The Defenders have always been the black sheep of Marvel Comics' superheroes. But you ain't seen nothin' yet.
The book was already slated for a change, with the departure of Erik Larsen as artist and co-writer after issue #12.
Marvel and Busiek have been reticent about what's coming up in the title, wanting to reveal that Saturday at the Canadian National Comic Book Expo in Toronto. And for those not in attendance, he also shared the news with CBR News, including some exclusive insights into the creation of the book.
"In the wake of Erik Larsen's health-related departure from 'Defenders' as of #12, the series is getting a new direction, a (mostly) new creative team and even a new title, at least for the next major story arc," Busiek said on Thursday."
When the original series creative team was announced, it struck some fans as an odd marriage -- Larsen's work, most notably "Savage Dragon," is miles apart from Busiek's typical work, as epitomized in "Astro City." Busiek said the chemistry was never a problem.
"It was a blast," Busiek told CBR News. "I love Erik's stuff -- the energy of it, the excitement, the sheer over the top fun of it. My solo stuff tends to be more muted, more 'realistic,' if that's the right word, but that doesn't mean that's all I like. So I had a great time doing something different, and playing with a different kind of approach."
And that over the top Larsen energy will take center stage in the next story arc.
"It's funny -- while this will come across as a 'bold new direction' and a striking departure for what the series has been up until now, the story isn't something we just decided to do -- it's been planned from the very beginning, and if Erik had been able to stick around, we'd still be covering the same material, though likely in a very different way.
"What will be changing is the look and tone of the series, as is inevitable with creative team changes. I've had a blast working with Erik, and 'Defenders' has been very much an intersection between his sensibility and mine, and I'd have been happy to go on with that just as long as we could. But with Erik's departure, we're bringing in new voices and with them new approaches to story and art, and the new take on the book will inevitably be an intersection between the sensibilities of the new crew. It'll still be a fun book, but it'll be perhaps more nuanced, with deeper characterizations and in many ways a lot more ominous, a lot darker and creepier."
Busiek also noted the series won't be losing its current sense of humor and fun, though.
"'Defenders' has been a controversial book -- readers who like it are wildly enthusiastic, and we keep hearing from people who say it's their absolute favorite book. And readers who don't like it just hate it, and can't say enough bad things about it. It's nice to inspire such strong reactions, and we definitely want to hang on to what the loyal fans are most excited about -- but we'd also like to get some of the folks who decided it wasn't to their tastes to give it another try. So we'll be keeping it big and sweeping and energetic, but we'll also be addressing some of the complaints the book has gotten -- delving into character drama and personality more, exploring the Defenders as people, and showcasing the Big Four Defenders as the top-rank powerhouses they are.
"But we'll be doing it with a major shift in what the Defenders -- at least the Big Four -- are all about."
Busiek's not exaggerating when he says that people who hate the book, really hate it. Marvel editorial had a great deal of fun at Comic-Con International earlier this summer reiterating Comics International's review of "The Defenders" as "the worst comic ever," which they're now using to "promote" the book by putting it on the cover.
"Well, heck -- it'd be the most gratifying if everyone loved it, of course, but I don't expect that of any project," Busiek told CBR News. "At least the people who dislike it are stirred up by it, are passionate about it. That's better by far than getting ignored.
"Besides, anyone who thinks Defenders is 'the worst comic ever produced' is himself just as over the top as we've been, if not more so -- so it's hard to take something like that seriously. It's more something that inspires a laugh, which is why we put it on the cover."
"For the uninitiated, here's the ground rules: The four core Defenders -- Doctor Strange, the Hulk, the Silver Surfer and the Sub-Mariner -- have been cursed by a dying enemy, and are teleported against their will to trouble-spots around the world, whenever the earth's in danger and there's no one else to defend it. The result has been turmoil, as the Defenders resent being forced to work together, and have been practically at one another's throats. Namor's kingdom has been invaded, Dr. Strange's crucial mystic functions as sorcerer supreme have been thrown off-kilter, and the Silver Surfer and the Hulk's lives have been disrupted as well. But the curse is backed with the power of Gaea, the spirit of Earth itself, so even Dr. Strange has been unable to break it.
"Aiding the Big Four Defenders are longtime Defenders Nighthawk, Valkyrie and Hellcat, all of whom are far more enthusiastic about the team existing once more than the Big Four are. For them, it's a return to sense of family, of importance and purpose, and they're thrilled to be banded together once more.
"And then it all goes bad.
(Seriously, stop reading here if you don't want the major story arc spoiled. It's a doozy.)
"The Big Four Defenders petition Gaea to lift the curse and free them from its bondage -- and she refuses. So the Defenders, furious beyond reason at the continuing indignity of the curse, decide that if they're to be forced to defend the planet, no matter what it does to their lives and other responsibilities, they're going to do it in the most efficient way possible.
"They're going to rule the earth.
"That way, they can keep it running in an orderly and peaceful manner, keep disruptions to a minimum, and attend to their duties as Defenders without destroying their lives as individuals.
"That's the theory, at least.
"But naturally, people object -- not just the billions being ruled, but armies, governments, and superheroes, including the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Avengers and more. But let's face it, these are the Defenders. They include the Sorcerer Supreme of this plane of reality, a wielder of the Power Cosmic, the monarch of Atlantis who commands the monsters of the seas and the single mightiest creature ever to walk the face of the Earth. They may very well be able to take on any and all opposition, and lay them out flat.
"They're certainly up for the fight.
"So while the Big Four Defenders set about conquering and reordering the earth according to their whims, and battling the best the world's nations and superhumans can muster against them, the other Defenders -- Nighthawk, Hellcat and Valkyrie -- have to find out what's really going on, why their former allies have taken such drastic steps, and what can be done about it. But can they succeed where armies and Avengers can't?
