DEFENDERS #2 - Marvel Comics, $3.99
By Matt Fraction, Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson & Sonia Oback
They say confession's good for the soul. Very well, then. I have this to confess: Defenders isn't the Non-Team™ of the past, which I loved. Two issues in, that much is abundantly clear.
On paper, all the hallmarks of the team's previous iterations are here: We've got Doctor Strange at the core of the group, aided by Namor the Sub-Mariner and the Silver Surfer. The Hulk even appeared in the first issue to provide the team's new raison d'etre (only to speak some horrendously un-Hulkish dialogue and leap away). Replacing the often-gruff Hulk on the team is his (ex?) wife, Betty Ross, having become the Red She-Hulk, whom Marvel's finest still can't manage to name with remote originality. Also aboard because it seems Strange can't be bothered to remember his martial arts training or whip up some teleportation spells is Daniel Rand'kai, the chop-socky Iron Fist, who's rich enough to ride everyone around in a private jet. And on this first adventure, they attempt to stop the Black Hulk, a remnant from the Fear Itself series, but are diverted by several wonderfully Silver Age-y concepts tossed in a blender. Prester John, wielder of the Evil Eye, now leads a group of the High Evolutionary's New Men to prepare for the creature's coming to Wundagore Mountain and the mystical treasure that awaits there.
All the while, I can't help but feel we've been through it all before.
Certainly Matt Fraction writes a great Iron Fist, as he co-wrote his series with Ed Brubaker some years ago. Certainly too there are enough madcap concepts to make Defenders go forward for a long, long time. Certainly the pieces of a "good" Defenders team are here in body. Unfortunately, the team is bereft of the soul that made it a moderate hit in its seventies incarnation.
Part of the trouble was glimpsed last month, when Strange enjoyed a fling with a co-ed who wore Clea's tights. (Okay, maybe not literally, but try looking at their designs and not imagining Doc's ex.) The Silver Surfer's more alien than he's been in some time (and is an absolute non-factor in this second tale). Namor's, well, his typical pompous self. The less said about the Hulk's cameo, the better. And instead of the sword-wielding Valkyrie and the millionaire playboy Nighthawk, we've got the Red She-Hulk (who now has an unusual transformation mechanism--after we were told she could change at will during "Heart of the Monster") and Iron Fist. (Okay, Danny's kind of an upgrade, you might argue, but man, Kyle Richmond was that team's heart.)
Also distracting--but terribly indulgent to all the "hardcore fans" out there-- are the little blurbs at the bottom of every story page. They either hint at upcoming storylines for this book, or are meaningless throwaway lines designed to pander to the base that's been reading for years. ("Werewolf By Night Nurse," I'm looking at you.) It's not the seventies anymore, and we shouldn't act like it is.
The only things that leave this book remotely enjoyable are the absolutely loony adventures the like of which Brian Michael Bendis wouldn't even touch, and the wonderfully stylish artwork of the Dodsons, who've been gone from the corners of the Marvel Universe I frequent for too long. Really, I'm hoping the series kicks up another few notches next month. The MacGuffin has been revealed, and the biggest battle of the series so far has begun. Will those two key points be enough to save this latest Defenders series from extinction?
Quick Verdict: Skip It.
DEAD MAN'S RUN #1 - Aspen Comics, $3.50
By Greg Pak, Tony Parker & David Curiel
Created by Ben Roberts
What a difference an issue makes!
Okay, it's true: I enjoyed Dead Man's Run #0 back in October. Ben Roberts' high-concept of a "jailbreak from Hell" was enticing, and that first story set up enough of the groundwork for me to be intrigued at what was coming next. All the while as I read the story, centered around Captain Frank Romero's descent into the realm for which he was a mere prison guard, I wondered how the events would play into the actual six-issue miniseries when it finally began. I knew that Sam Tinker, only briefly involved in the zero issue's events, would grow into the protagonist role, and that something would likely happen to his sister.
And yet, here I was, surprised at how much I outright loved Dead Man's Run #1 this month.
As Sam descends into the realm of the prison, I was immediately struck by the book's claustrophobic feel. It should feel that way, with the walls closing in, and an increasing sensation that there is no escape. Tony Parker succeeds in bringing writer Greg Pak's visions to uncanny life here, whether those visions include the reality of the outside world or the stark terror of the jailhouse's walls. His layouts are spot-on, and David Curiel appropriately uses colors to shift the tone--bright at the beginning, muted and haunting as time goes on.
I'm anxious to see what Pak has in store for Sam and Captain Romero, and that's in no small part due to the savvy pacing of the last issue and this one. The script is terrifically accessible, clearly defining the main characters in this insane world. Romero and Sam have a terrific conflict between them, and I'm sure it'll only grow when we finally discover what exactly has become of Sam's sister Juniper. And the jail itself, with its prisoners, guards, and their various abilities, is delightfully eerie, blending the best bits of the places Sam's supposed to be.
The only weak link in this entire episode comes early, when Pak suddenly flashes back to a time in Sam and Juniper's childhood. While it's perfectly all right to give a brief flashback--especially given the circumstance during which it arises--it's not drawn or colored any differently from the rest of the book. Aside from this quick faux pas, the narrative never falters and only grows more engaging with each page.
Quick Verdict: Buy It. This is a vision of Hell well worth the journey.