I’ve always had a fondness for the Defenders. The team is always a colorful collection of characters, B-listers with more power than popularity, and the writers are generally willing to throw some pretty fascinating challenges at them. But because of the eccentricity of the book, it’s never been Marvel’s most popular team. Current Marvel golden boy Matt Fraction and a fantastic team of artists start trying to change that perception with the profoundly strange debut issue of The Defenders, a Fear Itself spin-off with a fantastic cast and a breakneck pace.
In the aftermath of Fear Itself, the Hulk, Nul the Breaker of Worlds, and Bruce Banner have apparently become separated, each living its own life. Bruce doesn’t really play into this issue, but the Hulk and Nul certainly do. Knowing what evil he’s unleashed on the world, the Hulk goes to Dr. Strange for help, and with Strange, he gathers a team of people who just might be able to take out the massively powerful avatar of rage, Nul: Namor, She-Hulk, the Silver Surfer, and Iron Fist. The first issue finds the team gathering and then heading off to Wundagore Mountain, where Nul is going, and where a few surprises await.
Fraction makes a lot of… interesting decisions in this issue. I can honestly say, I’m not really sure how I feel about most of them. The two page introduction chronicling the horrible chain of mystic nightmares afflicting the world has become shorthand for ‘there’s a crack in the fabric of reality’, but the bigger issue with the sequence is that it doesn’t play into the issue in any way. The introduction of Doctor Strange, in which he sleeps with a grad student (who then hates him for some unexplained reason) is bizarre and offputting, and the issue has a constant scroll of running text at the bottom of the pages, sometimes reminding you to turn the page, sometimes advertising upcoming books, sometimes just telling you that “everyone you love dies”. Finally, the dialogue is often extraordinarily clunky, with only a couple characters really finding a coherent, interesting voice.
But despite all that, I can’t deny: this book is seriously fun. From the introduction to Iron Fist – in which he invents zero-g kung-fu – to She-Hulk’s demand that she be allowed to bring her “giant-ass sword”, Fraction has found a way to have fun with these characters. And it helps that the book, illustrated by Terry and Rachel Dodson, is gorgeous, clean lines and lovely designs expertly colored by Sonia Oback.
I’m not sure how The Defenders will fare. It lacks the grim self-seriousness of much of Marvel’s most popular fare, but it’s got some all-star creative power behind it, and it’s a spin-off of a fairly well-received spin-off. But the biggest issues it faces come from within. If it can conquer its awkward dialogue and clumsy character beats, Fraction has found a genuinely interesting, largely unexplored corner of the Marvel Universe to make his own, and he looks like he’s willing to have fun with it. There’s a lot of potential here, but it goes at least partially unrealized in this debut.
– Cal C.