09 November 2012

defending the defenders

We all know the deal with trademark protection - if a trademark has even a modicum of value to a publisher, it's going to get resurrected and slapped on a cover every so often, especially if it's ever had even the most modest success.  It's why the Doom Patrol gets relaunched every few years even though it never lasts long.  And it's why we get a Defenders revival at least once per decade - and usually even more often that that.

The original Defenders series is remembered fondly by some as an oddball Marvel team book from the late 70's/ early 80's.  The series featured an eclectic mash-up of Marvel heroes who were weird and/or not in the Avengers, and though it was never really my thing, it had several runs that appear to be "cult" favorites.  By the early 80's it was flailing around in the marketplace, and was given a soft relaunch as the "New Defenders".  That lasted awhile and then the series got the axe.  Marvel brought it back in the early 90's as the "Secret Defenders", which pretty much no one liked.  That one died a quick death.  Then Marvel tried again around 2000 or so with a Kurt Busiek/ Erik Larsen series that flopped.  THEN they did a series by Keith Giffen/ J.M. DeMatteis & Kevin Maguire in the style of the JLI.  That was pretty cool, I thought.  THEN there was a Joe Casey miniseries that I didn't read.  And every time they trot the property out there, they reinvent it a little.

But this time... THIS time... Marvel thought it'd got it right.  This time they were going to push this series in a big way - attach a star creative team to it, give it a big rollout spinning out of an event, the whole nine yards.  Thus we got Defenders (2011) # 1-12 (Matt Fraction/ various) - until it got canceled abruptly and then we didn't got it.

I'm not sure what if anything the failure of this series says about the market.  Playing market analyst over stuff like this is a passtime fraught with peril.  For whatever reason it didn't catch on.

And that's kind of a shame, because I think it's some of Fraction's best Marvel work, and even though the book changes artists all too often, the art is pretty good throughout.

Can we agree at this point that Matt Fraction's work is way better when it's offbeat?  Look, I liked the first few years of his Iron Man a lot - and I read all the way to the end - but isn't there something a little too button-downed about it?  It's polished in a way that Defenders surely is not, but somehow the polish detracts from it.  Larocca's overly-posed art is part of that, but even if Gabriel Ba was drawing Iron Man, there'd be something a little too mainstream about it.

Defenders, on the other hand, goes out of its way to get out of the mainstream's way.  It features the kind of world-bending story one associates more closely (at least these days) with a DC Comic than a Marvel one.  It's got this weird group of characters that changes, sometimes without explanation, from issue to issue.  There's an overarching storyline but it's oddly paced and meanders off on all kinds of tangents.  When the book launched, one of the things Fraction wanted to do was tell the story Marvel-style - that is, have the artist draw from his plot and then add dialog over the art - but surely that was abandoned when the artistic merry-go-round began.  The book's got all these old-school tics, like the little text notes at the bottom of the pages: "Check out Avenging Spider-Man #7 on sale now!", or "Everyone you love dies!", and it's cool but feels a little too self-consciously so.

In many ways, it's an experiment that doesn't entirely work.  It's attempting to tell a massive mega-story but doesn't always quite pull it off.  And yet - without awarding points for effort - it's enjoyable in part because of the rough edges.  It's similar to how I felt about the art on Point of Impact, but in more of a strange, head-trippy kind of way.  Defenders is a comic that rewards you for paying close attention but also rewards you for not paying TOO close attention.  The recap page at the start of each issue has a blurb about each of the major characters, noting that Iron First "has just the zen perspective that this adventure requires". And I think a reader benefits from that same perspective.  The characters all feel in character but the story doesn't really say anything about any of them except maybe Dr. Strange, and somehow that seems okay if you're willing to roll with it and just buy into the book's strangeness.  It's not full-on Casanova WTF Was That Weird, but it feels different, more inspired and yet less serious than something like Iron Man.

I doubt this series will be remembered by many five years from now, except as another in a long line of failed attempts to recapture this property's glory days.  I thought it was a pretty noble.. "experiment" seems like the wrong word, but maybe if there was a less daring version of it?  It didn't read like the rest of Marvel's books to me - it carved out a unique voice in an increasingly homogenized landscape.  I wish there was more room among the Marvel (and DC) landscapes for more oddball stuff like this.


Dan Coyle said...

You know what made me kind of turn away from it? it was a really weird thing, but the story in Point One, where they do the old cliche of the guy giving Doctor Strange a warning before killing himself.

I just kept thinking, why couldn't Doctor Strange have found a way to save that one guy? It's not like it was badly done, it was well done, and made sense for the story . But I just couldn't abide one more scene of a hero failing to save someone.

I also think the comics press and bloggerati really had it in for the book, as a way of punishing Marvel for Fear Itself (which I'm about to embark on rereading several trades of), which a lot of people hated (but unfortunately didn't stop buying the main book, which, you know, THESE THINGS WILL NEVER STOP UNLESS YOU SEND THE MESSAGE).

Graeme McMillan really gave it the white whale treatment, IIRC.

For myself, I'm just not much of a Terry Dodson fan.

I think Matt Fraction is more a victim of Marvel editorial trying to force him into a position that just didn't play to his strengths.

matches said...

I ended up reading the point one thing about six months after the fact. DCBS had it for 35 cents; I guess because Marvel overshipped it. Anyway, I forgot most of it as soon as I finished it. I'd say the ongoing was of much higher quality than the point one.

But yea, totally agreed about Fraction. He's much better on the weird stuff. I found all of Fear Itself very underwhelming (couldn't stop in the middle, unfortunately - got it all at once). Hawkeye is just ridiculously good though.