Monday, March 13, 2017

Review: Doctor Strange and the Secret Defenders

Don't be fooled by the cover, like I was!

Sure, the cover may feature a very nice, if slightly off-model, portrait-style image of Doctor Strange by Tim Sale, and yes, that is certainly the sort of thing that earns a second look. But be careful; that the date on Sale's signature indicates that he produced the image in 2015. So it was only just recently created, and by an artist who has nothing at all to do with the interior comics, which were originally produced between 1993 and 1994.

Aside from the fact that Doctor Strange is indeed in the book, this cover in no way reflects the contents. How secret are these Secret Defenders? So secret that Marvel couldn't even show them to you on the cover!

Those contents are the first 11 issues of Secret Defenders, collected under the title Doctor Strange and The... because Marvel is betting that Doctor Strange will move more books than Secret Defenders (note that the second half of the series is collected as Deadpool and The Secret Defenders*). That, or Marvel felt pressed to get as many Doctor Strange-branded books on shelves as possible as the movie premier loomed, and there weren't really a whole lot of choices for great material.

Writer Roy Thomas has a pretty strong central concept for this particular iteration of Marvel's famed "non-team," a sort of misfit, B-side answer to their Avengers franchise. Pushing the non-team further away from the team concept, this book would feature a Defenders line-up without a set, steady line-up.

Instead, original Defender Doctor Strange would begin each arc consulting his tarot deck, upon which various Marvel superheroes--generally a mixture of the popular and the odd-ball--would appear. Strange would then gather up those fairly random characters and throw them at some threat or another.

The results read a lot like Thomas was doing the same thing he had Strange doing, working from a set of cards featuring Marvel heroes, and plucking a handful at random, but I suppose it had the advantage of getting Wolverine or Spider-Man into a few issues of a Defenders comic.

Despite how solid the concept seems, the execution is, as always, everything, and, well, this is certainly a Marvel comic book circa 1993.
Thomas is paired with pencil artist Andre Coates for the first eight issues of the title collected herein, and Coates does his job just fine. There's nothing terribly noteworthy or memorable about his work, which does the job well enough. I admit I found a lot of the panels downright hilarious, but in retrospect, that had more to do with the strange costuming choices than any real deficiency on his part.

The book does get quite a bit more lively towards the end, when pencil artist Tom Grindberg comes on. His work here is...well, it's something. He draws all of his figures as big, bold behemoths that not only fill the pages, but crowd them. There's a real Mignola-like look and feel to his figure work, and his over-exaggerated musculature--his Silver Surfer and Thunderstrike have tiny heads, smaller than their any single muscle on their bodies--is so expressive that I couldn't tell if he was drawing sarcastically or not. (Vince Giarrano and Kelley Jones, two artist whose work I really like, also sometimes draw in such an exaggerated manner I sometimes wonder if they are being sarcastic or not).

There are five different stories in this collection, meaning there are five different Secret Defenders line-ups. Coates draws the first three, Grindberg the last two.

In the first, Strange gathers Wolverine, Darkhawk, Spider-Woman (Julia Carpenter version) and a Nomad I was blissfully unaware of before this story (long-haired, gun-toting Jack Monroe, who wore big, dumb wraparound sunglasses and a trench coat, his only nod to a costume being a big, dumb N-shaped belt-buckle; he had a baby on his back for most of the story, and I just sort of assumed he was a Marvel Universe answer to Lone Wolf and Cub...?). They are called on to break-up a weird-ass invasion/scheme by extradimensional beings who have disguised themselves and the stupidest looking supervillains with the worst codenames (See: Dreadlox) and were turning old hobos into teenagers, for reasons.

The even more random team of The Punisher, Namorita and Sleepwalker are convened by Strange to tackle Roadkill, a sort of zombie Hulk who drives semis that he turns into vehicles of pure-fire (He kinda Ghost Rider-izes 'em, but he does the whole truck and trailer, not just the wheels) and travels the American highways with his talking sidekick, a dead cat named Splatt. He is really a Cryptkeeper-like horror host from a TV anthology show brougth to life, and unaware of that fact. My favorite part of this story, aside from my fascination with the Sleepwalker character, is that Strange's astral projection finds The Punisher standing over the bodies of two muggers he just executed in the street, and he doesn't say anything. I'm endlessly amused by the Marvel universe's convenient ignoring of the fact that The Punisher is a deranged serial killer. Like, Spider-Man or Daredevil might argue about it or come to blows with him when they happen to see him murdering someone, but it's generally treated more like a bad habit than serious crime for which she should be put in a cell next to Taskmaster or The Hobgoblin or whoever. Strange just acts like he didn't even notice.

That's followed by the most tedious arc, a three-parter that feels like a thirty-parter in which Strange, Spider-Man, Scarlet Witch and Captain America battle Xandu, newly empowered by the Wand of Watoomb. It is perhaps noteworthy for how hands-on Strange is in this one compared to some of the others, and it reads like a Doctor Strange story with guest-stars. It is based on a bunch of older comics I hadn't read; it makes sense and everything, it's just kind of repetitive, as Thomas drags out the story longer than the false drama can sustain (Will Xandu merge Earth with The Death Dimension, kill all the heroes and become Emperor of the new realm? No, no he will not).

Cue Grindberg, who shows up to pencil a two-parter in which The Silver Surfer visits his fellow former Defender to ask him to recruit him some allies to go after Nebula (this one is also based on a bunch of other, older comics; there's a whole page full of recap panels with asterisks pointing a reader towards the issues it references). Surfer insists they be allies that Nebula has never met, so Strange provides him with iron Man understudy War Machine and Thor understudy Thunderstrike.

The final issue is written by Ron Marz, and its labeled as the third chapter of the "Starblast" crossover. I've no idea how it fits in, or what the heck that is exactly, but for the purposes of this issue-long story, it simply provides a super-fast, super-strong robot that a very, very long-haired Nova wants to fight, but he can't catch it. Strange gives him Northstar, who can catch it, but neither of them are strong enough to defeat the robot, so then Doc sends in The Incredible Hulk to punch it to pieces in a great, two-page spread.

And that is that. The issue has a coda of sorts, in which Thanos appears and will take over the book for a few issues, but those issues apparently aren't terribly marketable in 2017, so the next collection of the title is Deadpool and The Secret Defenders. The kids love Deadpool.

I still kinda like the premise of this title, and it seems to be a more-or-less evergreen one, although Marvel already has two Doctor Strange titles at the moment, so I imagine it will be a few years before they even attempted an arrival. Plus, for some reason, the market is forever rejecting Defenders books, no matter how awesome they are (I really dug that one by Matt Fraction, for example).

*Deadpool and The Secret Defenders collects issues #15-25, so the only issues of the series that remain uncollected are #12-#14, which feature a Thanos-led team that includes The Super Skrull, The Rhino, Nitro and Titanium Man. While attaching "Doctor Strange" and "Deadpool" to the title for the sake of selling the collections does indeed make some sense, it also somewhat unfortunately obscures the fact that they are collecting issues from the same series. I'll have to read Deadpool and The...before I can say whether the two volumes are distinct enough to stand on their own, or if they need to be read in sequence.


Bloggerprofile said...

Hello! Issues 12-14 are collected in the new-ish Thanos: Cosmic Powers tpb (COLLECTING: SECRET DEFENDERS 12-14, COSMIC POWERS 1-6).

Steve said...

"It is based on a bunch of older comics I hadn't read." Roy Thomas at his Roy Thomasest.

googum said...

Much as I love Mark Gruenwald and Quasar, Starblast was one of the worst crossovers ever. Like, Genesis bad.