Friday, 4 July 2014

Essential Defenders volume 2

This month will see the release of the Guardians of the Galaxy film. In the absence of any dedicated Essentials for any version of the team, let alone the modern one, I'm going to take a look at a volume containing one of the original's earliest storylines.

Essential Defenders volume 2 reprints Defenders #15-30 and Giant-Size Defenders #1-4 plus Marvel Two-in-One #6-7, Marvel Team-Up #33-35 and Marvel Treasury Edition #12. The regular Defenders issues are written first by Len Wein and then by Steve Gerber, with one by Bill Mantlo. Wein and Gerber write most of the Giant-Sizes with Tony Isabella writing a framing sequence in the first that carries reprints of past stories by Stan Lee, Bill Everett and Denny O'Neil from the likes of Incredible Hulk #3, Sub-Mariner Comics #41 and Strange Tales #145, representing solo tales from each of the three founders. The Marvel Two-in-One issues and the Marvel Treasury Edition are by Gerber whilst the Marvel Team-Up issues are by Gerry Conway. The regular issues are all drawn by Sal Buscema, as is the Marvel Treasury Edition, all of the Marvel Team-Ups and one of the Marvel Two-in-Ones, whilst the Giant-Sizes are by Jim Starlin, Gil Kane and Don Heck with the reprints carrying the art of Jack Kirby, Everett and Steve Ditko. The other Marvel Two-in-One issue is drawn by George Tuska. Inevitably the creator labels are in a separate post.

This volume suffers badly from the momentum being interrupted by various extra issues being included. Whilst the Marvel Two-in-One issues are part of a crossover with Defenders, and the Giant-Sizes invariably get collected with the regular series (though only the last one's storyline flows directly into the regular series), the Marvel Team-Up issues are utterly inconsequential to the ongoing series and feel as though they've been included solely to make up the numbers with guest appearances. And the Marvel Treasury Edition is a Howard the Duck special in which he teams up with the Defenders, but the entire tone of the piece is very much that of Howard's series rather than the Defenders, in spite of the two sharing the same writer, and once again it feels rather out of place here. Wouldn't it have been better to advance the regular title a few more issues rather then including these diversions that drag things out? But in spite of them the series has now got a clear sense of its purpose and cast.

By now there's a clear core membership consisting of Doctor Strange, the Hulk, Valkyrie and Nighthawk, but with a good number of other heroes passing through the pages. It isn't always clear in issues themselves with other heroes as to who is a temporary member and who is merely a guest star, but in Giant-Size #4 captions mention the wider heroes Doctor Strange could perhaps call upon and lists the Sub-Mariner, the Silver Surfer and "...perhaps even Power Man ... Daredevil ... Daimon Hellstrom ... Hawkeye" in what is effectively the first canonical list of all the team's "members". But the nature of the beast is such that only the core regulars can be clearly identified. Still it's the heroes on this list who are turned to when most of the regulars plus Yellowjacket are captured by the Sons of the Serpent. Notably steps are taken such that contact methods are cut before the Sub-Mariner, Silver Surfer or Hawkeye can be reached. It would also seem from these lists that Professor X, the Thing and, in the previous volume, Namorita all fall firmly on the guest star side of things, as do the Guardians of the Galaxy and Howard the Duck who pop up later on in the volume. On a different level Valkyrie's sort of ex-husband Jack Norriss winds up aiding the team more than once, even getting transported to the future, but his presence, though useful, isn't really desired either.

Instead we have a clear core membership, and even ex-membership, though the team hasn't taken on the hassle of constitutions, approval processes and formal initiations. The four core members are clearly happy to work together in spite of their disparate origins, powers and personalities. Namor the Sub-Mariner and the Silver Surfer have both left the team and in spite of the volume's cover, reproducing that of Giant-Size Defenders #1, they don't actually show up in the present. Their sole appearances are confined to reprints of past solo adventures in Giant-Size #1, though curiously whilst Namor's is incorporated into the issue's narrative, and thus represented here, the Silver Surfer's reprint was separate and is thus left out. Oddly the introductory blurb that appears on each issue until #25 continues to list Namor as a part of "the greatest NON-TEAM in history", suggesting someone failed to notice that he had left in issue #14 or that his motivation was precisely because the Defenders were now clearly becoming a coherent team.

Of the regulars, it's inevitable the two without their own titles who get the most character development. Valkyrie is steadily coming to terms with being an artificial construct with no past of her own, placed in the body of a mortal woman, and trying to discover more about Barbara Noriss's life of which she has no memory. This leads to a trek to Barbara's home town and encounters with first old friends and then her father, all the time being unable to return their feelings for her. The worst comes with Barbara's husband Jack, who just cannot comprehend that it's not actually his wife in her body and he often acts the devoted, defending husband to a woman who neither asks for it nor needs it. Despite the problems of her past, Valkyrie makes the best of her situation and more than proves herself in battle. Her only weakness is one that feels rather out of place for a Marvel hero and especially a Bronze Age hero - she is unable to fight another female, whether human, alien or robotic, without succumbing to crippling pains. It feels more at home with a vulnerability to fire or crumbling at the sight of a green rock or the inability to use a power against the colour yellow rather than the personality flaws, power limitations or physiological factors that usually restrain Marvel heroes. But in spite of this Valkyrie serves well as an equal member of the team. There are hints early on that she and Nightcrawler might become an item but it never comes off. However at one point he buys an ex-riding school to serve as a stable for Valkyrie's horse Aragorn. Otherwise Nightcrawler is steadily building himself up in his heroic role but also finding that things in his company aren't always in line with his orders. He may be a rich socialite but he also has his vulnerable side, especially when he and girlfriend Trish Starr are caught in a car explosion that costs her her left arm and then he declines to offer sufficient commitment and she leaves him. Meanwhile the Hulk is in one of his best periods, having finally found the permanent friends he has been looking for for so long and seems calmer than usual. He's also getting better at remembering things and realising other points such that his own skin makes him a target of the Sons of the Serpent. Doctor Strange is very much in his traditional form, though at times his powers are used a little too easily to resolve a situation. However this is rare and otherwise he serves well as the team's leading hand.

