Each week Graphic Detail reviews a new graphic novel or trade paperback collection.
If you're someone who follows comics pretty regularly (like this writer), you may have heard some seriously positive buzz about writer Matt Fraction's new take on Marvel's classic Defenders concept. This week, Marvel released the first trade paperback collection of Fraction's Defenders work, collecting the first six issues of this series, so all of us who weren't cool enough to jump on board when the book first launched can now enjoy it in book-length form.
So what is The Defenders? Or maybe better yet, who are the Defenders? They're a group made up of mostly mystical, mostly super-powerful heroes from different corners of the Marvel Universe who've banded together to take on the shadowy threats that the more famous teams can't. Their leader is Dr. Strange, a master of the occult with a penchant for being kind of a scumbag to women. Also among their ranks: Iron Fist, aka Danny Rand, a millionaire with a giant corporation and a deep love of comic books and adventure; Namor, king of Atlantis and mutant; the Silver Surfer, ex-herald of Galactus who wants to reclaim his humanity; and the Red She-Hulk, former love interest of Bruce Banner who's got some issues of her own. These are five characters who aren't likely to star in their own comic any time soon so Fraction kind of gets to do what he wants with them in this book, which is definitely one of its strengths.
And yeah, the story here is pretty great. In the first part of the book, a giant monster named Nul—basically, we're told, the Hulk if he could Hulk out again—is set loose and looking for an ancient machine called a "Concordance Engine" that, it's thought, could re-shape the world… if only anyone knew how to operate it. Dr. Strange and his team aren't going to take that chance when it comes to Nul, though. But SPOILER even after they stop him, the Defenders' trouble keeps on compounding. A couple other Concordance Engines show up around the globe, Dr. Strange learns that they can be used to make wishes come true—even awful ones—and former allies of our heroes turn against them, seeking the power they possess.
Fraction's Defenders does a great job balancing this cosmic, sci-fi, kind of out-there story with great character moments. In particular, Fraction has a really fun time writing She-Hulk, who's fairly new to the superhero game and just so excited to go into battle with her trusted weapon, a "big-ass sword." Iron Fist also provides some wonderful comedic moments, and the character at the heart of this book—Dr. Strange—gets some actually moving plotlines, particularly involving the way he always seems to use women. Pretty heavy for sci-fi superheroes.
The art in this volume doesn't shine as much as the story. The first half of the book's handled by frequent Fraction collaborator Terry Dodson, whose art just isn't for everyone. Dodson's been pinned as a "cheesecake" artist, which pretty much holds true here; he likes big, hulking forms and curvy women. That's fine, but all his characters tend to blend together; it's really hard, for instance, to tell Namor and Dr. Strange apart when we can't see their whole costume or face. After Dodson's turn, the last half of the book is divided among three other artists, which is strange… usually pencilers need a month off to catch up now and again, but three? The lack of consistency definitely hurts this book visually, especially when one of the pencilers, Michael Lark, seems fair and away the best artist on this volume, and it's unfortunate that he only gets one chapter to strut his stuff.
Fraction's Defenders is certainly a good read, and it's a good deal more experimental than a lot of other Marvel team books. That said, don't necessarily go into this book believing all the hype. It's good, solid superheroics with a bit of a twist, but at present maybe not too much more. That said, the last chapter of this volume in particular hints at a future that looks pretty intriguing, and Fraction definitely looks like he knows what he's doing with these guys. B