Series writer Matt Fraction talks with CBR about "Defenders" leader Doctor Strange and the team's main nemesis, Nul
When you live in the Marvel Universe, things like robots, high-tech battle suits, mutants and super powers are impressive, awe-inspiring and often downright scary. Though advanced technology and super powers gained from things like radiation may be fantastic, on some level they're understandable because of their basis in science, and are therefore not as scary as magic and the supernatural. And while it's true that magic and monsters have rules of their own to follow, they're more mysterious and harder to explain, making supernatural phenomenon even more frightening.
Matt Fraction and Terry Dodson's upcoming "Defenders" series, launching in December, will explore all the corners of the Marvel Universe -- including the mysterious realm of magic and monsters. In today's installment of DEFENSIVE MEASURES, our week-long look at "Defenders," Fraction joins us for a discussion about two of the series' characters who are firmly rooted in the supernatural corner of the Marvel U: Doctor Strange and the monstrous entity known as Nul.
Series artist Terry Dodson's concept sketch for the new-look Doctor Strange
For many years, Doctor Strange was the Sorcerer Supreme of Earth, a position that made him the planet's most powerful and chief mystical defender. In recent years, however, Strange had made several bad decisions, choices that ultimately cost him that title. He still uses his mystical abilities to fight evil, but when "Defenders" begins, he's haunted by some of the poor choices he's made in the name of what he thought was the greater good, from joining the Illuminati to taking part in their decision to launch the Hulk into space to using the malevolent entity known as Zom to fight against the Hulk when he returned to Earth looking for revenge on those responsible for his exile.
"There's a line that Hulk has in the first issue, while Strange is gathering up all the old gang. The line is, 'I hate myself and I want to die, but not today.' It sort of occurred to me, that resonated with a lot of the cast, deep down. So we have a very specific notion of Doc," Fraction told CBR News. "He's like an occult William S. Burroughs that knows martial arts. Very much like we were seeing him way back when in 'Strange Tales.'
"Editor Ralph Macchio, who recently retired from Marvel, gave me one of the greatest gifts ever when he leaned over during an editorial retreat and said, 'You know, Doctor Strange studied the martial arts as well.' I immediately saw somebody doing kung fu -- but with Steve Ditko hands. That was the missing piece," Fraction continued. "Suddenly, it came to me: William S. Burroughs, occult researcher and martial arts aficionado! So I get to write a very physical Doctor Strange who is connected with all kinds of weirdness, both great and mystic, small and gnarly. He's a dark, strange, spooky guy at his roots, who's prone to making bad decisions."
Doctor Strange's impressive kung fu skills are just one of the many reasons he's still a formidable opponent ,even after dropping the title of Sorcerer Supreme. Other reasons include his spell casting abilities, which are still very potent, and some new tricks and skills that he'll be displaying in "Defenders."
"I think magic should be no different from any other super power in the Marvel Universe. The more you use it, the more tired you get. People are better at it than you, people are worse at it than you. It's a profound physical and mental ability. Strange is still powerful enough to be an Avenger, but he isn't the supreme guy any more. That's fine too, because it opens up a world of weird, small things to see," Fraction explained. "I want to work actual mentalist and magician trade craft into Doc, here and there. I want to make him more physical. I want to make him creepy. I want to make him weird. I want to play with that William S. Burroughs thing, the suit and waistcoat and head filled with bad ideas. He's got all these little ways of hacking the human body and hacking the human consciousness for specific means that aren't necessarily about the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak. I want a more terrestrial, grungy, spooky Doc. That's what we're getting."
When "Defenders" begins, Strange is forced to become a major player in the team, responsible for assembling their initial ranks and even becoming a sort of de facto group leader.
