SUNDAY SLUGFEST: The Defenders #1A comic review article by: Jamil Scalese, Chris Kiser, Danny Djeljosevic
Jamil: If comics could talk, Defenders #1 would say "Fuck it, I'm just going to be a comic." But comics don't talk, so instead the much heralded Matt Fraction and Terry Dodson project merely delivers page after page of exciting, vibrant story that says the hell with modern storytelling tendencies and goes with what feels right. There is a certain efficiently truncated feel to Defenders: the team is formed quickly, and every member gets his or her share of page time to justify their inclusion. Under the request of the Banner-less Hulk, Doc Strange, Namor, Silver Surfer and co. chase down the freshly released Nul, Breaker of Worlds, who is causing all types mystical mayhem across the planet. My favorite element of the premiere issue of this era of Defenders is how quickly the cast got to business. There's no mulling or reluctant yesses. On a meta level, the teams gathering seemed to admit "we've done this before, you've read this before, let's go kick some ass". I think this was highlighted by the gung-ho Red She-Hulk, the "green" hero who should typically be unsure of her role or usefulness.
Chris: Yeah, Defenders definitely gets off to a whiz-bang start, by which I mean the first four pages of the series. I'm no more than a casual fan of any of this book's characters and Matt Fraction's name isn't an automatic sell for me, so I wasn't originally planning on picking this one up. That is, until fellow Slugfester Danny Djeljosevic linked to issue one's preview pages on Twitter and underwear soilage became an immediate concern of mine. The opening to this comic is amazing, grabbing onto the balls of your imagination and demanding your attention in a way that Fear Itself never did. It sets up a threat that feels all-encompassing, terrifying and weird, defying comprehension but undoubtedly drawing you into the story to come. Unfortunately, that story doesn't quite maintain the same pace for the entirety of these 20 pages.
Danny: To say I was pumped for Defenders #1 is an understatement. Fraction's one of my favorite dudes -- there are just some writers who you just completely identify with as a human being, y'know? -- so I'm really attracted to the idea of him tackling "weirder" material than stuff like Fear Itself, where you can kind of tell he's curbing his wilder interests to deliver a certain type of product. With Defenders, Fraction's tapping into that Casanova area of his brain to deliver a comic that owes nothing to anyone but itself. I was afraid my own excitement would leave me disappointed, but that series of weird occurrences -- crosswords with the same answer in every row! Nonexistent building floors eating people! Ghosts from the past using cell phones! -- immediately won me over, managing to surpass my astronomical expectations. It was like reading those Grant Morrison/Mark Waid JLA issues where the cosmic threat would always create anomalies for normal people.
Jamil: I love Fraction basically coming out and saying Defenders is a book where he's allowed to do all the crazy stuff and work with all the second tier characters that wouldn't fly in the mainstream market. Calling this something between Casanova and Fear Itself is right on point: the players are familiar but the game feels brand new. The energy of this team is palpable, with the core "big four" immediately showing a sense of respect and honor for each other and Danny Rand and Betty Ross joining without much fuss. I don't know if I've ever read a better team book with splintered narration than this one. Typically, a single issue having more than one perspective jars me a bit, but when it's integrated into the comic's form it can be than fine (e.g. a Cloak and Dagger book). Fraction really captured the voices of the various members and the trend of alternating captions immediately gives the book its own feel in an age where new series rarely hit a high enough issue count to be given the opportunity to breathe and grow.
Chris: Fraction does a great job giving you a wider sense of the characters' various personalities through the little snippets he provides, something the Morrison JLA also did particularly well. New and old fans alike should have no problem discerning exactly who these eccentric individuals are. Dr. Strange is the condescending mystic with his nose in a dusty book, Namor is the arrogant monarch with a contempt for pretty much everyone and Silver Surfer is the pensive philosopher who's probably a real mood-killer at parties. I especially liked how we're introduced to Red She-Hulk as a frustrated thrill-seeker who inadvertently ends up as the scariest beast at Spain's annual Running of the Bulls. I don't get what's going on with Danny Rand, though, as he seems to have adopted the Bruce Wayne playboy persona as a permanent identity. Whatever happened to the charitable, ascetic character Fraction was writing in the pages of Immortal Iron Fist?
Danny: Considering how Fraction's run of Immortal Iron Fist ended, I think he's embarked on some sort of wild playboy existential crisis frenzy of indulgence. But I might just be fanwanking. Either way, I like what the characterization adds to the story, regardless of how he's acted before, and especially because of all the different personalities at play. It's like a less goofy version of that Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire Defenders mini from a few years ago -- a bunch of people who don't necessarily like one another teaming up.
