by Taylor Anderson and Ryan Desaulniers
This article containers SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Taylor: When you think of the job comic book writers are tasked with, it’s damn near impossible to not stand in awe at what they accomplish. When writing for monthlies, authors not only have to come up with an engaging story, but something that stands out as unique. This is no easy task. Monthly comics have been around for the better part of a century, and many of the heroes who have titles today have participated in literally hundreds of story arcs. With that in mind, it’s impressive to consider the career of a writer as prolific as Brian Michael Bendis. Arguably the most recognizable name in comic book writing today, Bendis has written countless stories in his career, so at some point it becomes reasonable to question if he’ll ever cease to come up with new, entertaining stories. While it would be hyperbole to say Defenders 1 signals the beginning of the end for Bendis’s creativity, it’s hard to argue the lack of originality and inspiration in this first issue.
Diamondback has returned from the dead and is now on the path of revenge. He targets Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Danny Rand, and Matt Murdock in an attempt to take back the streets. In doing so, he unknowingly aligns these heroes together and they form the Defenders, a group of heroes devoted to protecting New York from thieves and all forms of riffraff.
Those readers who are familiar with Bendis’ previous work might be more than a little disappointed with this first issue of the Defenders. This isn’t to say there is anything bad about this issue, it’s more that there just isn’t anything that stands out as being particularly good either. Perhaps the most discouraging sign of this is the lack of playful banter between characters that has become Bendis’s calling card. The world presented in Defenders 1 is dark and gritty, much like the Marvel TV shows each member of the Defenders inhabits. This, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing, but it doesn’t play to Bendis’s strengths as a writer. Luke Cage doesn’t drop one “fiddle-faddle” and Danny doesn’t get a single chance to be a smart ass. The world they live in in this issue is strikingly familiar to that which viewers encounter on Netflix. This world, however, isn’t one created by Bendis, and therefore doesn’t allow for his usual creative flair.
But this is only one of the reasons why this issue fails to make a strong first impression. There is plenty of action, with fists being thrown and a lot of shouting going on, but none of it is particularly fun or exciting. Take, for example, the full page spread which shows the Defenders on the hunt for Diamonback.
All four heroes are in action here but said action is rote and impersonal. With the exception of Jessica, everyone is battling baddies but it’s unclear what exactly makes them unique as heroes. Artist David Marquez and colorist Justin Ponsor do an admiral job of hinting at each hero’s powers but it’s not enough to make the action more than typical comic book fare. Hints of red suggests Daredevils echolocation and flaming fists signal Iron Fist’s magical abilities, but that leaves you just wanting more. It seems here, as talked about above, that Bendis is using the Netflix series for each of these characters as a guide for how to write them as a team. Instead of opting for more flashy and entertaining displays of their power we are only given glimpses of what could be. Maybe that’s Bendis just teasing us and saving something for later, however first impressions mean a lot and in this example, Defenders 1 fails to make a splash right away.
If there is one saving grace for the issue it’s the way each individual member of the Defenders team is introduced. Throughout the issue each character is introduced one by one. When this happens, we are offered a brief nameplate and a panel that encapsulates their history, such as the one seen below for Danny.
What’s striking about this nameplate is the implied history behind Danny’s character. There are a couple different versions of him and Luke Cage teamed up from their glory days. There’s shrine in the background, seemingly alluding to K’un L’un, the mystical origin of Danny’s powers. Also, we see Danny fighting a dragon and some mysterious hooded figures (for those who know deeper cuts to Danny’s backstory than I). All of these things combine to create a mysticism around Danny and instantly makes his character more intriguing. The same could be said for any of the other Defenders who get similar treatments as well. Inherently the Defenders are an interesting team because of what each hero brings to the table, however, it will remain to be seen how much each character’s backstory plays into later issues.
