Friday, November 9, 2012

DEFENDERS 12 – A REVIEW
AND THEN… AND THEN… THE IMPOSSIBLE END.


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DEFENDERS v4 # 12

Writer - Matt Fraction
Artist - Mirco Pierfederici
Colors - Veronica Gandini
Letters - Clayton Cowles
Cover Artists - Terry & Rachel Dodson
Cover Price - $3.99 (with Digital Copy)
Release Date - Nov. 7th, 2012
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*UPDATED*
Nov. 10, 2012
9:00am
-due to error of originally posting penultimate version of review-

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There’s an oft-posited theoretical conundrum of temporal paradox that goes… “If you traveled back in time to before your conception, and somehow killed your father, would you even exist to be able to have gone back in time to do so in the first place?”

Well, in the final issue of the DEFENDERS (vol 4) they essentially just killed their father.

After 12 issues of their battling to somehow “Shut Down the Engines”, to “Fight to Save Everything”, prevent the “Universe from Breaking”, and “Everyone they Love from Dying”, they accomplished all – and none – of those things.

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*SPOILER ALERT IN EFFECT*
Read on at your own discretion.
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As detailed in the first several issues of the title, 
(the preview and first four of which I reviewed quite thoroughly:
 [Marvel Point One prelude – HERE] [Issue # 1 preview – HERE]
 [Overview of Matt Fraction's direction for the title - HERE]
 [# 1 HERE] [#2 HERE] [#3 HERE] [#4 HERE]) 
the team discovers, steals and sets out to find the rest of the Concordance Engines – a set of cosmic, probability warping, reality magnets, built by the “Council of Omegas” (a race of other-dimensional protectors – who here on Earth are known as “Presters”- ie; Prester John), to locate “impossible” occurrences (which result in super-powers instead of death) within other realities and swap those with their 616-Earth counterparts, thus creating…manufacturing… a world populated with an army of “Marvels” which can stand against “Death Celestials” and their quest to destroy everything.

Of course, those nuances of purpose and origin of the Engines were not revealed until the penultimate issue, once the title was slated for cancelation.

However, here in the final issue – one issue later – the workings of the Engines have been already retconned a bit. No longer do they swap out one set of probabilities (or their resultant product) for a failed (or unchanged) one here, but now it is said that the Council of Omegas built the Engines to REPLICATE the conditions of the super-power-giving realities to create similar events here on 616-Earth. A subtle difference, but one of vital importance if you truly think about it (for no longer are other realities being harvested and deprived of their own protectors, but now instead, are merely serving as templates for our own set of…defenders).

Also a matter of confusion is the point of whether the Engines would have been best left undiscovered – so they can continue to produce “impossible” events here on Earth which produce super-powers, so that the heroes can fight to stop the Death Celestials – or if the Engines should be destroyed – thus depriving the Death Celestials from interacting with them. Both theories are posited as being true within the issues. By the end of the series, the remaining Defenders take it to their task to destroy the Engines, even though the universe will be destroyed anyway, to prevent the Death Celestials from using them to do it all again in another reality. It’s a mess of contradictory ideas, never fully explained or explored.

Once the fate of the title was sealed, it became easily apparent that one of the possible “outs” to wrap up the many dangling plotlines was simply to have someone (Doctor Strange being the most likely candidate) to go back in time and undo it all. That, or use the actual Engines themselves, which were the MacGuffin focus of the entire title, direction and prospectus of the series. Of course, one would hope that a “professional writer” who had built his reputation as purportedly being a crazy, wildly imaginative maverick along the lines of Grant Morrison or Steve Gerber would come up with something a little more crazy, wild or imaginative. Instead we get what every grade-school reader had already known would come to pass.

At the start of the issue, the Death Celestial has killed everyone on Earth, except for a scant few people – the reality-hopping Defenders among them (Wong is also dead [discovered in the Sanctum last issue – in a touching scene with Doctor Strange and the corpse of his fallen friend]). There literally seems no way to save the world since the Concordance Engines have been “played with” by the Defenders and thus attracted the attentions of the Death Celestial. It is then determined that Doctor Strange (see?) needs to go back to the past and stop himself from ever getting the Engine in the first place.

So, what does he do? Does he go back to just before he suggests STEALING the engine, after the battle with Nul the Breaker of Worlds, who had hoped to destroy it and thus the world?

No.

Does he go back to before he uses it to call his old girlfriend back from the dead, the first of the major tamperings with the Engine?

No.

Does he even go back to the very start of this mess, when Strange entered his friend, “Notebook Joe’s” mind and thus was able to gain awareness of the Engine, which Joe first discovered on an archeological dig? (Going to this point would save the life of Joe, who killed himself soon thereafter, BTW.)

No.

Instead, Strange goes back (or is sent) to the day where he had sex with a grad-student in his Sanctum Sanctorum, just before going out for tea at a diner, using a minor divination spell to determine his next course of action.

