Over my five years as a proud comic book semi-professional, more often than not when I hear the term "Secret Defenders" it has been as the punchline of a joke, both in fan circles as well as among my peers. At this point I wouldn't be surprised to learn that many of those making the joke don't even know who or what they're talking about.
Secret Defenders launched back in 1993 with the high concept of a team with no set roster, but instead Doctor Strange using his magic to determine which groupings of Marvel heroes were best equipped to deal with certain missions and then bringing them together to do just that. As explained by writer Roy Thomas on a text page in the back of the very first issue, it was more or less a natural outgrowth of the original Defenders--Strange, Hulk, Namor and the Silver Surfer--who were called a "non-team" in that they weren't particularly chummy and only hung out when there was work to be done.
Let's give credit where credit is do right off the bat: the conceit behind the Secret Defenders was a pretty bad ass idea. I mean, the New Avengers are the most successful super hero group of the past decade on at least a commercial level based on Brian Bendis bringing together a disparate group of popular characters and making them a team then watching the interpersonal dynamics fly (ok, obviously he does more than just watch, but you get my gist). Going even further back (way further back), the Justice League and even Justice Society were solo heroes who didn't necessarily have any need to band together other than it was a cool idea that publisher knew would sell comics, so let's go for it.
Part of the fun of team books and what has made the Avengers and Justice League in particular work so well over the years is the idea of throwing characters who work well on their own into a blender and then seeing how they mix (I'm excepting "family" concepts like the Fantastic Four, X-Men and even Teen Titans as they have a different vibe to them). With Secret Defenders, you got that mix and match, but not just every couple years when writers felt like shaking things up and not with members coming and going one by one or two by two, no, you got a whole new team just about every other month!
Honestly, it's as basic a "kids will love this" concept as giving a bad guy a black and white version of Spider-Man's suit plus some fangs and then counting the money you make; it should have worked. And hey, I wasn't on the inside 16 years ago, so maybe Secret Defenders did work on some level, but it only lasted 25 issues, so even accounting for the shark-infested comics landscape of the mid-90's it couldn't have done that well, and in spite of what I'm sure were solid efforts by guys like Roy Thomas (no slouch by any stretch of any imagination) I don't think the book ever achieved it's creative potential.
I think you can look at the initial Secret Defenders line-up that was featured over the first three issues and kinda see the big problem: it consisted of Strange, Wolverine, Darkhawk, Nomad and the second Spider-Woman (Julia Carpenter). Obviously Wolverine was (and is) an absurdly popular character while Darkhawk and Nomad were both guys struggling to keep solo books afloat and Spider-Woman was an ancillary member of the West Coast Avengers. I remember reading the first issue and not finding anything particularly compelling about how these four heroes interacted; it was a nice lady, an insecure kid and two gruff loners, but there was no real conflict or neat bonding moment that showed me the worth of this cool concept really being mined.
Looking back on it, while I admit I could be totally wrong, it seems to me from an "insider" perspective that three random characters were just stuck with Wolverine because somebody higher up figured maybe that could give their respective books some heat. If you look at the second arc, it's the same basic deal with the Punisher in the Wolverine role with solo "star" Sleepwalker and New Warriors member Namorita tagging along. In the third arc, Strange hooks up Spider-Man with Captain America and the Scarlet Witch to face a villain they've all fought before, so there's a bit more logic there, but then after that we get the Surfer, War Machine and Thunderstrike (I guess Surfer was supposed to be the "draw" in that group, but I'm not entirely sure).
Incidentally, issue #11 is the only one I own besides #1 and I do kinda love it because it's got Nova teaming with the Hulk (in my favorite of his incarnations as "the Professor") and Northstar to smash a robot during the Starblast crossover (it also featured the classic line "Not once has anybody ever yelled 'Look! Up in the sky! It's the Man Called Nova!'"). Granted I'm biased given who was more or less the star of said story, but I dug issue #11 as it had some cool interplay between dueling cocky hotshots in Nova and Northstar, then the friggin' Hulk coming in to save the day and make them both look stupid; it was a fun little bit of business and more along the lines of what I wanted to see from the book.
Issue #11 was actually the last one featuring Doctor Strange though, as events in his own book took him out of play for a bit and he was replaced in the short term by Thanos for a villains-centric arc and then in the long-term by Doctor Druid.
If Secret Defenders was lighting the sales chart on fire before, I'm sure the addition of career D-lister Doc Druid didn't help the situation. To make matters worse, around issue #15 or so, the rotating cast thing was more or less abandoned and fringe characters Cadaver and Shadowoman were made the core team along with Druid while guest stars like Deadpool, Luke Cage and other were relegated to extended cameos. So whereas before Secret Defenders at least had some sort of unique hook, now it was just another team book, albeit with characters most people didn't care about.
Interestingly enough, the very same year Secret Defenders debuted, DC launched Justice League Task Force with the same "different team for every mission" gimmick and Martian Manhunter in the Doctor Strange role. JLTF always seemed to have a little more heat to me as the line-ups were generally more high profile (the leadoff team was J'onn, the Flash, Aquaman, Nightwing and Gypsy), but like it's Marvel counterpart, it too abandoned its gimmick and became a "Justice League-in-training" book with the inspired writing of Christopher Priest trying to work magic with the fairly uninspired grouping of J'onn, Gypsy, the Ray, Triumph and L-Ron (the book made it to issue #37).
So why didn't Secret Defenders or Justice League Task Force work? Obviously it's an impossible question for me to answer with 100% certainty as I wasn't there, but I have my ideas. My buddy Sean had an interesting post over at Robot 6 where he shared recent comments made by my Marvel superiors (in all ways) Tom Brevoort and Joe Quesada about the nature of "sharing" characters across office lines for stuff like crossovers; this kind of negotiation generally goes pretty smoothly in this day and age from what I've observed, but based on what I've read, the Marvel of 1993-1995 wasn't nearly as cross-polination-happy, as that was the period during which multiple "editors-in-chief" were assigned different groups of books and operated in a vacuum to some degree. I can only imagine that for whoever was in charge of Secret Defenders, the cherry picking of who would fill the book each month that likely would have been fun in other eras had to be something of a chore, hence why we ended up with the somewhat cookie cutter teams of the early arcs and then eventually characters who would belong solely to the title were brought in.
It's a shame that Secret Defenders (and by the same token Justice League Task Force) were launched in time period they were only to crash and burn under the pressures of the industry as it was then, because it really is a cool idea. In 2009, with creators and editors who have encyclopedic knowledge of the most obscure characters and the ability to make them shine as well as a fanbase that thrills to odd pairings like Deadpool and Shang-Chi, Secret Defenders could be a money book both from a dollars and cents perspective as well as from the plain good read side of things.
Maybe there's a writer or editor out there right now who can see past the punchline to the potential and we'll get a retread done right sooner than later, but until then I'll always have my Secret Defenders #11.