I Want You To Be You

Just reading what the Keeper’s been writing about Matt Brady, Joe Casey, Steve Gerber, and the relaunch of The Defenders…

My comment there is in moderation-turnaround, but I won’t repeat myself here. Instead, I’ll just wonder aloud: what the heck do people even think The Defenders are?

And, why is it so hard to keep them in print?

I think the answer is that it is not very hard to keep them in print, but it is hard to keep track of what they are, and aren’t. Whenever I hear someone talk about reviving them, I groan inwardly — okay, outwardly — because I’ve seen the franchise “rebooted” several times, now, and I’m beginning to think the reboots are the problem.

Because, what is being rebooted?

Kurt Busiek and Erik Larsen (hope I’ve got the spelling right, there) did as fine a job as I could’ve wished rebooting the characters and plotlines of the Englehart and Gerber runs from back in the Seventies, and believe me, I’ve got no complaints. I loved it; I thought it was great. But, was it just nostalgic pastiche? Oh…I don’t know, y’know? Does it really matter? These are superhero comics we’re talking about, here, so do we really need to blow up the baby’s bathwater with a hydrogen bomb? BOOOOOM…!

No, probably not necessary.

Then there was the Giffen/DeMatteis/Macguire run, even more tongue-in-cheek, although I think those guys always do a nice job leavening the humour (isn’t that supposed to work the other way around?) with a little bit of ominous dramatic looming. Another good job! And holy crap can that Macguire guy draw!

But neither of these things worked out in the long term.

Is it the characters, do you think? Do they perhaps resist each other, repel each other?

Uh…what?

No, no, no, that’s ridiculous. Of course they don’t. They’re fictional, for God’s sake. Holy jumpin’ catfish, what a cop-out. “These characters just don’t work together.” Oh, come on. Sure they do. Why wouldn’t they? And if they don’t, why do you keep trying to make them do so? Is this some kind of alchemical riddle, or something? Is it really supposed to be a search for some kind of elusive magic formula of ultimate Dr. Strange/Sub-Mariner/Hulk utility?

I mean, for heaven’s sake…it’s already been done.

A few times.

But it didn’t work. Didn’t “work”. Apparently.

Except it did work, and anyway what’s “work”?

The Defenders concept. I love it when people talk about this. Not “the work of Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema”, not “the work of Dave Kraft and Keith Giffen” — no, the concept. That’s what’s making this all so hard, I guess. It’s difficult to update the concept.

Except, it isn’t. Because what were the Thunderbolts, but an updating of the Defenders “concept”? And then the new Thunderbolts…yes: though I miss the old Thunderbolts, this new batch is, again, an updating of the “concept”. And, need it be said: a updating of some vitality. Hey, even the New Warriors (though I never liked them) I think could easily be read as a “Defendersish” team, could easily be read as “vital”: in his Newsarama “interview”, Casey absolutely nails it to the “wall” (sorry, been reading Kirby) when he talks about his Defenders being like the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans — because a superteam’s a superteam, but some superteams are “utility players”, and sometimes you need that, because it makes for a broader focus, a more unpredictable approach to superhero subject matter. It’s been tried with The Outsiders; it’s been tried with the Doom Patrol. It’s been tried with the freakin’ X-Men. It’s not that hard to do. It is truly the most basic of the superhero structure stuff. Hell, it isn’t even the X-Men: it’s the A-Team. Buncha loners, with different skills. Don’t necessarily get along. Fightin’ tha evil.

Okay.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is, it’s the environment, stupid. Not the characters. Not the concept. The problem is, here is your blank canvas, and you can do anything you want with it: street-level story, cosmic story, time-travel story, feelgood story, wolf-in-the-fold story, any story (just keep the underwear on the outside)…so what story are you after the telling of?

Hey, Warren Ellis knows what story he’s telling…

So, here, have Dr. Strange, the Hulk, the Sub-Mariner, even the Silver Surfer…hey, and we’ll throw in Nighthawk, Valkyrie, Hellcat, Son Of Satan, Daredevil, oh heck, whoever you want, just to keep you from getting bored, okay? You want Moondragon, you got Moondragon! Angel and Iceman? Go crazy! Gargoyle?

I just want you to be you!

(Psst…lose the Gargoyle thing, it doesn’t work.)

