Essential Defenders v2

A comic review article by: Michael Deeley

I love crazy comics. And few comics got crazier than ‘The Defenders’. The concept was simple: A non-team of heroes that reluctantly worked together to fight the deadliest, most powerful threats in the universe. In this volume, the volatile team has settled into a core roster of Dr. Strange, The Hulk, Valkyrie, and Nighthawk. They’re always joined by other heroes not known for their teamwork. Prof. X, Daredevil, Luke Cage, Daimon Hellstrom, Howard the Duck and the Guardians of the Galaxy each lend a hand against evil in all its forms. Foes defeated in this volume include the alien Badoon, the Wrecking Crew, Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, the devil-worshipping Asmodeus, the Headmen, the Sons (and Daughters) of the Serpent, and a crazy tap dancer.

There were times in these comics, especially the ones written by Gerber, when the narration takes on a tongue-in-cheek tone. It’s like the comic doesn’t take itself too seriously. At the same time, there are some heavy-handed morality lessons about the human condition and society. But the stories go a little further than contemporary comics about the same subjects. Take the Sons of the Serpent story. Previously, the SoS were shown as pawns of a Chinese Communist and two media stars, (one black, one white), using the Sons’ racism to further their own goals. Here, the new leader of the Serpents is revealed to be a black man working for Defender Nighthawk. Whether he saw the Sons’ as yet another investment or an expression of his own shame about being black is left for the reader to decide. It does provide a shocking and sobering moment for Nighthawk, who begins to take his responsibilities to his wealth more seriously. 

Lots of comics mixed serious drama with comedy, but few went to extremes as much as ‘The Defenders’. This is best represented in ‘Giant-Sized Defenders’ #3. Daredevil joins the team when they’re summoned by the Grandmaster. He uses them as pawns in a contest against Dr. Doom’s game-playing robot. When they win, Grandmaster announces his intention to use Earth as a breeding pen for more super-powered pawns. Daredevil makes a counter-offer: double or nothing on a coin toss! If Grandmaster wins, he gets the moon too. If he loses, Earth goes free. Of course Daredevil wins by, “using his hypersenses to guarantee the coin’s outcome”. I’d have preferred he used his skills as a lawyer to trick Grandmaster with a “heads I win, tails you lose” kind of con. But the thought of the Earth being won or lost on a coin toss is too funny for words!

Throughout the series, there’s this undeniable sense of weirdness. The fringe elements of the Marvel universe are attracted to this team. What other team could boast the Son of Satan and a Hero for Hire as members? Who else fights monsters such as a gorilla with a man’s head, a mundane magician, a self-evolving mutant, a game-playing robot, and even the forces of destiny herself? Every villain The Defenders face is bigger, stronger, deadlier, and weirder than anything other heroes face. The Defenders reversed the idea of a standard superhero team by creating antagonistic relationships among its members. It then went on to tweak, twist, and outright subvert typical comic book conventions. ‘Giant Size’ #2 is a story of petty revenge, thoughtless violence, and heartbreak; tragic and too human. These issues saw the series transform into a “non-comic book”.

These issues showcase some of the best talent of the Silver Age at the peak of their abilities. Sal Buscema and Vince Colletta recreate the energy and power of Jack Kirby. Starlin contributes his unique blend of fleshy realism and fantasy imagery. The inking can be a little thick in places, and some pages appear blurred, but the book delivers wall-to-wall action, excitement and drama. Nearly every page gives the reader something incredible to look at. ‘The Defenders’ is a rare comic that is as exciting to see as it is to read. 

Reading this collection made me realize how under-appreciated Steve Gerber is as a writer. Although he’s matured as a writer since these comics were published, they’re still just as philosophically challenging and emotionally charged as his work in ‘Howard the Duck’, ‘Nevada’, or ‘Hard Time’. They still have the Silver Age Marvel-style bombast and hyperbole, but it’s taken in strange new directions. It’s somewhere between being “just a comic book” and “graphic literature”.

I’ve noticed how many different and varied series Marvel published in the 1970’s. Maybe the combination of being the #1 comics publisher in America, a lucrative distribution deal, and the growth of specialty comics shops gave them the courage and freedom to try new ideas. This was the decade that saw ‘Power Man’, ‘Iron Fist’, ‘Man-Thing’, ‘Tomb of Dracula’, ‘Killraven’, and ‘Howard the Duck’. ‘The Defenders’ is a great example of 70’s Marvel-cosmic adventures side-by-side with human melodrama and gold old-fashioned violence. It was strange, savage, self-aware, and self contradictory.

Just like the Defenders themselves!

Community Discussion