Comics

A Guide to Recognizing Your ‘Defenders’

On August 18, 2017, the  Marvel/Netflix crossover event The Defenders will be released for most of the world’s binge-watching pleasure. The show brings together the stars of the four previous Marvel Netflix shows – Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist – and smashes them and some of their supporting cast members in an epic battle against a mysterious villain played by Sigourney Weaver.

However, what do you do if you’ve already watched both seasons of Daredevil, the single seasons of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, and somehow pushed through the mediocrity that was Iron Fist? There is a fantastic comic by Jessica Jones co-creator Brian Michael Bendis and slick artist Dave Marquez called Defenders that features the lineup from the upcoming TV show assembling and battling Diamondback (the bad guy from Luke Cage), who has definitely upgraded his villain level and broken Iron Fist’s back. The comic also has guest appearances from the Punisher – aka the MVP of Daredevil Season 2 – who will be getting his own Netflix show in November.

However, if you want to get to know each Defender on an individual basis, listed here is one comic to get started on, one to read after, and one to avoid for each hero, including the Catholic guilt-wracked Daredevil, the snarky Jessica Jones, the bulletproof Luke Cage, and kung fu master Iron Fist.

Daredevil 

When he was blinded by radioactive waste as a young boy, Matt Murdock gained special abilities, like a special radar sense that he uses to do everything from determining the position of bad guys to reading newsprint on the page. He became the vigilante Daredevil to avenge the death of his father, a boxer who was murdered for not throwing a fight for a gangster named the Fixer. When he’s not wearing red, yellow, or currently black spandex, he is a lawyer named Matt Murdock who lives and works in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. Daredevil was the first Defender to appear in comics, and was created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett in 1964. Like pizza and ice cream, it’s a general rule that most Daredevil comics are good, especially in the art department, so it was difficult to pick just two comics to recommend.

Start Here: Daredevil Underboss (Daredevil #26-31; 2001-2002)

Starting out with would-be crime kingpin Silke’s wannabe Joe Pesci-esque tales of wise guys and whackings, writer Brian Michael Bendis, artist Alex Maleev, and colorist Matt Hollingsworth’s Daredevil Underboss is more The Godfather than your typical Marvel superhero comic. Bendis and Maleev shoot their shot fairly early by having the now-blind (in a bit of poetic justice from an earlier story) Kingpin, who knows that Matt Murdock is Daredevil, get stabbed and humiliated by Silke, the son of his former underboss. They place Daredevil on the ropes fairly early with multiple assassination attempts and a bounty being placed on his head, and never let up going for dark and gut-wrenching instead of bright and triumphant.

Bendis’ non-linear, yet incredibly logical plot is a roller coaster ride, but Underboss will hook you on the little things, like Maleev’s Renaissance fresco-like compositions and gritty fight choreography that make the hallway fight in the Daredevil TV show look like the fights in Iron Fist. Hollingsworth’s menacing pops of red when Daredevil hopelessly and mercilessly interrogates thugs, and Vanessa Fisk, the Kingpin’s underappreciated wife, has never been written better. Plus, there’s a truly status quo-shattering cliffhanger that will have you hitting the “Buy” button on Comixology or cursing your public library for not having the next volume.

Next Steps: Daredevil Born Again (Daredevil #227-233; 1986)

In Daredevil Born Again, legendary comics creators Frank Miller (Sin City) and David Mazzucchelli (Batman Year One) take away everything and everyone from both Matt Murdock and Daredevil and then slowly build him back up. Kingpin learns that Matt Murdock is Daredevil, and sets out to ruin his life. It’s sad to see Murdock ripped apart not in combat, but in court, where he excelled by the IRS, phone, and power companies. This aimlessness extends to his life as Daredevil, and Mazzucchelli almost parodies Miller’s  art on Daredevil with powerful beatdowns of common criminals, beat cops, and the landlords of flea-ridden motels that are just violence for violence’s sake.

Mazzucchelli’s images of a bearded, exhausted Matt Murdock wandering around looking for shelter are just as memorable as his later religious imagery and cameos from some very popular Marvel characters. His take on the Kingpin is smug and self-satisfied, towering over New York, the city he claims to rule. Daredevil Born Again is a master class in how to destroy and rebuild an iconic character in a single story arc, even if Miller stumbles when it comes to writing female characters and falls into the “virgin/whore” trap with Matt’s mother Sister Maggie and his ex-girlfriend Karen Page, who sold his secret identity to the Kingpin for drugs.