But here’s what’s what, in my opinion: the only way to follow (say) Gerber’s work on Defenders is to do it as well as he did it. That’s all. It’s just gotta be good. The Defenders, under Gerber’s pen, were…oh, what’s the stupid word we have for that now…oh yeah, quirky. They were quirky, I guess! But you don’t have to be “quirky”, you know. Maybe you don’t feel like “being” quirky. So, just write the “hell” out of it, then! Quirkiness be “damned”!

And then watch your editorial supervisors jump at any chance to kill it, no matter how “good” it is.

Because the Marvel braintrust of today doesn’t need the excuse of poor sales, when they’ve got the excuse of poor vision. Look, there they go, mining the back catalogue for things to reboot, to “update”…and they would love, for more than just one reason, to update and reboot the Defenders…but y’know what?

As the Defenders, the Defenders don’t fit the current corporate culture. The current editorial environment. Sales would be squeezed anyway (there’s a reason most old Defenders covers feature the Hulk so prominently), but more important even than sales (!) is the fact that it’s awfully hard to make this particular bunch of misfits, this particular A-Team, work within the current fictional structure of the “Marvel Universe”. You’ve got a philosopher with a crystal ball, a monster with purple pants, a king with an attitude problem, an alien Hamlet, and some girl with a stainless-steel bra chased by some fruit-loop in a bird costume, and just exactly what story is there for you to tell with any of these people?

A reboot of the (shudder) Secret Defenders — yes, that I could see. Because it would be a good marketing gimmick.

The historical Defenders, though, were a marketing gimmick that found a way to rise above — or perhaps more accurately slip beneath — both marketing and gimmickry.

But, in a very particular way.

And it’s not the way of today. Today it’s Thunderbolts that rises above by slipping beneath. Yesterday it was X-Statix. Joe Casey, I’ve got a lot of confidence in your ability, but the only people who want to see Dr. Strange, Nighthawk, and Valkyrie together again sipping tea with Clea and Hellcat are guys like me and you, who don’t buy Marvel comics anymore. Today they want badasses. And even with the Hulk, the Defenders aren’t badasses.

Because the Defenders are a kinder, gentler non-team.

And that sort of thing’s a bit out of fashion these days.

Maybe because we expect less from our outsiders, than we used to?

I want you to be you; but don’t you see, what they want is that “edgy” revamp of Count Chocula, Frankenberry, and Booberry? That’s what The Defenders oughtta be, to them.

And look: there’s Warren, busy giving it to ’em.

So…what’s left?

Sigh.

But I liked First Family quite a bit, so I’ll check out your Defenders. Just like I liked Invincible, so I checked out…

Urr…

I mean, just like I liked Dan Slott’s Thing, so I checked out…

Aaahhh…

Just like I…

Oh, hell.

Umm…

Frankenberry SMASH!

Damn. So is it the new editorial direction that’s making all this happen, or isn’t it? Or maybe it is that zeitgeist shit, after all, that’s responsible.

(Psst: lose the zeitgeist, it doesn’t work.)

Okay, end of rant.

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12 responses to “I Want You To Be You

  1. I believe you’ve “summed up” the situation quite nicely.

    (I read “a lot” of Kirby too …)

    Although Thunderbolts gets a lot of attention, I think Marvel’s best team book right now is Matt Fraction & Barry Kitson’s The Order. It’s kinda Strikeforce Morituri meets X-Static, and has enough of a spin on the “Power Company” mold to kinda sorta be the real new Defenders.

    (And not the New Defenders, but you know what I mean.)

