While they have never had the high profile of big-time teams like the Fantastic Four, Avengers or X-Men, I have always personally been a fan of the greatest superhero non-team ever created, The Defenders.
Created by Marvel-legend Roy Thomas, the Defenders pulled together three of Marvel’s most powerful characters, the Hulk, Namor and Dr. Strange. These were three guys who did not get along well, but saw the benefit of uniting their powers against cosmic-level threats that went above and beyond the capabilities of the average superhero. They were called the “non-team” because they had no charter, no headquarters, no battle-cry. There was no official leader, and at the end of the battle they all went their separate ways until duty called them together again, which is always did. Soon enough the powerful trio were joined by another heavy-hitter, the Silver Surfer and later the Norse deity and chooser of the slain The Valkyrie. Members came and went, finally solidifying into the core group of Dr. Strange, Namor, the Hulk, and Valkyrie plus ex-Squadron Supreme member Nighthawk and the happy-go-lucky Hellcat. Continuing their non-team statues, many other heroes would step into and out of the Defenders as duty called.
The Defenders is one of the few comics series that I own a complete run of, from Marvel Feature #1 all the way to The New Defenders #152. (Don’t get me started about the so-called Secret Defenders, as they have no part in a proper Defenders collection. Any team with Wolverine as a member that isn’t X-Men is headed straight for the quarter-bin, but that is another story…). I own my complete run for two simple reasons:
A. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper to own the complete run of the Defenders than the Fantastic Four or Avengers. Seriously, I just looked on eBay, and thhere are some awesome 1970s Bronze Age Defenders issues selling for $0.99 a piece. That, my friends, is a spectacular bargain. Snap those up.
B. They are awesome comics. In preparation for this column I pulled out all my old Defenders and read them in order, and they stand the test of time.
Because the non-team was off the radar of the Marvel mainstream, writers and artists were allowed to push the envelope more, to experiment with storytelling styles and from time-to-time just get wacky. In fact, the very nature of the book almost ensured it; Superpowerful beings with super-egos to match, with no rallying point other than a duty to combine their powers for good even though they don’t necessarily like each other.
If you have never read the Defenders you own it to yourself to head to eBay and pick up some of those back issues on sale for so cheap. And if you don’t know just which ones to buy, without further adieu here is my list of the Top Ten Greatest Defenders Story Arcs.
Special mention: Defenders: Indefensible
Long-time Defenders writer J. M. DeMatteis reunited with his partners Keith Giffen and Kevin Maguire to deliver a 5-issue Defenders mini-series in the comedic style of their acclaimed Justice League run. The trio proved that they can adapt their style to any team, and Dr. Strange, the Hulk, Namor and the Silver Surfer have never been funnier.
10. The Origin Story (Marvel Feature #1)
To be honest, this isn’t the greatest comic. The art is not spectacular, and Roy Thomas’s idea for a non-team had not really jelled into what they would become. But this story does set the stage for things to come, bringing together the Hulk, Dr. Strange, Namor and the Silver Surfer against the threat of the alien techno-wizard Yandroth and his awesome android the Omegatron.
9. Defenders for a Day (Defenders#62-64)
A documentary about the Defenders reveals the team’s non-team status, saying that any super-powered beings can automatically declare themselves to be Defenders. Chaos reigns as all across the city as every B-level superhero and villain rally and battle under the Defenders name. This is a wild story, with lots of regular heroes acting completely out of character, and finishing up with The Valkyrie going insane and thinking that everyone are giant trolls attacking her. Really.
8. Dr. Seuss-land (Defenders #115)
Another oddball issue as an accident with a teleporter sends four of the Defenders to a bizarre world of fuzzy animals speaking in Dr. Seuss-like rhyming couplets. Only the Beast feels at home as they wade their way through a mish-mash of Wizard of Oz and Seuss. The story ends with the finding of a pair of ruby red sneakers that only fit one member of the team; Prince Namor.
