Friday, 12 April 2013

Essential Defenders volume 1

The Defenders were very different from the teams that came before them. They weren't a formal gathering of heroes drawn together into a regulated organisation like the Avengers or the All-Winners Squad. They weren't a family of adventurers like the Fantastic Four. And they weren't an outgrowth of a school for training the powered like the X-Men. Instead they were a "non-team", a disparate group of individuals with no real organisation and no clear definition of membership, working together as needs be.

The original Defenders ran from 1971 until 1985, almost exactly matching the traditional dates for the Bronze Age of Comics. In a further twist the set-up stories included here cover the years 1969-1971 where the beginning of the Bronze Age is unclear, whilst at the other end of the run the last twenty-seven issues, running in 1983-1985 when the Bronze Age was winding down, saw the team heavily transformed into the "New Defenders". Few titles so perfectly match the period and show the various trends that ran through it.

Essential Defenders volume 1 reprints Defenders #1-14, plus Doctor Strange #183, Sub-Mariner #22 & #34-35, the Incredible Hulk #126, Marvel Feature #1-3 and Avengers #116-118 plus an extract from issue #115. The Doctor Strange, Sub-Mariner and Incredible Hulk issues feature first a crossover and then a team-up between different combinations of the three title characters and the Silver Surfer before they were made a regular team which was tested in the pages of Marvel Feature, one of Marvel's many try-out titles (later in its run it carried Ant-Man and then team-ups involving the Thing before the latter spun off into Marvel Two-in-One), before being given its own series. Early on in the run the Defenders clashed with the Avengers in what was at the time a lengthy crossover, and the issues from both series are included here.

The Marvel Feature issues are written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Ross Andru, then the Defenders issues are written first by Steve Englehart and then by Len Wein, and all drawn by Sal Buscema. The Doctor Strange issue is written by Thomas and drawn by Gene Colan, the Incredible Hulk issue is written by Thomas and drawn by Herb Trimpe, the Sub-Mariner issues are all written by Thomas and drawn by Marie Severin or Buscema, and the Avengers issues are all written by Englehart and drawn by Bob Brown.

So what precisely is a "non-team"? The Defenders differ strongly from most Marvel teams in that there is no real formal organisation. There's no home or base for the members, no formal rules of incorporation, no regular meetings replete with rigid meeting protocol, no clear definition of membership or criteria for who actually is and isn't a "member" and so forth. At this stage it's just a group of heroes drawn together when needed, who work with others they encounter in the course of such gatherings. But even here there's also the start of disagreements over just how organised the Defenders should be, with Namor being very firm until the end that there are no members whilst the Valkyrie wishes to join. Doctor Strange may see himself as the "leader" of the Defenders, but he commands far less authority over the others than the likes of Mr. Fantastic or Professor X over their respective teams.

Despite the protests of Namor and the traditional "non-team" status of the Defenders, it is possible to identify some clear members. At this stage the members are all amongst the heroes most commonly associated with the team. A popular image has built up of the Defenders having four founders, Doctor Strange, Namor the Sub-Mariner, the Incredible Hulk and the Silver Surfer. But this volume is a revelation of how that isn't quite the case as the four don't all appear together until Defenders #2, which is the fifth issue to go out under that title (Marvel Feature also included the individual strip's logo on the cover) and the tenth in the volume overall. It's questionable as to how far the Titans Three teaming of all bar Doctor Strange counts as a proto-Defenders story - they don't use the team name and, as we'll see, the good doctor is the initial keystone of the team. The initial Undying Ones crossover with Strange, Namor and the Hulk is on firmer ground here as it is revisited early on in the series. So the Surfer is really an add on, even if he has subsequently been included in many a founders' reunion, even within the original Defenders run itself (but that comes in much later volumes). The cover to this volume reuses that of Marvel Feature #1 and so we get just the other three heroes, thus doing a little bit to correct latter day revisionism. It's significant that all four heroes are strong loners, with Namor, the Hulk and the Surfer traditionally hostile to being pulled in to help others, a hostility that recurs throughout these issues making for some tense situations when the heroes are drawn together once more, with Namor in particular angry with the way he's drawn in. However over time Doctor Strange steadily works on developing a friendship with the Hulk to the point where at the end the Green Goliath is becoming more trusting and willing to stay around and work with the others. In contrast Namor is increasingly losing the battle against the Defenders becoming an ongoing team and being summoned against his will to help on missions, and so he withdraws altogether for the time being.

Several other heroes fight alongside the Defenders in these issues. The Valkyrie is a sort-of new character, the result of a fusion of an alter ego previously used by the Enchantress with a mad human woman. There's some initial discomfort amongst the others about this arrangement but the ethical side and any attempt to undo the spell are quickly forgotten and the Valkyrie becomes the first real committed recruit to the team who actually wants to be there. At the end of the volume Nighthawk works with the team and joins on the very last page, taking the place of Namor and showing the first signs of the Defenders becoming a slightly more coherent team. Namorita pops up but only for a single issue when her cousin is transported away and she helps find him. Hawkeye works with the Defenders for several issues, but his own comments at first place him clearly as a guest star rather than a "member" and when he departs he comments on having only stayed around for a specific job rather than anything permanent. That job involves the Black Knight who is even more firmly in the guest star category, encountering the Defenders on an adventure where he gets turned to stone. Later his spirit is sent back in time and the team go after him, but he opts to stay in the past and so never really becomes a Defender in any way. The volume also contains a couple of encounters with the Avengers, but the two groups are clearly delineated throughout.

