SDCC 2011: Fraction on DEFENDERS: 'The Weird Avengers'

Earlier this month, Marvel rolled out a week's worth of teasers titled "It's Either In You Or It's Not," featuring characters that certainly had a strong resemblance to Iron Fist, Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer, Red She-Hulk and the Hulk.

As of Sunday afternoon's "Fear Itself" panel at the just-wrapped Comic-Con International: San Diego, what those images were teasing is now clear: a new Defenders series, starting in December from the familiar former Uncanny X-Men team of writer Matt Fraction and artists Terry and Rachel Dodson, and picking up directly after the currently unfolding Fraction-written event series Fear Itself.

Thanks to the panel on Sunday, we also now know that the Hulk seen in the teasers is the "Ebon Hulk" — though what that actually entails, other than being the first villain the team faces in the new series, remains a mystery. In order to find out a little bit more about the wide-ranging book, Newsarama discussed the series with Fraction, one that he says is closer in line to his creator-owned work like Casanova than anything he's done in a work-for-hire capacity for Marvel in the past. At the same time, he sees definite similarities in spirit to books Marvel produced in the '70s — the heyday of the original Defenders.

 

Newsarama: Matt, your new Defenders series was hailed at Marvel by a pretty nifty series of teaser images by Marvel marketing's Tim Dillon. Were you pretty involved with those?

Fraction: Yeah. The root of the idea came from marketing, and I jumped on it like a crazy person. It fits neatly into the sort of tone and timbre and nature of the series, too.

Nrama: So with Defenders starting in December right after Fear Itself wraps, does it essentially take the place of that in your schedule?

Fraction: Nothing can take the place of that beast, but yes. It'll be the next ongoing that I write.

Nrama: Given the timing, and the obvious fact that you're writing both books, does this follow pretty closely story-wise with the end of Fear Itself?

Fraction: It starts right after. It spins out directly from the ending of Fear Itself, one of several books that will launch out of the end of Fear Itself.

 

Nrama: Scope-wise, Defenders sounds huge — "examining the very fabric of the Marvel Universe," it said in the text released to press. What can you say at this point about the direction the book's going to take?

Fraction: If it were an Avengers title, it would maybe be called "the Weird Avengers." It's a chance to take these incredibly unique characters that everybody loves, but can't seem to stand on their own for terribly long, and put them in one book together, hoping that there's, if nothing else, strength in numbers.

When you look at the roster of the Defenders, each one occupies a unique corner, exclusively, of the Marvel Universe, and when you put them all toothier in a room, everything is covered. I wanted to find a story that made sense with that kind of lineup. I started to come up with very short — 1, 2, 3 issue tops — self-contained, easily accessible "episodes," but with a bigger kind of super-story that gets told, that is about the nature of the Marvel Universe. It's about why there's a Savage Land, and why there's a Wundagore Mountain, and why there's a Devil Dinosaur, and why there's a Silver Surfer, and why there's an Iron Fist.

In the first storyline that brings them all together they discover this thread hanging off of the sweater of the Marvel Universe, and can't resist tugging it. Once they do, off we go on this tightly conceived, tightly planned, long-gestating mystery. It's a little bit like a travelogue. There's a lot of places we're going to go. It's different, almost month to month, in tone and setting, and nature of the adventure at hand.

 

Nrama
: And it sounds like you're looking at well-known trappings of the Marvel Universe that have kind of been taken for granted for years, and suggesting an element of interconnectivity to all of it?

Fraction: Exactly. This is a big, strange, space-y kind of mind-bending Marvel romp. It's very much of the kind of heady books that Marvel was doing in the '70s. It's very much cut from the cloth of Starlin's stuff on Captain Marvel and Warlock, Steve Gerber's stuff, and Don McGregor's stuff. It is designed to be very different than everything else that we're doing right now, and it's very different from what I've done at Marvel. Tom [Brevoort] has even called it the "Casanova Avengers" a couple of times.

Nrama: Yeah, I'm getting an initial impression, even from the teasers, that this is closer in line with your creator-owned work.

Fraction: I sort of feel like coming through Fear Itself, I felt like I've said all I think I've got to say about where superhero books were when I came in. I've been at Marvel for five years now — I don't know how to articulate it properly, but it's time to do something new, and I'm hungry to fail in new and exciting ways. [Laughs.] I'm ready to try and blaze out and find new ways to do stuff, and different ways to do stuff, and keep myself excited. I think you start to see me getting restless over in the pages of Thor, and Iron Man has been changing over the last few months. Whatever this shift is, it's been happening, and it feels like the butterfly busts out of the cocoon with Defenders, because it's really f*cking nuts.

It's very true to the spirit of the original book. It was sort of the weird, freaky, loser characters brought together to fight big, freaky, loser, weird things. It's very true to that spirit. "Weird loser heroes with unlimited budget and a mission statement to broaden everyone's psychic horizons."

 

Nrama
: Cast-wise, the main players we're looking at are Dr. Strange, Iron Fist, Silver Surfer — and Red She-Hulk?

Fraction: The classic Defenders cast are really at the core, and people rotate in and out as the story grows, as the nature of the mystery becomes unraveled, and as the team begins to put these puzzle pieces together, they need to recruit more people — more weird loners with unique expertise, and that's where people like Iron Fist come in.

Nrama: And Red She-Hulk will be in the place of classic Hulk?

Fraction: Yeah. Our sort of Hulk avatar for the book. And it's a blast to write Betty as an indestructible adventure junkie after a lifetime as a human football and danger magnet. As I've written her more and more she's turning into sort of a bulletproof Indiana Jones.