7. The Overmind (Defenders #112, #113, #114, #117)
This story arc is memorable not so much for its epicness, but for its intimacy. On the one hand, you have the alien menace of the Overmind attempting to take over the world via the mind-controlled Squadron Supreme, massive battles and cool and action, and then…you have the sad story of Kyle Richmond (Nighthawk) who years ago damaged a young woman named Mindy when he was drunk at the wheel of a car. Mindy also happens to be a powerful psychic, who along with seven other psychics purges and takes over the body of the Overmind, leaving Kyle to deal with a massive, eight-foot tall bearded alien with the mind and soul of a woman who loves him. The Defenders were decades ahead on dealing with gender issues, which leads us to…
6. Gargoyle/Cloud (Defenders #136-#137)
Talk about ahead of the times. Take a young girl named Cloud, whose powers involve her being able to turn into a cloud, and spends a lot of time running around naked. Now, Cloud is confused because she has feelings for another female teammate, Moondragon, and those feelings aren’t “sisterly.” So one day Cloud realizes that when she transforms into her cloud-form, she doesn’t have to rematerialize as a girl. Cloud transforms into a young man, ready to love Moondragon properly. There are several problems here, as Moondragon wants no loving from either male or female cloud, and Cloud’s teammate Bobby Drake (Iceman) has had a thing for (girl) Cloud and is now forced to confront the fact that he was in love with someone who could have been a man, and what does that say about Bobby?
One top of that you have this awesome story about Islam, turmoil in the Middle East, the duality of all things, and some pretty heavy issues tucked in with all that gender-play. This story arc cou
ld have been pulled out of today’s news, although it was written more than twenty years ago.
These issues affected me a lot as a kid, and was in fact the first comic that I ever wrote a letter in response to. Like Bobby Drake, I wasn’t too thrilled to see the cute, naked Cloud suddenly sporting man-muscles.
5. Elf with a Gun (Defenders #25, #38, #40, #46, #115, #117-#119, #122-#125)
Along with turning some of the best books in the series, writer Steve Gerber played a somewhat mean trick on the Defenders. For several issues, he had been seeding stories with the sudden appearance of a Christmas elf armed with a gun, who would inexplicably shoot some character who had never appeared before. This Elf with a Gun popped up three times, then Steve Gerber left the Defenders, and refused to tell anyone what he had planned with the character. As the follow-up writer, David Anthony Kraft’s response was to have the elf run over by a truck and be done with it.
However, something like an Elf with a Gun isn’t going to die so easily, and the fans debated what Gerber had in mind with the character, and what could have happened if the original story arc had been followed. Years later, and exactly a hundred issues from the Elf’s first appearance, writer J. M. DeMatteis finally brought the story to conclusion saying that the Elf was an agent of a group of time guardians and had been eliminating people who would propose a future threat to the time stream. The story eventually brought and end to the classic Defenders, who were told that they could never band together as heroes lest the Earth perish, and paved the way for the brand-spanking New Defenderswhich began with this issue.
Till the end Steve Gerber has refused to say what he intended to do with the Elf with a Gun. All he would say about the character was that he was “a backhanded metaphor for the chaotic and inexplicable nature of everyday existence, the “beast in a jungle” that you can spend a lifetime planning for but which still comes as a surprise, or maybe never will.”
4. Last stand of Moondragon (Defenders #151 – #152)
It is hard to end a long-running comic series well, but the Defenders did it. Even burdened with several editorial decisions, such as the cancellation of the series so that the mutant characters could be returned to the X-fold as the new members of X-Factor, and a somewhat clumsy crossover with Secret Wars II, the creative team managed to pull of an emotional and final exit from this beloved series.
Moondragon had been thrust upon the team in issue #125, and was a dangerous egotistical psychic who had been attempting to mentally manipulate the team into freeing since her arrival. Recently, she had come to some sort of peace, but it was not to last. Finally, after twenty five issues of build-up, we see the Dragon of the Moon unleashed at last.
Coming to the Defenders aid was the insane assassin Manslaughter and the mystical being the Interloper, who had battled the Dragon of the Moon before. Even with assistance, they are not enough to beat Moondragon, and so the Interloper calls for the ultimate sacrifice from the Defenders (at least of those members not lucky enough to be moving on to X-Factor).
The last scene is pretty heavy, and seeing the character’s reaction to Interloper’s call for a suicide attack was done brilliantly. It is one thing to be a hero and put your life on the line, and another to simply be asked to step up and die. Still gives me goose-bumps just thinking about it. Give it a read for yourself.
3. Scorpio Saga (Defenders #46-#50)
Jacob “Jake” Fury was a life-long failure. Brother to the famous Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D., Jack had vented his rage and disappointment as the super-villian Scorpio, battling both his brothers and the Avengers, but was constantly defeated and found himself fifty years old, in hiding and with no prospects for a better life.
This is the man that the Defenders face off against in the Scorpio Saga, a sad, middle-aged man making one last grasp for glory, or at least for enough money to live out the remainder of his life. Scorpio attempts to kidnap millionaire Kyle Richmond, but his plans fall apart again when he discovers that Richmond is Nighthawk of the Defenders, and that all he managed to do was bring trouble on himself yet again.
