[12 December 2011]
PopMatters Comics Editor
Left to my own devices, I braved a trip to the basement to fish out my copy of Hulk (volume two) Annual #18, 1992’s opening chapter to “The Return of the Defenders”. I remember reading for the first time it on the plane ride to London, weeks after originally buying it. Even then, it felt solid in my hands, heavy with promise. The Defenders were making their return.
It was the ‘90s and direct marketing was only just winning me over. I never did manage to pick up the the remaining three parts (spread through that year’s Namor, Silver Surfer and Doctor Strange Annuals). But on that plane ride, and now years later, Hulk Annual #18 feels heavy with promise. Prior to 1992, the Defenders were always That Thing on the Horizon. I managed to put together a pitiable collection of seven issues of the original ‘80s New Defenders, the rebranding of the series following David Anthony Kraft’s leaving the series.
For years at that point, back in 1992, Defenders had been an impolite gap in my collection. Something I aimed for, but never really got at, not completely. My, Thing on the Horizon. By 1992 already, I knew Defenders was important, capital eye. Steve Gerber, the hair-shirt genius behind Howard the Duck, was the first writer on the original book. It had been a deconstruction of superhero comics at a level that later writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller would emulate, but not really expand. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns owes a secret, perhaps unacknowledgeable debt to Gerber’s Defenders. Next author in line, David Anthony Kraft would only grow the brand.
There was an emotional core to both Gerber and Kraft’s runs on Defenders; in their hands, Defenders was About something. Imagine a world where superheroes did more than beat up the supervillain/cosmic-level threat du jour. Imagine a world where superheroes wrestled with the deeper, existential questions of life in the angst-ridden ‘70s. Now imagine a book that could make an ongoing drama of that. It was loneliness and isolation amid a shrinking sea of material opulence that was the real Enemy in Defenders. It was the normal everyday things, became the secret veneer of hidden, lurking terror. And it was the ludicrousness of confronting that, with the pitiable human mechanism we have at our disposal.
And I knew, even back in 1992, that The Defenders were important. But I’d never been able to put together enough issues from Gerber’s and Kraft’s seminal runs to fully appreciate the book or its high concept. Perhaps there’s a secret victory in that. Perhaps in 1992, I would still have been too young, perhaps Gerber and Kraft would have been wasted on me then.
Of course, my picking up the 1992’s Hulk Annual #18 was what Teller, one half of stage magician act Penn & Teller, would refer to as the lie that reveals the greater truth. The Defenders came later. I picked up the Hulk Annual for Hulk. For Peter David’s magnificent run. David had thrown in yet another plot twist—he brought the Hulk into contact with the Greek-themed cadre of immortals, The Pantheon. Mere issues earlier (was it Hulk #370?), the storyline had segued into The Defenders, of which Hulk was a founding member. The alien prophecy (first mentioned late in Kraft’s run) that predicted the destruction of the Earth should, Hulk, Namor, Silver Surfer and Doc Strange ever band together, had just been exposed as fraudulent. And suddenly, an original Defenders reunion was on the cards.
I bought Hulk Annual #18 for Hulk crossing paths with the Pantheon. And, for Kevin Maguire.
I remember the bright whimsy of Maguire’s ultra-expressive faces, the pure animated joy of his characterizations as the very definition of halcyon. Reading him in Justice League International I, and everyone I knew, recognized instantaneously that this would be the past we would decry as everything else never being quite as good as. And here he was, drawing “Four on the Floor”, the first chapter of “Return of the Defenders”. The story grasped at the humor in the original Defenders, Maguire’s artwork only cemented the visual tone.
Almost singularly, it was Maguire that wove that promise into 1992’s “Return of the Defenders”. That holding Hulk Annual #18 in my hand, I may not have been able to grasp at Gerber’s Defenders or Kraft’s Defenders, but I’d be able to hold a New Defenders in my hands. One that would be as powerful as the original Gerbers and Krafts. One that would set the cultural agenda in comics for the next decade.
But it was the ‘90s, and that was not to be. By the next year, the original four Defenders would be out of the team once again. And X-Men’s Beast would put together a revolving cast of specialists to deal with specific threats to reality as they arose. This was 1993’s Secret Defenders, at it was pure Clintonomics. Secret deals with clandestine government agencies, it was intelligence gathering and strike-team black ops under cover of darkness. The secret and simultaneous bastardization of both Twin Peaks and The X-Files.
But now, some two decades after, I hold Matt Fraction and Terry Dodson’s phenomenal Defenders #1 in my hands. And that old familiar Promise begins to flow freely again. Here at the dawn of tomorrow, Defenders is the hypertext of comicbooks. Fraction’s storytelling tone is pitched perfectly to recapture that postmodern angst that Gerber and Kraft originally pioneered. Dodson’s artwork is a Tony Bennett duet with Lady Gaga; the quiet victory of a perfect and unexpected marriage.
This new Defenders title picks up from earlier this year’s Fear Itself: The Deep, where the original Defenders banded together again (sans Hulk who was possessed at the time) to push back one of The Worthy. Rather than Editor Tom Brevoort footnoting past issues, Fraction footnotes the continuation of subplots on into other series. This postmodern play on comics’ continual battle with the weight of continuity is very likely what Gerber himself might have done. How else would you pay homage to a seminal book that never quite became a mainstay, starring an ever-revolving cast of heroes?
If there were a soundtrack to Fraction’s Defenders it would be found on The Eurhythmics Revenge album, “When Tomorrow Comes”. Not because when I read Fraction’s story and Dodson’s Defenders quickly becomes that halcyon moment like when I read Maguire’s art for the first time (and it does, Defenders is already that thing I will measure things against, when tomorrow comes). But because there’s that single line that Annie Lennox belts out so flawless that it seems it makes perfect sense within the context of the song. In truth, it is the strangest line ever, and it kicks the song up into an entirely different level. “Last night, while you were lying in my arms and I was wondering where you were/ And you looked just like a baby, fast asleep in this dangerous world/ With the stars shining brightly, just like a million years ago/ An we were feeling very small, underneath the universe”.
Defenders is halcyon now, because we have no idea of the threats that face us. And postmodern levity is perhaps the only way to negotiate the dangers. For Fraction and Dodson to convey that in just 22 pages… there really is promise here.