"Strange doesn't mean for it to happen, and he doesn't strike me as a guy who would want to belong to any club that would have him for a member. At the end of 'Fear Itself,' though, you saw it was the Hulk who sought him out. You'll see more about that in November's 'Point One' anthology. This is ultimately all the Hulk's fault, and there will inevitably come a day where he'll say that line. So as things go really bad, it's Hulk who needs a favor and the only people he trusts are his former teammates on the Defenders -- even though some of them were part of the Illuminati, like Doc and Namor," Fraction stated. "Some of them feel like they owe him. Some of them will feel a past loyalty to him because of their history together. It's the outsider quality of the Defenders that the Hulk plays on, and Doc is sort of the centerpiece of that part. It also helps that Doc has a fixed address and Hulk knows where to go."
He may be easy to find and have a past connection to the team, but the primary reason Strange plays a large role in this new "Defenders" series is because of his small role in Fraction's "Stark Disassembled" arc of "Invincible Iron Man." Ever since that arc, the writer has been looking for a way to revisit the character.
"Every time we have a creative retreat and Doctor Strange comes up, it ends with me banging my head on the desk. This is perhaps as close as I'll get to come to a Doctor Strange book for a while," the writer said. "Everybody who already loves Doctor Strange, I hope I can speak your language. And for everyone who's never known what to do with the guy, I hope I can show you why he's such a great character."
Nul is the physical manifestation of the entity inhabiting Hulk's hammer during "Fear Itself"
Readers of "Fear Itself" #7, in stores now, got their first glimpses of Nul in the issue's fourth prologue. The monstrous, mystical entity was trapped inside the hammer the Hulk wielded as one of the avatars of the Serpent, the main villain of "Fear Itself." While he wielded the hammer, the Hulk was possessed by Nul, so in order to free himself, Hulk smashed the hammer -- accidentally letting Nul loose into the world.
"The root of the idea for Nul was, what if Hulk could 'Hulk' out? What if he got so angry that even he would turn into something? Nul is the Hulk's Hulk. It's this monstrous thing that's unleashed on the world because of him," Fraction explained. "One of the biggest dangling threads from the end of 'Fear Itself' is that Nul is still out there. Hulk is so mighty, so strong, that he could physically crush the hammer, and while that freed him from Nul's sway, it also freed Nul to roam the Earth. Nul is here, rampaging his way to a very specific location, destroying everything in his way, and Hulk knows that he's going to be blamed for it if Nul is not stopped. So Hulk goes to the Defenders because he believes the Defenders will help him and he believes they will be discrete about it. Nul is a chance to personify Hulk's living, walking nightmare. He's a thing more hateful, more angry and in more agony than even the Hulk is on a moment to moment basis."
Nul's mind may be full of rage and pain, but it's not acting on pure instinct. It's actually an intelligent entity with a goal. "Terry's depiction of Nul gives you this feeling that the air on his skin would hurt him. He's almost like a giant, raw, exposed nerve. Simply being alive causes Nul to feel nothing but agony. The air on his skin makes him scream out loud constantly. So -- so he's here, he's driven and he's on a mission," Fraction remarked. "This is his story. This is about how Nul tries to get home and about how the Defenders try and stop him."
Over the course of their quest to stop Nul, the Defenders will uncover an immensely powerful and dangerous conspiracy tied into the heart of the Marvel Universe. Fraction's long-form story for the series details how the "Defenders" cope with this discovery and the battle to tear this secretive cabal down.
"The first issue gets the band back together. They determine where Nul is headed and they race off to the very Marvel Universe-specific location he's heading towards, a place full of weird and wonderful Marvel stuff. 'Defenders' is a book that will explain why he's headed there and what it really means," Fraction said. "Why are there so many super heroes in Manhattan? There's a reason. Why is there so much weird shit that happens at this one mountain in Europe? There's a reason. Why is there a Savage Land? Celestials? Infinity formula? All of it will be explained. This book is Marvel's grand unification theory; a concordance. Nul is the loose thread on the sweater that threatens to unravel it all. The very cohesion of the Marvel Universe -- of everything -- is at stake. When I say there's an impossible threat coming, that's pretty much what I mean."
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