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INTERVIEW: Bendis Assembles the Streets’ Mightiest Heroes for Defenders

by  in CBR Exclusives, Comic News Comment
INTERVIEW: Bendis Assembles the Streets’ Mightiest Heroes for Defenders

When would-be world conquerors or alien empires jeopardize the safety of the Marvel Universe, groups like the Avengers are ready to take them on. Who, then, protects people from criminal empires or supernatural threats that stalk the streets? Usually, it’s individual heroes like Luke Cage, Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist, but this June those characters will unite to take on threats that are just too big to face on their own.

It all begins this June in the new ongoing Defenders series from writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist David Marquez. The creators gave readers a taste of the series via a short story included in one of Marvel’s 2017 Free Comic Book Day offerings, where a resurrected and reinvigorated foe from Luke Cage’s past emerged and launched vicious strikes against the individual team members.

Not only did CBR speak with Bendis about the short story and its cliffhanger ending, we dove into his plans to use the Defenders to explore and expand the street level corner of the Marvel Universe. Plus, he spoke up on his affinity for the Punisher, a character that will appear in the series’ initial arc.

CBR: Let’s start with the big reveal at the end of the Free Comic Book Day story: Diamondback has returned with a vengeance. A version of that character appeared in Netflix’s Luke Cage, but his comic counterpart hasn’t menaced Luke in a very long time. What made you want to bring Diamondback back, and what can you tell us about your take on the character?

Brian Bendis: Our Free Comic Book Day story, which was a brand-new story in the back of the All-New Guardians of the Galaxy book, sets up where we’re going for the year. At the end of it, we revealed that what must be a reincarnated Diamondback has returned in a very dangerous way to make a serious play for the streets of New York.

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David Marquez and Justin Ponsor’s art from “Defenders” #1

As one of his signature moves, he struck back at the heroes who had attacked his world. Those heroes were Daredevil, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. He brought a message to Jessica Jones, though. He then shot her in the stomach, revealed himself, and took off.

Longtime fans know that Diamondback is a very personal villain to Luke Cage. He’s Luke’s ex-best friend who betrayed him for a woman, and sent him to prison. Also, years and years ago, as part of Luke’s epic origin story, he ended up dying in battle. It was on panel, in front of people, body not missing. So he was dead, even by comic book standards. People have been tweeting that to me since the story was released like I somehow didn’t know this. [Laughs] Of course I knew that.

What’s great, though, is, as you mentioned, Diamondback recently made a return to popular culture via Netflix’s Luke Cage. That kind of opened the door for us to get back to that character. So we have a very dangerous, Kingpin-level villain for the Defenders who is making a major play for the streets of Marvel. Things on those streets won’t be completely different, but they will feel a little different from what they were before, as we start building on the ideas we’ve had at Marvel since the ’70s.

That includes a gang war that’s coming between Black Cat and Diamondback. People who have been reading Spider-Man have seen that we’ve already been laying tracks to what the shape of this war could be.

We’ll also see that Diamondback’s actions in the book is what will bring the Defenders together. These characters aren’t totally known for being in a team. They’re not I.D. card people, but things have gotten dangerous. Guys like Diamondback are able to launch personal attacks on Matt Murdock, which begs the question of, how does he know who Matt Murdock is? Not only is he back, but how does he know all this stuff? And how did he get the balls to go after them? With all of that, we’re going to start our brand-new series.

What’s your sense of New York’s larger organized crime world when Defenders #1 begins? It feels like it has a lot of major players. There’s Diamondback, Black Cat, Wilson Fisk and Tombstone.

Yes. That’s one of my favorite things. I think people like Charles Soule have done a wonderful job building upon their version of the Marvel streets. So taking things from there, we see that these players are already set to blow. They’re already headed towards a serious confrontation.

I have to be very careful about what I reveal, because I have read so far ahead and I’m not exactly sure what has shipped. Major stuff is going to happen to some of these players, and it’s going to shake up every player on the streets, so there’s a real chance for any of these characters to really become the Kingpin. They have the freedom to really make a play or make their version of a Kingpin-style play. With that comes some brash moves, some danger for the people on the streets, and a reason to have the Defenders.

You have some ties to the creators of the various solo books starring Defenders members. I know David Walker, writer of Luke Cage, is a friend and teaching colleague. It also sounds like you regularly chat with Daredevil writer Charles Soule as well.

Yes! Charles and I have always had a very good working relationship. I like the way he organizes stuff and thinks. I also like that he’s bringing his life experience into Daredevil in a way that no other writer has had the opportunity to do. In the same way, my dear friend David Walker, is bringing his perspective and experience to Luke Cage in a way that no one else has ever done. It’s great having all these writers and artists that I really love working on these characters’ solo books while I work up front with them. I’d like the Defenders to be viewed in equal stature with the X-Men and the Avengers. We did that with Guardians of the Galaxy, and I’d like to do that with Defenders. I’d like them to be a team that gets people’s attention for their own merits.

What can you tell us about the supporting cast? Will this be a book where readers can see new and familiar faces like say Rafael Scarfe and the Daughters of the Dragon?

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David Marquez and Justin Ponsor’s art from “Defenders” #1

Excellent examples! Yes! This book is almost like if New Avengers and Marvel Knights had a baby. That’s what Defenders will be. I mean that in the best possible way. What that allows us to do is have guest stars and even one panel cameos of all of these cool characters all of whom have a rich, rich history and have a rich, rich supporting cast.

So on top of the base four, we’re going to have other characters coming in and out: Old Man Logan, Miles Morales, Eva Bell, Elektra and Punisher. We’ll have other characters making cameos for now who may be having bigger stuff: Blade, Paladin and Night Nurse. These are characters that I truly adore and can’t wait to drop in anywhere I can.

