#1 – THE DEFENDERS
By Matt Fraction and Terry Dodson & Jamie McKelvie with Michael Lark and Mirco Pierfederici
“You fool. You sad old lonely fool…”
Michael Chabon once described Jonathon Lethem’s writing as being that of a man who clearly loves a world which is continually kicking his ass. It’s that kind of weary optimism, a reluctantly romantic view of a life you know to be messed up and sad. It’s what we see in Matt Fraction’s best work at Marvel, and what separates him as a writer from those of the other Merry Marvel Bullpen (or ‘Architects’ as they’ve come to be known). Whether it’s telling an intensely personal story of addiction and an austere examination of masculinity in the pages of INVINCIBLE IRON MAN, or combining a love of ‘70’s pulp exploitation with men intent on doing the right thing in THE IMMORTAL IRON FIST and HAWKEYE, Fraction excels at character driven stories with flawed leads who destroy their personal lives on a near daily basis. But it was in 2012’s THE DEFENDERS that Fraction and a host of incredible artists mixed the theistic grandiosity of Kirby-style Marvel mythology with stories of sad fools bumping their way through the night, blindly trying to create a world in which everyone they love makes it out alive.
THE DEFENDERS is an incredibly layered reading experience, not only juggling a large, varied cast, but going through multiple narrative trickery along the way. The story refuses to tell itself in a way we’ve come to expect in mainstream superhero comics, and sets its self apart immediately as a result. Plot is not only laid out in very human dialogue scenes between characters, but by a yellow expository text box with a knowing sense of humour (“A little dark I know,” the box admits in an opening segment that seems to attack the hysterical adolescent quality of many post-Moore/Millar superhero books, “But it happened.”) as well as a running text feature presented in the corner of each page, that at first echoes house-ads from 1970’s Marvel comics (WINTER SOLDIER. DR. DOOM. BOOM!, STORY CONTINUES SECOND PAGE FOLLOWING, etc.) and soon becomes something different entirely. EVERYONE YOU LOVE DIES the corner pages continually remind us in the midst of our reading pleasure. SOMETHING KIND OF STRUCK ME TODAY – I’LL NEVER FALL IN LOVE. These snippets of existential ache play out amiss battles between the Silver Surfer and a race of tiger people in abutment madness that could only be accomplished in comics.
Doctor Strange, Red She-Hulk, Iron Fist, Namor and the Silver Surfer have just stolen a machine of bizarre property known only as the Concordance Engine. Guarded by the silent watchman with Omega on his palms, Prester John, the intricately designed device begins by erasing Nul, the collected energy of Hulk’s anger (basically, when Banner gets mad he becomes the Hulk, but what happens when Hulk gets mad? What if the Hulk had a Hulk?) out of existence, and follows up by augmenting Danny Rand’s comic book collection from bizarre Silver Age stories to mature, contemporary affair. The newest Non-Team knows little what to do with the Concordance Engine, except they’ve noticed they can’t talk about it with anyone except themselves, and they’re finding more and more of them around the world. Soon, as Strange stares fixated at it, hoping to get some sort of grip on it, some sort of grip on his life, remembering the young Grad student named Molly he recently bed, feeling the hollow emptiness he’s felt plague him all of his adult life…Martha appears.
Named after a Tom Waits song, Martha is self-pity and nostalgia come to life. Sure to upset many a continuity-freak, it seems Strange had a tryst with a his adviser while in Med School. “And things were great until they weren’t,” Strange remembers of the brief love affair, “and you realize that even adults can get crushed sometimes. Because being an adult doesn’t protect you from pain, it just shows you new ways to inflict it.” After days of young puppy-love returned, the nubile Molly returns to Strange’s home in an awkward reunion of three one-time lovers, a mirror reflection of Stephen’s own line-crossing romance as a student. Soon, Martha has left to return to the family she left the young Doctor for in the first place, and Strange is left alone in the world once again. His melancholy is interrupted as Namor, Iron Fist and Silver Surfer discover new secrets of the Concordance Engine. Tying into the history of the Atlanteans and the Immortal Weapons, the Engines exist in a pre-history recorded by no one, a machine that hides the idea of itself so that none may know of its exsistence. But why? WHAT WE DON’T KNOW COULD FILL THE HEAVENS.
