by KC Carlson
The Defenders has always been one of my favorite comic book concepts as well as one of my favorite comics (at least for much of its original run). Officially launched in 1971 in the pages of a try-out book for new concepts — Marvel Feature #1 — the original team was made up of Marvel Comics’ then-biggest “loner” characters — The Hulk, Doctor Strange, and Namor the Sub-Mariner. The Silver Surfer was a somewhat belated addition due to perceived pre-existing conditions for the character’s use — i.e., Stan Lee had originally called “dibs” on him.
Over the years, a huge number of Marvel characters have appeared with the team, but it is generally considered by most fans that the concept works best if at least a few of these four “base” characters are involved. (In story, the team has no official organization, so membership is somewhat informal.) There are also a few characters that are (or were) kinda considered “classic” Defenders characters, based on the the length of their involvement with the group, their popularity with fans, or both. These characters include Nighthawk, Hellcat, Gargoyle, Daimon Hellstrom (Son of Satan), and Valkyrie, although drastic changes in the some of these characters over the past several years may have changed their status.
Several “eras” define the long-running Defenders series, often focused on who the creative teams were. The concept was created by Roy Thomas and Ross Andru, who wrote and drew (respectively) the first three adventures of the non-team in Marvel Feature #1-3. Thomas was also involved in precursors to the official Defenders line-up in stories he wrote prior to the Marvel Feature tales. When the first Dr. Strange series was canceled with issue #183 (1969), story-threads were completed in Sub-Mariner #22 and The Incredible Hulk #126 (both 1970). The Barbara Norris character, who would become the human host for the Valkyrie, also first appeared during this storyline. Later in Sub-Mariner #34-35 (1971), Namor teams with both the Hulk and the Silver Surfer under the unofficial name of “Titans Three”.
When the Defenders graduated to their own title (cover-dated August 1972), the new ongoing creative team would be writer Steve Englehart and artist Sal Buscema. Englehart was also writing the Avengers at this time, so his Defenders run would prominently feature the now-classic Avengers/Defenders War storyline (from Avengers #115-118 and Defenders #8-11).
GERBER CHANGES THE RULES
While Englehart’s run on The Defenders was strong, fans more likely remember writer Steve Gerber’s classic run on the title, beginning with Giant-Size Defenders #3 and Defenders #20 (both 1975). Gerber stayed for about two years (mostly with Sal Buscema continuing as artist), creating what was one of Marvel’s most unique runs of superhero comics in their young history. Gerber had a unique style that incorporated both social satire and absurdist humor. That was apparent in his memorable work on Howard the Duck and Man-Thing, but Defenders was unique in combining it with the typical Marvel superhero style while accomplishing so much more. Many comic book historians look back at this run as a precursor to the deconstruction of the superhero genre, which really didn’t gain a widespread foothold until the late 1980s. Gerber stayed with The Defenders until issue #41, creating (or re-creating) many memorable characters. (The Headmen are my particular favorites.) The Defenders and the Duck actually met in the quirky Marvel Treasury Edition #12.
DAK and DFAD
David Anthony Kraft (better known as DAK) was the next regular Defenders writer, and he kept the book weird by delving into big philosophical issues (as well as the Cold War, nuclear power, and the ramifications of power in general). He’s responsible for “Defenders for a Day” (also known as “Membership Madness” or “Dollar Bill’s Documentary Disaster”), the three-part story in Defenders #62-64 (1978).
The Defenders had operated in secret up until this storyline, notable for “outing” their existence to the rest of the Marvel Universe. Dollar Bill (real name apparently Aaron Tagma English according to the Marvel Wiki — yeah, I don’t believe it either), a ne’er-do-well TV producer and huckster who’s been hanging around the Defenders, takes some video footage of a recent Defenders battle. He creates a commercial/infomercial about the Defenders, ending with a plea for members and revealing their address — Nighthawk’s Riding Academy on Long Island. Before long, virtually every unaffiliated superhero in the Marvel Universe shows up. As most of them are B-listers, they are eager to sign up, as well as show their stuff in an impromptu try-out session where, amusingly, everybody gets in each others’ way.
A few Big Names appear — notably pre-cancer Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel — but they get fed up fairly early on and leave. It’s interesting that there are a number of future (and past) Avengers here — the Falcon, Black Goliath, Hercules, Iron Fist, Marvel Man (later Quasar), Jack of Hearts, Stingray, Nova, and even a future Defender (Son of Satan) — but most are just guys who are only slightly better than empty suits, like Torpedo, White Tiger, Paladin, Prowler, the amazingly colored Captain Ultra, and Tagak the Leopard Lord. (Who?) And what are mutants Havok and Polaris doing there?
There are a few characters on the cover of #62 who don’t show up at all, like Iron Man (who does cameo, but not until next issue), the Angel, Human Torch, Spider-Woman, and Luke Cage (who is actually already Defenders-affiliated).
By issue #63, the plot thickens, as many of Marvel’s loser villains have banded together as Defenders (brilliant, DAK!), so now you have the faux Defenders heroes breaking into teams to take on the villainous faux Defenders, leading to a classic Marvel Faux vs. Faux battle (points off to DAK for not using that horrendous pun). Villain “Defenders” include Whirlwind, Porcupine, Beetle, Batroc ze Leaper, Blob, Electro, Looter, Plant Man, Boomerang, Shocker, Melter, Leap Frog, Toad, and the already faux (android) Zodiac members Sagittarius and Libra.
DEFENDERS FOR A DAY, NOW REPRINTED
The story is completely played for laughs, as the characters keep falling all over each other trying to impress the real Defenders (and failing, natch — except a few of the more hunky ones do catch flirty Hellcat’s eye). The best scene of the story is early on, right after all the heroes gather at Defenders HQ. Valkyrie attempts to serve everyone coffee, except her coffee is very bad and there is no sugar or cream. (Since it’s the 70s, the girl hero is still responsible for the refreshments.) No matter, as Hulk is passing out the coffee (“DRINK sword-girl’s coffee!”), so no one in their right mind refuses.
Another amusing scene is several of the non-flying heroes hitching a ride from Long Island to Manhattan in Hellcat’s Hellcatmobile (yes, really!), including Black Goliath, who doesn’t bother to reduce down to normal size.
“Defenders for a Day” is certainly a fun story, although it may be a mistake to claim this as a typical classic Marvel epic. Despite this, Marvel has chosen to collect this story in its upcoming Defenders: Tournament of Heroes 72-page reprint one-shot, shipping in January. I’m hoping that selecting this somewhat frivolous tale as tie-in promotion for the new Matt Fraction/Terry Dodson Defenders series (due next month) indicates that the new series may also have a humorous edge to it.
“Defenders for a Day” is also somewhat notable for being Sal Buscema’s last issues on the original Defenders run, capping a long (non-continuous) association with the series. With all those characters, who could blame him?!
IT’S ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE
“Defenders for a Day” marks the near-halfway point of the original series, but it was also, looking back, the last truly great Defenders story of the original run, as most everything else that followed seemed to be lacking the excitement of the first half of the series.
Many of the issues following this story had some great stories frequently paired with uninspiring art. Part of it, for me anyway, was that when Ed Hannigan, and later J.M. DeMatteis, took over the writing, the stories started taking on a harder supernatural edge. Characters such as the Demon Hunter, Son of Satan, and the Gargoyle were moved to the forefront, to tie into the supernatural craze so popular at the time. This approach meant the series lost much of its superhero edge and became something that I was less interested in. At the same time, the core characters (Dr. Strange, Namor, and the Hulk) almost completely drifted away.
By issue #125, The Defenders had evolved into The New Defenders, effectively becoming a mutant book. Cast-off X-Men regulars the Beast, Angel, and Iceman all took center stage in the membership, and the always annoying Moondragon joined. The high point of the later years of its run were some absolutely stunning covers by young artists including Ed Hannigan (always great at designing attractive covers), Michael Golden, Sandy Plunkett, Bill Sienkiewicz, Mike Zeck, Kevin Nowlan, and Frank Cirocco.
THE BEST PART OF THE DEFENDERS
I’ve always taken an interest in the many Defenders revivals over the years — some were great, some less so — but none of them ever seemed to click with audiences enough to bring the series back full-time. Although I think the Fraction/Dodson series might have a great chance, if they can get the tone right.
Part of me freely admits that much of the charm of the early Defenders series was the fact that the misunderstood, childlike Hulk had finally found some friends. Even though he could never get their names right. I fear that that Hulk (and that Marvel) are probably gone forever.
I miss that bean-eating/loving Hulk. And I miss Magician, Fish-Man, Bird-Nose, and Sword-Girl too.
KC CARLSON hates beans.
Loves comics. Hates beans.
Classic comic covers from the Grand Comics Database.