Friday, 28 November 2014

Essential Defenders volume 3

Essential Defenders volume 3 reprints issues #31-60 and Annual #1. Bonus material consists of Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Doctor Strange, Hellcat and Valkyrie and the team entries for the Defenders and Zodiac. Most of the writing is by Steve Gerber, who also does the annual, and David Anthony Kraft with contributions Gerry Conway, Roger Slifer, John Warner and Chris Claremont and back-ups by Naomi Basner and Scott Edelman. The art is mainly by Sal Buscema, who also does the annual, and Keith Giffen with other work by Dave Cockrum, Michael Golden, Carmine Infantino, George Tuska and Ed Hannigan with the back-ups by Sandy Plunkett and Juan Ortiz. Inevitably there's a separate post for some of the labels.

It's amazing that this is volume 3 of a series and yet it begins as early as issue #31 without a preceding substantial run under another title. This been mainly been down to a combination of the Giant-Sizes and the crossover with Avengers, but it has also meant that previous progress has been slow for the team. Now we get a run of thirty issues with only an annual for additional material and so the team can develop more quickly. And it's increasingly clear that the Defenders aren't really a "non-team". It's clear who's a member and who is a guest star, with Devil Slayer's arrival having some trappings of a formal initiation with welcomes and handshakes, putting lie to the idea that any hero who hangs around for even a single adventure is a Defender. There may not be a formal constitution or salary scheme - Nighthawk finds himself covering just about all expenses from damages to Power Man's fees - but there's a recognised post of leader, which changes hands in this volume, and a flow of recruits.

Of the new or returning members, Power Man has the weakest ties and soon leaves, feeling he's more of a loner and just not suited to being on a team. As he was initially called in by Jack Norriss as reinforcements to protect Nighthawk in his hospital bed from Plantman whilst the other Defenders are overwhelmed or busy elsewhere, his attachment to the team was never that strong. Devil Slayer joins right near the end and so it's not possible to see here how he will last. The new Red Guardian seems to have more staying power but is soon blackmailed into returning to the Soviet Union where she is captured and subject to experiments by the Presence who is seeking to enhance his own power with nuclear energy and has selected her to be his mate. After this she remains under Soviet custody. An interesting hero who combines a day job as a top neurosurgeon and a secret role as a street champion of the ordinary people who has taken up the identity previously used by an Avengers foe, Tania Belinsky offers some potential but falls into the same problems so many female heroes have of having her powers changed fairly early on whilst her identity isn't original. Consequently her departure isn't that big an impact on the series, especially as other women are coming to the forefront with Doctor Strange's girlfriend Clea now playing a role in several adventures and even getting her own solo story when the series briefly switches to a two story format, allowing her to defeat the sorcerer Nicodemus.

But by far the most significant new recruit is Hellcat. She actually opts to hang around with the Defenders instead of taking up a longstanding offer to join the Avengers, and offers a delightful approach to heroing. She has a light hearted, fun loving adventurous approach and talks like - well maybe not a normal person in the real world of the late 1970s but certainly much less formal than many a hero. She is a welcome addition to the team and it's already easy to see she will become one of the core Defenders in the long run. Not acknowledged at all is her past as Patsy Walker, star of multiple teen soap comics that were Marvel's answer to Archie, bar references to her ex-husband Buzz's attitudes, but that doesn't seem to matter at the moment. Appearing as clear guest stars are the likes of Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel, whilst the Sub-Mariner returns but very much in guest star mode.

The first third of the volume is taken up with a length saga involving the Headmen - who have recruited a fourth member, the female Ruby Thursday with an artificial shape changing head - and Nebulon, now operating through a strange cult devoted to "Celestial Mind Control". The early issues have the pretty outlandish idea of the Headmen capturing Nighthawk and replacing his brain with that of Chondu of the Headmen in order to infiltrate the Defenders. It gets more complex when Jack Norriss's spirit is put into Nighthawk's body whilst Chondu's spirit is displaced to "Bambi", a young deer the Hulk has befriended. Whilst a disembodied brain Nighthawk relives his past and we learn about how he grew up monetarily rich but emotionally poor, sadly an all-too common combination, and see a succession of tragedies that made him the man he now is. Eventually Jack's spirit and Nighthawk's brain are restored to their own bodies, albeit with Nighthawk experiencing a crisis of awareness as he wonders just what is and isn't real, but Chondu ends up in a new composite body at the cost of "Bambi". Elsewhere Valkyrie is arrested and sent to a women's prison, with the other Defenders unaware of her fate. Inside the jail she faces bullying from other inmates, made worse by her inability to harm another woman, and a warden who tries to rape her. However she grows in popularity with other prisoners to the point that a riot starts for better conditions and her work in diffusing it helps to get her released with all charges dropped. Meanwhile Nebulon, leading a race of fish-like lizards called Luberdites, has set up the Celestial Mind Control cult to take over and "liberate" the world through advancing humanity. Amongst those drawn in are the old Marvel foes the Eel and the Porcupine. The CMC movement seeks presidential endorsement and a United Nations posting but the Headmen try to take it over for their own scheme. In the end the Defenders beat the Headmen and show Nebulon how his movement would undermine humanity's will. It's a complex story that lasts nearly a year, with the climax placed in the annual; one of the first times Marvel resorted to such a method in the superhero titles. It's also almost the last story by Steve Gerber on the series though he does one further issue with Doctor Strange's old foe Shazana reappearing; this feels like a fill-in idea being used up in a hurry.

