Watcher is given the heterotopia of 1602 to preserve within him, to guard, cherish and continue to watch. The heterotopia of 1602 is saved by the Watcher’s very refusal to simply watch and by his insistence of bearing witness and offering testimony. By bearing witness and offering his forbidden testimony to Sir Stephen Strange, the Watcher allows for the world to be preserved from annihilation.

While the Watcher’s maintenance of the 1602 universe might seem to be something of a deus ex machina to allow this particular universe to survive (and be returned to in later stories), it also can reasonably be interpreted as an assertion of the ultimate power and responsibility of the figure of the witness to maintain reality and history and order the projected universe, a reminder of the ultimate importance and necessity of bearing witness to traumatic events. With 1602, Gaiman does not offer a radical critique or rejection of the postmodern literary tradition, but suggests a revision of such, calling for the intervention of the figure of the witness in the postmodern literary narrative. Gaiman refuses to abide by the “rules” (such as they are) of postmodern literary fiction, and reasserts and repositions the figure of the witness as the preserver of history and, by effect, meaning within a literary text. Gaiman indeed does not offer a story in which might makes right, but rather a story in which witnessing and remembering are what ultimately make right and preserve the intrinsic value of both the event and, even moreover, history.


[1] Given the variety (and, moreover, the contestability) of the various theories and definitions of postmodernism that have been disseminated and debated over the last thirty years, a working definition of the term “postmodern,” at least in terms of this study, would seem to be in order. My conception of postmodernism is much in line with the definitions offered by Fredric Jameson (for whom postmodernism is intrinsically linked to the cultural logic of late capitalism); Jean Baudrillard (who argued that postmodernism involved the substitution of the simulacrum for the real); John Barth (who considered postmodern literature to be a literature of replenishment); and, perhaps most especially, Brian McHale (who believes that postmodernism involves the replacement of a modernist epistemological focus with an ontological focus). In line with these critics, I consider postmodernism, in terms of this study, to be primarily a literary genre in itself (albeit a genre which happens to encompass and incorporate a number of other literary genres), though one informed, logically, by a numerous other social and cultural forces. In the most general sense, postmodern literary works tend to mix different literary genres (as evident in the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, Paul Auster and Alan Moore) and various levels of culture and style (as evident in the novels of Thomas Pynchon and David Markson) as well as the serious with the playful (as we see in the plays and stories of Samuel Beckett). If postmodern fiction can be fairly said to have any particular artistic imperative or purpose, it is to undermine the foundations of our notions of experience in order to reveal the utter pointlessness of existence. In that respect, postmodernism in art and literature parallels the post-structural movement in cultural theory, which itself subverts the foundations of language and demonstrates that the meaning of language dissipates into a complex play of interdeterminacies.


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Derrida, Jacques. Demeure: Fiction and Testimony. Trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Dillard, Annie. Living by Fiction. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.

Eco, Umberto. “Lector in Fabula: Pragmatic Strategy in a Metanarrative Text.” The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1979.

Eagleton, Terry. After Theory. New York: Basic Books, 2003.

Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Patheon, 1970.

– – -. “What is an Author?” Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structural Criticism. Ed. Joshua Harati. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979.

Gaiman, Neil. Marvel 1602. New York, New York: Marvel Comics, 2003.

McHale, Brian. Postmodern Fictions. London: Routledge, 1987.

Scholes, Robert. Structural Fabulation: An Essay on the Fiction of the Future. Notre Dame and London, Notre Dame University Press, 1975.

Sidney, Sir Philip. Prose Works of Sir Philip Sidney. Vol. IV. Ed. Albert Feurillerate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962.

Wolin, Richard. “September 11 and the Self-Castigating Left.” South Central Review. 19.2/3 (2002): 34-44.

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