Defenders Assemble

If there was any question as to whether or not Matt Fraction was the most versatile writer in mainstream comics, Defenders #1 should settle it. In the last year, Fraction added both one of Marvel's flagship books (his Thor is a highpop masterpiece, beautiful and consistently brilliant) and the best event comic in a long time (Fear Itself, which still definitely has its faults) to his bibliography, which already included his work on Casanova, Invincible Iron Man and, my favorite comic of all time, Immortal Iron Fist. Now, with his first year as Marvel's main man behind him, Fraction pulls what could very well be his best single comic ever out of the box; if Defenders follows up on the promise of this first issue, we could have the first great epic of the Modern Age on our hands.

Of course, to give all the credit to Fraction would be a pretty serious sin; this is a great looking book. It has no pretensions towards "high art," it gives no concessions to photorealism; this is high-grade comics art, pure and simple. Terry Dodson's characters move with ease; this art is easiest the supplest I've seen in a long time. There's definitely a certain thrust to his panel designs, and his figures are dynamic even though, as comic art, they're necessarily static. Beyond even that, though, the figures have this marvelous rounded quality; they're cartoony and stylized like what Kirby might have looked like if he had traded blocky for slick. All of this only works, though, because the people finishing up Dodson are so damn good. The inker is his wife, Rachel Dodson, who has to be among the best in the business. Her default line is heavy enough to be noticeable, it's an important part of what gives the art its distinctively slick look, but not so heavy as to be overpowering, and certainly not heavy enough to strangle everything else on the page. This is a very good thing, because colorist Sonia Oback does a very good job of doing a lot with a little. Although a far cry from the "flat" colors that we saw in the pages of Thor: The Mighty Avenger and, more recently, Daredevil, Oback's palate is simple, almost basic, and she doesn't try anything clever: she gives the Dodsons' lines depth, but does a very good job of going just far enough, so that what we get is a comic that looks like a comic, and that doesn't have pretensions towards anything else.

Defenders is an honest book, just trying to be the best comic it can be, and at that it is a magnificent success; that it looks like a comic book should look is only half the reason why (although, too often, it is something that gets overlooked).

Fraction, of course, is the other half. He's helping his art team here: the book does well the things that comics are supposed to do well. It has forward motion, for one, a motion driven by easily readable panel design and a certain artistic thrust, but defined by the general structure and pacing of the comic. Aside from being a clearly distinct narrative, with a distinct three act structure, (note: this sentence so far should probably read "FRACTION'S NOT WRITING FOR TRADE! HOORAY!," but I'm trying to contain my excitement at a writer practicing what should be the basic tenant of comics writing), it gives each protagonist a proper introduction and moment in the spotlight, and sets up a telling internal monologue for each of them, one that emphasizes character in particular contrast to what comes out in the dialogue. This is not to say that the characters don't fit together, or something: the dialogue is an absolute joy, and it seems as natural as anything.

I want to emphasize that, when I use the word "motion," that I'm not just talking figuratively: the way that Defenders moves from place to place literally is impressive (and the panels with the team on the train, with the Surfer outside the window, keeping pace on his board, are AWESOME). Fraction is clearly concerned with it: a surprising percentage of the comic is devoted to it. I'm hoping that it's indicative of a larger tendency towards meditation on the mechanics of what goes on inside the pages of the book, both in terms of the mechanics of the actual plot and in terms of coherence. A comic doesn't have to be perfectly explained to make sense, but the ones that are both (and keep in mind that "perfectly explained" doesn't mean that everything is explained, just the right amount) are few and far between. Fraction is clearly thinking about how his characters get from A to B, and I hope that means that, in the long run, Defenders is going to hang together quite well, that all the pieces are going to fit together and that everything is going to make sense, at least in its proper moment.

That this is a concern which the book diligently does not confirm is impressive, particularly since the premise is that this team that the Hulk is putting together is the team that is going to protect the Marvel Universe from the impossible. One wonders what is impossible in the Marvel Universe, what with its mutant mermen, its sorcerers supreme, its ripped red women, its silver surfers; anything that Fraction throws at this team he's assembled is going to have to boggle the mind. Interestingly, Defenders seems to be aware of its status as a comic book, and I do mean the book itself rather than any of the characters, as they are all blissfully unaware. On the bottom of the pages, though, there are these little messages, advising the reader as to where the story continues and advertising what's going on in a few of the other, perhaps important, Marvel books. A device like this makes me wonder if were in for some kind of meta-adventure, one much more Grant Morrison writing himself into Animal Man than Deadpool's "comic sense."

If we are, there's no team that I would trust to do it more than I trust this one. Defenders is the last essential comic of 2011, and it may also be the first. I haven't been this excited for the second issue of a series in a very long time.

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