REVIEW: The Defenders #1

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“Or – “Marvel’s Most Maligned (Non) Team Title…’

It always puzzles me why some folks seem to have a problem with The Defenders as a concept.  “They’re not team players,” I have been told, and indeed, that was part of the POINT of the original four Defenders aligning.  Many great and potentially great characters were Defenders, and the book ran for over a decade during times when folks like Green Arrow and the X-Men weren’t considered viable solo characters.  Honestly, I blame it all on ‘Secret Defenders,’ which is to the original Defenders title what Zero Hour was the the Justice Society of America.  (What rhymes with “Huge Slap In The Face?”)  Now, the Defenders are back together to handle a debt owed to an old friend…

THE DEFENDERS #1
Writer: Matt Fraction
Penciler: Terry Dodson
Inker: Rachel Dodson
Colorist: Sonia Oback
Letterer: VC’s Clayton Cowles
Editor: Tom Brevoort
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: $3.99

Previously, in The Defenders:  The menace of the extradimensional sorcerer named Yandroth brought together the most cantankerous members of the extended family that was the Marvel Universe of the 1970′s:  Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts; Namor, The Sub-Mariner, Prince of Atlantis; The Silver Surfer, Sentinel of The Spaceways; and the ever-Incredible Hulk.  That mission led to many more, and eventually The Defenders grew into something more complex and full of former X-Men.  The death of the team hit Strange hard, and it was several years before he reformed the team again.  Several interim Defenders teams have popped up in the years since (most recently in ‘Fear Itself’) but the call is once again about to go out…  A call that can only be answered by the Mighty Defenders!

“OH, HEY DOC…  BALD GUY…  MISTER SPOCK…”

I’ve been quite vocal in my dislike for the end of Fear Itself (the first three issues weren’t half-bad, and a few of the crossovers were pretty awesome indeed) and questioned what it was that Matt Fraction was trying to do.  One of the things, apparently, was to set up this series, as we open with a series of tragedies caused by and/or in the name of Nul, Breaker of Worlds (whom you may remember possessed the Hulk during F.I.)  Doctor Strange, for his part, has been having a weird morning when The Hulk arrives asking for his help.  They quickly track down Namor (busy dealing with poachers in the Aegean Sea) and the Silver Surfer (hanging out in the Cantabrian Mountains) and tell ‘em that they’re gettin’ the band back together.  Unfortunately, Hulk informs them, he can’t be a part of it all, and suggests that they fill his rainbow-hued muscle spot with his ex-wife, Betty Ross aka Red She-Hulk.  Her introduction into the book is pretty awesome, actually, as we find her running with the bulls in Pamplona, and desperately trying to find a way to get drunk.  While Doctor Strange tries to deal with the strange subconscious bits of synchronicity surrounding this latest Defenders reunion (Namor: “Stop trying to sleep with the pretty girl by sounding like a spooky old conjurer.”), the team seeks out one last missing piece:  Transportation.  Enter Iron Fist and his amazing technicolor trillion-dollar jet plane!

WEIRD THINGS ARE AFOOT…

About half-way through the issue, I realized that the lower gutter messages that Marvel used to use back in the early-70′s were appearing in this issue.  Some seem to be advertising blurbs, but others are cryptic bits and pieces that I think may be hints at future events, as well as some eerie background noise for a good story.  Things go quickly pear-shaped for the Defenders, and their response to being attacked reminds me that, no matter how odd the characters are, these are consummate (and powerful) super-heroes.  The issue features a lot of grown-up moments for the Marvel heroes (Iron Fist and Doctor Strange have regretful liaisons, She-Hulk snidely doesn’t believe that her ex-husband said good things about her, Namor nearly murders a group of surface-worlders) and the ending brings back one of the Defenders old-school villains (I’d hesitate to say classic, but he was one of the forces behind the Avengers/Defenders war, back in the day.)  The art throughout the issue is superb, with the Dodsons providing their usual silky textures and gorgeous facial expressions, and I’m especially in love with whatever the colorist is doing to the metallic tones, as both Silver Surfer and Iron Fist’s golden costume bits are just flat gorgeous…  We end with a Defender badly wounded, the team surrounded, and a sense of impending doom that really works for me.

THE VERDICT: THE 70′S ARE BACK, AND THAT’S GOOD.

Matt Fraction is a writer who has quickly established himself as a must-read for me, as even the least impressive parts of his resume have a curious re-readability to them.  The dialogue in this issue is lovely, and they even manage to differentiate between two different kinds of deadpan snarkers, with Namor’s holier-than-thou noblesse oblige competing with She-Hulks could-give-a-$#!+ dark banter.  I’m intrigued by the use of Iron Fist and She-Hulk with the 3/4 of the original core team, but I’m troubled by the expectation that I’m going to have mental fits trying to figure out where this all ties into X-Men, Hulk, New Avengers, and the Silver Surfer’s new life in Broxton, Oklahoma.  Of course, having dropped most of those titles from my pull list, I might just choose denial as the better part of valor and enjoy the fun while it lasts.  The Defenders #1 is a gem of an issue, bringing back the grandiose 70′s loopiness of the team and tying it to a new sensibility with great success, earning a rare but well-deserved 5 out of 5 stars overall.  Now, if somebody would just clear up what happened to Tagak, the Leopard Lord, I’ll be set for life…

Rating: ★★★★★

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day:  With more than half this team belonging to OTHER teams, do the creators need to make a big deal of what goes in what order, or would you rather just read what you read and be done with it?