Oddly enough, time-displaced Strange (in an invisible, intangible manifestation of his physical form – NOT his astral form) does not stop his previous self from having sex with the girl (it’s obvious that he just stood by and watched it happen again… like a live sex-tape) and then alters what one word the divination spell writes.
Whereas before the spell spelled; “R-A-G-E” as a hint about the Hulk and his ebon doppelganger, this time, Strange seems to spend considerable effort to make the tea droplets spell out “G-I-R-L”, which gets him off his ass and over to try to smooth over the wounded feelings of the young woman, thus allowing him to NOT BE HOME when the Hulk came a’calling.

THAT’S THE SOLUTION, Matt Fraction? REALLY?!?
Just have Doc be away having a coffee with the girl (in an “add-it-to-the-innumerable-number-of-homages-to-Edward-Hopper’s-famous-painting;-‘Nighthawks’”), so that the Hulk can not get Strange to help him gather the Defenders to battle Nul?
Ugh.

Now, to be totally fair, there was a lot of high-concept stuff being tried out in this title, and a lot of dangling plots that had to be wrapped up - quickly.
No one can fault a writer with a hasty exit under circumstances like those that presented themselves with the "sudden" cancellation.
However, in the current comic buying climate, I would have thought it best for a writer to not overwrite too far beyond the first year, just in case.
Still, as I said earlier, a writer who has been touted as being able to pen "weird adventure" should have been able to come up with an ending not so pedestrian.
Fraction'a wrap up could have been - should have been - better.

Remember, by the time that Hulk came to Doc (in the “Point One # 1” prelude), as well as at the start of Defenders v.4 # 1) Doc had already seen a glimpse of the Concordance Engine in a vision, presented to him by the fractured mind of his friend “Notebook Joe” just before Joe killed himself by stepping in front of a subway train. In fact, Strange was obsessed with finding out what it was all about! He even saw a vision of the “future” which was made reality in issue # 11.

Thus, there’s a good chance that someone of infinite curiosity and learning would continue searching for the answer to that mystery (and also to avenge the death of a friend under his watch). He would quite probably find an Engine…if not sooner, then definitely eventually.

And when he did so, like he did in this series, he may have inadvertently used it to resurrect his long-lost love; Martha (see her entry in the epic “Many Loves of Stephen Strange” post [HERE]).
So, what happens to her now? She was killed off with everyone else on the reality’s version of Earth. Thus, since everything was rebooted to a time before it ever happened, she would never be resurrected at all (which means I had better amend her listing in that “Loves of Dr. Strange” post accordingly to explain this mess).

However, the fact that none of this took place means that Iron Fist’s fellow “Immortal Weapons” will not have been hunted down and killed by the “Prince of Orphans”. In fact, the Prince of Orphans will also not die. And of lesser import, the “Daughters of Dark Water” will never have been released from their underwater prison.

Another minor nit to pick with Strange’s method of avoiding the whole series of events is that if you were to re-read issue # 1 again, in the diner scene Doc admits to himself that he feels “particularly lovelorn” while he tries his divination spell. So, if the new resulting “G-I-R-L” revelation WERE to occur, Strange would most likely attribute that to his state of mind and purge the thoughts and TRY AGAIN.
Since it took “future Strange” some considerable effort to change the resultant droplets the one time, the chance of his doing so to avoid the original “R-A-G-E” outcome would be negligible. Thus, the series of events would most likely still transpire.

The only thing that would allow for Strange taking the now-changed result is that Fraction had set him up as feeling so terribly lonely (and horny).

Humorously of note is that without the Defenders to battle Nul, the problem would have been neatly solved all on its own (as I stated in my review of the 3rd issue).

I should take this time to discuss the artwork for a moment.
This title has rotated artists at a distracting rate, none of whom had styles quite fitting to the direction of the story. One of the best; Michael Lark (from issue # 4) was a beautiful addition, but mostly because the story of that issue was one which fit his somber, realistic style.
In these last two issues, the artist is Mirco Pierfederici. His style, while basic, has a nice rounded feel to it, and he allows for some touching and intimate looks at our heroes in their reactions to the horror around them. His work is lacking in many respects, most significantly a sense of professional polish - especially in issue # 11, as the inking in the issue is so murky and messy. However, in this last issue, the inking is negated by beautiful (if overly obvious in its digital origins) coloring by Veronica Gandini. She makes his work shine and puts a satisfactory polish on this final issue.

Matt Fraction’s writing, by the end, devolved into a minimalist exercise (read: seemingly lost all interest in actually writing the script). Gone was all pretense of his usual “look how cool I am”-isms. Gone also were the page footers that he had been so proud of using to give 4th-wall-breaking metatextual clues. Instead we are left with bare minimum exposition and of repeating the phrase “…and Then…” superimposed over panels showing wordless action. After a while of re-reading “…and then…”, “…and then…”, “…and then…” to move the story along, it became hard to care about the supposedly overwhelming events being relayed.

