Every so often, Panel Discussion will take a look at a graphic novel or a run of comics that executes particularly well. This is Why It Works.
I'd lost a little bit of faith in Matt Fraction.
The Portland-based writer won me over years ago with his brilliant superspy series Casanova, which deconstructed and re-assembled the clichés of the genre in genius fashion. Then, I followed him to an equally smart and sharp revival of Iron Man and a great Iron Fist book where he and Ed Brubaker expanded the mythology surrounding Marvel's mystical martial artist. Things were humming along. But then Fear Itself happened.
The crossover event focused on Thor and Captain America felt overblown from the start and limped to its ending. This wasn't the Fraction I'd shown up for. Still, I took a chance on the writer's relaunch of The Defenders, a Marvel title that used to bill itself as the un-team. The unit's core still consists of Dr. Strange, the Silver Surfer and the Sub-Mariner but also adds Iron Fist along with the Red She-Hulk in the powerhouse role.
Defenders returns to Fraction to a space where he can once again mesh complicated personalities with cosmically big plot ideas. In the first four issues of the title, he hints at a large unknown threat at the fringes of the universe that will be met by heroes who'll respond in grumpy and befuddled fashion. If that sounds like an unlikely recipe, don't worry. Here why I think The Defenders works.
Even though this is ostensibly a spinoff of Fear Itself, this first issue works on its own without referring to that mini-series. Part of that comes from the great introductions that establish voice and characterizations for each team member. Everyone's in a transitional moment when we meet them and the reader happens upon both Dr. Strange and Iron Fist in a booty-call moment. (Not with each other, though that'd be okay, too)
This issue's second half matches up exposition and action seamlessly so that you barely realize you're absorbing plot along with all the fighting. By the time the cliffhanger rolls along, you're hooked to see what happens next. Classical superhero story-telling structure through a post-modern lens.
I love how a team with Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer, a She-Hulk and the Sub-Mariner finds themselves outmatched in this part of the story. The fact that they find themselves in over their heads highlights the reluctance and tension that's always been inherent to a Defenders comic.
They're kinda half-assing it and wind up paying the price. The art team of Terry and Rachel Dodson are best known for their cheesecake artwork but they show off great skill at rendering facial expressions and fantastical environments, too.
It's clear that Defenders is a comic happening in a post-Lost world, with mysterious threads of synchronicity that tease at a bigger existential reckoning. So, the callbacks to obscure Marvel history—with characters who appear to share a connection with cult 1970s hero Omega the Unknown-work both as a showcase for the work of previous Defenders talent like Steve Englehart and as plot elements.
References aren't the only way that the book creates an appealing retro vibe, either. Fraction's using the kind of narrative captioning that fell out of fashion decades ago in the Defenders and resurrects the running, bottom-of-the-page text that was a staple of 1970s Marvel Comics. Of course, both elements get bent towards the weird so we get commentary like "Hey that tiger is flying a spaceship".
After the first adventure wraps up, Fraction and guest artist Michael Lark deliver a brilliantly moody character piece focusing on the Master of the Mystic Arts. Fraction's really focused on re-interpreting Doctor Strange in this book. He's the weird guy who knows weird stuff and is shown to be a bit tortured and lonely as a result. The girl from issue #1's one-night stand shows up and things get unexpectedly poignant for the Sorcerer Supreme. This kind of portrait-drawing is what made me a Fraction fan in the first place and I hope he makes room for all the book's main personas to get similar spotlights.