Avoid: Shadowland (Shadowland #1-5; 2010)

Daredevil and Marvel’s street-level characters getting a crossover centered around them seems like a cool idea, right? This wasn’t the case in Shadowland, a miniseries from writer Andy Diggle and artist Billy Tan that dashed the careful character development of Kevin Smith, Brian Michael Bendis, and Ed Brubaker’s previous work on Daredevil for the cheap thrill of making him a demon-possessed, black-suited murderer. The initial premise of Shadowland is intriguing, with Daredevil setting up a fortress called Shadowland and transforming the ninja death cult The Hand into his personal vigilante army. However, then he kills the villain Bullseye in cold blood in front of his friends Luke Cage and Iron Fist, and it all goes downhill from there.

Shadowland could have been an interesting exploration of the morality of Daredevil’s actions – like if it’s okay to kill someone who you know will kill hundreds more if let loose – with varying perspectives from Marvel’s various street-level heroes, ranging from Spider-Man to the Punisher. However, it ended up being yet another mind-control story with a side helping of the convoluted Hand mythos. Shadowland decides to be edgy for edginess’ sake instead of leaning into what could have been a compelling human story about a man battling his demons along with the occasional ninja or gangster. Still, Billy Tan’s take on the black costume does look pretty damn cool, and Daredevil sports the look in his current comics.

Jessica Jones

Jessica Jones is the “youngest” Defender to appear in comics, making her first appearance in Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ 2001 series Alias. This was part of Marvel’s MAX imprint that published comic books for mature readers (Alias #1 has the first use of “fuck” in a Marvel comic book). Jessica has the abilities of flight and super strength, but has a mistrust of superheroes, and instead is a private investigator. However, she later ends up having a daughter with and marrying fellow hero (and Defender) Luke Cage, and briefly is a member of the Avengers when her co-creator Bendis was writing the title.

Start Here:  “Alias Investigations” (Alias #1-5; 2001-2002)

The best place to begin with Jessica Jones (other than her excellent TV show) is the first storyline of her solo series, Alias. Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos depict Jessica as a complex human being with a range of feelings that happens to be a skilled private eye with superpowers. She smokes, drinks, gets paranoid, and maybe catches feelings after one night stands with Luke Cage. Jessica doesn’t care about saving the world, but just making ends meet – and hopefully having clients that pay and don’t have to be thrown through her office door because they’re insufferable.

“Alias Investigations” is worth reading for Jessica Jones’ sarcastic comments during police and client interrogations, as well as her general “gives no fucks” attitude, but Bendis’ plotting and Gaydos’ unique visual style are like the garnish on one of those craft cocktails that she would say something snarky about while drinking whiskey straight from the bottle. The mystery of the first story arc has to do with a very famous superhero’s secret identity and began a tradition of Alias being intertwined with the bigger Marvel universe, which is one fallback of her show. Also, Gaydos and Hollingsworth kill with their film noir chiaroscuro compositions, while giving Jessica, her friends, and foes naturalistic lines, wrinkles, and reactions like real human beings and not action figures.

Next Steps: “The Secret Origin of Jessica Jones” (Alias #22-23; 2003)

So, you should definitely read all of Alias – t’s one of the best Marvel books of the 21st century, and it’s nice to see that magical universe from the POV of a cynical, hard-drinking private investigator, and not just gods or superheroes. However, if you’re short on time, the two-part arc “The Secret Origin of Jessica Jones” is worth picking up because it establishes abilities, a lot of her personality traits, and deconstructs and comments on the classic Marvel origin story. Also, it’s kind of adorable and hilarious that Bendis and Gaydos make Jessica adjacent to lots of the early major Marvel moments, like when he sees Peter Parker (who she has an unrequited crush on) get bitten by a radioactive spider, narrowly avoids getting hit by the truck with radioactive waste that blinded Daredevil, and wakes up out of a coma during Galactus’ first battle with the Fantastic Four.

