Who Defends the Defenders?: the Hulk, Hip Hop, and Sean Avery Medlin’s 808s & Otherworlds
Words By Dominic Loise
Published by Two Dollar Radio on September 14, 2021
The box office successes of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and John Favreau’s Iron Man, which launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, suggest that superhero movies focused on redemptive weapons manufacturers as industrialized saviors are what gave Hollywood its foothold in the comic book genre. As I face superhero fatigue with a new television show or movie each week, the beauty of Sean Avery Medlin’s hybrid poetry and essay collection 808s & Otherworlds: Memories, Remixes, & Mythologies is that when I read his poem, “Hulk,” I am reminded that this character does not belong in the Avengers movie franchise. He has roots in Marvel’s famous non-team of heroes—the Defenders—which I grew up reading about in the seventies. Medlin (He/They) not only gets to the core rage we connect to the character as an outlet for processing inner anger, but they reveal truths about themselves as an artist and why they have these emotions and relationship with the character of the Hulk. “Hulk” is one way Medlin reminds us that industry and politics rebrand outsider culture only to sell it back in the same package with a different meaning.
When Sean Avery Medlin writes about the Hulk and other characters in the Marvel Universe in 808s & Otherworlds, they are filtering out recent big-screen adaptations to show these characters as part of the military-industrial complex. Medlin reminds us of these heroes and ourselves being the outsider in the way a hero is held at arm’s length or questioned for not toeing the line like other star-spangled icons. Or how pop culture gives a shared voice and experience to the unheard, which mainstream production could not relate to because it is not listening to the shared voice of the outsider; unless it is to learn how to deliver a Trojan horse selling technique of another branded message and walking away with a profit.
Medlin also calls out the difference between the two versions of pop culture: one repackaged for the masses, the other pinpointed to an individual audience. In the piece “new america (iii),” Medlin talks about Marvel heroes like Hulk and the Silver Surfer along with Medlin’s own history: their father, growing up outside a military base, and race. Medlin’s words take the Hulk and Silver Surfer back to their roots in the Defenders, a collection of Marvel’s outsider heroes. The original four Defenders were the Hulk, Namor the Submariner, Silver Surfer, and Dr. Strange. When a threat appeared that one of these heroes could not handle on their own, in most cases Dr. Strange, who is Marvel’s sorcerer supreme, would summon them together to handle it, and bicker. The Defenders won, but they won ugly. Hulk, though a founding Avenger, left the team after the second issue of the original series, as he couldn’t trust the Avengers after the second mission. The Hulk originates from Dr. Bruce Banner building a gamma bomb for the army, and when that bomb explodes he’s turned into a monstrous green behemoth at the first spot of anger. Throughout most of the comics, the military and other heroes pursue the Hulk, who just wants to be left alone.
Where the Avengers are a continually training military unit, the Defenders come together when needed and then go their separate ways. The ending of “Hurricane (Storm gives a lecture on the Middle Passage),” introduces us to Namor, though it’s mainly about Storm/Ororo and the unity of change in us all. Namor was one of Marvel’s first superheroes when comic books hit the stands in the 1940s, and he was the first mutant, an offspring of a merperson and a human. In the poem “Silver Surfer,” Medlin not only captures the sacrifice and loneliness of traveling through the cosmos alone (Norrin Radd offered himself to a planet-eating being known as Galactic to save his home world and find uninhabited worlds for the space giant to eat), but they also capture the androgyny of the Surfer after Galactic transformed Norrin Radd. The Silver Surfer was always drawn as a being of physical perfection. Yet Medlin allows us to see the silver skin reflecting another’s true beauty back to them in a single moment here on Earth instead of the typical infinite planets and comets that blur by on his mirrored skin. Medlin is akin to the only Defender not written about: Dr. Strange. They summon these characters, weaving rhymes and hybrid works about pop culture and society throughout 808s & Otherworlds. These comic character pieces are a skipped stone on the greater pond which is 808s & Otherworlds. Race in America, hip-hop culture, and queer identity are what anchors the majority of Medlin’s work. Sean Avery Medlin opens our eyes to a world most of us do not see or walk blindly through. Medlin widens our perspective to the bigger picture of pop culture switching its tune and embracing the politics of the military-industrial complex.
Like the early comic book issues of the Hulk, there is a military presence pursuing the outsider throughout 808s & Otherworlds. Here Medlin is the outsider. They talk about moving to their father’s new Air Force base and growing up in the suburbs in “new amerika (i).”They let us know that when their younger self Googled “the empire” after hearing the Yasiin Bey (FKA Mos Def) rap “Fuck the empire” in the song “Know That,” Star Wars came up and prompted them to wonder if that’s how American military bases were seen overseas. Medlin prompts us to start viewing things differently with “new amerika (i).” Their opening line informs readers how “heat haze blurs asphalt” changing the way a young Medlin began seeing things after the move to the Arizona military base. Later, “Free Pt. I”addresses how a figure like Kanye West, who once had vocal rage against George W. Bush and his administration’s treatment of the Black community during Hurricane Katrina, was now sitting down with Trump and wearing a MAGA hat.
“Iggy & Carti” is a complex and strong piece about literary history and Black culture, which is a tight blending of the weighted pendulum swing of pop culture and society by Sean Avery Medlin in 808s & Otherworlds. By looking at two rap artists doing a photo shoot inspired by the popular Twilight series, Medlin breaks down the academic history of vampires and how the image takes a bite out of what Playboi Carti and Kanye West have to say as artists by going after a wider audience. “Iggy & Carti” is solid work by Medlin, which they follow up with a series of equally well constructed pieces that brings 808s & Otherworlds to a satisfying conclusion for the reader.
Medlin lets us into the gamma-bomb origins of their own past and shares personal experiences from childhood and the pop-culture influences that helped form their present identity. But 808s & Otherworlds is not about falling in line and being a good soldier for a cause like the Hulk in the Avengers movies. It’s about the hip-hop culture of the author’s youth examined through an adult lens. As an adult, Medlin sees when hip-hop culture is speaking out against society and when the society that hip-hop culture once was speaking out against is rebranding hip hop culture for its own commercialization. A piece like “Hulk” and their other work is about calling out pop culture—and themself as a writer—to the ground zero bomb site blast, be that childhood discovery, culture’s core audience, or true self. Examining the concept of true self in 808s & Otherworlds, Medlin shows not a pop culture remix of their predecessors but a truthful and definitive representation of an individual’s experiences and identity.
Though Defenders characters only drop in at selected points in this book, their attributes run throughout Medlin’s work.This collection is about weaving the right words to evoke change, like Dr. Strange. It’s about standing up for one’s differences, like Namor. It’s about reflecting the truth back to others, like the Silver Surfer. And it’s about being in situations that induce rage, like the Hulk. But where the character of the Hulk in the comics was torn apart by his rage and is searching to be whole, 808s & Otherworlds is Sean Avery Medlin channeling their rage and showing us not only a whole self but a relationship between pop culture and politics as something to defend, not avenge.