Before this new "Last Defenders" series written by Joe Casey and Keith Giffen, the high point in the history of the "Defenders" occurred three decades ago when Steve Gerber brought his urban anxiety and bizarre collection of supervillains into the Marvel Universe. Even after Gerber departed, the "Defenders" continued to build upon what Gerber started (except for the Elf with a Gun -- that maniac didn't stand a chance without Gerber around) and sustained a high level of quality for another year or so. That was thanks in no small part to some very early artwork by none other than Keith Giffen.
J. M. DeMatteis' later work as solo writer on the series was overly melancholy and portentous, even as he attempted to add a mythic scope to the proceedings. Other incarnations of the Defenders fell far short of achieving anything special, and Giffen's recent attempt to bring his "Justice League International" bwah-hah-hah style to the book (with the help of key collaborators DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire) fell flat.
"The Last Defenders" brings plenty of that lighthearted banter and personality to the team (and it would seem that such a tone is caused by Giffen's participation), but unlike the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire "Defenders," this series is about more than just the yucks. The comedy here comes from the contrast in the characters and the ability to write dialogue that fits their unique personalities. The strangeness of the group works to its advantage, as these characters (Nighthawk, She-Hulk, Colossus, and the Blazing Skull) really shouldn't be on the same team. They don't fit, as a team or as a collection of people.
It would be easy to say that if Giffen brings the humor, then Casey brings the heart, but I'm sure that's a radical oversimplification. Yet this series does a better job balancing the laughs with the substance than any other Giffen work in recent memory, so clearly Casey is doing something right.
Structurally, "The Last Defenders" #2 plays with the order of events, as we immediately start the issue with Tony Stark disbanding the team before we've even seen them in action. Issue #1 had ended with an impending battle, and we never saw the battle. It occurred between issues, and we only find out about it as scenes in issue #2 flash back to the ill-coordinated events that led to the destruction of half a city block. The poorly-suited teammates didn't work well together, a fact which comes as no surprise to anyone (including the reader), especially since both Nighthawk and She-Hulk assumed that the team was created to fail in issue #1.
Yet, like most great Defenders stories, this comic is about Kyle Richmond, Nighthawk, and his attempts to maintain his dignity by making up for his failures. Richmond may be a wealthy man, but he's never been a very good superhero, and he knows it. His earnest desire to do a good job contrasts with Tony Stark's desire to cut his losses and move on. The celerity with which Stark abandons the New Jersey Defenders indicates that the suspicion about his intentions may be more than paranoia. After all, surely 80% of all battles involving Iron Man have resulted in at least as much damage as the Defenders supposedly caused here. His actions regarding Richmond's team are suspicious, not necessarily in a summer 2008 he-must-be-a-Skrull way, but in a way which implies that The New Jersey Defenders was not meant to be a serious attempt at a superhero team. Why? We don't know.
Casey and Giffen fill this series with mystery to go along with the humor, the action, and the heart. It's a good series (with some nice artwork by Jim Muniz and Cam Smith), and I'd like to see it continue past its limited run.
If it doesn't, then how about a Blazing Skull solo title?