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Defenders 101, or What Are You Smoking???

By Glenn Walker

The Defenders by artist Kevin Maguire

If you watch the All Things Fun! New Comics Vidcast regularly, you know that the new Defenders comic is one of my favorites for 2012 so far.  Written by Matt Fraction with art by Terry and Rachel Dodson, the new Defenders features Doctor Strange, the Sub-Mariner, the Silver Surfer, the Red She-Hulk and Iron Fist as they fight a threat to the entire Marvel Universe, one so powerful that they cannot even verbalize its existence. Sounds like a lot? Sounds like a lot of mumbo-jumbo, too cosmic, or just too messed up for a comic book? Welcome to the world of the Defenders.

Whether it was purposely orchestrated or just dumb luck and coincidence, the characters who were soon to become the core members of the Defenders - Dr. Strange, the Incredible Hulk, the Sub-Mariner, and the Silver Surfer - kept bumping into each other in pairs and trios of varying combinations in the early 1970s. Someone, I'm guessing Roy Thomas, decided to just throw them together as their own team. And 'thrown together' is the operative term. By no means are any of these four team players, nor should they even get along by any stretch of the imagination, and thus the concept of the non-team was formed. They weren't really a team, they just worked together when needed.

Their first official appearance was in a comic called Marvel Feature #1, eventually graduating after a couple issues to their own self-titled book The Defenders. Thomas wrote the first couple stories before handing over the reins to Steve Englehart, and that's how I first became aware of the Defenders. Englehart was writing both Defenders and Avengers at the same time, and conceived a plan to have the teams battle each other. This was a time and age when superhero slugfests were not the norm, mind you, and this fight had a slightly darker edge.

Loki frames the Defenders from Avengers #116, words by Steve Englehart, art by Bob Brown

If you take a close look at the ranks of the Defenders, adding in new members Valkyrie and Hawkeye to the equation at the time of the clash, the team looks like some sort of anti-Avengers - quite possibly even a group of villains! In the plot of the story Loki manipulates the mighty Avengers into fighting the dynamic Defenders easily saying that they were in fact villain intent on taking over the planet. They had all stood against the forces of good at one time or another, and the Avengers had just had an uneasy encounter with Dr. Strange - Loki didn't even have to mentally push them at all to believe him, the Avengers had to take down the Defenders.

Imagine for a moment the joy of this little fanboy in the summer of 1973 as the battle of the century raged from one title to the next. Yes, it was one of the first crossovers, taking up almost a dozen issues of two titles, yet still affected the entire Marvel Universe, and costing less than two and a half dollars. If only they could do that these days. I watched old friends and older enemies like Iron Man and Hawkeyeslug it out, Captain America and Namor join forces against a third foe, Sunfire, the Vision attack the Silver Surfer thinking he meant to harm the Scarlet Witch, and the biggest baddest battle of them all - Hulk vs. Thor. Yeah, baby!

Hulk vs. Thor from Defenders #10, words Englehart, art by Sal Buscema

It was a good summer, the heroes cleared up any misunderstandings and departed friends at the end. And much to the glee of Marvel Comics, this Avengers fan became a Defenders reader too. They hooked me. I watched as Hawkeye, the Surfer, and Namor left, but Yellowjacket, the Son of Satan, and former Squadron Sinister villain Nighthawk wandered in. It should be stated now, this was the nature of the non-team concept. There may have been a core membership, but this was not a team with rules, headquarters, membership cards, or anything like that with the Defenders. People came and went as they pleased. Notably, Dr. Strange, the Hulk, Valkyrie, and Nighthawk always seemed to be around.

The anti-Avengers vibe continued in that not only was the members always suspect or of questionable morality, either to the public or even to each other. There was also something else, something that reared its head big time when writer Steve Gerber took over the book. The Defenders didn't really fight super-villains and menaces like the Avengers did. There was no Kang or Ultron or even Hydra on their docket. The Defenders fought weird stuff. Really really weird stuff.

