With ‘The Defenders’, street-level Marvel has never been better
By Don Alsafi. Despite the continued popularity of Marvel’s superheroes in the wider world, the publisher has to date been unable to translate that heightened awareness into increased comics sales.
Part of the problem, as we’ve seen, is a shortsighted approach in which too many of their comics are geared only toward its hardcore fans, which makes them nigh incomprehensible to casual readers. There have also been times in which Marvel has bizarrely failed to have any available product with which to capitalize on a film or TV show’s success. This past winter, viewers who were wowed by FX’s Legion flocked into comic stores only to be told that the best Legion stories were all out of print!
Fortunately, Marvel appears far more prepared when it comes to comics related to their Netflix offerings. This August will see the television debut of The Defenders, a street-level supergroup consisting of the title characters from all four of Marvel’s Netflix series so far: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. By that point, there should be four issues of Marvel’s new Defenders comic out on the shelves, which could be perfect for potential fans of the show – providing, of course, that it’s any good.
Written by Brian Michael Bendis.
Art by David Marquez.
Colors by Justin Ponsor.
Letters by VC’s Cory Petit.
The Dream Team. The comic is written by Marvel mainstay Brian Michael Bendis, who has a clear love for these characters. His five-year run on Daredevil was justifiably acclaimed, and his creation of Jessica Jones in 2001 gave readers one of the most genuinely-drawn female characters that the medium has ever known. (Bendis didn’t write solos for either Luke Cage or Iron Fist, but both of them starred in his New Avengers series.)
David Marquez was most recently seen as the penciller of last year’s Civil War II, a crossover event which was largely met with reader apathy. CWII was very much a typical superhero slugfest, with its cosmic space gods, variously-irradiated heroes, and stakes in which the world hung in the balance (yes, again). You wouldn’t necessarily peg its artist as the intuitive choice for next illustrating a grounded, very street-level comic like this one, but Marquez’s art is surprisingly appropriate in establishing settings in which you might expect your heroes to get a bit more dirtied. In fact, at times the shadowy visuals seem somewhat reminiscent of Alex Maleev’s moody, noirish pages from his and Bendis’ Daredevil.
Balancing Act. As the story opens, our four heroes individually find themselves under attack from an old enemy of Cage’s, seemingly back from the dead. The villain is shown to be both effective and staggeringly ruthless in the way that he immediately moves to take these players off the table, one after the other. At the same time, he also begins his bid to take over as crime lord of New York City. (This plot point was detailed more in the Defenders prelude story from Marvel’s offering for Free Comic Book Day.)
Crafting a first issue that is both understandable and immediately compelling is no easy task, and fully introducing a title’s lead is critical in convincing the readers to come back for more. This issue features four main characters, and yet Bendis and Marquez acquaint us with each of them through both dialogue and action. This is no easy feat, given the space limitations of a 21-page lead story, and a lesser writer could have simply assumed reader familiarity with the heroes via their TV counterparts. Here, the creative team wisely avoids that mistake.
Eyes on the details. It’s not a perfect comic, by any means. There are occasional disconnects between the art and the dialogue, like when a neighbor kid asks Luke Cage about “all those sandwiches” but the art clearly shows vegetables, eggs, and other groceries. Similarly annoying is the recap page, which spoils not only the identity of the villain (for any readers who missed the prelude in the FCBD comic) but also why he’s specifically targeting these heroes after all these years.
Thankfully, these few fumbles are balanced by a number of well-crafted touches throughout. A surprising Spider-Man ally/occasional antagonist takes the spotlight in a scene filled with menace and tension. Jessica Jones and Iron Fist, having drinks at a neighborhood bar, converse with Daredevil while he casually beats up a bunch of mooks. And the lead story is followed by six pages of a prose interview with Cage (as conducted by reporter Ben Urich). The impressive piece unambiguously conveys what kind of man Luke Cage really is, and Bendis’s knack for dialogue still shines after all these years.
A refreshing change of pace. The Defenders #1 is but the opening chapter in what looks to be a longer, layered narrative, feeling more like Bendis’s stark Daredevil run than anything he’s done since. He and Marquez do a commendable job in providing action and immediate threats, laying the groundwork for the inevitable underworld power struggle to come, and setting a distinct tone.
“If the Avengers,” we are told, “are up there… We need to be down here.” Which is as good a reason as any for these four friends to band together somewhat more formally than they’ve done in the past. It’s also something of a mission statement for the book. While the Avengers, the X-Men and more may travel to other galaxies and grapple with power-wielding madmen to save the Earth itself, the people who live on the ground in Marvel’s New York City have very different concerns. This is a comic staking out its (literal) territory very deliberately, and one that offers a subgenre of superheroics that hasn’t been fully explored in some time.
8 out of 10
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