Seriously, this is one of those books that I can’t believe Marvel has published. I’m not trying to say that in a stuck up manner, but they’re a fairly conservative publisher when it comes to trying new or expiremental things and it’s just so…weird and fun.
Credits! Defenders is written by Matt Fraction! I have been gushing all over his work…GUSHING…as you’ve seen in my reviews of Hawkeye and Casanova. I can’t say the dude has done no wrong because when he turns off his weirdness and tries to write modern-y superhero stuff or crossover work it comes off pretty bland. But when the man’s writerly equivalent of Hulkamania is allowed to run wild, it runs wild. And it does so in Defenders.
He’s aided by artists who each bring unique styles to the different genres that Fraction plays with by focusing on each Defender. Terry Dodson brings a very bright, super-hero-y vibe when the whole team is brought together. Michael Lark gives the book a dark, 70’s vibe that fits perfectly with issue 4’s focus on Doctor Strange’s blend of magic and failed relationships. While Mitch Breitweiser takes us underwater for a tale focused on the undersea King Namor; and Victor Ibanez’s issue 6, which is all about Iron Fist, echoes the pulpy feel of both Hawkeye and Fraction’s work on The Immortal Iron Fist with Ed Brubaker and David Aja.
Doctor Strange, he’s got problems. Interpersonal problems. This is laid out for you, along with the fact that he’s a magician, fairly quickly without the baggage of years of comic book continuity. You can pick this book up and read it without having spent thousands of dollars on comics (or wasted dozens of hours reading summaries of comics you no longer read on Wikipedia — oh, self loathing!) like me.
Anyway, yeah. Dr. Strange, he’s bad with the ladies. Probably the only person to de-Hulk a Hulk-ified person through sexual grossness. His general inability to deal with womenfolk, and with normal people, is mostly played for comedy, but issue 4 really takes a look at a guy who knows he’s messed up, and that he’s made mistakes.
I’ve really honed in on Doctor Strange, probably cause I’m weird and awkward myself. But Fraction puts together a whole team of misfits and weirdos, and is fairly straightforward with what role each character is playing. The book is alternatingly narrated by an omniscient third person narrator, as well as each of the series main characters, Doctor Strange (weirdo, possible sex-werido–the dude has probably bought phone sex…but through a crystal ball), Namor (haughty, yet lonely king), Iron Fist (Kung Fu adventurer and billionaire, down with the swirl), Red She-Hulk (used to be married to The Hulk, now a Hulk herself, she’s a tourist through the Marvel Universe), and The Silver Surfer (an outsider looking in). Characters like Molly (Strange’s love/hate-interest) and a first-issue guest starring Hulk are also given their own chapters to narrate, giving even guest stars equal footing with main characters. Sometimes the narration overlaps for some fun moments where characters gang up on Doctor Strange by thinking the word “creep.” Basically there’s a lot of narration in this series and a lot of personality to it.
This kind of casual (?) narration is really enjoyable to read. It’s not the “This is the greatest thing you’ll ever read this month” style of Stan Lee, but more of a friend telling you a story vibe (A fairly dark story about people getting molested and such. OK, just that one guy, but still).
Here’s an example of more awesomeness in this book. Not only is Red She-Hulk yelling at a Tiger-man about a big-ass sword, but it’s also got something you may have noticed in some of the other panels. Random text, perhaps commentary from Fraction that appears at the bottom of most pages of each issue. I almost missed this reading this panel by panel, but when I zoomed out, I saw it. Sometimes it fits into the story, “Shut down the engines. Save the universe.” Sometimes it’s random like above. And sometimes, it’s promotional blurbs for either current Marvel books, or books that don’t exist like Werewolf by Night Nurse (which I am very sad doesn’t exist).
But yes, there’s a team in this book, and the team finds a series of machines that seem to be able to alter and rewrite reality. A character in the first arc is wiped from existence, while The Defenders find themselves in entirely new costumes at the blink of an eye. They also find that they can’t talk about the machines with any other characters. Defenders seems to be about comics, and really the superhero genre in general. So many feel barred from the super hero genre because of years of backstory and continuity, but Fraction and his team show how that all doesn’t matter. Sometimes creators come in and change things around, or ignore what other creators have done before them. Fraction is riffing on this. On the malleability of comic book characters and their histories. Characters are wished into existence and comic book series that didn’t exist are referenced through the running commentary/editor’s notes.
So much comic book criticism, or criticism of the medium of comics (or rather dismissal) focuses on inaccessibility. Defenders is dense, and full of history, but it’s all accessible within this story. And it’s a story that’s ending, with issue 12 in November. It’s a great series. It’s a weird series. But it’s a lovingly created series, and that’s the kind of comics I want to read. The kind that creators create in order to tell a story. Not to get characters from point A to point B for a marketing tie in, but because they have a story they want to tell.