"The Last Defenders" hasn't maintained the quality of its opening issue, but it's shaping up to be a quality little series nonetheless. The first issue was a jokey, fun, subversive bit of Marvel madness, probably due to the contributions of Keith Giffen, who is no longer contributing to the story. Issue #5 is almost completely without gags and one-liners, but it still has an ironic core. "The Last Defenders" doesn't take itself as seriously as most Marvel comics, and Joe Casey manages to have fun playing around with Marvel history, but it still deals with surprisingly earnest themes. "The Last Defenders" is the story of Kyle Richmond and his place in the world.
Kyle Richmond, Nighthawk, has always been a bit of an oddball in the Marvel Universe. He was created as a Batman analogue as a member of the Squadron Sinister, but he rejected that life to become a hero. Yet, unlike Batman, he was never particularly good at the hero part. He tried his best, and threw his money around -- let's not forget that he paid Luke Cage to hang out with the Defenders for months -- but he was never quite successful. And in "The Last Defenders," Joe Casey and Jim Muniz have shown Richmond's attempts to maneuver through the post-Civil War world. One of the running gags of this series is that since the Defenders had such an ever-changing role call, the group of heroes Nighthawk runs with throughout "The Last Defenders" keeps changing too. When the doomed-to-failure New Jersey Defenders of the first issue fell apart, he hired a rag-tag gang of mercenaries, and when that didn't work out, he was left all alone, except for the Defenders who pop up at the end of issue #5 to rescue him. It's complicated, but at the center remains Kyle Richmond. Kyle Richmond, the true heart of the team.
That's what "The Last Defenders" #5 is really about: explaining why Richmond has been such an important part of the team over the years. In what has become a major facet of his career in the past decade, Joe Casey once again goes back and fills in some holes in continuity. Unlike "X-Men: Children of the Atom," "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes," or "Iron Man: Enter the Mandarin," Casey doesn't set this series in the past -- he doesn't retell older stories and fill in the unspoken moments. Instead, he tells a contemporary story about Kyle Richmond, but he uses the original Defenders villain, Yandroth, as a keystone. With Yandroth's manipulation of time and space, Richmond relives moments from his past in "The Last Defenders" #5, and discovers that his life is not exactly what he thought it was.
Yandroth could be lying, of course, but it doesn't really matter. This series is not about the truth -- it's about Kyle Richmond and how he perceives the truth and his destiny. He's been a buffoon for years. Can he now become the hero he was meant to be?
Casey and Jim Muniz (who provides some really nice pencils here -- clean and expressive) tell Richmond's story with a wink, but they tell it well. It's easy to overlook these kinds of miniseries starring third-rate heroes and tenth-rate villains, but "The Last Defenders" deserves a read. It's a good series that doesn't feel quite like anything else on the Marvel shelf these days, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it ends.