The various additional issues offer a variety of adventures, ranging from the needless such as the Marvel Team-Up fights with the Meteorite Man, formerly the Looter, or Jeremiah, a religious fanatic mutant, to the team building such as the Giant-Sizes. The first fills out details on the founding Defenders and then subsequent issues introduce the team to a range of guest stars including Daimon Hellstrom the Son of Satan, Daredevil, Yellowjacket and then the Guardians of the Galaxy. The foes in these issues are just as diverse, including individual Defenders' old foes such as the demon Asmodeus from Doctor Strange, Nighthawk's former villainous team the Squadron Sinister or Yellowjacket's old foe Egghead. There's also more general Marvel foes such as the Badoon, the Grandmaster or the Prime Mover, as well as new ones of whom the most significant is Korvac. Over in the Treasury Edition the Defenders and Howard tackle the Band of the Bland, a group of deliberately unoriginal villains made up of Dr. Angst, Sitting Bullseye, Black Hole, Spanker and Tillie the Hun.

Over in the regular issues there's a succession of epics against a mixture of established and new foes, with quite a few ramifications for the wider Marvel universe. We kick off with one of the last X-Men appearances from their wilderness years as Professor X sides with the Defenders against Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants; Magneto's hubris leads him to create Alpha the Ultimate Mutant who judges the Brotherhood unworthy and deages them to babies. (Now there's at least an interim solution to the problem of Magneto being tied to real world history without noticeably ageing.) Then a team-up with Luke Cage, Power Man brings the first ever appearance of the Wrecking Crew as the Wrecker acquires a team around him. Notably the team's black member, Thunderball, is the most intelligent of them, being a nuclear physicist. Valkyrie's quest for her past brings both a crossover with the Thing's title Marvel Two-in-One and also a battle with the Enchantress and the Executioner then with the Nameless One. Then there's an extended clash with the Sons of the Serpent, Marvel's stock group of racists with elements of the Ku Klux Klan about them. This adventure brings the return of several heroes including Yellowjacket, Daredevil, Power Man and the Son of Satan, but also the revelation that the Sons are led by a black man trying to "escape 'my own people'" and to enhance Nighthawk's company's profits. There are also some one-off issues including the introduction of the Headmen, a weird group of villains with distinctly odd heads whether Gorilla Man, a human one grafted onto an ape, Shrunken Bones, whose skeleton has reduced leaving the flesh loose, or Chondu, a mystic whose head has been grafted onto other bodies. And there's Tapping Tommy, who wants revenge for a succession of failures including the musical genre and takes it out on Nighthawk for buying an old studio to turn into housing, using robots in the process.

One of the biggest epics comes near the end as the Defenders meet the Guardians of the Galaxy and travel with them into a dark future where mankind has overcome self-inflicted disasters and invasion to build an empire with bio-engineering diversifying the human form, but the human race has now been conquered by the Brotherhood of the Badoon. It's a tale that incorporates time travel, including Major Vance Astro meeting his younger self, multiple worlds, the fierce gender divide amongst the Badoon, various alien worlds, the mysterious Starhawk and a showdown that begins a revolution. The story shows real epic and ambition, helping to expand the original Guardians mythology and roster no end without feeling like an intrusion on the Defenders. Nor does it end neatly, with Doctor Strange transporting his team back in time upon realising that Starhawk embodies the human race and its hope.

Steve Gerber's writing takes on both a distinctly odd turn and a degree of social commentary, though it's not as pronounced as his work on Howard the Duck. In the Sons of the Serpent story there's also a look at the horrors of the slums and signs of hope when Jack Norriss's surge of courage to save "his wife" spurs a watching crowd of whites to attack the Sons. Later there's an extended history of the Earth from the present day until the 31st century, taking in not only the continuity of Killraven but also ecological collapse, the dangers of unfettered capitalism destroying the environment, colonialism from both ends and much more. Elsewhere we get the odd situations and characters, with the first appearance of the mysterious Elf with a Gun who pops up to shoot a random person for seemingly no reason at all. However one thing I don't like about Gerber's work is the resort to a page of mainly text with a single drawn panel and the story advanced in narration, a device he resorts to more than once. It feels like the issue in question was poorly paced and this was an effort to rectify it.

When the regular series is in full flow then this volume is generally quite good and fun to read, with a wonderful diversity of scope and characterisation, not to mention the weirder elements. However when the series gets interrupted by numerous specials, crossovers and guest appearances then it the momentum frequently fails and the volume grinds to a halt. It would have been much better to leave out all the Marvel Team-Ups and the Marvel Treasury Edition and just concentrate on the core Defenders a bit more.

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