Friday, 3 July 2015

Essential Defenders volume 5

Essential Defenders volume 5 consists of issues #92 to #106 plus Marvel Team-Up #101, #111 & #116 and Captain America #268. Absolutely everything is written by J.M. DeMatteis bar one back-up story in Marvel Team-Up by Mike W. Barr and all the Defenders issues are drawn by Don Perlin. The Marvel Team-Up issues are drawn by Jerry Bingham, Steve Ditko and Herb Trimpe whilst the Captain America issue is drawn by Mike Zeck.

This is one of the thinnest of all the Essential volumes and by some way the shortest of the seven Defenders releases, making it all the more noticeable that it only carries fifteen issues of the regular series (even though one of them is double-sized). Half the additional issues are frankly non-essential, with Marvel Team-Up #112 seeing Spider-Man join with Devil-Slayer to battle the Serpent Men and recover an artefact from the temple of the Spider-People, whilst the rest of the Defenders are held captive. It's all rather convoluted and has no bearing on the regular series; worse still it ends on a cliffhanger that is unresolved here (or for that matter in Essential Marvel Team-Up both because that part of the line hasn't got this far yet and also because issue #112 features King Kull, a licensed character whose adventures are now restricted by rights issues). Issue #116 is a Spider-Man team-up with Valkyrie that's a follow-up both to a previous team-up with Thor and also to some revelations in then recent issues of Thor's own title that showed Valkyrie and he to have had a past together which they have now forgotten. Whilst it's hard to dispute the strong Defenders nature of either issue, especially as they're written by the same writer as the regular series, they are simply not necessary for following the ongoing storylines and feel as though they were only included here to make up the page count.

The same cannot be said of the other two extra issues included here. The Captain America issue is the first half of a two-part crossover that serves as a memorable climax to the volume and so is best discussed later. But Marvel Team-Up #101 opens the volume and quickly sets a theme that will recur throughout it. It features Spider-Man teaming up with Nighthawk as the latter comes under attack from a robot modelled on his university girlfriend Mindy, leading him to discover she is still alive. This causes the start of a long crisis of confidence for Kyle that is depicted throughout this volume as he comes to doubt himself and his successes, despite at one point literally saving the universe through the power of argument. A temporary paralysis during the daytime adds to his problems and the result is that he drifts away from the Defenders in the hope of either discovering a cure or coming to terms with his disability, finding himself and helping Mindy overcome both her mental health problems and her very mixed feelings about him. Over the course of the volume Kyle drifts in and out of the Defenders' orbit, showing how integral he has become to the group and how one can never truly leave one's friends no matter how oppressive one's own demons are.

Indeed demons are a recurring theme throughout this volume, both without and within, and it's not only Nighthawk who has to face up to them. Over the course of these issues Hellcat, Daimon Hellstrom the Son of Satan, Devil-Slayer and new character Gargoyle all have to confront one aspect of their past or another. Patsy faces up to her hatred of her mother only to be confronted with further revelations that suggest her paternity is not what she was previously led to believe and gets transformed more than once into a more literal Hellcat. Worse comes when she and Daimon Hellstrom are increasingly admitting their feelings for each other only for Satan to claim her as his daughter, making such a relationship incestuous if the claim is true - and its veracity is not settled within this volume. Daimon has to face down his father in final confrontation but in doing so discovers that despite everything his father cares for him and cannot destroy him. Giving in to his darker nature, Daimon embraces his heritage and departs for Hell. Left on Earth, Patsy rejects all dark magic, symbolically folding her Shadow Cloak in upon itself until it disappears. Daimon spends several issues trying to purge his humanity through various torments before he can be accepted into Hell but ultimately is unable to slay an innocent child and so rejects his father, who nevertheless accepts this as part of necessary balance.

