I won’t say that "The Last Defenders" #1 is inaccessible to a reader who’s ill-versed in Defenders history, but I’m glad I read those three volumes of "The Essential Defenders" a few weeks ago. They helped me understand the significance of the name “Pennysworth” and “Yandroth,” if nothing else.
Even though my enjoyment of the issue came partly from seeing a few classic Defenders elements repurposed for the 21st century, writers Joe Casey and Keith Giffen, and penciler Jim Muniz, introduce a very different Defenders team than we’re accustomed to seeing. The Defenders has been called a “non-team” in the past, but it has never featured the likes of She-Hulk, Colossus, or the Blazing Skull before. This is a strange collection of heroes, grouped together by self-proclaimed team-building “expert” Tony Stark to satisfy the requirement of the Fifty State Initiative.
These certainly aren’t the old Defenders. These are, as Stark announces, “The New Jersey Defenders,” led by veteran Defenders member (and Bruce Wayne analogue) Kyle Richmond, a.k.a. Nighthawk.
Halfway through this issue, there’s a page that perfectly captures the tone of the comic book. If you don’t like this page, the series probably isn’t going to be for you. For me, it was the moment that made me realize how much I liked "The Last Defenders" #1. On that page, the four team members are seated around a giant round table, far too big for such a small group. Not only that, but the table features an image of New Jersey surrounded by an immense letter “D.” The team plays it straight�"there’s no "Justice League International"-style “bwah-hah-hah” action going on here�"but the dignity with which Nighthawk tries to conduct the meeting is undercut by that ridiculous-looking table, which only helps to remind us about how absurd these characters look�"a guy with a flaming skull, a man made out of metal, a green Amazon, and Nighthawk with the little wings under his eyes. As Nighthawk dutifully runs the meeting with his talk of “S.H.I.E.D.-encrypted files,” and “security clearance,” and “an accelerated schedule,” the Blazing Skull complains about “this whole Initiative thing,” and She-Hulk cuts right to the chase, explaining an old Defenders storyline with this simplistic but accurate statement about the Sons of the Serpent: “They’re basically the Klan in snake outfits.” It’s the perfect balance between awkwardness and sincerity.
That single page shows why "The Last Defenders" #1 works so well. Casey and Giffen undermine any attempt to take this team seriously, but the characters themselves are trying so very hard. The creative team also does a nice job throughout the issue establishing the personality dynamics within the group and setting up a number of plot points and brief action sequences. This isn’t one of those issues that’s all talk. It moves. It’s an excellent first issue that sets up what will no doubt be a very interesting series.