Defenders Disassembled

Rich Johnston, who I let read USA TODAY for me, is relaying that the Defenders series that was launched last December is being cancelled with issue 12, in November.

Insofar as I have emotions relating to the continuation or cancellation of ongoing superhero comic books, well, this makes me pretty sad. What Fraction was building in Defenders had the potential to be the great superhero epic of the recent past, a story that, years from now, we talked about with reverence because it showed exactly what superhero stories were capable of, because it suggested where the strength of such stories lie, because it embraced how ridiculous these stories are on their face while celebrating how far down they can go. I really did believe, and I still do, that the book could have been almost ontological, a sort of study not only of the being of the Marvel Universe, like the book's press suggested, but also of those things that make modern shared universe superhero comics tick. Those little bits of text at the bottom of the page, those block letters advertising other Marvel comics, providing a little commentary or, most brilliantly recognizing that such stories are interrupted, invaded even, by the real world when advertising finds its way between panels, suggest that that is just what Fraction was after.

This isn't to say that those little bits of running meta-commentary was the only subversion that Fraction was trying, not even a little. Because the story has barely even begun to take shape, its hard to know where it was headed, but what there is so far suggests that Fraction is just as interested in the building blocks of comics themselves as he was in the forces that drive the mass sale of sequential art. Look at the cover to Defenders #9, for example: in one of the series' recurring visual cues, the colors and line art are removed, so all that remains are silhouettes that bite into the background. In story terms, this is a symbol for transportation, and a clever one, but in comics terms the characters are actually being ripped from the panel. Where do they go?

The simple answer is into the next panel, or the next book. The more complicated answer, suggested by the negative space that is overtaking Iron Fist and company, is that, before they end up where they're going, they're traveling though the gutter. Fraction, and the book's two main artists, Terry Dodson and Jamie McKelvie, are actually inverting the typical relationship between the reader and the read, here, since its usually the former who actually travels while reading a comic while the latter just stay, motionless, plastered in the brief slice of time represented by every panel. Here, rather than being moved along by a reader outside of it, the characters are being removed from one panel, by a force within the comic, and pushed somewhere else through the infinity, the unlimited time and space, of the gutter. Fraction, in other words, was trying the comics equivalent of a perpetual motion machine, a comic literally driven by the plot, a piece of art with its own motor.

And now we don't get to see where it goes, at least not right now.

I often think that writers, particularly writers who write for people who gleefully call themselves fans, are guilty of overwriting, of providing too many answers and leaving too little to the infinite possibilities of a world full of imaginative energy. Here, however, we're dealing with a story that actually traffics in infinity, a story that was attempting to engage with comics at their very base, and we know too little. I'm sure there aren't very many who are going to mourn the demise of The Defenders, books don't get cancelled for no reason, after all, but I'll be one of the few, and not only because it prominently features four of my favorite characters, only one of whom is getting a real significant amount of screen time these days. Instead, I'll miss The Defenders because I'll always wonder what it could have been, what it could have said. Because I'll never be quite sure what Matt Fraction was trying to say, and that's a damn shame.

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