More than anything, the thing to remember about the Defenders is this. It was a generationally relevant work, and the secret heart of the Silver Age. The logic for the Golden Age was simple: get superpowers, become a superhero. But some 20, 30 years down the line, in the ’50s/’60s, that logic began to seem more tired than immutable. The Silver that began with the new Flash (Barry Allen) and new Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), wasn’t simply comics for a new generation. It was an entirely new way to conceive of the superhero genre.
The Flash was no longer some random scientist working anonymously in a lab. Instead he was now a forensic scientist employed by the Central City Police Department. No longer a railway engineer, Green Lantern was a test pilot for cutting edge fighter jets with bleeding edge avionics. Then came the Marvels. Spider-Man was every bit the kid he was under the mask, his superhero only made things worse for him. Thor was an honest-to-goodness space-god, posing as a superhero because that’s what humans seemed to understand. The Fantastic Four were pioneers, explorers, rather than superheroes. And the X-Men were an emergency rescue team that intervened in species-level threats.
By the 1970s, the Defenders verged into the genuinely postmodern. In those classic pages, readers could find comics that engaged them directly, comics that acknowledged themselves as comics, and acknowledged readers’ act of reading them. The “enemies” the Defenders opposed weren’t space-fiends or gravity-thieves or mad scientists, but genuine existential angst. About a year ago, with the epilogues to Fear Itself when writer Matt Fraction’s reboot of the Defenders was officially announced within continuity, I don’t mind telling you Dear Reader, that my heart leapt.
We’ve seen Matt Fraction reboot Iron Man, and I can even remember the genre-bending work he did on Rex Mantooth (the actual title of the super-spy gorilla in the mold of James Bond). I’d secretly always bemoaned the fact that I was born a little too late to get in on the ground floor with Defenders. The original Defenders seemed out of reach historically, but seemed to speak to me culturally. With Fraction at the helm, I knew that I was hoping for a Defenders that could be The Defenders again.
And slowly over the course of the first storyarc, Fraction proved exactly that with his Defenders. A reboot of not only the same characters, and the same setting, but the same cultural tone as well. That first storyarc was just pitch-perfect. Fallout from the events of Fear Itself necessitates the on-gain, off-again Defenders to reunite. The group stares down an intergalactic-level threat, and ends up repossessing a Concordance Engine, something that may or may not be responsible for reality as we know it.
But as wonderful as that first storyarc was, those were simply fencing strokes. It’s with “Misfits”, a storyarc spotlighting each individual Defender in turn, that Fraction has really spread his wings. That Dr. Strange story was riveting–a perfect Dr. Strange story. It a story about incredibly powerful ancient artifacts, about an upstart young wizard with his eye of Strange’s title of Sorcerer Supreme, and a story about the anguish of love. Namor’s tale, and then Iron Fist’s tale were always just perfect Atlantis tales and Kung Fu legacy tales.
The tone had really been set with “Misfits”, that the Defenders is as much a book about the group banding together as it is about the group dispersed. And that in telling tales of the Defenders being dispersed, Fraction’s found the unique core of each character’s genre. So when Fraction switches up from heist genre in the beginning of issue #7 (where he introduces Felicia Hardy’s Black Cat into the sordid world of the Defenders) to pulp-style adventure story where the Defenders themselves jet off to distant Wakanda, a marvel of technology in Africa… well, that’s just par for the course in this newer, bolder Defenders.
What Fraction’s achieved with this book, a relatively modest, standalone book in the world of Avengers vs. X-Men and the other Marvel bestsellers, is nothing short of miraculous. He’s recaptured, with the sincere dedication of a fan, the original cultural relevance of the original Defenders. And he’s expanded on it beautifully, using the tools he built writing such recent masterworks as Invincible Iron Man and Immortal Iron Fist. But secretly, the really great thing?: it’s just one book a month, and I’m not bogged down by the morass of accumulated history.