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Defenders #1

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Kelvin Green, Shawn Hill, Jim Kingman, Shaun Manning, Ray Tate

Keith Dallas 


You know you’re in for a hoot of an mini-series when the first issue credit page announces, “Well, they’ve desecrated one comic book universe--and now they’re coming for yours!” Make no mistake:Defenders does not deviate from the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire collaborative method of storytelling that was introduced to us almost 20 years ago in Justice League #1. The sandwich offered to you here is the same sandwich you ate when you read Justice League International in the late 1980s, and it’s the same sandwich you ate very recently with Justice League: Classified. And despite the fact that you’ve eaten it before, it’s still a DAMN GOOD sandwich. Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire provide plot, and they provide characterization, but of course, the real reason you read a Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire collaboration is the expectation that you’ll laugh so hard, you’ll wet yourself. I soiled four pairs of pants reading Defenders #1 (hence, the  rating).

The Defenders are the perfect super-group for Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire to tackle. The creators excel at presenting team dysfunction in a humorous light, and the Defenders were perhaps the first super-hero “non-team” in that (to paraphrase Michael Deeley in his review of the Essential Defenders collection) they would reluctantly band together only to confront and defeat a common foe, after which they went their separate ways. So the creative team that revels in intra-group conflict finally handles the super-hero team that was defined by intra-group conflict. The question I’m left with is: why did we have to wait until 2005 for a Giffen/DeMatteis/MaguireDefenders book?

At the beginning of this first issue, Nightmare informs Dr. Strange of an alliance between Dormammu and Umar and their plan to conquer Earth. Strange then recruits Bruce Banner, Namor and Silver Surfer to aid him. And that’s all I’m willing to reveal because to describe anything more would be to spoil the characters’ taunts, banter, set ups and punch lines (some of which are telegraphed but most of which are unexpected and hysterical). As expected, humor can be found on every page, perfectly complemented, as always, by the facial expressions provided by Maguire. In this age of story-telling decompression, Defenders #1 is full to capacity. Most of the pages in Defenders #1 contain at minimum five panels. In a 22 page issue, there is only one splash page while two pages contain 9 panels, two pages contain 10 panels, and three pages contain 12 panels. Poor Kevin Maguire, I’m sure he was paid by the page, not by the panel. Understandably, these high panel count pages for the most part lack background art, which isn’t a problem because the empty space is filled with dialogue, of which there is A LOT. 

My point is that for three bucks, you get your money‘s worth, and during a time when super-hero comic books supposedly are becoming more bleak, grim and realistic (a claim I’ve been hearing every year for the past 20 years, and I have no idea why that last term should in any way be applied to a super-hero comic book), the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire collaboration is both welcome and needed. Variety of tone should ALWAYS be the goal of the super-hero comic book marketplace. And as long as these three creators are willing to work on these projects together, they should receive as much support and attention as can be provided. They’re the best at what they do, and what they do is pretty damn funny.

The funniest part of Defenders #1, however, wasn’t written by DeMatteis or Giffen nor drawn by Maguire. That honor goes to the series’ Editor Andy Schmidt. The last page of the issue provides a column by Schmidt where he answers questions fans have asked him about the Defenders series. In response to the question “How does this mini-series fit into continuity? Or does it?,” Schmidt writes, “You bet it does! This is real stuff! One of the reasons you may notice (if you’re a fan of Keith, JM, and Kevin’s previous work) that this book reads a little differently from their work across town is that this stuff is happening right here in the real Marvel Universe. Yes, it’s funny (I hope), but it’s more about the characters and the adventure. If Dormammu and Umar don’t scare you, then we’ve not done our jobs.” As characters from Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire’s other work from “across town” might proclaim, “BWA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!!” Andy, what have you been smoking, and where can I buy some? That’s either (A) an ineffectual jab at DC Comics, (B) one of the worst attempts at sarcasm I‘ve ever read, or (C) a sincere editorial declaration. If “C”, then let’s get this straight: Defenders is IDENTICAL in tone, approach and execution to their recent arc in Justice League: Classified which means characters’ attributes are exaggerated and parodied for comedic effect. Dr. Strange is ridiculously verbose. The Silver Surfer is a wide-eyed air head. Bruce Banner is REALLY snarky (Peter David presented an intelligent Hulk as witty, but not snarky). Namor is obnoxiously arrogant (that’s actually pretty much in line with how he‘s ALWAYS been presented). Sorry Andy, if this Defenders mini-series “fits” into Marvel continuity, and if readers are truly scared of Dormammu and Umar, then Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire have NOT done their job.