Plus, each one of these characters brings with them a circle of supporting characters. Matt, Luke, Danny and Jessica each have that. Some of them interconnect because they live so closely together, but out of those outstretched arms comes all of these other elements of the Marvel Universe. Here comes the supernatural elements of the Marvel Universe like Doctor Strange, Werewolf by Night and Blade. That’s all street-level material, so it’s very exciting to be able to spread out past to the crime fiction genre we’ve added onto superheroes and into other genres.

We have a lot of established street-level villains, too, but we’re also going to start introducing some new stuff as well.

Since you mentioned him earlier and we know he’s appearing in Defenders #3, let’s talk a little more about the Punisher. He’s a character you don’t get to write a whole lot, but when you do, I always feel he’s really interesting. What’s your take on the character?

People who’ve been following me a long time know that the second Marvel let me do whatever I wanted I did the Punisher with Bill Sienkiewicz in Ultimate Marvel Team-Up. I have a great affection for the Punisher because what he represents is something I want to write about. I’m fascinated by that, and there’s a part of him in almost every single Marvel character. They all want what he wants, but they don’t want to do what he does.

He exists almost like an angel of death, or a Ghost of Christmas Future. If you go too far, you will become him. There’s no other way. I look at him as this necessary evil, this broken hero, and this ghost of Christmas Future all at once. I just love him, I guess, because he’s so unlike me.

Regardless of things like personality or political perspective, just about every writer I talk to really enjoys writing the Punisher.

Yeah, it’s not politics. His premise is, if you’re abusing other people, you’ve given up your rights as a human. That’s a very clear idea. Whether or not that’s right is what you write about.

Let’s talk a little bit more about the Defenders’ first adventure. I assume it will pick right up from the Free Comic Book Day story’s cliffhanger.

What we’ll see in Defenders #1, which I’m happy to say is a little larger than your normal-sized book, is that on top of a full length story we’re giving you the first in a series of cool back ups that will accentuate everything we were just talking about. We’re bringing back The Pulse not as a comic book, but as an actual newspaper or online insert that deals with the lives and feelings of the super-powered community. The first issue will have an in-depth interview of Luke Cage by Ben Urich about what’s been going on lately in his life from his perspective. We’ve seen a lot of things from Jessica’s perspective, but we’re going to hear things from Luke’s perspective.

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David Marquez and Justin Ponsor’s art from “Defenders” #1

The main story of the book will pick up right after the events of the Free Comic Book Day story, which will, of course, see each character barely surviving an attack that makes them have to act. They have to do something right away. It also has Diamondback fully aware that they’re going to do this and ready for it. So you can look forward to us getting into the action right away.

I’m excited to see that action drawn by David Marquez and colored by Justin Ponsor. In the Free Comic Book Day story, their work popped like Steve McNiven’s, but it was still a style all their own.

Yeah, one of the great things about being exclusive is we knew we had this gig before we finished the first issue Civil War II, so we had a long time to think about and process this. I’ve done a ton of research about gangland activity, and I decided to give it all to David as well, to bring the collaboration even closer together. We’ve also been studying the great Alex Toth and all these other masters of crime fiction comics.

Then we started talking about the palette. Wong Kar-wai is a filmmaker whose work we all admire. John Wick found a way to bring that colorful palette into the mainstream in such a fun and exciting way that actually helped tell the story, so we told Justin that we were thinking about a neo-noir look. “Think about Drive, John Wick, Wong Kar-wai and make your own choices.” I never sent shots and said, “Do this.” I just talked about an overall idea that so many great cinematographers and other artists have attempted.

His first pages showed that once again, one of the great artists working in comics knew exactly what to do, and he killed it. You saw that in the Free Comic Book Day story, and you’ll see it in the first pages of Defenders. It’s a beautiful, original take on the streets.

It sounds like Defenders will appeal to fans of your Daredevil work in that it will be similar to what you did there, but on a much grander scale.

People are so fond of the Daredevil run you hate to say, “I’m going to do it again!” [Laughs] Because I don’t know if I am! Hopefully. That would be great. We’re going to tell a very different story at a very different, but equally dangerous, time in these characters’ lives.

I’m so happy to come back to the character, but from an angle that doesn’t necessarily allow direct comparison to the original stuff because it will be so different. I feel the same though when I write him. I feel honestly connected to the character which is great.

The one Defenders character I’ve done the least amount of work on up until now is Iron Fist. I have written him here and there and enjoyed it, and I often included the character in my team books because I love him so much, but for this series I decided I was going to take the opportunity to find things for Danny to do that I haven’t seen him do yet. For instance, in issue #2 he wants to confront someone very famous in the Marvel Universe, and Danny is a very famous rich person. So he’ll walk into a famous party and confront a very evil person. I want to use that part of his life. He’s really like Batman without the secret identity, and that’s kind of cool. So we’re going to have a lot of fun with it.

I remember talking with Matt Fraction bout the character, and he essentially described him as a Kung-Fu billionaire.

Exactly! And that, and what he needs to do for the Defenders, opens up all kinds of doors for him to do cool stuff.

Ultimately, it sounds like Defenders is a series about the corner of the Marvel Universe where street crime and the fantastic intersect.

Yes, I look at it as if you lived in Marvel New York there’s no doubt that the Avengers are saving your life. The Defenders, though? You’re going to want to bring them a pie. [Laughs] It would be like, “You know what? We should bring them dinner. They saved our neighborhood from burning down.”

Luke’s connection to the neighborhood is infectious. It’s going to be part of the book as well. These are things that make these characters unique not only at Marvel, but in all comics. We’re going to celebrate those things as often as possible.

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