The Headmen as rendered by artist John Byrne

They fought Xemnu the Titan. This white furry alien monster first appeared during the 1950s when Marvel was still called Atlas Comics (formerly Timely Comics), and at that time, Xemnu was called the Hulk. The Defenders also fought one of their greatest battles against the Headmen, almost completely composed of minor one-shot threats from the pre-Marvel horror/scifi days. They were led by a twisted woman named after a Rolling Stones song with a red plastic spherical organic computer grafted to her neck instead of a head - Ruby Thursday.

Gerber also brought the Defenders to the future to fight Badoon along side the Guardians of the Galaxy (this story also introduced Korvac, a villain who later succeeded in killing the Avengers, ahem, they got better), but that's almost normal compared threats like super-villains in motivational therapy, an army of Bozo the Clowns and the Elf with a Gun. That last one was an unsolved, and inexplicable mystery for years. Gerber also brought the new Red Guardian, Patsy Walker as Hellcat from Avengers and even his own creation, Howard the Duck, in, just to add to the madness. Truly, one has to wonder what Gerber was smoking.

David Anthony Kraft, a force missing in comics for decades, and one I wish would come back, next took on the reins of writer for the title. Kraft was formerly a rock journalist, later founded Comics Interview, and also wrote some of my favorite all-time Defenders stories. He also brought the weird big time. After introducing the Soviet nuclear menace of The Presence, Kraft brought back Nick Fury's brother Scorpio who in turn brought with him a twisted new android version of the Zodiac just in time for the fiftieth issue.

Defenders #62, cover art by John Romita Jr. and Bob Layton

Kraft's two greatest and weirdest achievements for the non-team were "The Revenge of Vera Gemini" and "Defenders for a Day." The first storyline brought much of the rock and roll imagery from various albums of Blue Oyster Cult to life to bewitch the Defenders, a real treat for BOC fans and a great supernatural tale featuring the cool but obscure Devil-Slayer passing through. "Defenders for a Day" had a documentary airing on television explaining the non-team concept badly - causing multiple heroes (and villains) to show up and declare themselves Defenders so the real non-team has to clean up. Great fun.

The title passed in a variety of hands after that, with Dr. Strange, the Sub-Mariner, and Son of Satan returning to the ranks, as well as the Beast, Iceman, new hero the Gargoyle and a whole bunch of former Avengers. In the hands of writer J.M. DeMatteis, who would later the next decade bring the weird to the post-Crisis Justice League along with fellow Defenders alumni Keith Giffen, the non-team continued to defend the world from the most bizarre threats known to man.

The cover of the newest Defenders #1 by Terry and Rachel Dodson

If it's the Masters of Evil, call the Avengers. If it's the Six Fingered Hand, the Dragon of the Moon, Yandroth, the Mindless Ones, or the dreaded Elf with a Gun - call the dynamic Defenders. After several reboots and variations on the theme in recent years, the team has been reborn in the fires of Fear Itself. It's a non-team of both old and new, and has got lots of weird, including secret messages in the borders of the pages. Matt Fraction is definitely channeling Gerber and Kraft in this new version. If you're not reading the new Defenders, you should be, check it out!

Last 5 posts by Glenn Walker

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  1. I have been a huge Defender fan since it’s inception back in the 70s. Loved the classic Avengers Defenders Clash. I hope that it can developed for television or the big screen someday. I think I loved the fact that the Hulk finally found some superpowered friends.

  2. Great 101, Glenn! Also notable w/the new relaunch is that it’s deliberately being done old school “Marvel style” w/the Dodsons having a much bigger cut of the overall storytelling vibe…

  3. DAK is back! He’s been publishing a title called Yi Soon Shin. I spotlighted the BOC arc (as well as a pitch starring Devil Slayer we started before Fraction’s series came out), and anyone who would like to read along with Gerber’s issues is welcome here: Have fun!

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