Kelvin Green 

Oh bollocks, I’m going to get crucified for this…

I just didn’t find this comic to be very funny, I’m afraid. I thought the jokes were rather obvious and somewhat strained, and I actually found the earlier Busiek and Larsen series to be more humorous. Given that the entire point of the series is apparently to make me wet myself with riotous laughter, I’m left with that sort of embarrassment you get when someone tells you a joke, it misfires completely, and you don’t know what to do.

Banner and Namor’s spiteful banter raised at least a smile on occasion, as did the sequence with the Silver Surfer trying to finding wisdom and enlightenment among a group of beach bums, but both of those strained existing characterisation to the limits in order to work. I really can’t see the Surfer doing that, and even though that’s why the contrast ultimately works, the situation itself doesn’t. I’d have thought that lampooning his overly serious existentialist musings would be a more rewarding approach to Silver Surfer based comedy, and one that wouldn’t create a rift between the serious and comedic versions of the character. Similarly, Banner is a tortured individual afraid of his own emotions, and I just can’t see him being as flippant and jokey as he’s shown to be in this issue. Joe Fixit? Yes. Professor Hulk? Yes. Banner himself? Not really.

None of that is to say that I want these characters to be serious at all times or even for there to be no humour in superhero comics; I just think that there are ways to approach the humour that also keeps the characters consistent with their previous appearances. There’s a feeling here that the creators are reaching too far beyond the concepts of the characters in order to derive humour from them, which adds to the air of desperation in the writing.

Sadly, with the humour falling flat, all that’s left is a somewhat generic superhero story; having the characters all remark on its generic nature doesn’t make it any less so. 

The art is far more successful, although Strange is rather too thick-set and swarthy for my liking, and Namor’s a bit elfin and boyish, which I suppose fits in with his earliest appearances, but he’s not looked like that for about fifty years. Maguire’s storytelling and characterisation are as superb as his reputation suggests however, and the art goes a long way to redeem the book.

I can’t shake the feeling that this has been overhyped somewhat; there’s a general air of half-heartedness around the comic, as if Marvel just wanted to thumb their nose at DC by poaching a popular creative team but without any clear idea of what they wanted that team to do, resulting in a very unsatisfying comic. Perhaps my colleagues will find this more engaging. Perhaps it’ s actually very funny if you’re in the right mood. But this comic did nothing for me.




Shawn Hill 

Plot: Nightmare. Umar. Dormammu. Yes, it’s a Dr. Strange story, and before you can utter “crimson bands of cyttorak!” he’s beat you to it and has a world to save, but not all by his lonesome. 

Comments: There’s a problem with this series, and it’s the same problem the last Defenders series had and the problem the original series had at first. There aren’t any women. Editor Andy Schmidt explains in the letters page that to him the four founders are the most powerful members, and reason enough to use them. He’s wrong. It’s exactly like the last series, and that didn’t work there, either. And most powerful or not, the Defenders is better with rotating gangs of members, not with these four boring, pontificating stuffed shirts. People cycle into and out of the Defenders because things aren’t working out in their regular lives, they don’t band together just to go SMASH! everyone else.

The odd grouping of the original “non-team” took a bunch of Marvel second-tier males (well, Hulk is arguable, but he didn’t work in the Avengers and only did so in the Defenders because Valkyrie kept him docile) and tried to make a series. 

To be fair, there weren’t any second-tier female (or even first-tier) solo series at the time. Things only picked up when Valkyrie arrived, and later the Red Guardian, Moondragon, Hellcat, Clea and others. If anyone remembers (and Schmidt doesn’t seem to), some of Giffen’s earliest mature work was on this title as an artist in the 70s, and he did distinctive work for a fairly lengthy run (often inked, incongruously but wonderfully, by Klaus Janson). 

It’s not a balanced team with these four wary guys, and the natural humor talents of the writers aren’t enough to pull them together yet, any more so than Busiek’s serious tone or Larsen’s slapstick could a few years back. This is especially glaring if you consider this creative team’s last big success. Sure, Beetle and Booster are the Laurel and Hardy of the super-set, but both recent “Super Buddies” series hinged major plot points and scenes, not to mention the excess of verbiage they enjoy, on women like Sue Dibny, Power Girl, Wonder Woman, Fire, “Ice,” and most all neophyte powerhouse Mary Marvel.