Still, for all its subversions of the superhero genre – like Jessica being unable to land after flying, her hatred of superhero costumes, and even the fact that she likes to swear – “The Secret Origin of Jessica Jones” is a classic Marvel superhero origin to a tee. Jessica’s powers activate because of her stress about being adopted by a new family, as well as guilt that her argument with her little brother caused the rest of her family to die in a car accident. There is also some of Michael Gaydos’ finest artwork, as he draws the early pre-coma scenes in the art style of Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, before returning to his usual art style when Jessica wakes up from her coma. Plus, we get to see Jessica start to use snark as an armor to deal with the people around her, as well as a way to avoid her feelings about the death of her parents and brothers and new abilities.

Avoid: Jessica Jones Uncaged (Jessica Jones #1-6; 2016-2017)

For about ten years Jessica Jones didn’t have her own comic, and was relegated to the occasional guest appearances in her husband Luke Cage’s stories (and the Bendis penned New Avengers). Finally in 2016, owing to the success of her Netflix show, Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos, and Matt Hollingsworth created Jessica Jones Uncaged, and it was a colossal disappointment. Bendis tried to make lightning strike twice by having her involved in a labyrinthine mystery involving the Marvel multiverse, HYDRA, and trips to prison, but the story ended up meandering, not having the bite or satirical, deconstructive bent of the cases in Alias.

Bendis and Gaydos also chose to break up Luke Cage and Jessica Jones’ marriage and family for drama’s sake, even though they seem to be a solid couple in the current Defenders comic. Jessica Jones Uncaged features Jessica basically pawning off her baby to her mom, and Luke running the city irrationally while calling in a bunch of guest heroes to make her see some sense. He dismantles a slow-burning, tender, yet difficult relationship that had been developed for over a decade across Alias, The Pulse, New Avengers, and Avengers to cover for the lack of intrigue in the main mystery. Also, Gaydos’ art hasn’t really evolved over the decades, and his interrogation scenes and noir-style compositions feel like a band who is resigned to playing their greatest hits instead of experimenting with new material. At least Jessica is still snarky.

Luke Cage

Created by Archie Goodwin, John Romita Sr, and George Tuska in 1972 at the height of the blaxploitation craze in American cinema, Luke Cage (aka Power Man) was the first black superhero to star in his own title, debuting a few years after Black Panther and the Falcon were supporting players in Fantastic Four and Captain America, respectively. After he was imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit and underwent special experiment trials, Luke Cage became bulletproof, and started a business called Heroes for Hire, where clients paid for him to do his superhero thing. Over the years he’s ditched his tiara for more practical clothes, built a friendship with Iron Fist, married Jessica Jones, and led two Avengers teams.

Start Here: Power Man and Iron Fist: The Boys Are Back in Town (Power Man and Iron Fist #1-5; 2016)

In 1978, both Luke Cage and Iron Fist’s solo comics sales were down, so Marvel editorial combined both books into Power Man and Iron Fist, and a partnership was born. About a year ago, writer David Walker and artist Sanford Greene revived the partnership between family man Luke Cage and aimless billionaire/kung fu playboy Danny Rand (aka Iron Fist), and struck buddy comedy gold yet again. This series is worth reading for the old-married-couple banter between Luke and Danny, as Luke wants to move on with his life and spend time with his wife and daughter, but Danny wants to go on random adventures and relive his glory days. What starts as them escorting their old Heroes for Hire secretary, Jennie, to a halfway house turns into life and death battle for the Supersoul Stone, which has a tacky name, but is the real deal magic-wise. Luke and Iron Fist end up facing off against an old foe, Black Mariah, who has designs on becoming the kingpin of Harlem and possibly New York through mystical means.

Walker and Greene definitely have a lot of love for the old Bronze Age Power Man and Iron Fist comics, and the book has a bright, exaggerated art style, with Luke and Danny having a huge size discrepancy. They also stock the comic with a fantastic cast of supporting characters, including Senor Magico, who gives them intel about the Supersoul Stone, and has supposedly forgotten more about magic than Doctor Strange even knows. Power Man and Iron Fist: The Boys Are Back in Town has it all: funny jokes, playful art that feels like an old school jam, kick-ass action, and it’s all in the service of a heartwarming about two close friends who are at different places in their lives, but still love each other. After reading it, you will definitely be using “fiddle-faddle” in casual conversation.

