In just a few months, Cullen Bunn and Will Sliney's all-female Fearless Defenders has managed to strike a very unique chord with a vocal section of the Marvel Universe.
Even though it's using the long-standing "Defenders" name, it's a different take on the concept, arising from Valkyrie's need to choose a new crew of shield maidens. This leads to an ersatz team of relative strangers forming, including Misty Knight, Dani Moonstar and Hippolyta — now under the not-so-subtle name of "Warrior Woman" — and new character Annabelle Riggs.
Five issues (plus an Age of Ultron tie-in) in, it's managed to already attract a dedicated fanbase despite selling less than much of Marvel's lineup. We talked to Bunn about the reception to the series so far, what's coming up, and the imminent arrival of some "superheroic dude bros."
Newsarama: Cullen, the September solicitations show that Venom, a natural fit given his relationship with Valkyrie will be showing up in the all-female Fearless Defenders.
Cullen Bunn: He is. Fearless Defenders #9 has a pretty significant number of guest stars — all male guest stars, coming into the book for an issue. With his relationship with Valkyrie, I always knew that Venom would be appearing in at least one issue of Fearless Defenders. He's appearing along with a number of other superheroic dude bros. [Laughs.]
Nrama: Interesting to hear you say "significant number of guest stars," because the recently released #5 certainly had that as well.
Bunn: #5 was a crazy issue with guest stars. I keep losing count. I guess it had something close to 15 or 16 guest stars. #9 will not have that many.
When I pitched the idea for #9 to my editor, Ellie Pyle, I wrote it up very quickly, because I had every thought that she was going to immediately strike it down, because it was such a strange idea for the book. I wasn't even sure I could describe what I wanted to happen in the issue appropriately. But she jumped all over it, and said, "Yeah, let's go for it." And then I wrote the script and thought again, "Ellie's going to reject it right away," but she liked it.
Will sent me his first pages today. He's been drawing these female characters for so long, I guess he decided he needed to do some design work on the male characters who will be showing up.
Nrama: The last time we talked about the book was right before the first issue came out, and you expressed a level of, maybe nervousness, about how it would be received by female readers — you're a male writer, Will is a male artist, and you're dealing with an all-female case. But it seems to have been received very positively with a female audience, between reviews, blog posts and cosplay. Is that about what you've noticed?
Bunn: When people read it, they actually enjoy it. I've always had a number of female readers who've come up to me over the years, and who have enjoyed my books. The Sixth Gun, for instance, my creator-owned book, has a main character that's a female character, and I think that appeals to a lot of people.
But, the response was nothing like it has been to Fearless Defenders. I go to these conventions now, and I get so many readers who come up — women readers, younger readers, people who are first-time readers of comics who have been exposed through Fearless Defenders — it's been real exciting.
Nrama: It has to be gratifying, because it's such a tricky proposition — as much effort as you can put into a comic, the reception is really something you can't control, no matter what the book is. But at the same time it still seems to be a struggle for female lead characters to get that broader audience in superhero comics. Is that frustrating?
Bunn: It is. It's actually a little confusing. We do get such a positive, vocal response to the book, but it can be difficult to get people to pick up a book for the first time, especially a book that they don't necessarily know who these characters are right away. It's a little confusing, a little frustrating.
I think it speaks, to some degree, to the nature of comic readers. To date myself, I remember years ago, long before I was ever writing comics, there was a book that Marvel put out called Blackwulf. I remember Blackwulf very fondly. It only lasted nine or 10 issues. It was a book with a completely new cast. No one had ever seen them before. When the book ended, I was very sad. I remember in the letters column, the writers wrote a note to the fans that basically said, "Shame on us for believing a bunch of brand-new characters doing things that had not been done in comics. Shame on us for thinking that book would be successful."
Even though that's close to 20 years ago, I think about that letter all the time. It's such a struggle to get readers to try something different. A lot of people crow about not having stories that are different; not having stories that they can enjoy apart from everything else that's going on. So, yeah, it's a little confusing.
But at the same time, I get a lot of new readers. I get people who have never heard of Misty Knight before, until they've read this book, but love Misty Knight. For a guy who's read comics all his life, that's shocking that they've never heard of Misty Knight before — but that's still a lot of fun for me, too.
Nrama: It must be confusing, because it can seem like that attitude doesn't necessarily progress at the rate you would expect it to.
Bunn: It doesn't. And look, I get it. It's costly to collect comic books. When I go to my favorite restaurants, first of all, I always tend to go to the same restaurant, and I always tend to order the same thing. But if I don't branch out a little bit, and if I don't try something new at those restaurants, I'm missing out on some things. The stand-bys are always going to be there. I worry that people get too set in their ways and miss out on some things.
We've got a number of very vocal fans who are almost like a street team out there, talking to people about Fearless Defenders, which is awesome. Obviously, any book that I work on, I want people to give it a shot, and see what they think, and try the book out.
We're pretty early in the series; we just did issue #5. It's still a good opportunity for people to people to jump into the book, and catch up on what's happened. Issues #7-#12, while they tell a complete story, we're going to do a series of done-in-one stories with those issues. Each of those issues will be pretty good jumping-on points for anybody.
Nrama: And it looks like in those issues, not only will there be a new look for Valkyrie, but she'll be dealing more in Misty's comfort zone rather than vice versa.
Bunn: The first arc has definitely been very Asgardian. That's just the nature of doing a story about Valkyrie. As we go into the next arc, I take the opportunity to show that there are stories for this team in any number of environments.
Nrama: Getting back to Blackwulf, I think the only thing I remember off-hand about that book is that "wolf" was spelled with a "u."
Bunn: It was, yes. People make fun of me all the time for my love of Blackwulf, but I think back to the '90s, and Blackwulf was one of the comics that I loved the most. Blackwulf and ClanDestine — those are the books I think of the most. Still, to this day, I'm sad that Blackwulf ended when it did, only because it was something I had not seen anywhere else in the Marvel Universe at the time.
Nrama: Well, comics can be cyclical, there's always a chance it could make a comeback, right?
Bunn: Believe me, I have a Blackwulf proposal sitting in my folder. The last editor I mentioned it to, I said, "I do have a proposal for Blackwulf…" and the editor said, "Who?" [Laughs.] I put it back into my archive for a while.