    Of course, I hear The Order isn’t selling well …

  2. I’m cautiously optimistic about Casey’s take on this, though I really don’t buy the necessity of having to do the whole “Last Defenders” thing and “lock down” the team. Somewhat like the (totally specious IMO) arguments that Decimation made mutants more “special” and this would make for more interesting stories; I thought Morrison’s growing mutant community and “crammed with background characters/students like a real school” model of Xavier’s held far more possibilities for an imaginative writer.
    Having people basically wander in and serve as temporary members, then wander off, is one of the trademarks of the Gerber era, and anyone who hasn’t read the Gerber run has no place expressing an opinion about the Defenders. Now, I’m in no way accusing Casey of this, as it’s clear he’s read the Gerber stuff, but when I come across people online demanding the Big Four and sneering at characters like Nighthawk and Valkyrie, then as far as I’m concerned I’m dealing with people who don’t know shit about the Defenders. The Giffen-DeMatteis-Maguire series was a lot of fun, but the fact that it was a Big Four-only book was its flaw, not its advantage. Big Four purists just piss me off, and when someone claims to be one, nothing they say about the Defenders should be respected afterward.
    I loved the Busiek-Larson run, and wished it could have gone on for years. I’m still astonished by how much some assholes just hated that run (and yes, hating that run is for assholes).
    Similarly, I’ve come across people who bitch about Nighthawk being “boring” and generic. Sure, he was originally a 2-d Batman parody, but nobody who’s read the Gerber run (or even the good parts of Kraft) can say he’s all that totally bland, and if you haven’t read the Gerber run your opinion of Nighthawk carries no weight.
    Now, as I said, I’m cautiously optimistic. I’m relieved that it’s not a Big Four book (with some schadenfreude at the Big Four purists), and heartened by the fact that I see Nighthawk in the preview sketches. I’m assuming that Dr. Strange’s availability will be restricted to a cameo or non-existent due to other commitments, with a similar situation applying to the Hulk (if this all happens within the current status quo in the MU). After those two, Nighthawk is the most likely candidate for “heart of the team” followed by Val and Patsy. That was actually one of my favourite parts of the Busiek-Larsen run, the way he was always trying to keep the team together and make peace.
    Phew. What a geek-out. Excuse me. I’ll stop now, though more might come.

  3. Also, the “Big Four” thing is really a myth anyway, isn’t it? Surfy’s membership (somewhere John Byrne is having a seizure) fell more under the category of “temporary cool idea” than anything else — the Red Guardian and Son Of Satan each spent more time with the Defenders than he did.

    I loved how the BuLars Defenders, ostensibly so Big-Four-ish, was really all about how the Defenders aren’t really the Defenders at all without Val, Kyle, and Patsy…which, of course, they’re not. So I really liked the “two teams” strategy, as a comment on “so you think you want the Big Four, do you?”

    And the Giffen/DeMatteis/Macguire thing — well, the Silver Surfer wasn’t even really in that, was he? I like a snotty Namor who isn’t a complete fool, and a sarcastic Bruce Banner, and…oh, well naturally I thought it was awesome, didn’t I? But for a full-on series, you can’t stop there.

    The “locking down” thing…oh yeah, totally unnecessary, because as I said, it isn’t the Defenders concept that made it a good book, but the way it was executed by the various writers and artists. So what needs locking down? Either you have something fringe-y (or funny) to say with the non-team structure, or you don’t.

    Love your heartlessness towards non-Gerber Defenders readers, Ed!

    I’ll probably have more to say on this in a “bit”.

  4. I am heartless because they deserve no mercy. What mercy do they show with their Big Four fetishism, their not-hating-Hannigan-enough, their “I think Nighthawk is boring but don’t see that Black Knight is about as interesting animate as he was as a statue” and other blitherings? Bah!
    (that probably works better in person, where I can do the voice)

