Thursday, April 14, 2005

Four Years Later: Defending The Defenders

Around eight years ago, at my first school Florida, I was surprised to learn that one of my English professors was a Ramones fan. I wasn’t surprised because of his age or because of the fact that he was an English professor. But nine times out of ten, when it came to music all he talked about was jazz. On the rare occasions that he expressed some appreciation for rock, punk never came up, and in fact now that I think about it, he told me once his appreciation for punk never got any further than Blondie. When I asked him how The Ramones managed to invade his record collection, he said something along the lines of, “Well, whenever rock got too pretentious and too self-important for its own good, The Ramones would come along with a bunch of loud, three-chord tunes and remind everyone what this whole Rock ‘N Roll thing was all about.”

Replace “rock” with “comics” and “Rock ‘N Roll” with “superhero,” and you’ve basically got my thoughts on the ill-fated second volume of The Defenders.

There are a lot of reasons why The Defenders failed to draw in enough readers to stay afloat. The heads of the project––Kurt Busiek and Erik Larsen––were both suffering chronic health problems while working on the series. Many readers took the plot device of Yandroth’s curse––a curse cast upon Hulk, Dr. Strange, Namor, and Silver Surfer, the so-called “Big Four” of the team––as a cheap and easy gimmick to explain how the four loners could bear to work together. In comparison to Avengers and JLA, only one character in the team––the Hulk––had his own ongoing monthly, and Larsen’s involvement in the title injured any hope that the green goliath’s presence would boost sales (many Hulk readers liken Larsen to the Anti-Christ, due in no small part to the fact that the green goliath has managed to get the crap beaten out of him in just about every Hulk-related story Larsen wrote previous to Defenders, as well as the nasty spats––most notably in the letters pages of Savage Dragon––Larsen has carried on with Hulk sacred cow Peter David). The Rogue’s Gallery of the Busiek/Larsen run read like the Punisher's “Don't Waste Ammo on The Following” list. And, of course, there were precious few X’s appearing anywhere in the mag.

Despite my adoration for the series, I have to admit its critics made some valid points, though it was far from deserving the “worst comic ever produced” title given by Comics International (a quote that would later be printed defiantly on the cover of The Defenders #8).

Larsen’s penciling rarely seemed to be of the same caliber seen in Savage Dragon or The Amazing Spider-Man. Even some of the covers seemed like they were thrown together at the last minute, and on the few occasions Ron Frenz filled in for Larsen, the contrast in quality was so staggering you couldn’t help but feel sorry for the regular guy.

I think it would have been fabulous if Ron Frenz had replaced Larsen as regular penciler. I don’t know if the idea was ever brought up, though I imagine Frenz might have had a problem with it if it meant giving up his duties on Spider-Girl. With Kurt and Erik both suffering health problems, it may have given Larsen the opportunity to concentrate his efforts on the co-writing chores. I don’t know if this would have saved the series, but at the very least it would have made the ride a bit more fun (even if it still ended up being a relatively short one). Fans of the first volume might’ve been happier as well, with Frenz’s glaring similarities to Sal Buscema (who did almost all of the art for the early stories of the first Defenders volume and actually worked as inker for most of the second).

I’d also say that involving Silver Surfer in the story was a mistake. He seemed to be just casually tacked on to the team, simply because he was one of the so-called “Big Four.” It never seemed as if Busiek or Larsen intended on doing anything particularly interesting with him. On the rare occasions that he captured the spotlight he was usually being batted around like a cat toy. Like the case of the Hulk, his presence backfired. Instead of attracting Surfer fans, it drove them away.

For those who may not know, in the first issue of the second volume, the “ Big Four” are summoned to battle their old villain Yandroth. After seeing how the four heroes can barely tolerate one another, Yandroth lays a curse upon them as he dies, ensuring that whenever the Earth is threatened they will have no choice but to work together to stop the threat.

A lot of readers believed that Busiek and Larsen had a Gilligan’s Isle thing going–that their plan was to keep the curse going indefinitely, never coming up with any more interesting explanations as to why this team of loners would bother to unite. As it was revealed in The Order--the limited series that followed The Defenders--the creative team had something completely different in mind, but by then the damage had already been done.

Despite its weaknesses, the overall response to the series stunned me. Maybe I was wrong–maybe the assholes just shout louder–but while there were fans like myself who enjoyed the book, most of the responses ranged from indifference to outrage and disgust, falling heavily on the latter. While I could certainly empathize--if not agree--with those who didn't like the series, the idea that anyone could literally get angry about it confused the hell out of me.

I guess in retrospect it really ain’t that complicated. Busiek and Larsen’s most unforgivable sin was that they took beloved characters and made them funny.

I don’t like using the word, “fanboy.” It’s interesting how often it’s used in different ways. The casual reader will use it to describe the obsessed collector/completist, whereas the obsessed collector/completist will use it to describe the casual reader. And of course some people use it for any fellow comics readers that they just don’t particularly like. It’s a stupid word, a demeaning word, and call me Captain PC if you’d like, but I’m just as loathe to use it as I am to use the kind of words ignorant assholes use in describing people of different colors, sexual orientations, whatever.

In spite of my feelings towards the word, if you are a fan of a mostly-naked aquatic monarch with elf ears and feathered ankles; a completely naked shiny guy who uses a surfboard to traverse the cosmos; a guy who turns into a half-ton green manifestation of repressed rage; or a shut-in magician who calls himself “Doctor Strange” without cracking a grin every time; and you are unable to appreciate the potential for humor in your favorite character, you have worked very fucking hard to earn the title “fanboy” and I hope your dumb ass enjoys its throne.

The Defenders was funny. At times–like The Defenders #6, an issue narrated by the Hulk and which, should I ever decide to compile a Top Ten list of favorite Hulk stories, has a damn good chance of finding a home there–it was absolute chair-rocking hilarity. In fact, the few times I had complaints about the title, a lack of successful humor was usually to blame.

I was a lonely, lonely reader I guess, because I was one of the few who put the humor in the plus column. We happily lap up all the deconstruction and re-examination in Supreme Power, The Ultimates, The Authority, Planetary, DKR, and Watchmen, but make the Hulk look a little too silly and we’ll smash your ass! It seems as if looking at characters through different lenses is just fine, as long as those different lenses produce characters who kill and fuck a lot. Turn Captain America into Rambo and everyone’s a-okay, but poke fun at the fish man in the speedo and you better fucking duck.

Of course, humor is okay, as long as the comedy is isolated to those characters who were never anything more than comic relief, like the recent GLA. A healthy number of movie and rock stars are able to cope with, and even revel in, humor at their expense, yet so many of us are unwilling to extend the same tolerance to the comedy aimed at other people who don’t even exist.

Regardless, the second Defenders volume will always be welcome in my long boxes. If nothing else, it will always stand out in my mind as a superhero series that didn’t re-define the concept of the superhero, didn’t give me any new and revealing insights into the characters, but was just plain fucking fun to read.

1 comment:

Stringman said...

Thank you for you perspective on this run. I like comedy, at times, in my readings, so I think I will give the series a chance. Cheers.