Essential Defenders v1

A comic review article by: Michael Deeley

Reprinting material from: Defenders #1-14, Marvel Feature #1-3, Dr. Strange #183, Incredible Hulk #126, Sub-Mariner #22, 34, & 35, and Avengers #115-118.

The Defenders are known as comics’ first “non-team.” Their membership includes the most powerful beings in Marvel comics. They are also notoriously independent, barely able to work with anyone or each other. The Defenders come together when they share a common foe. After the battle, they go their separate ways. While later members stayed together, much of the core team came and went as they pleased. They gained a reputation for fighting some truly bizarre foes.

Collected here are the first 14 issues of the Defenders first series; the first official formation from Marvel Feature; crossover issues of Avengers; and earlier team-ups from the members’ solo series.

The thing that best characterizes the Defenders, at least in these early stories, is power. The team is formed by Dr. Strange, sorcerer supreme, Namor, king of Atlantis, and the Hulk, strongest mortal on Earth. The Silver Surfer, he who wields the power cosmic, would join them soon after. It wouldn’t be unusual for enemies, seeing this assemblage of heroes, to soil themselves. That’s probably why most of the villains in these stories don’t wear pants. The Defenders protect the Earth from Dormammu, Loki, nameless evil gods, the Celestial Man, the Squadron Sinister, a computer able to blow up the world, Attuma’s armies, evil wizards, and a hairy alien called Xemnu. Most of these villains have enough power to destroy the planet. That, or kill millions of people. I found them to be some of the most powerful threats I’d ever seen in comics. They’d have to be to challenge these heroes.

Now, none of these guys are team players. There’s a reason they’re often alone: They’re jerks! Namor’s arrogance and Hulk’s anger easily turn would-be allies into enemies. The Surfer expresses his disgust for humanity in the same breath as he desires peace. And Dr. Strange has spent so much time in his ivory tower he’s forgotten his basic manners! A lot of tension comes from the clash of personalities. When they’re not fighting villains, they’re fighting each other. There were times when the fate of the world rested on how well Strange or Namor apologized to the Hulk! 

The highlight of the collection is the Avengers/Defenders War, the crossover story told in Defenders #8-11 and Avengers #115-118. If you don’t already have the color TPB, buy this collection; Cheaper and better value. The Defenders are tricked into finding the Evil Eye for Dormammu. Loki tricks the Avengers into fighting the Defenders. After some memorable match-ups, the two teams untie and save all of reality. Two things stand out in this story. We see the entire Earth and the Solar System in danger thanks to a page showing various characters fighting across space. ONE PAGE! One page conveys a universal threat better than most crossover miniseries!

The other is the Scarlet Witch saving the universe through a well-timed hex sphere. This is one of Wanda Maximoff’s greatest moments in comics. But thanks to Bendis re-defining her powers, I can’t help but wonder if she “rigged” the fight. Could she have subconsciously caused the Vision to malfunction, leaving her alone to save the day? That’s the danger of retcons; they can taint great stories of the past!

I found this collection to be better written than most stories at this time. Roy Thomas’s melodramatic prose gives way to the more streamlined scripting of Steve Englehart. Len Wein finishes the volume. Throughout the series, the characters retain their distinctive voices. If I were to read them out loud to you, you could recognize Dr. Strange’s overly verbose speeches, or Namor’s proud posturing. Keeping the characters consistent is vital to the series. Thomas, Englehart, and Wein clearly knew this. Well done.

You’d be hard pressed to find better artists working at Marvel in the early 70’s than the teams working here. Sal Buscema is legendary. His Hulk is a monstrous beast that haunts my nightmares. Gene Colan’s work is always a visual delight. I hope more of his Dr. Strange work is collected soon. Ross Andru illustrates in a flowing style rarely seen in monthly comics. Marie Severin, Herbe Trimpe, and Bob Brown all draw clean, powerful figures. 

Reading these comics, I could see similarities to The Authority; the attitudes, the high stakes battles, the arrogance, and the conscious desire not to be like other teams. Put simply, these comics are exciting, dramatic, well-drawn and expertly written. This is one of the best Essential collections I’ve ever seen. And I’m looking forward to Vol. 2.

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