Ryan, how did you feel about this first issue? To me it all feels so muted, almost as if Marvel higher-ups want a series that easily ties into the show. However, I don’t think that plays into Bendis’s strengths or that serves these four heroes particularly well. Do you agree? Also I briefly mentioned the artwork of David Marquez and Justin Ponsor. Do you have anything to add about their contribution to the issue?
Ryan D: I think you and I are definitely in agreement about this first issue, Taylor, especially in regards to Bendis being hamstrung by needing to play with the characters and world of the television series. Aside from the introductory nameplates you mentioned and a few small touches such as Jessica Jones going straight to the bar to drink while Iron Fist still beats up thugs, I found very few signature moments or dialogue featured in this #1 for four of my favorite Marvel characters. I also felt as if the inciting incident of this current arc — I would argue that being when Diamondback shoots Jessica — was undercut by her rising out of a hospital bed and what seemed like a coma so rapidly. I understand that Bendis wants all of the Defenders in action, but I found that her recovery significantly lowered the dramatic stakes for the rest of the issue and removed the sense of danger which so much of the beginning of this issue worked to establish. I wish that Bendis chose a different character to be the sacrificial lamb to begin the call to action, or just kept Jones unconscious and recuperating for a few issues to keep the stakes high, or even to put a clock on the mission of finding the bad guy.
As far as the artistic team goes, they’re both doing a nice job. The pencils are pretty and detailed, and Ponsor’s colors are good, featuring plenty of atmospheric yellows and blues. However, just as the story and character development lacks individuality, I think the art could afford to take some risks based upon theme-related choices. For example, in the letter column, Marquez discusses his excitement to work on the project, but makes a point to say that he’s looking forward to drawing New York City as a character unto itself. Obviously a student of the game, Marquez cites the triumphs of past artists who accomplished this task, such as Sienkiewicz, Miller, Mazzuchelli, and my personal favorite, Maleev. In the first issue, however, there are only 8-10 panels out of 20 pages worth which feature NYC’s skyline or utilize the streets or buildings as a backdrop. I hope that Marquez has a chance to live up to the challenge he issued to himself in the coming issues, because when Marquez has space to play, the issue starts to work.
For example, I love the inclusion of Felicia Hardy — the Black Cat — and Hammerhead:
These two notables from Spider-Man’s rogues gallery felt like a welcome and necessary inclusion to contextualize how much Diamondback shakes up the status quo by coming back into the crime scene. I can almost feel Marquez’s joy at being able to draw some cityscape and a character as graceful and lithe as Black Cat, and he also has some fun with the panel composition, like when he interjects the window Felicia’s watching in with the split close-up of her face. Bendis also did a great job in giving her a voice, which is at once playful while also capturing her “been around the block a few times, don’t fuck with me” status in the mythology of Marvel’s NYC.
During her interaction with Diamondback, I found myself liking Diamondback quite a bit.
Sitting stoically while lackadaisically sipping a beer during a conversation with a dangerous rival crime boss gives the character the sense of bravado necessary to match with his calling card: dropping diamonds at the scene of his crimes. He comes across as a savvy, ruthless, young black entrepreneur, promising to be a step ahead of the competition. Perhaps it’s how youthful he looks which surprised me; Erik LaRay Harvey’s Diamondback from the Luke Cage series worked as an older, grizzled, and jaded villain, whereas here we see a young man with the intent and acumen to set the world on fire, and I am curious to see what he does next after KO’ing Cage in the first round.
It is a bit odd, then, that I enjoyed the bits without any of the Defenders in it the most in their titular series. While some might say that does not bode well for the rest of the series, I can also see the wisdom in taking time to build the ancillary characters which sell the world and building heat on the primary protagonist; however, Bendis does need to remember what brought him to the dance and what readers pick up a title like this for: four distinct heroes with distinct flaws and personalities. This first issue is only rough in the sense that it doesn’t stand out as unique, but I think this creative team has everything it needs to tell its own, great story. As long as they let themselves.
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