The strength of the Defenders Scorpio Saga is in the characterization of Jake Fury. He doesn’t want to run the world, or be a bad guy anymore, but he doesn’t know what else to do. He mainly just wants to kick back with a beer and talk about old times, and one of the strangest scenes is when he kidnaps Defenders-ally Jack Norris and keeps trying to get him to sit down and have a beer with him. Then he tries to get Moon Knight to drink a beer. Ultimately, it seems, Scorpio just wants someone to listen to him, and finally he decides to make some android friends who abandon him just as quickly as everyone else.
This is a sad story, that ends sadly. Overcome with defeat, Jack Norris commits suicide at the end, and the only one who will miss him is a Life Model Android of his brother Nick Fury who saw the humanity behind the mask of Scorpio.
2. Six-Fingered Hand (Defenders #94-#105)
When writer J. M. DeMatteis took over, the Defenders went all mystical. He added some members, like Daimon Hellstrom the Son of Satan and Isaac Christians, an old man trapped in an immortal Gargoyle body, and took the team to realms they had never gone to before.
The saga of the Six-Fingered Hand is DeMatteis’ masterpiece in his run on the Defenders. The story had a group of minor demons banding together to try and raise their profile, trading souls for power and creating cultists across the Earth. The Defenders battled the minor demons for about six issues until they found themselves drug to Hell, where the only way to win was to compromise with the Devil and willingly sacrifice one of their teammates.
I have never seen the issues of good and evil dealt with so well in a comic as in this story arc. The letters columns were full of readers wanting to know how DeMatteis could use the biblical Satan as a villain, and DeMatteis showed them exactly how. He explained the nature of evil in the Marvel universe, and the role of “demons” like Mephisto, Satanish and Satan.
There is a brilliant scene where Satan reveals his true face, something which DeMatteis wisely chose not to show but only showed the reaction to the ultimate face of love appearing on the embodiment of hate.
And at the end of the conflict, Satan sows seeds of discord amongst the Defenders that would last for issues to come. Perhaps this conflict has a deeper meaning than a simple battle of Good vs. Evil. Perhaps all of the Defenders actions were orchestrated by Satan from the start, and all of their brave deeds only served to consolidate his power. Or perhaps the battle was a way for Satan to show his love for his child, without admitting that love could live in a creature such as him. Oh yes, perhaps…
1. Headman/Nebula (Defenders #31-#3
Grant Morrison and Alan Moore are only marching to Steve Gerber’s tune. Decades before they deconstructed comics, Gerber had already completed the task almost unnoticed in the pages of the Defenders.
Let me just pitch you a scenario here:
Start with three villains plucked from obscurity; Dr. Arthur Nagan, the man with a human head on a gorilla’s body, from Mystery Tales #21. Chondu the Yogi from Tales of Suspense #9 and Dr. Jerold Morgan fromWorld of Fantasy #11, a man who was perfecting a shrinking potion but only managed to shrink his bones and not the rest of him. The three banded together to make a group called the Headmen, based on the fact that each of them had an unusual head, and then band with Ruby Thursday, a woman who had replaced her own head with an organic computer that was a reflective red globe.
The Headmen want to take over the world, of course, and their goal involves physically swapping Chondu the Yogi’s brain with that of millionaire industrialist Kyle Richmond, who spends much of the story as a brain on a plate. The Headmen don’t have much of a plan other than turning everyone into freaky looking people, but that’s OK. They aren’t going to get too much of a chance to do their thing because Nebulon the Celestial Man is also on the scene. Nebulon looks like a beautiful gold-skinned man, but is actually a massive Lovecraftian aquatic monster looking for a new world to settle on. The Defenders defeated him before, but he is back this time in the guise of a self-help guru, convincing everyone they are bozos and putting clown masks on them, while selling his system of Celestial Mind Control as a way to expand the consciousness of the human race.
So we have grotesque villains with deformed heads, a beautiful gold-skinned cult leader followed around by girls in cheerleader costumes and “bozo the clown masks” doing high-kicks and singing the bozo song, and a hero trying to save the day while being little more than a brain on a plate.
That, my friends, is good comics.
Gerber was the undisputed master writer of the Defenders, and the yardstick against which all others were judged. His masterpiece was the creation of the Headmen/Nebulon saga, which is still not available as a collected edition but can easily be picked up on eBay for a scattering of dollars.