Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Terry Dodson & Rachel Dodson
Colors by Sonia Oback
Letters by Clayton Cowles
32 pages / Color / $3.99
In the wake of a book as divisive as Fear Itself, a book that has already been extended by .3 issues and a miniseries addressing the repercussions of the other miniseries, the buying public could be forgiven for groaning when they hear that The Defenders is set into motion by fallout from that event. As a reviewer trying to inform your purchases this Wednesday, it is my duty to report that tying up a loose end from Fear Itself is in fact what brings this unlikely-yet-enduring group together. You should also know, however, that it’s really not that big a deal. An action plot needs its MacGuffin, and this one just happens to be affiliated with the Serpent. Don’t let lingering resentments about the Worthy deprive you of a good read.
The Defenders #1 is a good read, make no mistake. It is a deceptively meaty tome; it doesn’t drag– or even pause, really– but readers may find themselves repeatedly checking the page count because it seems impossible that the book could be just a standard thirty-two pager. While DC’s new Justice League is three issues in and should just about manage to get everyone from the cover of #1 into the book by this time next year, The Defenders somehow manages to introduce every character, give the reader a vignette revealing something about each of them and where they are in their lives at the moment, introduce the threat in as straightforward a manner as you’ve seen since Marvel Two-in-One was cancelled, and get the entire band together with half a dozen pages to spare. Never mind reading it; I wanted to diagram it and teach it in a writing class.
Fans of the shlock-free humor that quietly permeated Fraction’s Iron Fist and Uncanny X-Men captions will find a similar wry quality here. Whenever a character like Namor finds himself interacting with a cosmic hippie like the Silver Surfer, their personalities are bound to collide in funny and unexpected ways. What has always set The Defenders apart as a team are the specific ways in which they’re all very different from one another, to the point where they really have no business speaking to each other. Fraction gets this, and while writers of many team books end up making all the characters sound the same he endows them all with distinct voices.
Of course, the way he does this is somewhat problematic. Whether it is an actual writing “don’t” or just a pet peeve of this reviewer, the fact remains that this one issue features narration boxes for seven (7) different voices. Each member of the team gets his or her own thought boxes, as do The Hulk and the classic disembodied omnipotent narrator. Mercifully, they aren’t scattered together on the same pages; Doctor Strange gets to narrate his own section, then She-Hulk does, and so on. It doesn’t necessarily derail the book, and the boxes are helpfully color coded; it just happens to be one of my least favorite, crazymaking crutches in all of comics. Your mileage may vary. Personally, I’ll take a thought bubble any day of the week over this Modern Family voiceover fiddle-faddle.
It’s a pity, because it is kind of great to see the return of that omnipotent, faceless narrator from days gone by, the guy who was always saying “meanwhile, back at the Hall of Justice” in the seventies. Without being some kind of winky retro pastiche, The Defenders is a thoroughly modern book that nevertheless sneaks in some old school charm. Besides that narrator, the book is also full of the margin text that Marvel used to use in the late sixties and early seventies, but instead of just reminding you to buy Werewolf by Night and that the story was CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE, it also whispers some cryptic clues about the future of the book in your hand. Its return is most welcome.
Some familiarity with the characters and the recent past sure wouldn’t hurt, but in general the story is easy enough to follow. I will say– and this is no fault of Matt Fraction’s– Marvel: I need some Hulk rules. Is he smart or dumb? Is he angry or just big and green? Once, it was “he turns green when he gets mad” or “he turns grey and mean when the sun goes down.” You could explain it to your kid sister in a sentence. It’s been years since I was able to tell anyone what on earth is going on with The Hulk, from when he changes to how he changes to how he thinks. Turning a character that simple into that much of a muddle is a minor miracle. He’s all over the place. At one point in this book, he utters the line, “Smash it. Kill it. Nothing else would be prudent.” What the hell am I supposed to do with that?
As for the art, the Dodsons are a glorious team that continues to shine within these pages. I could be long-winded about it, but simply: I can’t remember the last time I saw Dodson art I didn’t like. Have you seen the Dodsons? Did you like what they were doing? Well, they’re doing it again over here.
I will say, where The Defenders themselves are concerned, a more drably colored bunch you will not find outside the X-Force locker room. I’m not even sure it’s the colorist’s fault; practically everyone on the team is a winter. This is yet another instance where comics creators had a million-color palette and all the suspension of disbelief available, and somebody said, “I think everyone should be wearing black, white, and grey.” Also, whoever decided to dress Strange in the exact shade of dull maroon as She-Hulk’s skin may need to be at least gently shaken.
The Defenders, in other words, is not a perfect book, but its imperfections are at worst in the “kinks that will work out” category, and at best reflect the haphazard nature of the team itself. If you are a fan of character-oriented storytelling and/or the Dodsons, give this one a look.
Story: Let’s Say 3.5 / Art: 5 / Overall: 4
(Out of 5 Stars)