Friday, 20 March 2015

Essential Defenders volume 4

Essential Defenders volume 4 contains issues #61 to #91. The writing is mainly by David Anthony Kraft and Ed Hannigan with other contributions by Mary Jo Duffy and Steven Grant. The art is mainly by Herb Trimpe and Don Perlin with other issues by Ed Hannigan and Sal Buscema.

This is an odd volume with Defenders enjoying an overall period of membership stability and yet at the same time it sees the team disband for a period, the originals reform and probably the largest single influx of members a team has ever known. At its heart is the long running question over whether the "non-team" is a grouping of heroes who come together to protect the world from menaces or else a club of heroes with an open door policy. Historically it's clear that the former is Namor the Sub-Mariner's view of the Defenders whilst the latter is Nighthawk's. But the series works best with a core group of characters who want to be with each other and spend time together when they're not saving the world. There's room for other heroes to join them for adventures - and this volume sees the likes of Moondragon, the Wasp, Yellowjacket, the Black Panther and Daredevil all working alongside the team although Spider-Man's involvement is more clearly an accidental encounter - but at it's core are the regulars, the Hulk, Valkyrie, Nighthawk and Hellcat. That's not to say there aren't some other Defenders within these pages though.

The nature of the Defenders as a very loose association of heroes and Nighthawk's problems leading them are both explored to the fullest extent in issues #62 to #64 which contain the "Defenders for a day" storyline. Dollar Bill produces a documentary about the team that includes their address and a declaration that anyone can be a Defender simply by declaring themselves so. The next day this is put to severe test as Nighthawk steps outside to meet new recruits Black Goliath, Captain Marvel, Captain Ultra, Falcon, Havok, Hercules, Iron Fist, Jack of Hearts, Marvel Man (later known as Quasar), Ms. Marvel, Nova, Paladin, Polaris, Prowler, the Son of Satan, Stingray, Tagak, Torpedo and the White Tiger. It's possibly the single largest membership expansion of any established team in the history of superhero comics. But it also exposes the mess that can come with such a loose set up as the new heroes start messing about with each other, try to impose Hercules as the team's leader and decide to attack the Hulk without realising just how important the Defenders are to keeping him calm. Then things get worse as Iron Man drops by to announce that a whole load of villains have also declared themselves Defenders and are causing chaos in New York. Nighthawk's Defenders split into multiple teams to tackle the rival group, consisting of Batroc, the Beetle, the Blob, Boomerang, Electro, Joe the Gorilla, Leap-Frog, Libra, the Looter, the Melter, Pecos, Plantman, Porcupine, Sagittarius, the Shocker, the Toad and Whirlwind, but the results just add to the chaos. It rapidly becomes clear that there are too many heroes to be able to effectively work together and the new members all quickly decide to leave. The whole thing stands as a good exposure of many of the spare and lesser heroes in the Marvel universe at this time but also demonstrates how many of them just aren't able to fit into any team at random. I don't know if the heroes featured reflect any demands in the contemporary letters page but it wouldn't surprise me if the whole storyline was a rejoinder to those who believe a non-team can literally include absolutely anyone for no particular reason and show why some of the heroes just can't work well with the regular membership. It also shows the mess of loose organisations that allow anyone to proclaim themselves a member without any process of approval or verification. Maybe this was a subtle dig at certain real life groups who seek various organisational protections and benefits whilst allowing anybody at all to access them, with the result that chaos can ensue as they exercise these rights.

Much of the rest of the volume follows a similar pattern of somewhat oddball adventures against some bizarre foes. It kicks off with a continuation of the low key battle with Lunatik, initially presented as a vigilante killer but subsequently revealed to be multiple beings who are the fragmented parts of Arisen Tyrk, the banished ruler of another dimension from the Man-Wolf stories, now serving the Unnameable. The role of mad killer is taken over by the Foolkiller, this being the second one from the pages of Omega the Unknown after the original appeared and died in Man-Thing. This is followed up by the wrapping up of threads from Omega's series but it feels very confusing if one hadn't been reading that title and so it's just a confrontation with some aliens and a lot of flashbacks, plus Moondragon getting angry with the Defenders over the way they handle the situation. Elsewhere Doctor Strange assembles the original Defenders, the Hulk and Sub-Mariner, to journey to Tunnel World to deal with the threat of the Unnameable and his minions, commanded by the humanoid buzzard Ytitnedion. Meanwhile back on Earth the other Defenders encounter first the Mutant Force, a set of old Captain America foes, and then the all female Fem-Force, working for Daredevil's old foe the Mandrill. There's also a return of the Omegatron where a man has somehow become lied to it to become the Anything Man. Tensions flare between Atlantis and Wakanda due to the intervention of a rogue Wakandan stealing technology and selling it on behalf of the Mandrill, leading to a rematch with Fem-Force.