The Defenders-Avengers conflict kicks off in earnest in Avengers #116, which starts with a note that it's the tenth anniversary of the start of the Avengers. It's an odd way to celebrate what is admittedly only a small milestone. The storyline itself was groundbreaking in being about the longest crossover to date in terms of both the number of issues and the publication time. Alongside the Undying Ones crossover that first brought Doctor Strange together with the other two founders, it was a sign of the way the comics industry would steadily develop to the stage where more and more storylines would require readers to buy additional issues from series they didn't normally read in order to get the whole story. It's great for providing extra material to fill collected editions decades later, but at the time it could lock out readers who for one reason or another didn't have access to the other title(s) on their local newsstands, and I don't know if subscribers got advance warning or special offers to receive the other issues as well. The storyline itself is relatively simple with one villain tricking the Defenders into a quest for a powerful item and another villain tricking the Avengers into fighting them, with each team assuming the others have impure motives. A significant chunk of the adventure is then taken up with fights between individual members of the team in different locations around the world before they realise they've been duped and team up to confront the villains and save the world. When summarised it does feel a bit like a standard Justice League of America plot. The emphasis is very much on the characters, with opportunities to see some clashes that hadn't been done for a while, such as Hawkeye against Iron Man or Namor against Captain America.

The Defenders face many villains in the course of these adventures. The Undying Ones debuted in Doctor Strange but in the final issue #183, which starts this volume off. The Nameless One and the Nightcrawler each debut in Sub-Mariner #22 and Incredible Hulk #126 respectively but these issues were tying up Doctor Strange's story after his own title was cancelled. The Titans Three story sees the trio fight first El General, the (oh what a surprise) military dictator of a Latin American country (also later on during the Defenders/Avengers clash there's a visit to an ex-Nazi's castle in a Latin American country) and then a clash with the Avengers in order to prevent a new device from inadvertently destroying the Earth. Once the Defenders proper get going, they fight a mixture of new and pre-existing foes. The New foes include Omegatron, a magical computer with a doomsday nuclear weapon attached, Necrodamus, a dark sorcerer, Calizuma, the leader of a group of warrior wizards, Cyrus Black, another evil sorcerer with a longstanding grudge against Doctor Strange, Chandu, a twelfth century mystic, and Nebulon the Celestial Man. Note just how many of these foes could easily have debuted in Doctor Strange had it still been running. Foes from other series include Yandroth and then Dormammu, both from the Doctor Strange strip in Strange Tales, Xemnu, who first appeared in Journey into Mystery in the pre-superhero era, the Giant Squids and later Casiolena, both having debuted in Avengers, the Enchantress, the Executioner and later Loki, all of whom are originally from the Thor strip in Journey into Mystery, Attuma and the Red Ghost, both from Fantastic Four, Mordred, from the 1950s Black Knight, and the Squadron Sinister, also from Avengers. The latter are evil copies of the Squadron Supreme and both are a deliberate erm... "homage" to DC's Justice League of America, allowing for substitutes for inter-company crossovers before they actually happened. The Squadron members shown here are Hyperion (based on Superman), Doctor Spectrum (based on Green Lantern) and the Whizzer (based on the Flash) plus renegade turned good Nighthawk (based on Batman). Overall there are rather fewer pre-existing Doctor Strange foes in this volume than I'd come to expect, but many of the new creations could have been cut from his series's cloth. Invariably with the Defenders initially consisting of two physically very powerful heroes and one of the most powerful magicians, the threats they face have to be similarly strong and this doesn't really change with the addition of extra members and guest stars. Instead, the team continues facing predominantly magical and mythical foes, with a smattering of other fantastical and cosmic types.

The threats the team face are a mixture of the small and personal as well as the grand scale to the Earth or even the entire dimension. At the end of the team's first story in Marvel Feature #1 Doctor Strange suggests the name "Defenders" - "A fitting name for such a grouping as we -- if we've need to meet again." The name is convincing, especially as it is initially picked for a team assembled just in emergencies. And the team may increasingly congeal as the series proceeds but there is still a lot of defending going on. On the smaller scale the members do look out for each other somewhat, with an ongoing plotline as Doctor Strange tries to find a cure for the Black Knight's stone form. This leads to a small personalised adventure in issue #11 as everyone is transported to the twelfth century Middle East during a Crusade. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to have been a great deal of research with both "King Richard the Lion Hearted" and Prince John out there, fighting the "Mohammedeans" or occasionally called "Arabs" - not the most sensitive terms to use. It's not the more nuanced and sensitive view of the Crusades that was emerging at the time.

As mentioned above, Defenders ran for the duration of the Bronze Age. Looking at just the early issues here there are some signs of the changes but others would come later. The team itself is structurally very different from the more grand and formalised teams established in the Silver Age. The crossover with Avengers began a trend that would grow over times. And there's a brief sign of some of the growing trend towards more socially aware comics, primarily in the form of the Valkyrie's feminism. But whilst she demonstrates her worth as a member of the team holding her own when she destroys the Omegatron early on, she's not the best representative of liberated women as after all she's one persona occupying another's body and was created by an Asgardian goddess (although that would get retconned later on) and so lacks actual experience of the human world. Otherwise much of the emphasis of the series is on fantastical adventures rather than on more down to earth affairs.

This is a volume that encompasses the team going through three different writers as one sets up the series, a second then has a year and a half long run (albeit only eleven issues as the series was initially bimonthly) before a third takes over for the last few issues. It surprising how the changing writers aren't particularly noticeable with the series maintaining its themes and not veering off in a new direction and having everything changed under a new regime. Consequently momentum is maintained and there's a good clear sense of what the Defenders are, even if there isn't a precise definition of membership, and how they carry out their objectives. The team contains quite a diverse set of individuals but manages to hold together and they're a believable force. The team was very different to much of what had come before, but that works to its advantage and it wasn't just another variation of already tried themes. It had a good strong start.

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