Jamil: Iron Fist felt a little flamboyant, but he's never been reserved, and often the lighter side of the original Heroes for Hire team-up. Fraction's in-story justification for his inclusion in the team is his giant space-jet, a plane which crashes in these first 20 pages. Defenders is funny like that. With the quick gathering of the team, the mission set forth by Hulk is laid clear: find and kill Nul, seemingly the only new bad guy to make it out of Fear Itself. I found it hilarious that Namor is already referring to this thing as the Black Hulk.
Chris: I think the point it became clear that this was simply going to be a "let's assemble the team one by one" issue is when the book started to moderately disappoint me. It's not that this is a poor execution of that trope, and I appreciate that Fraction achieves it so efficiently and creatively, but it's a fall back down to conventionalism after the expectations of sheer off-the-wall insanity that the intro sets up. Again, I had fun seeing these characters come together and interact, but I'm just not sure I want to run out and insist that all my friends should read it, too. More troublesome to me, though, was Fraction's use of my new least favorite type of cliffhanger -- the kind where all the oomph is supposed to come from the reappearance of an obscure character. Holy crap, it's… someone I'm going to have to look up on Wikipedia.
Danny: Y'know, I didn't even think to look up the villain who shows up at the end of the issue, figuring his "I'm totally going to facilitate the destruction the universe" speech (SPOILER FOR EVERY COMIC EVER: THE UNIVERSE IS IN DANGER) was all I needed to know about him at the moment until Defenders #2 came out. But then I looked him up and this guy sounds fucking awesome. As for the conventional structure of the issue, I'm no huge fan of how long it takes to get a complete story in pretty much every comic book these days, but Fraction covers a lot of ground in 20 pages, getting all the characters in one place and establishing both an overarching threat and an immediate threat by the end of the issue. Could you imagine if this was a mid-2000s decompressed comic? My god, the first issue would only encompass this issue's first three pages. Seven hardcovers! The complete story arc collected in an omnibus edition! An industry burns!
But seriously, I understand being disappointed that the entire issue is the recruitment phase, but for me the fact that it's all extremely entertaining makes me forgive or even completely forget the conventional structure.
Jamil: I loathe the slow burn of longform media like comics and TV, so the arrival of the obscure villain and thus the meat of the story didn't faze me. I was a little more alert to his identity than you guys, since he served as a side character in Cable & Deadpool, though it's unclear if it's the same person.
The fact that the whole thing, from concept to specific creative choices, bursts with passion and creativity doesn't shy away from Chris's point that this might not be the book you recommend to friends. Individually, the cast is a tough-sell, and the bigger picture of the book is shrouded behind his veil of "impossible is everywhere" motif which basically means Fraction and Dodson can meander on Mount Wundagore for a handful of issues. Defenders is supposed to explain "everything that has ever happened in the Marvel Universe". Even though it's only been a paltry 20 pages I did not get much of a sense of that.
Chris: Just a little promotional hyperbole on Fraction's part, yet another talent of Grant Morrison's he seems to have co-opted. I actually did get a strong sense of connectedness to the greater Marvel U from this story, both in the intro that I've already gone on and on about and in the strange little captions at the bottom of each page. Alternating between ominous cryptic phrases and house ad blurbs for other Marvel books, it sorta seemed to me like Fraction was nudge-nudging us into viewing Defenders as a lynchpin of the publisher's entire fictional universe. Or it could have just been some wacky marketing. Either way, it's probably the most bizarre thing in the entire issue, and this is a comic in which the Silver Surfer transforms his body into snowflakes that Namor eats.
Danny: The captions at the bottom of the page are straight out of Bronze Age Marvel Comics, which generally informed readers that there was more comic book story to be had after each ad and offered quick blurbs of what was going on in other Marvel comics. At first, these just came off as a cute throwback device, reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino's attempts to recreate the technical glitches of grindhouse movies at the beginning of Death Proof. I was expecting it to go away once the novelty wore off, but then it grew into its own weird meta-character, offering really disturbing messages like "Everyone you love dies" and "The universe will break." You can tell Fraction's having a lot of fun making this book, playing with form in the way that he does in Casanova. So, it's no surprise I love this book.
I'm gonna take a sec and wipe my mouth; can you guys talk about Terry and Rachel Dodson?
Jamil: At this point we all know what the Dodsons are bringing to the table, and that's sleek, bold art that screams superhero comics. I've never been a huge fan of the husband/wife pencil and ink duo but I will say this is the best work I've seen from Terry Dodson. I typically don't like the way he draws women (that Kevin Smith Spider-Man/Black Cat mini he did a few years back was a step or two away from softcore porn), but considering there are two scantily clad women in this script and he managed to portray both respectfully shows that his style has matured. The thing that I love most about their animated style is how they manage to get the character to stand out from the background. I think this was demonstrated nicely on the individual introduction panels, whether it be Surfer transforming from snowfall or She-Hulk chasing bulls through Spain. The only problem I have with their approach is since they chose to go with a "sleeker" feel, sometimes texture is lost. Case in point: that's like the smoothest looking Hulk I've ever seen. Banner must've hated using lotion.
