DEFENDERS: Erik Larsen (Mania.com)

By:Russell Lissau
Date: Wednesday, September 13, 2000

If the Avengers are Earth's mightiest heroes, the Defenders have got to be Earth's most dysfunctional super-team. Take a look at some of the group's more high-profile members: the Hulk is generally an unstable, anti-social monster; when the Sub-Mariner isn't saving humanity, he's usually trying to destroy it; the Silver Surfer's got enough personal problems to keep an analyst busy for years; and Dr. Strange is, let's be honest, a bit of a snob. And truly, the Bad News Bears had a greater sense of teamwork than these loners.

But who says superheroes have to get along to battle bad guys together? Not Erik Larsen, the writer-artist who--along with co-writer Kurt Busiek--is planning to relaunch The Defenders this December for Marvel Comics. 'The biggest conceptual problem with the Defenders is that they don't like each other--so why do they keep hanging out together?' says Larsen. 'But to me, that's the coolest thing.'

Defending Again

Like many comics readers his age, the 37-year-old Larsen became a Defenders fan as a youth back in the 1970s. The series began in 1972 and ran a whopping 152 issues, with stories and artwork by Sal Buscema, Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart and other popular creators of the era. In the book's early years, heroes including Dr. Strange, the Hulk and the Silver Surfer were part of the group. Later, costumed crusaders including then-former X-Men the Beast, Iceman and the Angel joined up, too. But after a name change to The New Defenders and a long stretch of what was generally considered unsatisfying stories, the book was canceled in 1986. Another title called The Secret Defenders was launched with a revamped team in 1993, but the series didn't catch on and was canned after a mere 25 issues in 1995.

'I liked The Defenders when I was a kid, but it got to be a pretty terrible comic book after a while,' says Larsen. 'Unfortunately, people tend to remember the nearly 100-issue run of bad comics rather than the first 50 or 60 that were pretty decent comic books.'

Larsen hopes to return the long-dormant team to its glory days. 'When I was young, this was one of Marvel's mainstays, one of those titles that never went away,' he says. 'And the idea that they're not publishing The Defenders, to me that's like not publishing The Avengers or The Fantastic Four. Those were Marvel's team books. And to not publish them, that's not right. There's something wrong here, and something needs to be fixed and put back together. It's righting a wrong. And I'm hoping to build enough of a cool book that this will be something that can go on forever.'

The new Defenders lineup will consist of seven heroes who were members of the group in the past, but never all at the same time. The lucky seven are Dr. Strange, the Hulk, the Sub-Mariner, the Silver Surfer, Hellcat, Nighthawk and Valkyrie. Although Larsen is fond of the entire team, the green-skinned goliath is clearly his favorite Defender. 'I've always been a big Hulk fan,' he says. 'But I like the visual of Valkyrie a whole lot, so I'm expecting that I'll enjoy drawing her. And all of them, really. That's why I picked these guys. This is a team I put together--these are guys I like.'

Larsen loves the fact that there's so much discord between the members of the Defenders, unlike other, more tightly knit super-teams. 'When the Avengers show up, everyone's like, 'Thank God--the Avengers have show up,'' says Larsen. 'But when the Defenders show up, it's like, 'Run for the hills!' Most of the characters in this group have declared war on mankind at one time or another. The Sub-Mariner is always hauling out the troops, and the Hulk has never been terribly friendly.'

Rather than coming up with new designs or costumes for the characters, or drawing all of them in the styles he's used on comics such as Savage Dragon, Aquaman or Amazing Spider-Man, Larsen is artistically interpreting what he considers the definitive visual versions of each individual hero. That means Bill Everett's original take on the Sub-Mariner, Steve Ditko's rendering of Dr. Strange and Jack Kirby's depictions of the Hulk and the Silver Surfer--and that's just the A-list members of the group. 'I'm trying to capture the essence of each of the characters, and I'm going with the versions that I like the best,' he says. 'There will be some slight tweaks here and there, but mostly it'll be going back to what we all think of as the definitive versions of all these characters.'

The Oakland-based artist actually has wanted to resurrect The Defenders for a while, but his original proposal (developed with fellow writer Eric Stephenson) never got the green light at Marvel. Enter the ever-popular Busiek, a Marvel regular who just happens to be an outspoken fan of Larsen's creator-owned Savage Dragon series for Image Comics. While talking about how to give the proposal some momentum, Larsen and Busiek came up with a few interesting ideas and an angle that eventually hooked editor Tom Brevoort.

Larsen and Busiek already have a rough outline for the first 12 issues of the new series, and started work on the stories in earnest in September. Larsen is tight-lipped about the plot of the first storyline, refusing to give out any details of how the heroes come together or why they stay together as a team. He will say, however, that the villains the Defenders are going to face in battle are top-notch baddies, and the challenges the heroes are going to encounter will be big. Really big.

