The Marvel Universe’s major superhero teams tend to provoke strong and clear reactions from the general public, whether it’s love for the Avengers and the Fantastic Four or fear and hatred directed toward the X-Men. One team that’s never had a clear-cut relationship with the public-at-large, however, is the Defenders. Traditionally , the “non-team” has boasted lineups composed of a unique collection of heroes, including characters prone to destructive rages like the Hulk and Namor, mysterious and powerful beings like Doctor Strange and the Silver Surfer and quite often lesser-known and more esoteric heroes like Nighthawk, Valkyrie and Gargoyle.
This dangerous and eclectic nature have made the Defenders a fan-favorite team over the decades, and in December, a new misfit grouping of diverse Marvel U residents is brought together in an all-new “Defenders” #1 by writer Matt Fraction and artist Terry Dodson. To help fans prepare for the new ongoing series, CBR News today kicks off DEFENSIVE MEASURES, a week-long look at the new “Defenders” title and the various characters to be featured within its pages. We begin by chatting with Matt Fraction about the origin of the book and the types of stories it will feature.
The seeds for “Defenders” were planted when Fraction began to look for a book to work on once he was he finished with the recently concluded event miniseries “Fear Itself.” During that time, he was approached by Marvel Editor in Chief Axel Alonso and SVP/Executive Editor Tom Brevoort.
“They wanted me to consider a new ‘Defenders’ book. They believed it could be a big tent pole franchise for Marvel like The Avengers. It’s flattering to be asked, but at that time, I didn’t have any particular knowledge of the series. It just wasn’t something I hadn’t read as a kid, so I didn’t really know much about them,” Fraction told CBR News. “The book has got a legacy and such a cult following that I thought I might be the wrong guy for it. Axel though, to his eternal credit, said something to the effect of, ‘Think about it like: it’s Doctor Strange, it’s Silver Surfer, it’s anyone else you want to write that’s having trouble supporting a book in this marketplace right now.’ That became the key for me.
“Since we can’t do a Doctor Strange series, he’s here right now,” Fraction continued. “I also get to do a Silver Surfer series. I get to write my Namor book, now. I get to do a She-Hulk series and I get to come back to Iron Fist. Other characters will join the cast over this first year or so, and eventually, we’ll have a book starring most everybody I’d want to write about anyway. I get to do all this stuff and everybody gets a chance to shine.”
As he was assembling his cast, Fraction was also researching the history of the team. “It’s impossible not to think of Steve Gerber as the writer who ultimately defined the Defenders. He was the first to say, ‘Okay, these are the crazy guys. Let’s write the crazy book.’ It’s not hard to draw a line from Arnold Drake’s ‘Doom Patrol’ to Gerber’s ‘Defenders’ to Grant Morrison’s take on ‘Doom Patrol,'” Fraction said. “When he’s really cooking, he’s a guy unashamed to embrace the magic — and often silliness — of comics. He doesn’t hide from the weirdness and, as the saying goes, he ‘turns into the skid.’ That’s ultimately how I got to know the Defenders; from reading everything I could of Gerber’s. Subsequently, then, I read pretty much read everything else that’s existed.”
Fraction feels that the misfit and outsider quality Gerber first emphasized is one of the essential qualities that defines the Defenders as a team, which he fully plans to embrace in his series. “In my book, there’s a secret that defines this version of the Defenders and binds them all together. The secret prevents them from telling other people about it. It’s a secret with a cloaking device, almost,” the writer explained. “They can’t recruit for more help. Suddenly, they find themselves — the weirdos, the odd fits in any lineup of Avengers — in a position where they have to save us all from this impossible threat.”
Once Fraction had his misfit band of heroes and had a purpose, he began to think about the stories he wanted to tell. “A lot of my thinking involved where to go after ‘Fear Itself.’ This isn’t a spin-off, even though our first story launches out of one of the big, dangling plot threads from ‘Fear Itself.’ So I wanted to see what comes next,” Fraction remarked. “‘Fear Itself’ was so much work and I worked on it for so long that I feel like I said everything I needed to say and wanted to say about comics like that. I think that makes sense now, too, since the world, the market and the superhero mainstream are all changing.
