The Defenders has proved a resolutely unsellable series for Marvel since a run spanning over a dozen years from 1973. The idea of a superhero team is hardly a concept beyond its sell-by date, yet despite the use of high profile creators the Defenders have resolutely failed to grip the graphic novel reading public. So it proved again in 2011-2012, when Matt Fraction had some big ideas, but surely alienated many readers before he introduced them.

The opening chapter lacks a single sympathetic character. Yes, Namor, ruler of Atlantis, is at his best when portrayed as arrogant and unlikeable, but for that to work it needs him to be surrounded by others to whom a reader can relate. This Doctor Strange is depressed after a one-night stand with a student who’d come to him for help. The Red She-Hulk ruins the Pamplona bull run and drinks a bar dry. Iron Fist is so bored he streams zero-gravity martial arts battles from his multi-billion dollar plane, then sleeps with the stewardess before confessing “this hook-up was kind of a huge mistake for me right now”. This is heroic? People we should look up to? Yes, there’s also the Silver Surfer, but he barely has a part to play to begin with. They’re united in order to battle the personification of the Hulk’s rage and resentment, named with little imagination the Breaker of Worlds, and, frankly, any right-thinking person should be hoping that a right spanking comes their way.

Can Terry Dodson rescue matters? After all, his decorative style has raised many a poor script in the past. No such luck. For some reason instead of using his usual methods Dodson appears to have decided to bury all elements of individuality and draw the series as if an artist with half his talent. The monster is ugly, the panels are crowded, and his brief appearance of the Hulk strange, but even Dodson can’t suppress his ability throughout, and the sample page shows a fascinating Kirby style doohickey.

It’s actually important in-story as a device that warps reality, and editorially for finally stimulating some interest when it does so. Its activation begins a series of stories with consequences for individual Defenders who have their assorted problems and regrets. We have what’s in effect a very good solo Doctor Strange tale drawn by Michael Lark, followed by Namor discovering Captain Nemo and the Nautilus, then Iron Fist and Silver Surfer learning that deaths occurring may be tied into what they’re doing. Mitch Breitweiser and Victor Ibáñez draw those, but not as well as Lark.

By the end of the book Fraction’s ideas are a little clearer, with distinct threads back into the Iron Fist series he’d written a few years previously. The weirdness that’s taking place brings to mind the work of Steve Gerber on the most acclaimed iteration of the Defenders, but with the exception of the Doctor Strange story, however, it’s still not compelling drama. The canvas is big, a lot can happen, but it’s emotionally hollow. It’s not finished yet as a second volume concludes matters.