Chris: I think the Dodsons' reputation as superhero pornographers may not be rightly earned, as just about every review I read of their work nowadays makes a remark about how surprising it is that there isn't more cheesecake. Keep in mind, Kevin Smith was writing Black Cat in that mini the way that Judd Winick writes Catwoman today, so husband Terry was probably just sticking to the script. Jamil, you're absolutely right about there being few surprises from the pair here, as Defenders is exactly the polished artistic product you'd expect. The highlight for me was their portrait of Dr. Strange's bedroom with stacks of old books and goblets of wine strewn about. I wish we'd have seen more excitement in the zero gravity fight sequence aboard the plane, though. If the Dodsons have a weakness, it's that their stuff can come across as a little stiff and posed.
Danny: Ah, Spider-Man/Black Cat: The Evil that Men Do. Because I never finished reading that miniseries due to the three-year delay between Issues 3 and 4, to me the book is just a fun story where a rape never happens and Spider-Man just swings around and exchanges innuendo with a pretty lady while trying to hide a boner, probably. Anyway, I think you're spot-on about the cheesecakeyness of the Dodsons' art, Chris. It makes sense that Spider-Man/Black Cat or Trouble or Mantra back in the day are drawn like that, because those comics were written to titillate (even Trouble, creepily). In Defenders, I think Fraction has a bunch of concerns that don't include writing jerk-off material for fanboys, so there's no room for that to be found here.
What really impressed me in this issue was how well the Dodsons took to the Marvel Method of storytelling. It's not like they're suddenly delivering insane Marcos Martin-style layouts or anything, but you really get a sense that Terry's a bit more engaged in this work than in some of his other stuff, which I've enjoyed. Even that Zero-G Kung Fu sequence, which maybe loses something being on the printed page, shows some pretty solid fight choreography, all of which is bolstered by Clayton Cowles' balloon and caption placement. There's a lot more to read because Fraction's trying to pack more into the pages, but there's a sequence to where those words are that really complements the artwork rather than just covers it up.
Jamil: The synergy of everything is on point, with the Marvel Method helping to pull this story together in very powerful ways. There is no doubt that an artist, one who has working in the industry for years, would jump at the chance to work on a project where he carries more creative control than simply following the writer's will. However, the whole Marvel Method sell falls a bit flat to me because in the end Fraction is still dictating the plot and dialogue from a story in his head. The only thing that might be different is Dodson now can choose the panel count on a page. Still, even that small control shines through in raw energy Defenders puts out. It's not the most radical thing in the medium, but for its package, a pretty typical looking team book, this comic was worth every penny. I'll be sticking around a while to see what the hell the creative team has planned for a bunch of solo heroes no one cares about.
Chris: With my measly 3.5 rating, I'm easily the naysayer of the bunch here, though I'm clearly still putting Defenders in the win column. Knowing that it was produced via the Marvel Method makes the fact that it was a decent read even more surprising. The way Stan Lee wrote comics back in the 60's always seemed more like a party game to me than a legitimate method of crafting a story, akin to fielding a football team where the quarterback calls an audible every down. Yet, somehow it works here. Either Fraction is cheating and scripting out more than he claims or Terry Dodson is the Peyton Manning of comics.
Danny: Scripting comics means you can exercise varying control in how a page looks; on opposite ends of the spectrum, Alan Moore describes every single minute detail of every single panel while Garth Ennis writes "He shoots the guys" and lets Steve Dillon or whoever sort it out. Stan Lee let Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko run wild based on a short prompt and then came back to add in the jazzy dialogue, which is part of the reason those books were so successful. That doesn't quite work with what comics are going for today with all the multi-part storylines and slightly more mature storytelling.
So The Defenders #1 finds writer and artist using Marvel Method to handle their jobs equally -- Matty Frax writes what happens and what Dr. Strange says while Terry Dodz draws it all out at his discretion. It's a trust thing, and the risk pays off in my eyes, as Defenders #1 is everything I want in a superhero comic -- it's imaginative, ambitious, fun to read and, most importantly of all, weird.
Jamil Scalese is just like you -- an avid comics fan and lover of sequential art. Residing in Pittsburgh, PA, he is an unapologetic Deadpool fan, lover of the Food Network and proud member of Steelers Nation.
Raised on a steady diet of Super Powers action figures and Adam West Batman reruns, Chris Kiser now writes for Comics Bulletin. He once reviewed every tie-in to a major DC Comics summer event and survived to tell the tale. Ask him about it on Twitter, where he can be found at @Chris_Kiser!
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery.