Sunday, January 07, 2007

Storytelling Engines: The Defenders

(or: "Where Did Everybody Go?")

When you look at the idea of the Defenders, it seems great--not just great, but downright natural, an inevitable companion-book to Marvel's long-running Avengers series. If the Avengers is a group of socially-acceptable friendly heroes that fight menaces too big for any one hero, the thinking goes, then the Defenders are a group of socially-unacceptable loners who do the same! On paper, this works well. Doctor Strange's mansion forms a perfect group headquarters, the team can go anywhere through mystical teleportation, and the rest can all be cribbed from the Avengers.

But read between the lines, and you'll find a question that a variety of writers have struggled with for years: Why would a group of socially-unacceptable loners stick together to fight crime?

A team dynamic isn't the same thing as the dynamic of a solo book, particularly when assembling a group of characters who already have their own titles into a team. The readers expect consistent behavior between appearances of a character; if the Hulk is an anti-social misfit who just wants to be left alone, the Silver Surfer thinks of Earth as an insane asylum he's trapped in, Namor hates the human race with a passion, and Doctor Strange is constantly dealing with things that would make your eyes dribble out through your nostrils, well...people are going to expect them to behave like that when they work together, too. Which means, natch, that they won't.

Steve Englehart struggles with this constantly in the first volume of 'Essential Defenders'. Over and over, we hear phrases like, "Just this once," "only for a minute", "one last time," "only becase the menace is so great", all deployed as reasons to get the various members of the classic Defenders line-up to actually team up together to defeat an enemy instead of flipping each other off and walking away. The team dynamic here is working to make it harder for the writer to tell stories, because in addition to coming up with a plot, he has to come up with a reason for the heroes to come together each time. By the end of the first book, Namor and the Silver Surfer have both left the team for good, replaced by less well-known (but more team-oriented) characters like Nighthawk and Valkyrie.

In the second book, without being saddled with a group dynamic that actively works against the writer, new writer Steve Gerber is able to focus in on questions of tone, turning the book into a battle against off-beat menaces that the Avengers wouldn't necessarily be able to cope with. This new dynamic, which turns the Defenders from "misfits and loners" into "counter-culture super-heroes", is much more sustainable (although note that later, after Doctor Strange leaves and the series becomes entirely about B and C-list heroes, it's finally cancelled.) Subsequent attempts to revive the Defenders have all attempted to revive the "classic" line-up of Namor, Hulk, Doctor Strange and the Silver Surfer, and they've all failed because fundamentally, it's a bad team dynamic--anytime the writer is struggling to keep all the characters in the same room, it's going to be hard to turn them into an open-ended, long-term series.


Runmentionable said...

I think the recent Giffen-De Matteis Defenders mini-series with the original line up works (some people hate it), but that kind of proves your point, as (a) it's a self-contained mini-series and (b) the notion that this "team" couldn't and doesn't work is a large and explicit part of the story.

SanctumSanctorumComix said...

The 2nd DEFENDERS series (3rd if you count SECRET DEFENDERS) had a good hook, utilizing a "curse" spell that FORCED the 4 of them to unite when the world was sufficiently threatened enough that only thru these 4 uniting to solve the problem could they go back to their individual lives.

The stories, sadly, went all over the place, and the artwork, while bombastic enough to be fun, was too sloppy and rushed-looking to be of any aid to the series.

But, as a method for solving the "hello, I must be going" dilemma (or the "I love you / I hate you complex" as I call it) was a good one.
At least temporarily.

It, sadly, set itself up as being a "false engine" by the fact that they were constantly trying to circumvent or negate the curse.
So, if they succeed, it's back to wrangling members to combat larger than life forces.

But, if they don't succeed in that goal, they become pawns themselves, not heroes.

Doing what must be done because they HAVE NO CHOICE does NOT a hero make.

So, they inevitably have to rid themselves of this new hook.

Yes, I'm sure it was always INTENDED that they would, thusly setting that engine up as a finite one.

The point of the whole series WAS truly to have DOCTOR STRANGE go rogue.
It then grew to the point where the whole team would become hostile combatants against the very world they were trying to protect. This new angle (first titled "OVERLORDS" and later renamed "THE ORDER" due to copyright issues) would become a NEW engine of sorts, but it was handled poorly (and VERY rushed), due to the ax coming down sooner than intended.

Overall, the premises for BOTH of these runs are obviously flawed as they were seemingly intended to be short-lived.

In a bizarre twist, the engine for SECRET DEFENDERS made more sense (at least for long-term publication):
DOCTOR STRANGE, weakened by power-loss must recruit heroes to defeat forces that he is now too weak to battle alone.
TO this end he utilizes a mystically charged Tarot deck whose cards depict various characters in the M.U.
The deck is magically able to alter itself to show whomever, at that point in time, best represents the face of the card, so you can pull the same card later and it's a different character.

In this way, STRANGE has a never ending source for "DEFENDERS" and can go defeat larger than life menaces.
The problem came about, when the menaces were...lackluster.

IF not for poor writing (and some atrocious art here and there), this could have been a viable concept.

Sorry to go on at this insane length on your comment section.

It's just that the DEFENDERS really SHOULD be a great concept/team/title, and it never seems to "work".


David Kendall said...

While I agree with the analysis of the Defenders storyengine - I have to say I really enjoyed those 70s stories. Having read a few of your essays i realise that most of my childhood was spent reading comics with poor storyengines! I think there was something about the struggle of writers to reconcile characters/storyengine that made them less predictable on some level than stuff like Avengers, FF which I found always returned to the 'happy families who quarrel a bit' status quo.

Cecil said...

Man, what would a true counter-cultural super-heroes comic look like today?
I suppose they were thinking about that over in X-MEN.
I am MAD for Gerber's Defenders! I had one issue of the DAKraft Defenders from a salvage store. I found their un-super-hero-ness very intriguing and liked the females. Now I have almost every
Gerber issue, and it's about my favorite team book ever these days.
They even helped me adapt the plot of my novel!
Your story-telling engines series captivated me.

Easter said...

Really effective info, lots of thanks for the article.