So what if it was mostly that old standby, the battle of the sexes? Maybe it’s as old as the Thin Man movies, but then again, those movies are classics for a reason. It worked, it was funny, and it gave us some of our most emotional moments as well, as Bea’s mourning for Tora touched everyone around her (and even brought some dramatic moments out of Guy Gardner). Here, we get two juvenile-esque brats in the forms of Namor and the Silver Surfer (why are they teen-aged? Uh, why not, I guess?), a pretty good Bruce Banner, and a rather overwhelmed Stephen Strange. Fair enough, but there’s 
going to need to be more to keep interest up. Distant daddies and bad boy sons ain’t gonna’ do it for long. 

Visual flair: Maguire shows once again how efficient he is at envisioning Hell, with Umar in glamorous Hollywood dominatrix mode, while Dormammu prattles much more awkwardly than usual. Great facial expressions on all the major players, though I don’t think he has a handle on where the humor quite lies in this tale yet. Nor do I. 

Overall: Good effort, but with quite a few kinks left to be worked out. So far, the title of the issue is all too true. 




Jim Kingman 

The creative team that brought us a JLA we can smile at has made their way into the Marvel Universe! Their victims? The Defenders!

What this comic is... is nothing new. However, it’s still a lot of fun, and that’s what makes it special.

The dread Dormammu has teamed up with his equally evil sister, Umar, to destroy Dr. Strange once and for all. Dr. Strange learns a different variation of Dormammu’s plans from another longtime foe of his, Nightmare, a plan that involves the destruction of the Marvel universe. Strange sets out to recruit the original members of the Defenders to help him combat this recurring menace. None of his fellow comrades come along enthusiastically. In fact, Bruce (the Hulk) Banner and Prince (Sub-Mariner) Namor are quite reluctant to even join the cause, but they do eventually give in to Strange’s persuasions (and theatrics). The only holdout is the Silver Surfer, who has found a kind of peace with a bunch of Southern California surfers.

A bad case of bickering develops between Banner and Namor at Dr. Strange’s sanctum, and it escalates to the point where Banner changes into the Hulk and a mighty battle is about to transpire. Hoping to cut off internal disaster before they even begin saving the universe, Strange transports the Hulk, Namor and himself to Dormammu’s realm, where the Hulk is separated from his colleagues by a supernatural barrier. Hulk also finds himself surrounded by a group of vicious, attacking monsters (so who should we feel sorry for?). Dormammu becomes aware of Strange’s presence and sends his heavily armored, mighty muscled goons out to dispose of him. Namor sees them coming first and braces himself accordingly, while we can only hope the contemplative Strange turns around and acts in time! To be continued!

Again, nothing new in the way of plot (many issues of the original Defenders series billed the group as a non-team banding together only when the life of Earth was threatened, which is pretty much what we have here), but in the artistic hands of Giffen, DeMatteis and Maguire the dialogue and situations have a humorous, lighthearted focus that you’re not going to find in House of M or any of the DC books leading up to Infinite Crisis (not to mention most issues of the original Defenders). The colors are vibrant, the skies are bright and clear, and the costumes and superhero shorts distinct and classic. The facial expressions are priceless. And even with Earth threatened for the umpteenth time, Strange’s life once again in jeopardy, the Defenders having a hard time getting along, and Dormammu killing people left and right, the tone isn’t at all serious. Defenders #1 is simply a fun comic to read; the kind of fun that makes rereading it such a pleasure, and the thirty day wait for the next issue the only painful part.




Shaun Manning 

Dr. Strange’s sleep is disturbed by Nightmare! In the guise of Strange’s faithful servant Wong, the villain brings a message most dire: the Dread Dormammu and Umar the Unholy are preparing to invade Earth! But can the Sorceror Supreme trust a being that has just tried to strangle him to death? Is saving the Earth worth the trouble of assembling the Defenders?