  5. How about a little summary of eras/runs and my opinions on them?

    First, the ultra-early stuff, which I tend to lump together, including the Marvel Feature appearances and Defenders 1-19. That’s right, Thomas, Englehart and Wein are in one basket to me on this. Worth checking out, especially to show how short-lived the supposed “definitive” Big 3 0r 4 really were (with appearances by the Surfer being very limited indeed). Perfectly good stuff, with the Alpha the Ultimate Mutant and Wrecking Crew stories being the first instances in my life of stories where I was actually able to read the conclusion of a “to be continued” story in a comic, earning them places of affection in my mind.
    Then, the Gerber era. I’m not going to say much about it here, because there’s plenty on and linked from this blog, not to mention posts I owe you to write for my own blog, but suffice to say this is the gold standard for the Defenders. The peak, the pinnacle, the definitive, the real “Ultimate” Defenders. Gerber’s Defenders prepared my young brain for things like Morrison’s Doom Patrol years later.
    Gerber was followed by Dave Kraft (or “the Dude” to use his Stan huckster-lingo nickname), who actually penned the best non-Gerber Defenders story “Who Remembers Scorpio?” Also wrote Jack Norriss pretty much as well as Gerber could, and better than anyone since. Unfortunately, his next storyline was kind of a dud and his run just fizzled out.
    After that, everything just goes to shit.
    The Defenders is an outright crappy title for something like the next 60 issues, and includes such lowlights as the fake Omega resolution, and the dreaded Ed Hannigan run, including That Goddamn Mandrill Story and seemingly a concerted attempt to keep seeing how much more clunky-looking they could keep getting Nighthawk’s costume to look. Now, Bill, sorry, plok, sorry, pillock, might spring to Hannigan’s defense here, as he’s told me in the past that he found out that Hannigan was an old guy from the old school, and a penciller not a scripter to boot, and he was sort of thrust into writing the book without knowing much about it, so fine. I won’t heap vitriol on the poor old guy as a person or anything. Still. The Defenders issues he wrote are utterly godawful, with nothing whatsoever to recommend them.
    Somewhere around the 90s or early hundreds (can’t recall the exact numbers and the issues are at plok’s), there’s something of an upturn when DeMatteis does his first run with the “Six Fingered Hand” storyline (the one that introduced Gargoyle).
    At issue 125, we get the “New” Defenders, with the Beast joining Angel and Iceman in that whole “Champions” attempt at joining a non-X super team. Again, DeMatteis is writing, and tries to bring the quirk, with mixed results. I remember being very positive about the DeMatteis era (lumping the end of the old in with the beginning of New Defenders) when it was happening, because I so wanted the book to be good, but looking back on it it’s pretty weak tea compared to the best of the classic stuff.
    Then… well nothing worthwhile really happens until the Busiek-Larsen revival.

  6. Kraft’s run has aged both well and poorly, I think — there’s a lot in there to love, like Val going to school, Patsy vs. the coffeepot, Red Rajah/Cobalt Man, Vera Gemini and Devil-Slayer…even Doc leaving was a move that had to be made at some point, and it paves the way for what Jim Roeg called “male hysteric” Nighthawk — which was funny. “Who Is Scorpio?” I think holds up, but not for a hundred percent of all the reasons I thought it did when it came out — I think there’s some overlap between aging well and aging poorly right in there, right in Kraft’s finest hour. I like it even better now than I did then, really. Also: excellent Moon Knight, careful saving of the Elf from being tampered with by later writers (uh…for a while, anyway), Dollar Bill, Ledge, and Lunatik, also Namor and Sergei — boy does Jim Roeg have a great essay on the Kraft/Giffen stuff, fabulously impressive, you should go and search for it, it’s classic Double Articulation stuff, I believe he calls it “On Gender”. And you get Nick Fury talking to Nick Fury, I mean…it’s really all pretty terrific.

    Glad you mentioned my defence of Ed Hannigan — he really was a poor fit for this title, it’s a damn shame. Also, Don Perlin — you know, given that I’m on record as a big Don Heck fan, it seems hypocritical of me to slam Perlin, but those were not my favourite issues. Perlin should have written them, and Hannigan should’ve drawn them. That probably would’ve been better.

    I don’t feel DeMatteis’ run holds up all that well. There, I said it. I think DeMatteis is great, but there were a lot of letdowns for me there. Also Angel and Iceman had a couple good moments later on, but blah, mostly.

    Love Wein’s Defenders! Nighthawk trying to show off his new “good-guy” threads, and nobody really caring that much…

    Thought Roy’s Doc was a little too much of an incredible dick

    Englehart gives us the Avengers/Defenders War, come on Ed, surely that deserves an era of its own…

    Oh, and thanks so much for bringing up the Mandrill thing. You know, I had almost succeeded in blotting that out.

    More?

    Let me get another coffee, or possibly a beer…

  7. Y’know I didn’t even know there WAS a Busiek/Larsen Defenders. I bet it’s super-ancient-continuity heavy and features awesome displays of Larsen brand kick-ass.

  8. Larsen kick-ass, check…

    Hmm, super-ancient-continuity heavy? Once I might’ve said “yes”…but this is the era of Johns and Meltzer we’re living in now, isn’t it?