It seemed more like an iteration of “yadda yadda yadda” wherein the teller of the tale uses the fill-in-words to just skip over the bulk of the story, since those parts are “unimportant”. By the time he was scripting this issue, Matt Fraction was already at work on his new “Marvel NOW!” titles; Fantastic Four and FF, and seemingly put very little effort into wrapping up his creative vision.

Speaking of “vision”, like in the prelude story and in issue # 4, Matt Fraction once again includes the erroneous use of some sort of “third eye” on Dr. Strange’s brow. He truly doesn’t seem to understand that whenever Strange had a 3rd eye appear on his forehead, it was the Eye of Agamotto released from it’s medallion. However, the Eye of Agamotto had seemingly been destroyed many months ago in the pages of 'New Avengers'. If this was some new spell to emulate an all-seeing eye, Fraction never bothered to mention it. Something like that needs to have at least a cursory explanation. That’s ‘Writing 101’, people.

I also feel a slight need to question the curious bit of dialogue where Doctor Strange rather flippantly says to the rest of the team; “At least we’re not dying in Philadelphia”, and then goes on to explain that as one who has been to hell itself, Philly is truly terrible.
I wonder if this is some in-joke between Fraction and Cullen Bunn (who is writing Venom and taking the symbiote-wearing hero to the “City of Brotherly Love”. and who is also writting an upcoming DEFENDERS title *see the footnote at the end of this review*)? Or, perhaps Fraction truly hates Philly? However, I wonder if he knows that Stephen Strange was BORN there? Either way, it’s a weird little exchange that seems out of place.

And speaking of being "out of place"...(ok. this one's a stretch)... the final words of Prestor Omega to Dr. Strange just before the end of everything - possibly going to some other place - brings up questions as to if he (and Matt Fraction)  knows something that we don't. "I will see you in the next life." Then the whiteness of oblivion.
However, what's more likely is that in any other issue, whenever an Omega Prester DID move or say anything, it was to save the day, but in this instance, there was nothing he COULD do, and so he just said goodbye.

The "relationship" between Doc and Prester Omega has been one I enjoyed over the title.
Doc speaking to his silent "friend" always make me wonder if they were truly communicating on some level. I will miss that, and hope that Prester Omega returns.
(Maybe in the pages of the Marvel NOW reboot of NEW AVENGERS. Their logo DOES incorporate an OMEGA symbol, so...)

Sadly, the final page of the issue is a cliché’d bit of nonsensical platitude and if considered even for a moment is proven to be meaningless and false. The issue – and the series – ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The reality of it all is that the Defenders failed – utterly - to save the world. All they were able to do was go back and set up a re-do.
(Much like how the DC heroes failed to stop their entire reality from being rebooted into its current “new 52” incarnation… Is “superheroes failing miserably” the new “thing”?)

Unlike many time-travel stories, wherein at least one or a few retain the knowledge and/or memory of the events that transpired in the now-avoided splinter-reality, this issue creates a sequence of events wherein no one is aware of the adventure at all. Nothing is learned. Nothing is gained.

Volume 4 of THE DEFENDERS explained that everything you think you know about the origins of the Marvel Universe is wrong… and the last issue of the title proves that the entire volume 4 of the DEFENDERS just never happened and doesn’t matter.


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*
Perhaps we'll all do better with Cullen Bunn's new, upcoming FEARLESS DEFENDERS title, featuring an all-female roster, starring VALKYRIE and MISTY KNIGHT - mixing the "FEAR ITSELF: THE FEARLESS" with the DEFENDERS.

6 comments:

Mario Di Giacomo said...

I suspect you won't like New Avengers any better.

~P~ said...

Hey, Mario.

Oddly enough, I found that I really LIKED # 32 of New Avengers (part 2 of the 4 part finale).

# 31 was weak, but I am hoping that Bendis can pull off a miracle and actually write a compelling take without many irritating Bendis-isms.

Still, he isn't getting off the hook that easily.
A massive essay is in the works.

Anonymous said...

Terrible ending..well at least Wong is alive..Let's hope Fearless defenders is better..Valkyrie deserves a new shot as a defender.
Anna

Anonymous said...

The line about Philadelphia is an old joke. WC Fields used to make cracks about, "I'd rather be in Philadelphia, and I hate Philadelphia." He actually put it on his tombstone. It's just a play on that.

~P~ said...

Hello everyone!
Thanks for the comments.

Anonymous (2):

I am actually well aware of the WC Fields quote and its intended meaning (as an epitaph, so naturally, since Fields purportedly hated Phillie, he'd still rather be THERE than in a grave.

However, Fraction botches the joke by just tossing it out there in the manner which he did.

If he would have just used the quote - as is - it would have been better. Instead, it comes across as bad dialogue.

Just my 2cents.

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