"The Defenders" #4 is a slow down issue telling a self-contained Dr. Strange story while also calling back a seemingly unimportant peripheral character from the first issue. Matt Fraction takes his time on this installment and it works deceptively well. The story might not feel grand but on the micro-scale, there's more than enough here to completely enjoy.
For years now, comics have set the structure of major arc after major arc. It would appear these heroes only ever face massive world-ending threats and they dogpile one after another. This issue bucks the trend by telling a short tale and making most of it relatively inconsequential without being completely inconsequential or a waste of time. Strange's dalliance with Molly, a grad student majoring in bad decisions, from the first issue returns here to bring a tale of a girl, a boy, some sadness, a book and one very cocky street magician looking to make the next step. While focusing on the tiny and short lines, Fraction lets the Concordance Engine and the Prester Omega ideas steep in the background, bringing forth all sorts of new flavors and concepts.
You might need to read it twice but you'll quickly discover this issue is one hell of a character study for our mystical physician. In a mere 20 pages, Fraction paints an image of Strange beneath the bravado and attitude he paints. We see the depths of Strange's loneliness, intellect and mortal despair. This issue is a definition of a man and the understanding of the former Sorcerer Supreme as a character will help inform the title as it moves forward.
Michael Lark is a talent continually wasted by not being on a monthly title. He guest pencils on plenty of titles but it's not enough. It is thematically fitting the Dodsons brought us the initial 3-part arc in all its bright bubbly personality and here Lark gets to slow things down, showing us every universe spends its fair share of time in a grimy environment. Lark matches this journey of discovery by offering a portrait of Strange as a strained man. He is gaunt, haunted but still handsome.
It is also nice to see Lark draw Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, again as it reminds us of the salad days of Lark's collaboration with Ed Brubaker on "Daredevil." Even just a few panels warmed this reviewer's heart. This went doubly so when Fraction had one character describe Rand as "the third Winkelvoss."
"The Defenders" is the sort of comic you shouldn't define. Just when you think you've got it pegged, it does something excellent and opens up all sorts of genre possibilities. "The Defenders" isn't great yet but if it keeps up being really good, it certainly has the clear foundation from which to elevate. This evocative issue of "The Defenders" will make you laugh and stare in wonderment but by the end it'll also have you thinking and feeling.