By: Matt Fraction (writer), Victor Ibanez (art), Tom Palmer & Terry Pallot (finishes), Chris Sotomayor (colors), and Clayton Cowles (letters)

The Story: Delving into ancient secrets, Danny and the Surfer discover a connection between the Concordance Engines and the Prince of Orphans, as well as an old, forgotten team of superheroes – the awesomely named Confederates of the Curious.

The Review:  One thing that Fraction’s Defenders has had going for it since its first issue has been consistently awesome art.  I’ll admit that when I saw that Ibanez had been assigned a pair of finishers, I was worried.  Thankfully, while not QUITE as excellent as previous issues, this is still a nice-looking comic.  Ibanez reminds me a bit of Rafael Albuquerque, a mix of Saturday morning cartoon and noir.  In particular, I liked the thick-lines in his inking, which added quite a bit of character.  Sotomayor’s colours really sealed it, using bold, vibrant colours that match the energy and enthusiasm of Fraction’s script.

That energy is far and away the best thing about Fraction’s Defenders and that holds true this month.  It’s clear that he’s having a lot of fun writing that series and, as such, it makes it hard to hate.  Fraction obviously enjoys writing Danny Rand and that makes the character all the more fun to read.  Despite the ominous engines and secret histories, there’s a kind of gleefulness and madcap pace to the book that makes it an enjoyable experience.  I especially like the pacing; this issue could’ve easily been expanded upon and decompressed into a much larger arc, but following a format of short-arcs and interrelated one-shots has meant a much higher pace and single issues that are much more satisfying in their own right, packed with their own stand-alone stories as well as significant progression in the overall series.

Unfortunately, for all the energy in the issue and despite the fact that Fraction’s heart is clearly in it, this was an awkward issue, mostly because Fraction uses the Concordance Engines to go retcon crazy.  I’m not generally opposed to retcons on principle, but this was inelegant and clunky as hell.  Suddenly, John Aman has secretly been a villain for decades, but nobody knew?  Really?  The fact that the Prince of Orphans is suddenly a central antagonist solely due to a retcon is really ham-fisted.  Then there’s Fraction’s creation of a secret group of pre-Avengers Avengers that everyone forgot about.  This is a little more acceptable than the John Aman thing, but still something of a shoe-horning.  Worse still, I can only imagine that this would conflict significantly with Howard Chaykin’s recent Avengers: 1959 miniseries and the related Bendis arc on New Avengers.

Moreover, the central goal seems to be to shut the Concordance Engines down but…Fraction never elaborates on why.  It’s still not clear enough what exactly the engines actually DO, nor what the difference is between them being “on” and “off.”  As such, shutting them down doesn’t seem as much of an imperative as Fraction would have us believe.

On the plus side, the Defenders format does a lot to redeem this issue.  With such problematic plot elements, if this were the first issue of a storyarc, it’d be a big warning signal.  However, due to the Defenders format, it’s more a case of “better luck next month.”  I mean, while I wasn’t wild about this issue, I really, really liked the last two issues, so now that the ugly, brute-force retconning is done with, perhaps we can move on to better things.

Conclusion:  Solid artwork and an engaged writer with his heart in the game nonetheless give us an issue built around poorly explained plot elements and ham-fisted, out of the left field retcons.

Grade: C

-Alex Evans