In general Gerber's issues don't show much of his often used overt social commentary beyond the contemporary fad for cults that took an alternative mental approach, and whilst Tania's presence is used for occasional contrasts between the way things are in the United States and the Soviet Union but it's more of an aside to reinforce her outsider character rather than either propaganda about the superiority of the west or an exploration of alternatives. Instead the focus primarily on weird action, bar a brief use of a female presidential candidate as an alias for the Headmen's activities. However there's a brief scene in the annual that is set in New Delhi and the captions feel highly polemical, portraying India as a backward, illiterate and superstitious country, criticising the capital as primitive and expressing outrage that such a country can be a nuclear power. This is beyond a critic of nuclear weapons in general and feels very much a piece of American superiority pouring scorn on other countries for daring to raise themselves to a similar level of defence and independence. And nothing in these captions is remotely relevant to the story at hand.

Gerber's departure leaves one particular subplot still unexplained - the mysterious Elf with a gun who pops up at random to kill random people. And the new writers don't explain why. Instead issue #46 sees the Elf about to shoot the paper boy at the Richmond Riding Academy when suddenly a lorry thunders down the road and runs over the Elf. Consequently we're left with an unexplained and somewhat random chain of events that show that in life not everything has an explanation and instead we sometimes only get to glimpse a bigger pattern without ever knowing the reason why. It's a good little metaphor for life though it's the kind of approach that doesn't satisfy all comic readers so it remains to be seen if any later writers will instead seek to explain the Elf. All in all Gerber's run on Defenders has been solid though not spectacular and he has made the series quite distinct.

Some of the distinctiveness remains with successive writers as the threats remain a mixture of the unusual and off the wall but there are some stock ideas in use, especially in the middle of the volume when it takes some time to settle a new writer.  Egghead founds a team of existing villains called the Emissaries of Evil, including the Rhino, Solarr and the Cobalt Man, but it doesn't last and is ultimately consumed by infighting. Then Doctor Strange succumbs to the control of the Star of Capistan and assumes the villainous identity of Red Rajah. After his defeat he opts to leave the team for the time being with Nighthawk taking over as leader and the team's de facto base shifting to the Richmond Riding Academy on Long Island. Both Doctor Strange and his Sanctum Sanctorum return within this volume but it's a sign of how the series has grown strong enough to no longer rely on the good doctor and his villains as the core of the series.

Nighthawk's leadership faces a baptism of fire in another mini-epic as the villain Scorpio - actually Jake Fury, the S.H.I.E.L.D. director's brother - tries to create a new Zodiac society, this time with the other eleven as artificial lifeforms. However not all are "born" successfully and he's especially distraught at the "still birth" of Virgo. Feeling lonely, old, unachieving and depressed he opts to take his life. Suicide should always be handled carefully in media and reasons never casually given, making this downbeat ending a rather dubious move. After this we get a string of new foes in short tales, such as the Ringer, a fighter who can expand and throw constraining rings, Lunatik, a vigilante attacking people on the university campus, and a cult worshipping the demon Belathauzer. The main extended foe in this period is the aforementioned Presence. There's a guest appearance by Ms. Marvel as the Defenders go against AIM in a sequel to one of her solo adventures and it feels as though the issue was written as a potential fill-in that could be dropped into either series as and when necessary.

The other main character developments come with Valkyrie as she continues to adapt to the unfamiliar world. Jack Norriss remains devoted to her but she is increasingly unable to return the emotion and has to forcibly explain she just isn't his wife despite occupying her body. Her unfamiliarity with the world around her shows, especially during her time in prison, and on Nighthawk's suggestion that she enrol at a local university under Barbara Norriss's name, enduring the mess of bureaucracy and bringing further culture clashes whilst she proves rather bad at keeping her identity a secret. Jack proves unable to stay away, even when Nighthawk tries to buy him off, though near the end he accepts an offer to join S.H.I.E.L.D. and goes looking for the spy organisation.

The supporting cast has a few additions, including the first appearance of Kris Keating, a police lieutenant who would go on to be a recurring pain in the Spider-Man titles. (Well actually it may not be afterall but that's for another time.) Valkyrie's enrolment at university brings her into contact with fellow students "Ledge" and "Dollar Bill"; the latter is a film buff who starts hanging around the Defenders and taking over Jack Norriss's role as non-powered helper. Bill even brings along a film camera only to curse the shots he can get. Otherwise he provides a degree of comic relief.

 In general this volume shows a series that's trying hard to offer up a distinctive approach that combines seriousness, alternative looks and comedy. The problem is that a lot of it feels rather flat and just going through motions rather than really setting things on fire. Apart from Scorpio's suicide there are no moments that feel especially badly handled but something seems to be keeping the volume just a few steps above mediocre.

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