CCI EXCLUSIVE: Fraction Unravels a Strange Conspiracy in "Defenders"

It's tough keeping secrets in a place like the Marvel Universe. In a world populated by people with abilities like telepathy, cosmic awareness and super senses, something as elaborate as an ancient conspiracy would have to be orchestrated and concealed by some very powerful and determined people for it to remain hidden. In "Defenders" #1 debuting this December, writer Matt Fraction and artist Terry Dodson will take a group of valiant heroes on dangerous and bizarre quest to expose and unravel that very conspiracy. CBR News spoke with Fraction about the ongoing series, announced earlier today at Marvel's "Fear Itself" panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego.

The original "Defenders" came together in the early '70s and included the Incredible Hulk, Doctor Strange, Namor the Sub-Mariner and the Silver Surfer. The end of "Fear Itself," Marvel's latest mega event written by Fraction and drawn by Stuart Immonen, sets the stage for that team's return in "Defenders" #1.

"The Hulk needs a favor and he goes to people he feels owe him. That happens to be the some of the people you and I know as the Defenders. It's not necessarily a pleasant reunion. It's not a comfortable one. There are a lot of grudges because of some recent history, but the awkward truth of it all is Hulk needs help, which is never an easy thing to ask for especially if you're him," Fraction told CBR News. "Red She-Hulk quickly comes along. So does, for reasons to be revealed, Iron Fist."

In 2006 Fraction and co-writer Ed Brubaker launched the ongoing "Immortal Iron Fist" series, and Namor became a big part of the writer's "Uncanny X-Men" run with the 2009 "Utopia" crossover with "Dark Avengers." Fraction welcomed the chance to return to both characters.

"Out of nowhere I started having Iron Fist ideas again. I kept trying to find ways to work him into 'Fear Itself.' So I was looking to take all the stuff that Duane [Swierczynski] did and all the stuff that Brian [Bendis] has done in 'New Avengers' and incorporated that with my own new ideas to tell some new stories," Fraction explained. "Namor is great. He's sort of the voice of imperial truth wherever he goes. He cuts right through the bullshit. So it's always fun to write Namor."

Fraction is also having fun writing Betty Banner, the Red She-Hulk. "Imagine if you will a 5'4" human football and danger magnet that men have argued over, and fought over, have killed and resurrected and basically removed any sort of aspect of 'choice' from her own day-to-day existence. Her entire life she's gotten very little say in her own destiny. Suddenly she's 9' tall, immensely strong, and bullet proof. Writing her in 'Fear Itself' was fun and I kept thinking about her more and more and felt like she was a character we needed to do more with. She needed to be part of something and with 'Defenders' I could make her the voice of the Hulk. She'll represent the gamma corner of the Marvel Universe and she'll leave these giant She-Hulk sized holes in the wall everywhere she goes," Fraction remarked. "She's sort of the Indiana Jones meets Johnny Knoxville the way I write her -- insatiable curiosity wed to utter, near-psychotic, fearlessness. For the first time in her life she's not a human football. She's not a victim. She's not a game piece on the board for the men in her life anymore; her physical empowerment has given her a kind of spiritual empowerment and she's living life on her own terms when we meet her."

"Defenders" also afforded Fraction his first chance to dive into and explore the character of Doctor Strange, who played a supporting role in a 2009 arc of the writer's "Invincible Iron Man" series. "My take on him has always been, as hinted at in Iron Man, William S. Burroughs, Man of Occult Mystery, with Steve Ditko Kung Fu grip. So this is a chance to do my take on Doc. Everything about 'Defenders' is new for me and different," Fraction said. "I'm going out of my comfort zone. The issues are are all self-contained or two to three issue arcs. We've got very short stories that are very different month to month. Things in 'Defenders' are constantly moving."

