This issue opens very strangely given how the rest of it plays out. A very manga-inspired short story of King James that helps introduce the reader to hunters of the 1602 universe’s equivalent of mutants: witchbreed. The segment is mostly played for laughs, and it accomplishes that amazingly well with King James’ histrionic advisor constantly, alliteratively beamoaning what’s happening and who it’s happening to. This segment, written by Marguerite Bennett, has some legitimate chuckles, but it would not have been surprising to see it relegated to an out-of-continuity introduction to the issue itself. Not so, the events carry over into the artistic shift away from Marguerite Sauvage’s beautiful, brush-stroke inspired work to Stephanie Hans' more striking, brutal dark art. Kieron Gillen also hops into the writing chair alongside Bennett for some very illuminating, mysterious medieval intrigue. This is written almost more like a murder mystery that takes place in Elizabethan times, but the fantasy trappings are all here and the characters all speak with beautiful flourishes that actually sound genuine. Whether or not it’s actually accurate isn’t terribly important as it sounds fantastic and gives the world a real sense of place.
Hans' art accomplishes this as well, in addition to indicating a hard tone shift. The story turns to much darker, more malevolent stuff and that’s not a bad thing, particularly with her style. There’s a darkness underpinning a great deal of this issue and her visuals front-and-center that while still keeping everything completely visible and it’s a balance that’s difficult to strike. There’s a thematic change that accompanies it as well, the change from witchbreed to the newly minted “Faustians.” It also doesn’t entirely eschew the humor from the first half of the issue and that’s a good thing as that would’ve made the shift entirely too hard to take. Everyone’s dialog is so deliciously over-the-top that it’s hard for humor not to crop up, but there are plenty of moments where it’s a clearer choice as well.
The tone shift mentioned above, while not issue-breaking, is still very harsh and sudden. The humor helped, but it still felt like reading two entirely different books that were telling one contiguous story.
There are one or two moments where the darkness and pacing do butt heads and it’s a little difficult to follow the progression of events from one panel to the next.
After the extremely uneven run of 1602 tie-ins, this can only be called an extremely pleasant surprise. Bennett, Gillen, Sauvage and Hans have come together and made something truly beautiful here: a superhero fantasy story that feels like it’s beholden to both of those genres without being restricted by either one. It revels in what it is, and rightly so. It’s characters feel rich and fleshed out, even if not all of them are direct references or analogs, and the world has a wonderful sense that it continues to stretch well beyond the panels that tell the story. The complaints above are the definition of minor annoyances and barely detract from what is one of the strongest debuts for a Secret Wars title yet.