So, the fan-favorite, award-winning team of Giffen, DeMatteis, and Maguire transfer their Bwa-ha-ha skills from Justice League to one of Marvel’s most celebrated teams. What does it look like? Well, there are fewer strong personalities in the Defenders than in JLI, and the writers themselves note the similarities between Namor and Strange. This leads to a bit of repetition and hammering on the same jokes, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Also, one of the strengths of the team’s original works was the combination of situation humor and witty banter, while their more recent work relies much more heavily on dialogue. That situation is exasperated in Defenders as there are two consecutive pages with twelve panels apiece (followed by a couple of niners), just to get some sort of transition between quips. There is a bit of remedy to this trend, though, in an errant spell Strange casts to separate Hulk and Namor leading to one of the funniest scenes Keith and Marc have come up with in quite a good while.

There is some good character interaction here, but it’s not often between the core members of the team. The Defenders villains are much more amusing than the heroes, with rival siblings Dormammu and Umar squabbling over family matters in an effort reminiscent of the old Manga Khan stories in JLI but revitalized by the transformation to the Marvel U. Of course, none of the Defenders has a history of fighting exclusively on the side of angels, and Giffen and DeMatteis cast their best magic when playing up the ensemble’s checkered histories. Dr. Strange shouting at Namor, “How many times have you invaded the surface world?” is a beautiful confrontation.

Kevin Maguire’s art looks a bit silly. Which is fine, given the circumstances. Though it will likely piss off fans of Namor. Or the Hulk. Or Silver Surfer. Or Dr. Strange.

Is this book funny? Well, sure. Is it BWA-HA-HA funny? Not yet, but it’s getting there. It’s possible the dilution of the Giffen-DeMatteis brand comes from the fact that fans have come to expect a certain thing from this team, and the writers are trying to play into it, whereas with their original stint on Justice League it was just two guys writing the Justice League who were allowed to do whatever they wanted. Even revisiting the same characters in the recent DC miniseries, there was a large sense of self-tribute rather than freewheeling invention. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t damn funny, but it was a bit less true. Here, a new set of characters forcing them to set up new relationships and conflicts while still keeping the laughter alive, the “gathering the troops” issue of Defenders tries to pack a lot in and mostly succeeds. If these guys had more than five issues, they may work wonders on the friendships and rivalries of a team never meant to come together, and eventually mold these godlike beings into more sympathetic characters. As things stand, we can all enjoy this miniseries as a good sitcom and hope it develops into something more.




Ray Tate 

Let the Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-has! commence. Giffen/DeMatteis and Maguire strike again with The Defenders. Hulk, Namor, Silver Surfer and Dr. Strange come together--sort of--to combat an old menace with a twist of lime.

The real irony in the book is that Giffen and DeMatteis adhere to the basic treatise of the original Defenders. They don't like each other and barely if at all respect one another as human beings or whatever the hell they happen to be.

The difference is in the tone. Whereas originally, the Hulk, Namor, Dr. Strange and the Surfer combated each other in a more serious tone; the new version of the team battle each other in a more realistic fashion. They don’t emote, at least not in anger. They snipe at each other, insult each other and on occasionally bitch-slap each other. When they ham it up, it’s for the sake of posturing rather than pitching fits, and during these wonderfully cheesy moments David Sharpe's letters provide welcome accents from the cold fonts of a computer and a ham-fisted programmer.

This change in emotional climate creates a schism between The Defenders and the creative team’s previous works. You often laughed with the Justice League, but you laugh at the petty antics of the Defenders.

Generally speaking, and this is noted in the editor’s page at the end, Giffen/DeMatteis and Maguire often create such a zany incarnation of what is known that its often wiser to separate their version from the general vicinity of continuity. This isn’t actually the case for The Defenders. There’s no really good reason to suggest that these goofs aren’t the same “heroes” who formed the original team.

Maguire infrequently works for Marvel. I think he once did a page for Captain America, but Maguire’s realism and his encyclopedic knowledge of expression actually improves Marvel’s characters. He also takes artistic liberties which actually suit the characters. Namor, for instance, looks less human and more elfin, as Bill Everett originally intended. The Surfer does not appear to be a shiny naked dude but instead a Gray that has been dipped in a vat of silver.

The Defenders is a fast funny exploration into Marvel’s least interesting team of “heroes.” It’s whacky fun from the makers of “One Punch!” and will only offend those lacking a sense of humor. Even hardcore Defenders fans--I'm sure there are a few out there--should appreciate the new title.

 

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