Next Steps: Mighty Avengers: No Single Hero (Mighty Avengers #1-5; 2013-2014)

Even though it’s technically a tie-in to the  Infinity storyline where Thanos invaded Earth while the Avengers were fighting a greater threat in space, Mighty Avengers: No Single Hero is a good storyline to see Luke Cage as a team leader. He starts out as a mentor to the young heroes White Tiger and Power Man , but ends up teaming up with the cosmically-powered Spectrum (Monica Rambeau), Blue Marvel, Spider-Man (who is actually Dr. Octopus in Peter Parker’s body), and the mysterious, nunchaku-wielding Spider Hero to defend New York from Thanos’ lieutenants and Shuma-Gorath, (a creepy demon that happens to be one of the best fighters in Marvel vs. Capcom 2). Luke is definitely outclassed by these threats, but he has a clear head, a good heart, and realizes that this is an ad hoc team, so it’s cool to see his team use a wacky combination of science, magic, and good ol’ punching as they mesh throughout this first storyline.

Mighty Avengers: No Single Hero is also one of the first comics written by Al Ewing, who is one of Marvel’s best current writers. He has a real knack for melding character driven storylines with big picture philosophical concepts, and can go from Luke Cage telling a dad joke or Spider Hero landing a sassy quip on the overly-pompous Spider-Ock to coming up with cool ways for Spectrum to use her light speed travel to fight Shuma-Gorath. Greg Land gets a lot of flak for his art style, but honestly it’s not too bad in Mighty Avengers, thanks to clean (but not too clean) inking from Jay Leisten. When he’s not checking up on Jessica and Dani on his cell phone, or coordinating his new superhero team, Luke is headbutting cosmic beings and getting his hands dirty to protect the city he loves.

Avoid: Cage (Cage #1-5; 2002)

A team-up between 100 Bullets writer Brian Azzarello and legendary Heavy Metal artist Richard Corben definitely seems like a good idea on paper, but maybe Luke Cage wasn’t the right character for them. Their intention was to tell a gritty crime story about the Hero for Hire without all the superhero trappings, but the comic reads like it came from the imagination of a 12 year-old suburban white kid who watches BET all day and likes to casually use the “N” word. The story follows Luke Cage, who never wears a shirt and is obsessed with the saying “shit happens,” as he gets caught up in the crossfire between rival gangsters, including Clifto, Tombstone, and an Italian stereotype version of the classic Marvel crime lord Hammerhead, as they try to take over his neighborhood in order to get a lucrative gentrification contract.

The players (or playas, as Azzarello likes to spell it) of Cage are more caricatures than characters, and the few women that appear in the series are either sexual objects or dead ones to motivate the male characters. This book could have used a little Misty Knight. The caricatures extend to Richard Corben’s artwork, which is uncomfortably close to anti-black propaganda used during the Jim Crow era, and no one has human proportions. The gunplay scenes do have a nice B-movie feel to them, although it’s really hard to root for anyone in this series, and Luke Cage’s character arc is almost an afterthought, with his origin story barely mentioned in expository dialogue from a random gangster. There are definitely better crime and Luke Cage comics to pick up than this one.

Iron Fist 

Danny Rand (aka Iron Fist) was created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane in 1972 to cash in on the popularity of kung fu and martial arts movies, especially the ones starring Bruce Lee. Danny Rand is the heir to the multibillion dollar Rand Corporation, and when his parents die in a plane crash that he survives, he is adopted by the monks of the mysterious Asian city of K’un L’un, where he is trained in martial arts by Lei Kung the Thunderer. Danny becomes a great martial artist, and earns the title of Iron Fist when he defeats the dragon Shou-Lao in combat and plunges his hand in the dragon’s heart. When he focuses his chi (or mental energy), his fist glows and can deliver a powerful wallop. After leaving K’un L’un for the United States, Iron Fist has mainly fought crime in New York with his allies Luke Cage, Misty Knight, and Colleen Wing as part of Heroes for Hire. Iron Fist has been on a few Avengers teams, and even pretended to be Daredevil a while when his secret identity as Matt Murdock was outed to the press.