Iron Fist, Namor, Red She-Hulk, Silver Surfer and Doctor Strange will be regular fixtures in "Defenders," but the rest of the cast will be one of the things that grows and changes as the series moves forward. "The line-up is going to expand and contract as our cosmic conspiracy grows. Over the course of our first story the characters come together to help Hulk and they basically tug on a thread of a sweater that is very big, very weird and very mind boggling. As that sweater starts to unravel, they discover that they need people to help them," Fraction stated. "As they acquire more associates, each with their own unique expertise, the book acquires more of a cast. So it's fun and it's a chance to keep things expanding, evolving and challenging. This book never settles. Its structure is very different. The flexibility and freedom with the cast lets me tell a variety of stories."

The original Defenders had a notoriously uneasy group dynamic and some of that will be present when the group reunites for the inaugural arc of Fraction's series. "They're very much the most Marvel of Marvel teams. They're the most freaky, the most weird, and the biggest loners. They're literally brought together by secrets. So we can mine that pathos for good comics," Fraction remarked. "That's everything that makes Marvel characters who they are. The fact that we get to have all these guys together in one room is just great. There's a lot going on."

While they might not like each other at first, "The Defenders" will have to find a way to get along if they hope to destroy the mysterious conspiracy at the heart of the Marvel Universe. That's because they'll be unable to discuss their findings with anyone but their fellow teammates.

"When you're telling stories like this in the Marvel Universe -- there's a secret so big we can't tell anybody else! -- one of the problems you have to deal with is isolating your characters. How big can the problem be if they don't go to Captain America and the Avengers?" Fraction remarked. "So there's something very otherworldly and reality bending about the nature of the catastrophe that the Defenders discover, which literally keeps them from being able to speak about it. A mystery that perpetuates itself is part of the plot they discover. So these guys can't tell you where they're going or where they were last week. It causes all kinds of trouble throughout their lives. They're obsessed with this secret and can only speak about with each other."

The bizarre and otherworldly nature of the secret conspiracy allows Fraction to tell "Defenders" stories that take place across time and space. "There is a big master plan and crazy road map that leads us place to a place. We've already started dropping hints and clues. I've been looking at it like 'Fringe' and 'X-Files' -- that kind of super structure where there's a big mythology that's being explored amongst these short adventure pops."

Since "Defenders" is a book that can literally go anywhere and tell any kind of story, Fraction needed an artistic collaborator that was ready for anything. He turned to an artist who proved himself time and time again during their run on "Uncanny X-Men," Terry Dodson. Dodson became especially interested in the project when Fraction offered to write it Marvel style, where an artist uses a script synopsis instead of a full script and creates page-by-page plot details on their own.

"I want everything about 'Defenders' to be different, to be a challenge, to be a reinvention of what I've done before. I'm writing in a detailed Marvel style, but for this book, Terry is really almost as much a designer as he is an artist. We're very much on an even tier with the storytelling. It's not me dictating shot after shot. It's much more expansive and allows him to design the actual storytelling. Since the nature of the book is that it can change style and tone moment to moment it will look wildly different month to month," Fraction explained. "There may be a heavy Ditko Doctor Strange issue followed by a cosmic Jim Starlin style Warlock issue. So Terry is going to be using every tool in his tool box on a monthly basis. I couldn't be more excited and he just lit up when I suggested that we maybe do this Marvel style. He was like 'YES!' So it's going to be great."

With "Defenders," Fraction is telling a long form story with a beginning, middle, and hopefully an end. "This book is big, weird, spacy, dreamy, imaginative stuff. It's everything I love about Marvel books and I think it might be unlike anything else we're publishing right now," Fraction said. "This is a book made to travel to all the corners of the Marvel Universe where things get weird and adventurous."

Some of Fraction's favorite comics have been ones where he had to pause to appreciate the sheer imaginativeness of the ideas that were on display. With "Defenders," he wants to deliver that same thrill in a book that explores where comic book storytelling can and should go.

"I love writers like Arnold Drake, John Broome, Gardner Fox, and Jack Kirby -- stories that bombard you with these pure bolts of imagination. It's unlike anything else," Fraction remarked. "I feel like I've said all I have to say about where we are now in comics with "Fear Itself.' Everything I've done this whole last year has felt like the a summation of that first period.

"I'm getting restless," Fraction continued. "I'm looking to try and start new conversations. I'm going to dig around and find new and weird stuff to do. I'm looking for my new sound, whatever it is."

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