Last year I raved about Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire’s run on Justice League International but despite it being one of my all time favourite comics I had no idea that they’d reunited in 2005 for a five issue run on Marvel’s Defenders. This isn’t the Netflix version of that super team starring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist though, but the original incarnation of the team which featured the Hulk (Yay!), Dr Strange (Eh!) Prince Namor (Boo!) and Silver Surfer (I have absolutely no opinion on him whatsoever!).
It’s impressive material overall and a pretty inventive and involving story as Strange’s long term nemesis Dormammu teams up with his sister Umar to become more powerful than you could ever imagine, and maybe even more powerful than that as they’re able to shape reality as they so choose. Of course it takes a bit before they get to that point, as Doctor Strange first becomes aware of their plans and decides to put the old gang together to try and defeat them. Unfortunately for him the Silver Surfer is off on a mission to attempt to understand the point of life, somewhat misguidedly hanging out with a bunch of surfers in the hope they’ll be able to help him, so only Strange, the Hulk and a very narcissistic Prince Namor are up for the fight.
It’s a relatively short lived fight however as once they transport to Dormammu’s dimension they’re almost immediately captured, with Dormammu amusingly taunting Strange with “I’m going to keep you here…Imprisoned in this vile, stinking tomb…Where you’ll be tortured and mutilated, taunted and harassed – for at east six to eight weeks”, while the Hulk is frozen in crystalline form and Namor dried out, and without water he’s as useful as a bottle of Evian in a burning forest. With the aid of Strange’s amulet Dormammu is quickly able to transform Earth in to a dark, twisted and generally all round fucked up environment which he rules over like a god, with all of the heroes we once knew and loved working for him.
And that’s that, he wins, everyone dies, the end. Or at least it gets pretty close to that, but luckily for every living human being Umar decides that her brother’s a colossal prick, and works against him to change reality back to the way it used to be. Namor’s given a glass of water and so instantly back to full strength, the Hulk does what he’s best known for, and Doctor Strange is able to trick Dormammu in to thinking that he’s defeated when in fact it’s his evil doppelganger who the beast is torturing. And the Silver Surfer? Er, he’s still hanging around with those surfers and not being any help at all, the naive and slightly deluded idiot that he is.
What makes the series so much fun is that it contains plenty of Giffen and deMatteis’s trademark pithy bickering between the two villains, and the heroes too for that matter as Namor is an egotistical twat and annoyed that Strange has dragged him in to proceedings, but there’s also some fun mockery of comic book tropes (villains explaining their plans, threats of ridiculous torture, the Surfer’s attempts at discovering the meaning of life) and they have fun with the Hulk too, taking the piss out of his stupidity but also by having Umar fancying him rotten, indeed they screw at one point (thankfully unseen) and when the Hulk disappoints her sexually afterwards Bruce Banner is so relaxed he can’t manage to Hulk out when she demands it.
It’s not just another bunch of superhero larks with Marvel heroes instead of DC either, while they have certain things in common, the banter between the characters being the main thing, it’s resolutely it’s own creation. It’s a little (if only by a tiny amount) maturer than their JLI run and is on a much bigger scale than the Justice League International comics tended to be, with not just the destruction of the Earth but quite possibly the Universe at risk here. The alternative universe villainous superheroes are toyed with affectionately, and a miserable and rubbish version of Bruce provides many a funny moment.
It’s the quality of the dialogue which makes it such an enjoyable read though, from the arguments Doctor Strange and Namor have to Bruce’s confusion over just how chilled out he feels post sex, while Umar’s disgust at her brother’s actions generate a lot of laughs, with the line “I’ve never seen deification go to someone’s head quite so quickly” being one of the funniest. Having the Silver Surfer sit out the whole event, while occasionally visiting him to see what he’s up to, makes it all the more unique too and they gently mock his idiocy in effective ways. The art is superb as you might expect, Kevin Maguire’s even better here than he was in his DC Comics work and his ability to capture facial expressions is sublime, and as with the JLI he makes an already very funny piece even more amusing, he really is one of the best artists out there.
If I was to be picky I could mention that it’s a shame that Umar is yet another female Marvel character who spends a lot of time in skimpy outfits and has a ridiculously perfect body, but that’s sadly comics for you, or most of them anyhow. On a couple of occasions there’s so much dialogue that it overcrowds the art (as you can see above), and given the nature of the mini-series there was always going to be a reset button, but how it’s eventually pushed is inventive and enjoyable, and most of the time it’s a fast, fun, breezy event.
It’s a shame Giffen and deMatteis never revisited these characters as they clearly had a ball writing the series, Giffen did feature the Silver Surfer in the more serious Annihilation crossover but that was fairly by the numbers compared to the madness here. I’d certainly have loved to see more of the team and their antics given the scale and scope of their adventures was so much larger than the Justice League’s, but alas it wasn’t to be. Still, all three are alive and working so maybe one day they’ll be given the chance to play with these characters again, and if they are I’ll definitely be along for the ride.