“I wanted to do something new and unlike anything I had done before. I didn’t want to just pick up another book. I wanted to find a space where I could do stories with sizes and shapes that were different from what anyone else was doing,” Fraction continued. “When I pitch a book, I usually have a ton of ideas for it. I had even more ideas than usual for ‘Defenders.’ When I got into the nature of what the story is, it inspired so many ideas and no one in editorial was saying, ‘No,’ or, ‘This goes to far. This is too weird. This is too big.’ I got to plan this giant Marvel comic that is about the Marvel Universe itself. So every idea I had, I could find a place to fit just because of the very nature of the story that we’re doing.”
Fans have been given a hint of what Fraction’s first “Defenders” story is about in the fourth epilogue of “Fear Itself” #7, in stores now. The epilogue showed that the Hulk’s actions at the end of “Fear Itself” had unleashed a powerful and dangerous entity know as Nul, Breaker of Worlds. At the end of the prologue, the Hulk approaches his old Defenders teammate, Doctor Strange, asking for help in taking Nul down.
“The end of our first storyline, ‘Breaker of Worlds,’ will reveal that there’s a very good reason why these guys are called the Defenders. It’s because they’re literally defending us from something. It’s a threat that’s so big, so secret and so world-shattering that people are going to ask, ‘Why don’t they just go to Captain America and the Avengers?’ As I hinted earlier, there’s a reason for that. They’re on their own against this threat and this secret they face. So they’re going to need some powerful and highly skilled team members.
“When the book begins, Doctor Strange is sort of our hub character because he’s the one who starts assembling this team,” Fraction continued. “When the lineup is complete, we’ll have a team where every member is an expert in their own unique field in the Marvel Universe. Whatever their particular corner is, they’re the master of that field, which is great. By the time we get to where we’re dealing with this reality-spanning cosmic nightmare that affects every corner of the Marvel Universe, the Defenders have every corner of the Marvel Universe covered by their roster.”
The unique lineup will allow Fraction to take the Defenders all over the Marvel Universe and tell any kind of story he wants. “‘Defenders’ is designed to be a series that any body that loves Marvel Comics can read. It’s lots of short arcs and self-contained stories,” Fraction stated. “It’s a different kind of comic for different times. It’s much more like how Marvel books used to be. We’re doing a different thing now.
“I want ‘Defenders’ to be fueled by that same kind of raw imagination that fueled Marvel so vitally in the early years. I want ‘Defenders’ to be as wildly inventive as those books. I want to write a comic where you have to stop every few pages because you hit something that makes you go, ‘Whoa!’ I want to bring back the whoa factor and the wow factor as a going concern.”
Some of that sense of awe and wonder will come from the insanely powerful foes that the Defenders must face. “I wanted to take this ghettoized team and put them in the middle of a threat to the entirety of everything. The underdogs, the weirdoes, the freaks fighting against this amazing, huge, thing. Discovering who it is and why is the story of the book, but by the time the book is done, you’ll know why everything in the Marvel Universe happened the way it did,” Fraction said. “You’ll know why a radioactive spider gave Peter Parker his powers. You’ll know why cosmic rays turned four rogue astronauts into the Fantastic Four. You’ll know why there are mutants. You’ll know why Steve Rogers was one in a million and became Captain America and not just another kid injected with an arm full of weird goo. Why it all happened, who was behind it all and what is yet to happen. It’s ambitious and broad and covers the entirety of the Marvel Universe territory as a space, as an idea and as a fictional place we all visit from time to time.
“Like I said,” Fraction continued, “the nature of this secret conspiracy they’re dealing with hides itself from the rest of the Marvel U. They can’t go to characters like Captain America, Thor and Iron Man because every time they try to talk about it, the words are stolen from right out of their minds. It’s a big spooky, weird, crazy thing — it’s something I think is fitting for the Marvel Universe.”
The Defenders aren’t able to tell others about their war against their mysterious enemies, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be abandoning their other Marvel Universe obligations or that the new title won’t be able to engage with the larger Marvel U. “Everyone sort of comes and goes, and there will be character-specific issues. We’ll have lots of different narrators and points of view,” Fraction stated. “Anything I can do to take advantage of comics as an artform. The Defenders is what these guys do on Sunday. Everybody else goes out Monday through Saturday with the Avengers or other groups, but on Sundays, they get together at Doctor Strange’s place and try to deal with this crazy thing. They’re quite literally bound to each other by this secret.”