Early on Valkyrie gets some interesting material as she is taken back to Asgard to take part in a war in the afterlife realm of Valhalla between the Norse god of death, Hela, and Ollerus the Unmerciful. In the process Valkyrie comes up against her own body animated by the soul of Barbara Norris, who kills the other Defenders to bring their souls to the afterlife. Eventually Hela banishes the invaders and restores the Defenders to life but the story adds to the confusion and mess with Valkyrie that it's unclear just how much of a past she actually has whilst she is still occupying the body of another woman despite one of her own existing and no opportunity is taken to put her back in her own body. Later she briefly leads the Defenders in Nighthawk's absence against the Foolkiller but the result is the destruction of the riding academy and the disbandment of the team, though this ultimately proves only temporary.

Hellcat gets mixed developments with some abilities little used and even phased out whilst there are some appearances from her past from before her days in the superhero community. Noticeably little used is her Shadowcloak despite its potential to boost her abilities and provide key protection at critical moments. Maybe it's just because of the black and white but there are times when she's wearing it and so similar to Batgirl that I'd be amazed if someone didn't start getting copyright jitters. Her mental powers are also little used except for an accidental discharge that hurts ally as much as foe and drives off a number of the "Defenders for a day" recruits. Later on Moondragon absorbs them out of necessity when injured in battle, leaving Hellcat with her acrobatic skills and her convoluted past. It becomes clear that she's trying to avoid it, with a letter from Millie the Model taking a while to reach her. Later on we find out that she's been avoiding her mother for a long time and they don't reconcile before the latter's death. After the funeral we learn how the Patsy Walker comics were a fiction-within-fiction created by her mother who sheltered the real Patsy from the world. Many a real life child star endured an awkward childhood with their parents more concerned to display them and maximise the returns rather than helping them develop properly and Patsy seems to have similarly suffered, which probably explains her woman-child light hearted approach to the world. The recasting of her comedy and soap era also allows for alterations to those around her, with Buzz Baxter now her jerk of an husband whilst the age gap between Patsy and Millie has noticeably widened since their encounters in the 1960s, with the latter now a friend of Patsy's mother and head of her own modelling agency. Millie's guest appearance is a reminder of how many of us move on in life and looks back on hopes and ambitions, whilst some, like Patsy, are left contemplating the future.

There are other threads that go nowhere. Early on there's a subplot in the Soviet Union as the Red Guardian and the Presence battle a giant amoeba but after defeating it they decide to live together and it isn't followed up on; with no interaction with the rest of the title it just feels like an unfinished idea. This may, however, be down to a change in writers.

This volume encompasses the entirety of Ed Hannigan's run. And the whole thing is a rather stumbling mess. Plotlines drag on for ages, particularly one about Nighthawk being investigated by the FBI for a number of alleged personal and corporate offences, with the result that on more than one occasion he is barred from operating in his costumed identity. The precise charges are never made clear and by the final issue the whole thing has got no further than a bail hearing. Tax and corporate cases in the real world may well drag out for years before ever reaching a courtroom, but it doesn't make for especially good drama. Worse still there's no real indication as to why he is now being investigated or whether some foe is behind it all. It's as though Hannigan had no idea where he was going with the storyline and so just dragged it out for as long as possible until something could be done with it. Eventually the court appearance coincides with an attack by the Mandril and an extended appearance by Daredevil but it's impossible to believe that this had been the plan all along. There are also odd moments such as the Hulk's encounter with a beached whale that he returns to the sea complete with the address for Greenpeace in one of the most blatant pieces of campaigning yet seen in a regular comic book, though it's followed up in a later issue when the Defenders save a herd of whales from Russian whalers.

Overall this volume is a complete disappointment. Other than the "Defenders for a day" there are no particular striking stories and much of the book is an endless search for direction. Too many of the foes are rather abstract and make for not very understandable threats, compounded by the growing gulf in focuses between Doctor Strange and Nighthawk. There are too many plotlines that either ramble on forever or just get forgotten about and the overall result is just a dull mess.

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