Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Joe Casey Comics: The Last Defenders #1

[Beginning my six-part issue-by-issue look at Joe Casey's The Last Defenders. New posts will pop up over the next week, but I can't really indicate an exact schedule.]

On my most recent pass at my list of my favourite comics of 2008, The Last Defenders places at #20. It was a good series, but I think I liked it better than most because of my knowledge regarding Joe Casey and his interests. I don't know how fans of the Defenders enjoyed the book, because it really played around with the concept and barely featured anyone from previous incarnations of the group--and for good reason: those teams were failures. This series is not just about the Defenders, but about superhero teams as a whole and exploring what works and what doesn't. Really, the final answer isn't a satisfactory one, because the team put together by the end of the series hasn't been seen since... but, the journey is good enough.

As well, for the first two issues, Keith Giffen co-plots with Casey and also does art breakdowns for artist Jim Muniz--whose work I really enjoy on this book. He has a cartoony look that reminds me of Mike Wieringo, Ed McGuinness and Cully Hamner, which works well here. If I was better at discussing art, I'd do more compare/contrast stuff regarding the Giffen issues and the subsequent ones, seeing how layouts change. But, I'm pretty awful at discussing art usually, so... Also, my interest here is Casey's writing.

This issue introduces us to three characters who represent more than just themselves: Kyle "Nighthawk" Richmond, Tony "Iron Man" Stark, and Yandroth. Now, the ideas/people they represent beyond themselves aren't set in stone, but are more general than specific roles. But, hey, let's see how it works.

Nighthawk is the fan writer. He has his favourite version of the Defenders, wants to get a new team/book off the ground with the old favourites. That these characters failed numerous times before is no concern, because the love is there. In essence, he's a moron, but a good-hearted and well-meaning one.

Tony Stark is the heavy-handed editor/publisher. Despite not wanting to actually have any direct control over the new Defenders team/book, he has his own ideas of what it will be and they will be followed. He knows better and he is the boss. When the team/book later fails, it's not his fault because he wasn't actually the one following through on things.

Yandroth is the professional writer. He doesn't care about what the fans want, he has a plan and it is grand, overarching and involves both moving beyond the past and paying homage to the past. His team/book is designed to last while maintaing artistic integrity. He is convinced that his plan is the right one and uses larger themes and concepts instead of characters to determine the make-up of the team/book.

As I said, not everything each character does lines up with these interpretations, but these are, roughly, the roles they fill. What's interesting (and revealing) is that, by the end, Yandroth "wins" out over the others. Since it conforms to Joe Casey's plan, in many ways, Yandroth is Casey's stand-in--but so is Nighthawk since Casey is also a fan. This series has Casey fighting with himself over the best way to write a book like this and the writer wins out over the fan. Because, you know, he's a writer first and a fan second.

In these first two issues, the editor/publisher is given his chance to make things work as Tony Stark dictates the roster of the New Jersey Defenders to Nighthawk after Nighthawk submits a proposal for a new team(/book). That the team is located in New Jersey is a joke on a couple of levels. First, it indicates the team's lesser status to the Avengers who are New York's team, so the team continues to play second fiddle to the A-squard. Second, the inclusion of the word "new" in the team name plays off the title of the book, which is a response to books like New X-Men and New Avengers. Casey titles this book The Last Defenders, because, while it is the newest incarnation of the team, it is also meant to be the best, one that makes any further groups unnecessary. The "New Jersey Defenders" name is provided by Stark and also represents a critique of his "New Avengers," which was critiqued by fans for ignoring the traditional Avengers make-up in favour of Spider-Man, Wolverine, Sentry, Spider-Woman and Luke Cage... powerful members and pet favourites of the writer instead of "traditional" members. The make-up of the New Jersey Defenders is similar with the token "founder" member in Nighthawk (Captain America/Iron Man), and then She-Hulk (Luke Cage), Colossus (Wolverine) and the Blazing Skull (Sentry/Spider-Woman). It isn't anything like what you'd expect the Defenders to be, but Stark assures Richmond that it will work:


The team is actually designed to be a powerhouse team because of the proximity to New York, but Stark doesn't take personality into consideration, just the most superficial ideas of who these characters are.

There are other little gags or comments throughout the issue. When Nighthawk meets with Stark, Stark is in his armour, while Nighthawk is in a business suit. Various comments are made about how he's not dressed like a superhero and that the suit really wasn't necessary. Right there, we get that Richmond is far too involved with the idea to see it objectively, but also that Stark doesn't actually care that much beyond his own ideas.

When the team goes on its first mission, the Blazing Skull (a Golden Age hero formerly with the Invaders) yells, "DEFENDERS DEFENESTRATE!," an obvious jab at "Avengers assemble!"

In this issue, Casey also lays the groundwork for the eventual "Last Defenders" line-up by having Daimon Hellstrom rejected as a student of the Ancient One in favour of Stephen Strange, and Krang undergoing a procedure so he can breath air similar to Namor.

The issue ends with Yandroth making his first appearance, discussing how time is meaningless because he can see the entire picture (much like Casey) and that he will make sure the Last Defenders, the perfect version of the team, comes into being.

Next issue: the New Jersey Defenders suck.