We’ve made it people. And entire year gone and the site still going strong. Stronger than ever perhaps. It’s time to say goodbye to the series that started it all. It’s Matt Fraction’s THE DEFENDERS.
On the day I bought the first issue of THE DEFENDERS, I hadn’t been looking forward to it. I hadn’t paid it any mind when I planned my purchases for that week. I had come into possession of a couple old issues of the Defenders, only one of them I’ve really read in its entirety. But the thing was on sale for a measly buck, so how could I say no?
I’m glad I read that first issue. This has been one of the best reading experiences I’ve had for a while. Or at least the most memorable.
For those unfamiliar with the property, The Defenders began as a loose team-up between Namor, the Incredible Hulk, and Doctor Strange beginning in the early seventies. As time went on, the roster would expand to include a number of “outsider” characters, forming a collaboration of loners to save the world from mystical and supernatural threats. The best comparison I can make is that The Defenders were Marvel’s Shadowpact or Justice League Dark. In fact, the latter perfectly mirrors the kind of thing The Defenders were all about.
Only with a spice of more straight up superhero action. The team is composed at least half of heroes, after all. Among other things.
This theme carries over to this series, with the tag-line “Protecting Humanity From The Impossible”. And most assuredly the impossible is well-represented, even within the context of the Marvel universe and its plentiful impossibilities. Heck, the impossible, both regular and extra-impossible, are lampshaded, parodied, and homaged in spectacular fashion. That’s kind of the point.
One day Doctor Strange is visited by the Hulk, who informs him that a being composed of all the green giant’s rage is loose and intends to do…something. The Hulk, unable to meet the monster lest he rejoin with it, charges Strange to get the band back together and save the world. Thus he brings together Namor, The Silver Surfer, Iron Fist, and Red She-Hulk. All to stop the world breaker.
Which only ends up being the setup for an even more impossible adventure. In fact, they really didn’t need to do anything (and that fact becomes a critical plot point at the end of the series).
The monster tried to destroy an impossible machine of miracles, a Concordance Engine. Once discovered, the Defenders just had to take it and find where it came from. Thus began a chain of events that would send the group across the world, under the sea, into deserts and the past, to an alternate universe (with Frankenstein Adolf Hitler no less), and finally to the end of the world.
Did I mention Frankenstein Adolf Hitler? Because he’s in there. It’s awesome.
When I say “impossible”, I refer to the little things. Endless coincidences; secrets that keep themselves; and entire generation of fantastic pulp-style adventurers hidden from modern history; people coming back to life by a wish; a giant impaled by a submarine that, for all intents and purposes, should be fictional. And the insistent knowledge that all of the things that exist in the Marvel universe, all those with bizarre powers and origins and skills, were nigh impossible on their own, and they appear here together in large numbers.
Yes, THE DEFENDERS isn’t satisfied fighting monsters and Nazis, it has the gall to explain why the Marvel universe is so damn weird. And since much of it, despite the story not quite happening anymore, is based on facts that predate the events of the story, they remain canon. The secret adventurers? The secret underwater tombs filled with octopus women? The fact that Namor’s dad might actually be Captain Nemo? All of this still happened.
As you may have guessed, the finale of the series resolves all the end of the world stuff by making the entire series not have happened. Which is both disappointing but also very gratifying for a very good reason. Since THE DEFENDERS has events that were averted through time travel, it doesn’t worry about protecting the status quo. If you paid attention, you’d know A LOT of people die in this series. Most of the Immortal Weapons. Black Panther. Doctor Strange’s assistant Wong. This series knows what it is, so makes the most of it by pulling no punches and being as much of a self-contained story as it likes. One of the reasons why Watchmen used original characters as opposed to existing ones is precisely because the existing ones couldn’t just be killed off. THE DEFENDERS has a loophole, and abuses it handily.
For crying out loud, basically the entire Marvel universe died at the end. You couldn’t normally get away with that.
More importantly than being able to kill people off, though, is just how much love THE DEFENDERS has for the various things it homages. The pulp fiction adventures, the classic 19th century SF tales. The sixties spy stories like James Bond. Heck, one of the minor characters was a dead ringer for Morpheus from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. It’s kind of like Planetary, if it were staffed by an non-serious band of heroes with a penchant for quips and commenting about the absurdity of any given situation.
And, you know, it doesn’t have to create an expy for Marvel characters. It just uses the characters.
I don’t want to ramble any more than I already have. I just love THE DEFENDERS. It’s much different from any other team book out there. It has a definite goal, and builds to a conclusion over the course of its run. The characters work well together, and nearly all get development within the book’s pages. It’s a send-up to the stylized genre stories of the past. It’s not afraid of the conventions that permeates the Marvel universe. And at the end of the day, it exists partially in its own world, and uses every inch of room to explore possibilities.
It thinks big, from the perspective of mere mortals. But most importantly…it’s just fun. Remember fun? We need more of that in comics.
That and the alternate universe Nick Fury that acts like James Bond. I’m going to miss that guy. I’ll miss all of them, now that I think of it. I feel like reading more classic Defenders…after the half dozen other Retrospectives I have to do, of course.