'There won't be a lot of burglars, or 'Hulk smash bank robber,'' promises Larsen. 'This is the strongest, coolest Marvel team. We have the Hulk, who has taken on most any other super-team by himself. Not only that, we have the Sub-Mariner--he's a badass. Dr. Strange could pretty much whisk anyone away to another dimension. And just for fun, we've tossed in the Silver Surfer. Who could beat them? Nobody! So it's got to be major [villains] all the time. We've got to come up with something really, really huge and completely over the top and crazy.'

Amidst it all, Busiek has helped Larsen catch up on the Defenders' past exploits. 'He knows a lot of the continuity,' says Larsen of his partner. 'I [only] think I know it.' The Internet has been a terrific tool, too--Larsen is using the World Wide Web to pick up key Defenders back issues. 'I'm cruising on eBay while we're talking,' says Larsen. 'It's kind of important to know what you're doing.'

Fantastic Retro

The Defenders isn't Larsen's only new project for Marvel. With any luck, the first issue of a long-awaited Fantastic Four maxi-series he's co-writing with Eric Stephenson will hit comic stores in December, too. The 12-issue series, which has been in the works for ages, is a trip back in time for Larsen and the FF. It will be set between issues 100 and 101 of the original Fantastic Four series, right near the end of co-creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's run on the title.

'My thought was, what if Stan and Jack said, 'The end is coming, let's make the last year just kick ass and wrap up everything in a nice, neat bundle and use all of the characters that we created in all these different books and end this book with a rousing finale,'' explains Larsen. 'That's kind of a cool notion.'

Larsen considers the series a heartfelt homage to the FF and its creators rather than a swipe. 'It's a tribute to both of comics' greatest super-teams, the Fantastic Four and Stan and Jack,' he says. It's absolutely appropriate, then, that the series will be written and drawn in the Lee/Kirby style. In addition to co-plotting with Stephenson, Larsen is drawing thumbnail guides for all of the issues, layouts to give direction to the all-star cast of artists that have voiced interest in working on the series, including award-winning Batman animator Bruce Timm and comics veteran Keith Giffen (Justice League, Legion of Super-Heroes). The plan is for four artists to work on each issue, with each of them trying to duplicate or interpret Kirby's unmistakable drawing style. It's going to be a difficult job.

'Jack Kirby's damn tough [to copy],' says Larsen. 'I can't do it. But I want it to have that basic vibe, that you get a sense of what these guys are trying to do even though it may not look exactly like Jack Kirby.'

Several of comicdom's top writers have spoken to Larsen about scripting a few pages of the series, too, including Jeph Loeb (Batman: Dark Victory, Superman) and Chuck Dixon (Nightwing, Birds of Prey). 'It would not be a bad thing to have either of those two gentlemen lending their talents to this,' says Larsen. 'I would expect that they will be along for the ride.'

Dragon On

Fans of Savage Dragon shouldn't think all this work over in the Marvel Universe means Larsen is spending less time on his fin-headed hero. No way. The Dragon is still going strong, even if his world was turned upside-down in issue #76 earlier this year when Larsen essentially undid the hero's universe and plopped him into an entirely new world filled with mutants (and not the nice kind that are featured in blockbuster movies) and other dangers. If any Savage Dragon readers are expecting things to eventually return to normal, forget it--Larsen says the Dragon is staying put in his current environs. He promises the 'fish out of water' storyline won't wrap up with a crappy 'it was all just a dream' ending.

'I just think those suck,' he says. 'It's a cheat. You just feel ripped off. The idea [with Dragon] is to never return. Everybody does these books where they mess up reality and then just change it back to the way it was again, and I don't want to do that. I want to have it be a situation where you go, 'All right, this is the new reality--let's stick with it.' And that's it. That's what we've got. But the other reality still exists. I'm not going to completely ignore it. It's not completely gone. So what probably will happen is that characters will go from one reality to the other.'

Larsen is fairly certain that Savage Dragon's new twist won't turn off readers who've been with the series since it started way back in 1993. 'For an old reader who's been reading it since issue #1, eventually they'll be able to see all the ducks lined up and say 'This is cool,' and see that it all makes sense, that it's not completely random,' he says.

Sadly, though, a long-awaited-but-never-seen Savage Dragon project, Larsen's proposed Savage Dragon in Oz novel, has apparently bit the dust. 'It's pretty much been shelved,' he says. 'I was having some real conceptual problems making the whole thing work. I like the idea of it, but the reality was that it was a book that was really going to displease one or the other of those two audiences. If I make it enough like the real Dragon, then all these Oz people are going to be like, 'Why are we reading this book to our children? This is really inappropriate reading for a child.' But if I soften the Dragon part of it, then it's not quite the Dragon.'

The Future

Back in the Marvel Universe, Larsen is confident he can make the new version of The Defenders succeed. Sure, some closed-minded fanboys may think of the team as an old 1970s super-group concept and nothing more, but Larsen sees no reason why the Defenders can't make it in Y2K and beyond. 'It's no more difficult than making the Fantastic Four or the Avengers work today,' insists Larsen. 'We're not going for something that's going to look or feel like a comic out of the 1970s. We're going for something that's going to be a cool comic book.'