The way the Defenders deal with that secret and their mysterious enemies is part of the long form story Fraction is telling in the book. For inspiration he looked at things like Walt Simonson’s “Surtur Saga” during his run on “Mighty Thor” which featured many smaller tales, but when combined together told one grand saga.
“I’ve got the story mapped out and I don’t know if I have an escape hatch,” Fraction said with a laugh. “So this might be one of those things like the TV series ‘Crime Story’ where we end with a cliff hanger that’s never resolved.” Fraction said. “But I want to commit to the book. I believe in it and I believe in the story we’re telling. It’s everything about Marvel superhero comics that I love. I think it’s the kind of the book we need right now. So we’re going to tear into it and do our best to make a book that people will kick themselves if they miss.”
Can’t miss books don’t just feature compelling stories, they include striking visuals as well. For “Defenders” the art is being provided by one of Fraction’s collaborators on “Uncanny X-Men,” artist Terry Dodson. And in a nod to the Defenders’ old-school credentials, the artist is working on the new title “Marvel Style” — a method pioneered in the early days of the publisher where writers submitted plots to artists instead of full scripts.
“There were a couple reasons why we decided to do this Marvel Style. One was, while I was working on ‘Fear Itself,’ I noticed all these gimmicks, tricks, short cuts and tropes that I used in my writing, and I wanted to cut some of those out. I wanted to get to a place of uncertainty, discomfort, danger and anxiety. I wanted a project with some kind of worry and risk involved,” Fraction explained. “Plus, Terry is a tremendously gifted storyteller and I don’t know if we’ve ever gotten to see him at his maximum potential over here because he’s been given full scripts to do.
“What ultimately convinced me to do this was listening to a conversation about it between Joe Quesada, Brian Bendis and Jeph Loeb at last years C2E2 convention. It was really Joe trying to goad, provoke and annoy Brian as they are wont to do. They sort of bicker like an old married couple,” Fraction joked. “Joe was talking about the foundation books of Marvel all being done Marvel Style, which led to all these sensational visual moments that full script doesn’t allow for. When you think about the cornerstones of the Marvel Empire, they were books written in the Marvel Style. Joe’s argument was that it gives the artist the ability to open up more. The more I heard of that conversation, the more anxiety I felt at the thought of writing Marvel Style. Then I thought, ‘Maybe it’s something you should try because it makes you nervous.’ I was interested in doing it because it forced me out of my comfort zone and I wanted to try new things.”
“I sat down to tell Terry the mission statement for the book and what I wanted to do. He lit up at the idea. Once we started talking about it, he told me that he didn’t feel like an artist. He said he felt like a collaborator,” Fraction explained. “Right away, he felt more invested in the book because he felt more like an architect and a designer instead of just an artist. It makes him feel more connected to the process. So I thought, ‘He’s excited to do it. I’m terrified to do it and things in comics need to change. So let’s see what happens.'”
Surrendering control has made Fraction more than a little nervous, but so far he’s been immensely pleased by Dodson’s work on the book. “There are moments where I’ve written someone who’s a background character, but often Terry goes through and invests so much into them that they become more than a character who just appears in a panel. So it’s still awkward, weird and a little uncomfortable for me, but the art that’s coming in looks great.,” Fraction remarked. “Already in this first issue, there’s a bit where Danny Rand sort of invents Zero G Kung Fu. In that scene, you could see Terry figuring out how to draw Danny. Then he said he had to go back and redraw Danny because he had it wrong before. That level of commitment is exciting, and sure enough, you can see it in the scene. There’s Terry Dodson’s Danny Rand — and it’s great! This is a fun, exciting and dangerous project for me. I’m made wildly uncomfortable and nervous by it, but I think that’s good for the soul.”
Join us tomorrow for part two of DEFENSIVE MEASURES where Fraction joins us for a look at Doctor Strange and Nul, the first villain that the all new “Defenders” will face.