Nrama: You've written both Namor and Iron Fist pretty extensively before in Uncanny X-Men and Immortal Iron Fist. Were those characters that you for sure wanted to include?

Fraction: Yeah, absolutely. Iron Fist being a part of this came out of me really not having the room to write him in Fear Itself like I wanted to, and sort of realizing, "Oh wait, I could do this with him!" I've always wanted to write a Dr. Strange book, and I've always wanted to do Silver Surfer. I had to turn down a Silver Surfer book years ago and I have regretted it ever since, even though it would be chronologically impossible to work the book into my schedule, I still haven't let myself let go of it.

As more characters come to the fore, it really is everybody I've always wanted to write on a team — for a reason. It's a blast.

Nrama: Both Dr. Strange and Silver Surfer seem like characters that would seem to match up with your sensibilities, and you haven't written them too much before, though Silver Surfer has been a part of the latest The Mighty Thor arc.

Fraction: Yeah, I've gotten to put Surfer through the paces over the last Thor arc, and it kind of spins out of where we leave him.

I've been having a nervous breakdown at every retreat when Dr. Strange comes up, so now I'm finally getting a chance to put my money where my mouth is.

 

Nrama
: So beyond the core cast, there will be members who haven't been Defenders before?

Fraction: Iron Fist is the first of several who have not been associated with the Defenders before.

The idea is, "What if we took all of these characters that everybody seems to love, but just have trouble for whatever reason finding a foothold, and making them the team?" Once we started thinking about who they would be, and looking at how unique they were from one another, you can kind of draw a weird seven-petaled venn diagram that encompasses kind of every corner of the Marvel U.

Nrama: It's interesting to hear about a big team book being launched with a cast of familiar face and have it be outside of the Avengers line, since so many of Marvel's team books are a part of that franchise at this point.

Fraction: And a bunch of these guys are Avengers, too. There's something that comes up in the first storyline, the nature of the mystery that they're investigating — it is a secret that they literally can't tell anyone else about. That they are Defenders, that they are dealing with the nature of this mystery, is secret to everyone other than themselves for reasons that will be explained in the book. It's a way that sort of frees them up continuity-wise to let them do what they need to do, but also becomes a propellant to keep them working on unraveling this Gordian knot that they're presented with.

I'm thinking a lot about shows like Fringe of X-Files, when there are kind of standalone episodes, but there's a big myth that's underpinning all of it. It's a series with a definite beginning, and a definite middle, and a definite end. In a couple of weeks, I'll probably be able to tell you within an issue of two where I'll be stopping, if we are so lucky to do the book that long. It's a chance to do a big story with a propelling narrative element that will take you through my time on the title — somewhere between Fringe and Planetary.

Nrama: Another huge component of this is you reuniting with Terry Dodson on art, who you worked with on Uncanny X-Men.

Fraction: Yes! So excited. Due to the nature of the book, and the nature of the story, I'm actually working Marvel-style with him, at least for a little while. It might be awful, I might give up, it's been really awkward for me so far, but I feel like I'm doing something professionally dangerous and challenging and I want to get out of my comfort zone and disrupt as many systems as I can to see what happens.

Terry's such a gifted storyteller, it puts this sort of visual burden on him in a different way than working with a full script, especially as every issue or two or three we're in somewhere different, something different, the tone is different, the feeling is different. He'll basically be reinventing his storytelling and his art every few issues.

It's a challenge, for me. The first thing we did, there's an eight-page short, and of course, my Marvel-style script ended up being like 12 pages long. I have a ways to go to learn. It's not like when Stan would write a paragraph for an issue or anything like that. It's a learning curve. It's really made Terry my partner on this book in a way I've not had before. It's really fun and exhilarating to talk to him about, "OK, what would you do if it was a Steve Ditko-style early Dr. Strange story?" "OK, now what would you do if it was a Jim Starlin cosmic story?" "What would you do if it was a Nick Fury story?" "What would you do if it's an Iron Fist story?" "Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy's Shang-Chi?" These kinds of crazy contortions I get to put Terry through, only under the guise of, "It'll be much easier! I'll just write Marvel-style, and you can draw what you like!" But it ends up being harder to draw than the crazy f*cking X-Men.

Nrama: It sounds like Defenders is sort of synthesis of both being something new and different from what's going on at Marvel currently, but also being inspired by your own love of Marvel history and existing concepts.

Fraction: At the same time, hopefully it'll serve to get all kinds of people interested. You don't need a PhD in Marvel to know what's going on. The gong I always try to bang on — it's totally accessible for everyone, and hopefully by the time you're done reading, say, an Iron Fist-centric issue of Defenders, you will come away loving Iron Fist like I do, and are really intrigued and excited by it, or the time you finish the first storyline you'll be as integrated by the ideas there as I am.

The Marvel Universe, those first 10 years or so, is just such an incredibly rich and fertile garden of ideas, that I want to get to somewhere like that. I want to work on a book that's designed to just crank on big notions month after month after month. That mid-period of Fantastic Four, from the #30s to the #70s — there's more ideas per page than anything else ever, and I wanted to do a book that reflects that, and honors that the real legacy of Kirby is cranking on ideas, rather than endlessly retelling the same stories. Perhaps suicide in this marketplace; we'll see what happens.

Nrama: To wrap up Matt, anything else readers should know about Defenders?

Fraction: Those ads are full of clues.

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