The Defenders is the Clifford, the Big Red Dog of superhero comics. Every outing is an exercise in how do we make this work? Every story is a formalist arrangement of elements that are not conducive to easy successful stories, hopefully orchestrated and played in a way that will be good. Marketed as “the non-team,” whoever is in the Defenders, the mix should be hypergolic, and it should go big. The small power sets in the team are billionaires who fly and the super-strong, super-agile, supernaturally lucky daughter-in-law/adopted daughter of the Devil. The smallest personalities are gregarious genius acrobat jokesters and law and order Atlantean soldiers.
But, the big guns will always be the original guys, the characters too massive to put on teams and keep them there. The guys who make it really a task to write or draw or publish an all-around great and rewarding Defenders tale: Doctor Strange, the Hulk, Namor the Submariner, and the Silver Surfer!
Surfer is a cosmically-powered demigod, the emissary of a galactic destroyer of worlds, known for his shiny metal body, is deep philosophical detachment that might actually come from caring too much, being able to perform incredible feats, and riding around on a flying surfboard. The Silver Surfer is a heralding angel of a potent god.
Namor, King of Atlantis, his mother a water-breather, his father, an air-breathing human, a mutant of extreme strength who can fly and channel electricity and breathe underwater and in the air, is a World War II hero, who has led invasive attacks on New York City more times than any of us can accurately say without committing to a night or week of research.
The Incredible Hulk, the immortal Hulk, the big green guy who is sometimes gray and sometimes dumb and sometimes smart and usually quick to start smashing, you know who he is. You’ve seen movies. The Hulk is big. There really isn’t an upper level to the Hulk’s strength.
Dr Strange? You may have seen him in movies, too. The movies undersell Dr Strange. Strange can change the whole world, and he does so, regularly. The Sorcerer Supreme, the guardian of our realm and big deal magic master of Earth, Dr Strange has perhaps the only responsibility in the Marvel Universe that could dwarf the powers the others must keep in check, and the duties they must vigilantly adhere to.
The Best Defense focuses on those four and no more, and the divers hands responsible for this five issue comic really batted this one out of the park. Four figures who crack planets, the comic juggles them in an ornate, naturalistic pattern that propels the individual, overlapping stories and the central narrative and unifying tones that generate out of those stories.
While Best Defense does not wrap up every narrative strange of its convergent storylines, all of these characters will be appearing next month, and month after, et cetera, for quite some time, in other comics. It is probably to the comics’ benefit that Al Ewing, Chip Zdarsky, and the other writers do not attempt to tie every last thread to a gordian knot, that it focuses on action, humor, glibness and world-shaking drama over closure.
The Hulk tale, finds Hulk’s alter ego, Dr Bruce Banner, wandering into a sleepy New Mexico town where everyone seems to be missing, and his friend and ally, Dr Strange, lies dead and burning at the back of an abandoned room. Yes, that Dr Strange, the world-cracking, protect the universe, sorcerer supreme. Dead. On fire. Robbed.
Which, while Banner and Hulk investigate this apparent crime, is how you justify bringing these four characters together: You take the stakes and you pin them high.
Namor’s story takes him from the romantic and political back and forthing of homeland diplomacy, from the depths of the ocean floor to the worlds beyond that world, to beyond the upper atmosphere, leaving him dressed in the silver of the Silver Surfer.
The Surfer’s is not about him, directly, but repurposing the man with no name mythos of the Clint Eastwood-starring Dollars movies (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). At his power levels, and with his quieter external voice, this is the easiest way to keep our silver angel relatable, meaningful to the broad swatch of us.
The Strange story takes the opposite tack, except that it is not truly the opposite. Dr Strange, traveling through bizarre Ditko-styled otherlands, is our world in his story. Strange is our narrator, our perspective, our thoughts, as he acts outwith and ruminates internally, taking himself apart and changing the nature of all things piece by piece.
These dovetail great in the final issue, while still keeping us from any pat united as a team moment, allowing the non-team to really function as a non-team, even if their lives and goals meet briefly in a time and place.
The five issues of The Best Defense run the range from cosmic horror to cosmic putz. From petty thieves to grand tricksters. We cannot be sure, in the end, who even won or came out truly on top, because success is a matter of perspective and all our primary players are at least a little deluded. Everyone is shortsighted.
Kind of the best thing about The Best Defense, is that everyone is shortsighted. Hubris is the 3-in-One Oil of achievement. Dr Strange is often said to have put his hubris aside to become the protector of us all, but most of his actions are the actions of hubris. A Namor who does not act from the gut, from pride and prideful conviction is unidentifiable as Namor. You think, the Hulk, or his small, stubborn scientist alter is not as big on ego as anyone?
Classic Defenders moments, tend to either be the best-unexplained (the elf with a gun who shows up and kills someone, no explanation), frustration at the absurd (Namor, forced to wear magical “ruby sneakers” in a land modeled on Dr Seuss), and how even the best intentions can lead to the ruin of the world (Patsy Walker once bought a rambling homeless man a meal, and the Goddess of Earth almost ended human freedom). Namor telling Hulk to stop touching him, and Hulk dabbing him with a finger and going, “Touch.” A grand demon rupturing the world and raining hell and shame. Valkyrie mocking Iceman, way before he came out as gay, for his anxiety at being romantically linked to someone with female and male forms. That person, Cloud, actually being a nebula from out in space.
Even, the oft-maligned Secret Defenders, was at its best when there was a dangerous mix of serious and absurd and most of the characters had too much power for conventional threats or conventional team ups.
While Namor, Strange, the Surfer, and even Bruce/Hulk have been described as “noble,” and as devious, their nobility and their deviousness are not identical, between any of them. Where all are passionate thinkers, Hulk’s intelligence is often more limited. What Namor finds absurd, the Surfer may find elegant, such as, in The Best Defense, when the Silver Surfer merges his feet to Namor, as he would his surf board, and surfs the air with his ally prone beneath him. Dr Strange and Namor are both monied, elitists separate from base humanity, but Namor is fantastically wealthy in a monetary sense, a king, and Strange is simply a retired surgeon with a big house in the middle of a boho neighborhood. Namor invades the surfaceworld and battles nearby nations. Strange will let homeless men with histories of exceptional violence sack out in a spare room.
Dr Strange will trade an eye for an Earth, a universe for a friend, but he can’t say comforting things to his lover. Or, he won’t? Won’t and can’t are rarely the same, but usually feel as if they are. These four Defenders all get in, get out, and everything never comes together for them. It’s a chase. A reaction.
What separates the Surfer or the Sorcerer Supreme from nuns stealing boots of a child isn’t that the nuns are acting more for something immediate – they’re all acting for immediacy – but the range and strength of their power and the sizable scale on which they can steal boots.
Is that too unheroic?
Who said these were heroes? The Hulk is a bully devil when he is not a violent child with the strength of atom bombs.
The Silver Surfer, traditionally, visits you to proclaim the oncoming death of everyone you know, everyone you love and all the people around you that you don’t.
The devil. The herald of death. The frustrating big picture devil’s advocate pragmatist. The immortal avenging royal.
Doctors. Scientists. Politicians. Philosophers.
Warriors and sages and investigators. Adjusters.
Arrogant as Ever: Hubris, Monstrosity, and Hope in The Best Defense
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