by Matt Fraction (story), Mirco Pierfederici (art), Jordie Bellaire (colors), and Clayton Cowles (letters)

The Story: As the Death Celestial runs rampant, the Defenders discover the true nature and purpose of the Concordance Engines.

The Review: In reading this sadly pen-ultimate issue of Defenders, I kept feeling like this was constantly teetering right on the edge of becoming a hot mess.  I think a lot of that is because of the ridiculous scale of Fraction’s story, the sheer size of his ideas, and the fact that, somehow, he only has one more issue after this to finish it all up.  I don’t know how the hell he’s going to manage that, but as far as this issue goes, it thankfully never implodes and said hot mess, though flirted with, never comes to fruition.

The big highlight this month is Fraction finally revealing the nature of the Concordance Engines, a reveal that really forms the heart of this issue.  Quite frankly, I thought Fraction’s explanation of their purpose was straight up amazing.  Fraction is a writer that often messes about with grand ideas and while they often go awry or end up overly ambiguous, he hits it out of the park in this one.  If I’ve understood the issue properly, the Concordance Engines’ effect on the Marvel Universe is so staggering that it’s actually mind-boggling; once you grasp what Fraction is actually saying, the implications are staggering.  There’s grand scale and then there’s….this, an idea so massive that it almost become metatextual.  Without revealing anything else, I’ll just say that the Concordance Engines basically answers how one universe can have so many superpowered beings when compared to a universe like, say, ours that is much more mundane.  Yes, there is a comparison there that Fraction implicitly draws between superhero shared universes and our world.  It’s pretty ballsy stuff and have fun wrapping your head around it.

Fraction also does a great job of milking the post-apocalyptic world he’s dumped his heroes in.  While it does lead to action and adventure, there is one scene involving Dr. Strange and Wong that is an absolute, emotional gut-punch.  It was amazing how a scene that came seemingly out of left-field with so little build up could nonetheless have such a substantial emotional impact.  In fact, I think that it IS such a surprise lends it a lot of its impact.  It’s a great scene and a definite highlight of the run.

The artwork is something I’m a little less decided about.  I think part of the problem is that not only is it a total bummer to see Jamie McKelvie leave mid-arc, it’s also jarring to see an artist brought on board whose style is just about the polar-opposite of McKelvie’s.  Where McKelvie’s lines are loose, rounded, and energetic, Piedfederici’s work is full of thick lines and heavy inks.  It’s hard to imagine someone more different from McKelvie.  To be fair, while I do think McKelvie is probably the better artist, Piedfederici is actually quite good and he does have a lot of skill.  He packs a good amount onto the page and his work is heavily detailed and Jordie Bellaire’s brilliant colors are, as usual, a boon.  The problem is that while I like Piedfederici’s work, I’m not sure it was right for this book.  His style is clearly better suited to a book that is a bit grittier and a bit nastier, perhaps of the Heavy Metal sci-fi variety as opposed to Fraction’s goofy, cosmic Defenders.  It just never quite feels like a tonal match, which is a shame, because I do like Piedfederici’s work in itself.

Conclusion: Jarring artwork aside, I really liked the emotional notes and big ideas that Fraction hits here.  I have no idea how the hell he’s going to wrap this up next month though.

Grade: B+

-Alex Evans