"Defenders #1" Already Feels Like "When Tomorrow Comes"

Why has Defenders always been a seminal title, but never been a mainstay of the popular imagination? Can writer Matt Fraction and artist Terry Dodson assert this new volume of the classic book as tomorrow's halcyon, today?

Defenders #1

Publisher: Marvel
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Matt Fraction, Terry Dodson
Price: $3.99
Publication Date: 2012-02

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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

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With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

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(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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