    Let’s see…Yandroth check, and Yandroth’s worth five continuity-heavy points anytime he comes up anywhere…almost made me not want to read, I recall saying “oh Christ, Ed, am I really expected to slog through one more word about Yandroth in my lifetime?” He said: “No, no, it’s fine…Jesus, suck it up, don’t be such a goddamn Yandroth-wimp…”

    The Headmen…no, I think the basic lunacy of Nagan & Co. is accessible enough, so no points there…

    Oooh, Enchantress and Val, damn. Three continuity points easy. Five with Pluto.

    Attuma and his crew probably add another three, all told…

    Kyle and Patsy know each other and discuss a certain amount of old Defenders business, I’m gonna call that just one point…

    Patsy has some kinda “mystic senses”…hmm, okay, another point. It comes out of some long convoluted continuity-fix by Steve Englehart, so it’s gotta be worth at least one.

    Orrgu (or whatever his name is)…okay, that’s continuity-cholesterol for sure, but I think it’s the good kind, so…three points off. Yay!

    And, uh…crap, Red Raven. So I guess you can apply two of those points directly back onto your artery wall…

    Gee, hope I’m not forgetting anything…

    So what’s that make, fourteen points? I’d put Busiek’s Avengers at about twenty-five, Avengers Forever at about forty, your typical Geoff Johns effort somewhere in the neighbourhood of sixty. Steve Englehart scripts have been known to rise as high as seventy-five on occasion, I’d say…but that’s the absolute limit, even for Steve that’s where somebody calls the paramedics. Agents Of Atlas, based on that one issue I read, at a guess probably hovers around twelve. The Giffen/DeMatteis/Macguire stuff I’d put at seventeen: any time you have to know who Umar is, that’s a fiver for sure.

    Wow, what a useless metric I’ve invented!

    I guess I could’ve just said “yes: it features both those things.” Because really, it does.

    Pretty sympathetic MODOK in it, too.

    Man, I’m gonna re-read that right now! Ha ha, Ed. You’ll have to wait ’til I’m finished.

  9. Re-read what, the Busiek/Larsen run? It’s at my place right now. Heh-heh.
    Tell you what, though, if you can dig up the Order I’ll trade you back. Never that happy with the Order as a replacement for the Defenders (I would have been fine with it as a storyline in a Defenders ongoing, to be followed by, you know, another and another…), but there’s some bits of business with the beloved second-stringers that I thought had been in Defenders but which is actually in the Order.*

    If you look at what I read I’m pretty much with you on the shortcomings of the DeMatteis run. I just meant that the combination of the utter shittiness that preceded it and my desire for the book to be good again made me, at the time, look more favourably on it than it really deserved in hindsight.

    *For those of you unfamiliar with and/or out of comics during, the Busiek/Larsen revival this Order has nothing to do with the current “artificially-created, government-sponsored, instant-celebrity super team” currently being put out by Marvel. The central Maguffin of the Busiek/Larsen run was that the big 4 were under a curse that forced them together to address whatever the curse determined was the greatest threat to Earth, with Nighthawk, Val and Patsy tagging along out of sheer affection for the team. As the Defenders was selling poorly, it was replaced by the Order miniseries (basically the next planned storyline for the Defenders slightly retooled) where the Big 4 tried to break the curse by taking over the world and ensuring peace and an end to all threats that could trigger their being plucked from their lives and forced together again.

  10. You’ve got it?! SCUMBAG!

    Defenders for The Order — I call that a fair exchange. By which I mean, one slightly weighted in my favour. I was annoyed by The Order, as you know, because as hard as BuLars worked on it, it was so obviously a shoehorn. And what in the world is with current-day comics fans and their fascination with totalitarian superheroes who play for keeps, anyway? Not to mention their freakin’ endless “you don’t know how high this goes” black-ops bullshit teasing…ack. Okay, okay, we get it: multinationals run the world, okay? GRANTED. But now, maybe you’d like to reveal whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing? You know, just for fun?

    Obviously we totally agree about the frustrating promise of the DeMatteis run. Oh, hold on, but what about the short-lived Peter David Defenders reboot? It did one good thing, anyway, by getting rid of that ridiculous Prophecy thing in the same style as getting rid of the Lockjaw thing (“oh, that…you mean you believed that?)…as to Lockjaw, yes, the Inhumans have a dog, so what? Yes, just one. Why? What’s so weird about…?

    NO SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP!

    Some things just don’t bear close scrutiny.

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