Midsummer revelry at Stonehenge. Photo: Getty
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My nerves can’t cope with three random midsummer encounters in the space of 15 seconds

I’d long planned to go up to the Heath on Midsummer Night to frolic under the stars.

Midsummer’s Day was unusual. That’s good: a usual day, these days, involves lying in bed all day wondering when I’m going to tidy up the bedroom enough so I can let the cleaning lady have a go at it without me dying of shame or her resigning in disgust. When you don’t have a lady friend in situ you tend to let things slide a little bit, and your motto changes from “Excelsior!” to “What’s the sodding point?”, only with a more passionate qualifier than “sodding”.

I’d long planned to go up to the Heath on Midsummer Night to frolic under the stars. The last time I had a proper midsummer bacchanalia was when my fellow columnist Mr William Self arranged for a bonfire party on the beach near Sizewell, just round the corner from where he was living at the time. This was all very nice but I’d had to stay up half the night on the evening before, condensing The Tempest into a 15-minute playlet because he wanted us to perform it. (It took a lot longer than I thought it would, but I like to think I turned out a pretty good version.) This time all I was going to do was lie on my back or walk through the woods, with a friend, or rather more than one friend, as I did not want to be mistaken for the kind of person who goes up to Hampstead Heath in the middle of the night for one purpose only. (I am reminded of the wonderful letter in Viz which complained that gay men, going to the Heath for an encounter, could have their spirits uplifted in the knowledge that there was a small but distinct chance they would run into George Michael; whereas there is no public space on earth where a heterosexual man can go in the expectation, however small, that he’ll run into, say, Angelina Jolie.)

So I am to go with my old friend John Moore; a couple of his friends, both women, will be joining us later. En route to my rendezvous I drop in on my old friend C—, who presses upon me one of those cigarettes which, by a curious anomaly, are perfectly legal in Colorado but, thanks to the stupidity and ignorance of successive British governments since 1928, illegal here.

I have noticed on more than one occasion that it is only when one is enjoying the effects of such a cigarette that Providence decides to throw you rather more than your allotted share of odd occurrences. If paranoia is said to be a side effect, then that might be because you have something to be paranoid about. So when an enormous shaven-headed man accosted me on the northbound platform of the Northern Line at King’s Cross, I at first wondered whether my time had come, and the various people and organisations I owe money to had clubbed together and decided that assassination was the only way forward.

“Excuse me for bothering you,” he said politely, “but from the way you’re dressed” – it is a warm day, and I am wearing my summer plumage of white linen – “you look as though you might know what’s happened in the cricket.”

As it happened, I did, and was in the middle of an involved account of how exactly England had got to 318 for 6 against Sri Lanka, when someone else tapped me on the shoulder. Jesus Christ, I thought, this is it! Mr Shaven Head was just a diversion. But it turned out to be Noah, a friend of my daughter’s, who had recently befriended me on Facebook. He once broke a string on my guitar while he was playing it so I made him restring the whole thing; as it’s a 12-string semi-acoustic, this takes about three hours. Had he been stalking me so he could push me on to the tracks in revenge? No, he wanted to thank my daughter for having driven him and his film crew to Wales.

By the time I got to the pub I had more or less recovered from two random human encounters on the Tube in 15 seconds, but was still jittery. As I sipped my pint a young man in a football shirt asked if I would take a picture of him and his friends. As I held the camera up, he asked: “Er . . . are you Nicholas Lezard?”

My usual impulse when asked this is to say “no”, for reasons hinted at above, but instead I said “yes”, cautiously. It turned out that he was a fan of this column; and he even had a copy of this magazine, open at this page, which he took out of his bag for me to sign.

Which has more or less made my year, to be honest, but Philip, if you’re reading this: you nearly gave me a sodding heart attack.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.