In the secret history Iron Fist discovers, groups of adventuring costumed heroes have existed long before the Fantastic Four or the Avengers strolled into town. The Confederates of the Curious, a rag-tag gang of explorers from the hidden Concordance history discovered an engine of their own, and counted as one of their members a young John Aman. Soon the Defenders are on their way to Z’Gambo, hoping to find more answers, and we soon learn that Aman’s has been killing off the rest of the Immortal Weapons in a plot that ties into the Concordance Engines as well as a group of Brass Frogs, artifacts from a Jack Kirby Black Panther story. It isn’t long before Aman sends the team, along with new recruit Black Cat, across the sea of the multiverse, to a hip 1960’s world of Frankenstien Hitler’s, sexy Hydra spies, multiple Nick Fury’s, and Pussycat, agent of S.C.O.R.E. After this brief diversion, the gang returns home to find…death.
The universe has broken. Everyone they love has died. The Defenders have lost, as a black death-God known as the Death Celestial slowly walks over the ruins of New York. The gang survives by staying shrunken down to microscopic size with the help of Ant-man. The Silver Surfer, meanwhile, has been transported to a plane outside of existence, to be greeted by the Omega Council. A group of Presters, born to bear witness to world after world of incredible pain and suffering, they took it upon themselves to create the Concordance Engine, a way to tie disparate threads of hope together across multiple realities. “Haven’t you ever wondered why Earth, Of all the planets in all of the infinite cosmos, always seems to be the focal point of everything?” the Surfer explains. In a quantum gesture of optimisim appropriate to a superhero story, it is revealed that the heroes of the Marvel Universe are protectors interwoven into the very fabric of their reality. If all of this cosmic Kirbyism is losing you, don’t worry. It’s here that the story of the non-team comes to a close in intimate fashion.
Back in the destroyed remains of New York, Strange returns to his Greenwich den to discover a deceased Wong, a loyal servant to the end. As Strange lets the last thing he had to hold on, his last true love, off into a new world beyond life, Surfer returns to Earth. Revealing that the Death Celestial can’t be stopped, he tells Strange that they must stop themselves, for their theft of a machine built to erase itself from all history has ensured the end of the all they love. With some help from the cosmic powers of Surfer, Strange travels by the astral plane to see himself as we saw him in the opening of the series, post-coital with the young Molly. “Look at you.” He says, disgusted with himself, “You could be covered in bandages and you’d still have no idea how wounded you are.” Watching himself from an outside perspective, Strange is able to pinpoint the exact flaw of his personality – he refuses to hold on to love. A disparate, educated, fully alone soul who attempted to cheat the universe itself in a quest for knowledge, Strange looks at a sad man looking for work, looking for a mystery, and casts a spell to turn everything off balance.
Using a trick with a teabag, Strange spelled the word RAGE out of his daily newspaper the morning of his reunion with The Defenders, which lead to heartache, death, destruction, and the end of the universe. But if what it didn’t? What if the message was something more hopeful? What if a man had a reason to go on? “ONCE UPON A TIME” a new form of narration box informs us, “AN ANGRY MAN CAME HUNTING FOR A SAD MAN. BUT THIS TIME IT DIDN’T WORK OUT. THIS TIME ONE SMALL ACT OF KINDNESS MADE ALL THE DIFFERENCE.” We cut to a bemusedly happy Strange, wryly smiling in a diner with Molly, “IN THE FACE OF ALL OUR NIGHTMARES KINDNESS IS THE MOST IMPOSSIBLE THING OF ALL” The infamous non-team becomes the ultimate non-team, as the group never meets and the adventures never begin. It all ended the only way it can with superhero comics – the death of one universe, the beginning of another. The hidden knowledge of a prehistory, the expansive power of an untold future. The failure of a bunch of sad men and women, the perseverance of a group of heroes.
THE DEFENDERS is layered, intelligent and personal storytelling, told in a magical, hyper-real form that exists only in the wonderful world of superhero comics. Told across realities, across the cosmos, across time, with a wide cast of complex characters and held up by the romantic longings of one man. THE DEFENDERS didn’t read like a throwback to classic runs, it didn’t read like a gritty, deconstruction of what we thought we knew of the genre, it didn’t read like anything else I’ve ever read. A criminally underappreciated modern classic, THE DEFENDERS will live on in a prehistory of our own making, a nostalgic longing for a story that never quite existed, a message of hope for the melancholic yet reluctantly romantic readers out there in the Marvel fandom. THE DEFENDERS was the greatest Marvel comic of 2012.