The Defenders #1-#5

[27 March 2006]

By Mike Lukich

It’s funny. Comedy is often underrated in the modern superhero comic in spite of the fact that the potential for ridiculousness is virtually limitless. Take the Defenders, for instance. Originally conceived in the ‘70s when Marvel was firing off absurdist concepts as if the writers were in a hash-induced delirium (and they probably were), the big idea behind the Defenders was that they were a “non-team”. Unlike other more glamorous teams like the Avengers or the X-Men, they only came together when they were needed, and they didn’t like each other very much. With an unlikely core membership consisting of usually solitary and generally anti-social characters like the Hulk, the Sub-Mariner, Doctor Strange, and the Silver Surfer, few superhero teams had less chemistry, which was sort of the point.

Unfortunately, the inherent absurdity of the Defenders got lost and the series went through a number of ill-conceived revisions and re-launches in the ‘80s and ‘90s, all in an effort to make the book more “serious”, and the book eventually succumbed to that which all mediocre comics succumb to—cancellation. Enter writers Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis and artist Kevin Maguire, three gentlemen who are widely considered to be the master senseis of the superhero sitcom.

Giffen, DeMatteis, and Maguire’s run on DC’s Justice League is largely considered to be comedic gold and was certainly a breath of fresh air in the gritty world of late ‘80s superhero comics (an accomplishment that they recently reprised with the two mini-series’ Formerly Known as the Justice League and I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League). It seemed inevitable that when Marvel hired to trio to do their thing with a Marvel property that the Defenders would be what they chose.

Since the Defenders has long been one of the least respected groups in the Marvel Universe and the characters have a penchant for despising each other, it’s hard to imagine a Marvel book that would be more suited to the trio’s approach. The premise of this five-issue mini-series, titled simply Defenders, is a pretty basic and straightforward heroes and villains scenario. Classic torch-headed villain Dormammu and his sultry sister Umar are hatching a plan to take over the universe once again, and it’s up to Doctor Strange to re-form his motley crew of Defenders to stop them. That’s pretty much the gist of it. The plot is really sort of incidental, since the meat of the book, as with most humor comics, are the character interactions and dialogue.

If you’ve ever wanted to see Bruce Banner utter lines like “It’s Hulkin’ time!” and “Shazulk!” when he’s trying to transform into the Hulk or see a villain shout “Varicose Veins of the Vishanti!” as an expletive, then this book is for you. Giffen and DeMatteis play up the antagonism between characters to the tenth degree as they hurl insults at each other more often than punches, and DeMatteis breaks any rules that may exist about the number of lines and speech balloons in each panel and loads them chock full of rapid-fire quips. Occasionally, the humor comes off as a bit forced and even predictable, and the main characters do come across as caricatures of themselves to some degree, but it’s obvious that it’s all done with genuine affection.

In a lot of ways, this book harks back to the less-serious days of classic 1960’s Marvel, albeit the humor here is quite a bit more adult-oriented. It doesn’t get too sophisticated, of course, and shows no restraint in poking fun at the stereotypical superhero style of speaking in slogans and exclamations that these characters (and most Marvel characters) have been known to indulge in at one time or another.

As far as the artwork goes, Maguire is one of the few American mainstream comic artists who could do shoujo (Japanese comics marketed to a younger female audience). Over the years, his clean, crisp style has grown more animated and, for lack of a better word, comical. Facial expressions are his strong suit, as always, and the action scenes are rendered with a slapstick wit. Some of his spreads are downright amazing, such as the two-page spread of Eternity, one of Marvel’s resident omnipotent beings, lying in his own celestial blood and floating in a sea of white space. Another highlight is when our team of heroes are fighting demonic analogs of recognizable Marvel heroes, in which Maguire comes up with some quite hilarious character designs.

I’ll admit that there is nothing particularly groundbreaking here and there are no real surprises or compelling plot twists to be had. This is just a straight-up shot of superhero humor that will appeal to anyone looking for a good, old-fashioned cosmic-powered laugh in the Marvel Universe (fans of the recent Alpha Flight series and current She-Hulk series will certainly enjoy it). Few creators pull off comedy of the spandex set as well as this trio, and while this is perhaps not quite as sharp and inspired as their previous work at DC, the Defenders is still a fun, light-hearted riff on Marvel’s premier non-team.

Oh, and the Hulk gets laid. Nuff said.

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