"The future of the world may depend on them doing just that."
Busiek thinks that the takeover scheme isn't as out of character for all the Big Four to the same degree.
"Actually, I'd think it'd be most out of character for the Hulk," Busiek told CBR News. "He might be up for the fighting, but why would he want to rule the world? Unless he was a different Hulk ...
"But keep in mind that Doc and Namor are the two Defenders whose lives and duties have been the most disrupted by the curse, and who are the most frantic about restoring some sort of order to their lives. So who throws in with whom? Only time will tell.
"Beyond that -- yes, there are reasons and motivations behind it all, but we'll let people find all that out by reading the stories.
"That's the premise of the next major arc for the 'Defenders' series -- four of the most powerful beings ever to walk the Earth versus the rest of the world, with only their closest friends seeking answers rather than violence.
"It'll be brought to life by continuing co-writer me, and a new group of partners-in-crime.
"For my part, I never thought I'd be doing this book without Erik -- I've always liked the Defenders, but when the series was being relaunched, I knew I didn't have the time to write it myself, and didn't pitch for it. It was Erik's enthusiasm and determination to do the book that got me thinking about it, and led me to come up with the idea of the curse as a means of getting them back together. But I figured I'd co-write it for a while, and then eventually Erik would take over the whole job, after I'd help build the curse and the team into what I saw it becoming.
"But Erik had to duck out early, and I found out that I wasn't done yet, not by any means. I really wanted to get to the next stage of the curse and the next era of the team, so editor Tom Brevoort and I put our heads together and found the people we needed to make the next step a reality.
"First off, I'll be joined on the writing chores by Jo Duffy, longtime comics writer, former Marvel editor and bon vivant par excellence. Jo's best-known for her work on 'Power Man & Iron Fist,' 'Fallen Angels,' 'Catwoman' and the English translation of 'Akira,' but she's also written such series as 'Wolverine,' 'Star Wars,' 'Elvira' and 'Glory.' She's always been a terrific storyteller, and she loves characters with an offbeat or bizarre edge -- and she seamlessly combines warmth, humanity, humor and dramatic action. She was Tom's and my first choice, and I'm thrilled to be working with her. Not only am I going to have a great time, but I'm going to learn a lot, too. We've only had a couple of story conferences so far, but already she's come up with new concepts, plot twists and character insights that have me eagerly anticipating how readers are going to react to the new series. I can't wait."
The writing chores aren't being divided along traditional plotter/scripter lines, however.
"'Defenders' was never a traditional split," Busiek told CBR News. "The way I worked with Erik was, we'd talk through a story, then I'd type up a rough outline, about half as detailed as one of my full plots. He'd flesh it out as he drew it, adding to it and expanding it as he went. Then he'd write a first-draft script over the art, and I'd polish it. We'd fight out any disagreements, and when the dust cleared, we'd be done. So we were both involved in plotting and scripting.
"Jo and I are planning to handle it similarly -- we'll talk out a story, I'll outline it, and she'll flesh it out into a final plot. Once it's drawn, she'll do the first-draft script, I'll polish it, and then we'll fight like cats and dogs over commas and caption placements.
"But that's just the initial plan. Erik and I started out planning something else, but we wound up working the way we did because it made more sense that way as we went along. I'm sure Jo and I will tinker with the process and find something that suits us as we go along.
"Our new penciller is Matt Haley, best known for 'Elseworld's Finest: Batgirl & Supergirl' and 'Tangent Comics: The Joker,' among other projects. Matt's currently finishing up the 'Witchfire' one-shot for the 'Power Company' launch event, and was looking around for his next assignment just as 'Defenders' became available. He's been doing such a great job on 'Witchfire' that I suggested him for 'Defenders' and Tom was immediately intrigued, having worked with Matt on 'Heroes Reborn: Rebel.' A few phone calls later, Matt was our guy.
"Matt's been known over the years for drawing comics focusing on attractive women, but he's never been limited to that. His storytelling's powerful, his drawing is realistic and dramatic, and his character work is expressive and energetic -- and we'll put him through the wring on 'Defenders,' giving him the chance to draw all-out action, settings from outer space to under water, carnage, destruction and a lot of character interaction. He's never really had the chance to do a straight-ahead superhero series before, he says, and is eager to do it. He's especially eager to draw the Silver Surfer and the Hulk, though he's also always wanted to draw Hellcat, too. Judging from his early sketches, he's going to be having a lot of fun with the rest of the cast, too.
"At the moment, an inker hasn't been settled on, but we're anticipating that color and lettering folks Greg Wright, Tom Smith and Chris Eliopoulos will be continuing on the book.
"The other big change in 'Defenders' is that along with the new series direction, it's getting a new title, at least temporarily. 'Defenders' #12 will be a double-sized issue, featuring a 22-page silent story by Erik Larsen, and a 16-page backup by me, Jo and Ivan Reis, setting up for the new direction.
"'Defenders' #13 will be a fill-in issue by Fabian Nicieza and Mark Bagley, to buy us some more time to get the new direction smoothly under way and on schedule --
"And then the next month, we'll release 'Overlords: Defenders Against the Earth' #1, as the new direction kicks off. We're giving it a new title to call attention to the change in the series and the new, threatening status quo of the Big Four. It'll still be sub-numbered #14, just as 'Avengers' and other books are sub-numbered with their old numbering, for those readers who are concerned about such things.
"'Overlords' is currently planned to run for six issues. After that, the next issue may be 'Defenders' #20, or another story-title with the sub-numbering continuing, or something completely different -- we'll know when we get there.
"But the fans have been asking for the Defenders to fight the Avengers, they've been asking for more character focus, they've been asking for more menace, more scope and more recognition that the Big Four Defenders are A-list powerhouses. They're going to get it. All of it. And more."