Monday, August 18, 2008

Stuff I Have Read

The Last Defenders #6

The Defenders is a difficult concept, both in terms of how the book can be approached by a writer and what the readers expect. Bluntly, it doesn't work. It worked for a brief period in the 70s when all the main characters' status quos happened to place them in similar enough mindsets that they could conceivably be expected to be in the same room at the same time for longer than five minutes. I guess that's the appeal, but it's also the inevitable problem. The Hulk, Dr. Strange, the Sub-Mariner and the Silver Surfer just don't need to be on a team together. They all have their own lives and adventures, and the only possible way to put them together for more than a single storyline is essentially to contrive a silly motivation or an even sillier plot device. Back in the 70s, they managed to make it go for a surprisingly long run before it fell apart, but in the end there was little that could be done to commercially redeem a book whose main draw is seeing four disparate characters bitch at each other for 22 pages at a time, especially when three of those characters are only intermittently popular enough to support solo books.

One of my favorite Defenders stories is a reunion crossover penned by Peter David somewhere during the first half of his Hulk run. There's a nice scene in there where Dr. Strange, Namor and Bruce Banner are sitting around having a cup of coffee or something, reminiscing about old times and discussing the threat of the moment. It's a great bit because the characters are relaxed, not at each others' throats, positively friendly - it underscores the fact that the characters don't necessarily hate each other, and in fact, if they just met periodically for social visits they'd be fast friends, considering how much they have in common. But because circumstances dictate that they must be individualists, the moment they "have" to work together for a "common cause" - and especially the moment the Hulk starts making fun of Fish-Man's pointed ears, or Dr. Strange starts telling people what they should be doing because it's clearly obvious to him - they start acting like a pile of bickering junior-high kids. It's fun to watch but the forced conflict grates a bit thin, especially considering that we're long past the point where folks like Dr. Strange and the Surfer can reasonably be written as domineering assholes without also being massively out of line with 40+ years of character development. (Although they seemed to have found a loophole for that on the Surfer's part by returning him to his original status quo, but said status quo also effectively cuts him out of having any logical or even passably illogical reason for being seen in the company of any of these other guys.)

But that's just geek talk: the real reason why they never found a convincing reason for the Defenders - the core team of Defenders, that is - to stick together for any amount of time past the original 70s run, is that the Defenders don't sell. If they did sell, you best believe that someone would have figured out a damn good reason to bring the team together. As a brand, it rates somewhere below the Outsiders or the New Warriors - borderline concepts that nonetheless manage to stay in print periodically - and above Checkmate and Cloak & Dagger, perpetual losers in the revamp game. There will always be brief Defenders revivals, but barring a miracle they will be just that - brief.

The conventional logic behind team books - that putting less-popular characters together in one book makes for a book that is more popular than the sum of the composite characters - works in reverse for The Defenders. It is possible to make a successful team out of second-and-third stringers with a good enough creative team and a strong hook - they did it with the post-Crisis Justice League, they did it with the original New Warriors - hell, the "All-New, All-Different" X-Men were pretty much the definition of B-listers. But the same formula works in reverse for the Defenders - on their own, each character can at least make an attempt at feasible, marquee-level solo success: they each have their own distinctive mythos, supporting characters, and rich history. But put them together and watch sales shrivel faster than the Sub-Mariner in Death Valley. It's not just that they are, in the context of their own stories, an "anti-team" - the book itself is an anti-comic. It has every reason in the world to sell, but it doesn't.

So while no one was looking, Joe Casey wrote a comic book about just that fact. The Defenders is a concept that has no reason to exist, and on its own it just doesn't make sense. There's no motivation. The concept of The Last Defenders is that there is no motivation for this team to exist, and really, no reason for this book to be printed. There's just an idea, a random, abstract notion on the part of both Kyle Richmond and Joe Casey that there should be a Defenders. Nighthawk wants there to be a Defenders for the same reason that David Lovering will never say no to a Pixies reunion. Part of me is sad that Joe Casey put so much obvious thought, effort and subtle attention to a comic that will be read by maybe 20,000 people and almost instantly forgotten. But another part of me is happy that he did because despite how futile it is that he created such a wonderfully awkward story, it was nevertheless very fun to read.

I think, to a degree, Casey is underrated because he goes out of his way to minimize the kind of flashy, attention-getting impulses that make Morrison beloved among the comics blognognoscenti. This is not to say he doesn't have his fans, but they tend to be far more reserved than not - when was the last time you heard someone talking about how absolutely fucking fantastic Automatic Kafka was, but how many words have you seen devoted to that boring-ass Aztek thing in just the last month since they put out the trade? You'll never see Kafka collected, not unless someone at DC wakes up one morning and decides to put it on the production schedule as their last act before flipping off Paul Levitz and jumping out a 10th story window.

Casey is an extremely understated writer when it suits his purposes. This series, for instance? It's essentially five-and-a-half issues of feints and misdirection, a seemingly pointless series of events that only coheres in the final pages of the final issue - but then, when Casey finally delivers the punchline, well, the whole thing makes a whole lot more sense. What had been random, disassociated bits of plot come together and there's something interesting there, an amalgamation of ideas that - while none of them terribly original on their own - come together for a unique, spicy flavor. It's not like he could have just started out on page 1 with this new, "final" line-up of Defenders, he had to prove a point, which was that this wasn't just another team of Defenders, this was the best team of Defenders there could ever possibly be. And there's an open question in the book's final pages as to how necessary even that is. It's a tricky move, considering that in any event he wasn't likely to maintain an audience through five issues of shadowboxing to get to the pay-off. That's how Morrison has been operating for the past few years, but Morrison's name ships a lot more copies than Casey's. The Last Defenders was structured very much like "Batman RIP", with a whole bunch of misdirection and false preamble leading up to eventual coalescence. The difference is that even if it were the most abstruse, unreadable piece of crap (and I was convinced up until this last issue that that is exactly what "Batman RIP" was), Batman has to work hard to dip below 70 or 80,000 copies, whereas any book selling itself on the strength of The Defenders as a brand-name better hope that one of the creators on the cover is named "Alan Moore" or "Alex Ross". Just the way the world works.

It means we might be waiting in vain for another adventure of Joe Casey's Defenders. It's OK, all things considered, because the concept has been constructed with planned obsolescence in mind. A lot of work for the superhero equivalent of a shaggy dog story!

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