Start Here: Immortal Iron Fist: The Last Iron Fist Story (Immortal Iron Fist #1-6; 2006-2007)

In one gorgeous opening flashback featuring the 13th-century Iron Fist (Bei Ming-Tian) protecting a Chinese village from Genghis Khan’s hordes, you will forget about the show Iron Fist and get lost in the immersive world of kung fu, mythology, and alternate history created by writers Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction and artist David Aja’s. Brubaker and Fraction place Danny Rand into a centuries-long tradition of Iron Fists, including Wu Ao-Shi, a pirate queen who could extend her chi to bows and arrows, and Orson Randall, who withstood the horrors of World War I and is somehow still alive in 2006 playing a key role in this story.

However, Immortal Iron Fist: The Last Iron Fist Story isn’t just flashbacks and lore-building. Aja and colorist Matt Hollingsworth have a real talent for drawing fluid martial arts sequence, using pops of red to draw your eye to particularly impressive strikes. No panel layout is the same in this comic, and Brubaker, Fraction, and Aja make time for plenty of martial arts between the world-building. They even throw in a little corporate intrigue, with Rand and his mentor, overworked lawyer Jeryn Hogarth, trying to prevent a takeover of the Rand Corporation by a Chinese HYDRA front. Immortal Iron Fist: The Last Iron Fist Story is a genre-bending, time-skipping thrill ride that adds much-needed depth to an occasionally one-dimensional hero, as well as some of the most beautifully composed action scenes in Marvel Comics history.

Next Steps: Iron Fist: The Trial of the Seven Masters (Iron Fist #1-5; 2017)

Writer Ed Brisson and artist Mike Perkins, the latter of which previously proved his action chops in Captain America, return Danny Rand back to martial art tournament basics in Iron Fist: The Trial of the Seven Masters. In this series Danny can’t tap into his chi any more, and is wandering around the world getting into street fights and joining underground fight clubs to find that spark that might allow him to resume being the Iron Fist. While swilling whiskey from the bottle in Thailand, a mysterious man named Choshin takes him to the kung fu-obsessed island of Liu Shi to fight their seven animal-themed martial arts masters in order to regain his chi.

This is just for some intrigue though, and Liu Shi ends up looking like K’un L’un’s jealous little sibling. However, Perkins proves himself to be one of the great comic book fight choreographers, alternating between close-ups of brutal blows, and multi-panel pages where Iron Fist and his opponents trade a wide variety of moves. His fight scenes aren’t just stylish, but Danny actually takes a beating throughout the story, to go with the fact that almost everyone on Liu Shi has been lying to him. Iron Fist: The Trial of the Seven Masters combines an intense existential crisis with a sumptuous tasting menu of martial arts styles and deadly strikes that fans of kung fu flicks like Enter the Dragon (or that pretty okay episode of the Iron Fist TV show that RZA directed) will enjoy.

Avoid: Iron Fist/Wolverine (Iron Fist/Wolverine #1-4; 2000-2001)

With their shared background as Westerners with a deep connection to East Asian culture, as well as their sheer badassery, Iron Fist/Wolverine seems like a fun idea, but don’t be fooled. This comic is a hot mess of subplots, with Iron Fist telling his backstory to a wide variety of random characters, and maybe one too many superhero guest appearances, as various members of the Avengers, X-Men, and Fantastic Four join the fracas, plus Luke Cage and Sunfire. Jamal Igle is a solid superhero artist, and would go on to have a great run on both Supergirl and his creator-owned title Molly Danger, but he gets stuck drawing talking heads scenes, and rarely gets to cut loose with Iron Fist’s kung fu or Wolverine’s claws.

On the surface, it seems like writer Jay Faerber did want to tell a story about Danny Rand fighting to regain his Iron Fist abilities from the young Hand leader/Marty Stu, Junzo Muto, but then he got caught up with the in-fighting between superheroes, complex lore, and a ridiculous Speed-type plot where Danny’s heartbeat is connected to K’un L’un’s survival. Unlike Iron Fist’s better villains, like Davos or Harold Meachum, Junzo doesn’t have a personal bond to Danny, so centering an entire arc on him was a bad decision. Iron Fist/Wolverine has some splashy superhero action, and Igle can draw the hell out of some dragons, but it’s a story that’s best left in the quarter bins.

***

If you have any other Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist stories that you think fans of their Marvel Netflix shows should read, please leave them in the comments section!

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