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‘Defenders’ #1: Big, Bold, Crazy and Awesome [Review]

The last time I did an interview with Matt Fraction, one of the last questions I asked was just “Defenders: Why?” It seemed like a weird move to go from writing the big summer crossover to relaunching a team that, despite a die-hard core of fans that were drawn in by creators like Steve Gerber, has always been firmly planted somewhere behind the second string of Marvel’s heroes.

Back then, he told me that the decision came down to two things. One, that this would be the book that would allow him to write all the characters he wanted to work on that couldn’t support their own titles in the current market. Two, “they let me get away with absolutely the craziest f***ing story ever.”On that front, Fraction, Terry Dodson and Rachel Dodson are definitely making a pretty solid attempt to deliver; if there’s one undeniable strength to Defenders #1, it’s that this is not a comic that wastes any time. In 20 pages, they pack in one high concept after another, ending up with a book that gives you its mission statement just in the way that it’s told: Everything impossible is happening at once.

There’s coffee shop divinations, a zero-gravity kung fu fight that takes place live and streaming over the Internet, Tiger-Men of Mount Wundagore armed with surface to air missiles, an immortal Crusader with an interdimensional flashlight and — the big problem that the entire story is built around — a giant evil ghost Hulk. Seriously. That’s how it’s described in the actual comic.

And I love it.

I don’t think I’m really surprising anyone when I fess up to being a big fan of Fraction’s, but my favorite comic of his isn’t Iron Man or Thor, or even the one most die-hard fans go for, Casanova. It’s Mantooth, a comic he did ten years ago with the great Andy Kuhn about a gorilla who fought, among other things, a giant evil robot named World’s Greatest Grandpa.

There’s a fearlessness to that book that comes across as a nothing-to-lose, let’s-do-whatever-the-hell-we-want style that just refuses to stop. I’ll be the first guy to tell you that Fraction’s done some phenomenal work in between — the Iron Man Annual was my pick for the best single issue of 2010 — but in Defenders, he and Dodson have returned to something a little closer to that feeling for the first time in a while.

It makes sense, too. The Defenders have always been in one of the weirder spots in comics. On paper, they should be the team for the Marvel Universe. Historically, the core group has always been Hulk, Dr. Strange, the Silver Surfer, and for those of you keeping score at home, that’s the strongest thing on the planet, the most powerful sorcerer in the dimension, a guy who controls the fundamental forces of the cosmos, and a dude who spent the 40s beating up Nazis, the ’50s being a hobo, and the ’60s beating up the Fantastic Four by himself.

Honestly, why the hell would you call up the team that included an ex-carny with a bow and arrow when those guys were your other option?

And yet, that’s always been the case, leaving the Defenders to explore the weirder stuff that’s lurking on the fringes. Which is why it’s interesting that one of the first things Fraction and Dodson do is to establish just exactly who this team is:

When people need help, they call the Avengers. When the Hulk needs help, he calls the Defenders.

It’s an interesting setup, and it’s one that’s made more interesting by the dynamic that they’re creating within the team itself. It’s not really a shock that Fraction was attracted to a book that would allow him to throw a bunch of completely unrelated characters onto a team and try to figure out how they’d interact with each other. He is, after all, one of about fifteen people who actually liked the Champions, a team from the ’70s that included two mutants, a Greek god, a Russian super-spy and a demon from Hell.

The way that things are setting up here doesn’t just stop with putting these characters together, though — they’ve taken them to their extremes. Everyone is exaggerated even beyond the way that Marvel super-heroes are usually exaggerated, and it makes an interesting twist to things.

Dr. Strange, for instance, is actually pretty hard to like in this comic.

It’s not just the usual line about being concerned with matters beyond the ken of mortals; all of that is stretched out to him seeming far removed from everyone else, pretentious and secretive and a little condescending. More than anything else, he reminded me of Donald Sutherland’s character from Animal House, to the point where it’d be easy to get turned off the book if it wasn’t clear that the overblown personalities were part of what’s going on in the story.

Because he’s not the only one who’s been exaggerated: The Silver Surfer is both literally and figuratively a space case more interested in the experience of fighting than what he’s fighting for. Red She-Hulk is in the role of the rookie, and her invulnerability comes into play as a way for her to be a level-headed observer even in the middle of danger.

The best example, though — and the character who adds a twist to the classic Defenders formula — is Iron Fist, a character that Fraction has an awful lot of experience with. He comes off as even more flaky than you’d expect a billionaire who was raised in a magic kung fu city to be, for the simple reason that on this team, he’s completely out of his element. He’s a guy who punches things, and he’s on a team with a Hulk, the Sub-Mariner and a guy with the Power Cosmic. They didn’t recruit him because he’s a kung fu master, they recruited him because he’s a guy who owns an airplane.

Everyone’s negative characteristics are being taken to the next level, and it leads to a book where the cast is a team that doesn’t seem to really like each other all that much. But instead of being the result of characters showing up and jockeying for position over who can have the most annoyingly faux-badass entrance line, they’re all perfectly civil with each other. There’s just a pervasive sense of unease to everything that’s happening, set against a backdrop with so much weird stuff going on that you never know what’s going to happen next.

And it’s that uneasiness that Fraction and Dodson are building, using one of the most fun devices I’ve seen in a while. Back in the ’70s, Marvel books used to run little text ads at the bottom of the pages for their other books, just stuff like stuff like “Can Spider-Man Stop the Kangaroo?” Stuff like that. In Defenders, they’re back, and while there are a few of them that just feel like a fun throwback to the Bronze Age by telling you what’s happening over in Secret Avengers, they start to get downright sinister:

It’s weird, and it’s creepy, and it’s great. It all just adds to that sense of not being able to count on anything being what you expect, even from one page to the next, which is exactly what’s happening in the story itself.

And really, that answers the question I was asking when I heard this book was coming out. Why bring back Defenders, the super-hero book that’s always been on the fringe of the Marvel Universe? Because that’s where the weird stuff happens — and where you can get away with making it even weirder.

Check out a preview of Defenders #1 here, and pick it up today at your local comic shop, or buy it digitally!

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