The main new Defenders in the volume are Gargoyle and the Beast, with Daimon Hellstrom the Son of Satan and Devil-Slayer also returning for an extended time. Gargoyle comes with a tragic backstory, as Isaac Christians is the last of the line that founded the small town of Christianboro. As Mayor he watched the town in a seemingly permanent downward spiral and turned to black magic to save it, entering into an alliance with the demon Avarrish only to wind betrayed and trapped in the body of a gargoyle. There's a strong element of tragedy to his tale as he seeks to come to terms with both his new body and his past, whilst also slowly earning the respect of his fellow Defenders. A touching moment comes in a hospital visit when a child pulls away his disguise and accepts his appearance. Christianboro is ultimately bedevilled by Null the Living Darkness, a creature that has been manipulating the ghosts in the town. Gargoyle saves it, nearly at the cost of his own life but he is healed by the forgiveness of his family's spirits.

Devil-Slayer also arrives with backstory aplenty, starting with his ex wife's turning to a faith healer in Israel called the Messiah who has been tricked by demons from the Six-Fingered Hand. Devil-Slayer's past also comes back in another way as we learn how he came home from Vietnam only for his life to descend into ruins and he ended up a mob assassin. However his attempt to kill a reporter, Ira Fate, instead only got Fate's wife and child and now Fate wants revenge, with help from demons. In the showdown Devil-Slayer is about to take revenge for the kidnap of his own wife until he's reminded of his own responsibility for the chain of events. The Beast also shows up at the end of the volume, briefly bringing along Wonder Man when extra help is needed. Initially the Beast seeks help to restore his old girlfriend Vera Cantor from poisoning and the destruction of the Resurrection Stone, with Mr Fantastic also lending a hand to face the Giver of Life who resides within the remains of the Stone. After this, the Beast decides to hang around, finding the atmosphere of the Defenders to be the most pleasant of any of the groups he has been a part of. There are also brief returns by various past Defenders, most notably Namor the Sub-Mariner with the Silver Surfer also showing up in time for the issue #100 celebrations.

There's less of the out and out wackiness of early periods of the title but the group still finds itself caught up in many fantastical situations, starting with an adventure in which Eternity has temporarily given three parts of himself mortal existence to better understand life but now the parts are refusing to be reabsorbed despite their prolonged absence meaning the destruction of the universe. It's a tale that combines both a very traditional formula of splitting a group in three to deal with individual parts of the problem and then reunite them for the showdown with a pretty fantastical situation that is ultimately resolved by words not action. Nebulon returns in an attempt to conquer the world via a disguise to seduce Namor and use the armies of Atlantis but the ruse is soon exposed.

The major storyline involves the "Six-Fingered Hand" but instead of a literal giant hand with six fingers, it is in fact the name of a coalition of demons named Avarrish, Fashima, Hyppokri, Puishannt, Unnthinnk and Maya. Over successive issues, they put the Defenders through the wringer with a series of battles including one to restore Dracula's control of his kingdom in Transylvania. Another sees them take on Asmodeus Jones, a satanic heavy metal musician who has Johnny Blaze the Ghost Rider amongst his support crew. The Man-Thing also shows up when possessed by Unnthinnk in Citrusville as a prelude to the transformation of the whole Earth into Hell. Maya is soon revealed as being actually Mephisto, working with Satan, Thog and Satannish. This is, I think, the first time Marvel made a concerted effort to sort out the various characters who are all based on the Devil but appear under wildly different names and in varying forms, making any semblance of continuity impossible to follow. Here we have the revelation that the various demons are all separate manifestations of Satan, thus allowing each to exist separately though it leaves open the problem that particular stories and characters haven't always been clear just which manifestation appeared. The battle with the demons occupies the double-sized issue #100, with former Defenders the Hulk, Namor and the Silver Surfer all brought in to up the excitement and add to the anniversary feel.

The last main storyline revolves around Nighthawk, or rather Kyle as he appears mainly out of costume, and the mysterious agency called the Central Information Bureau that has captured Mindy and others to harness their latent psychic powers. The sinister head of the agency, August Masters, takes steps to manipulate Kyle's life by both ending the long-running government investigations but also preventing any meaningful action being taken in time against the C.I.B. The climax comes in a crossover with Captain America as most of the Defenders and Cap get captured with Masters revealing himself as a rogue "patriot" seeking to start a new world war by using the psychics to attack the Soviet Union. With the aid of Daredevil the remaining Defenders come to rescue the others but the C.I.B. base's self-destruct sequence has been activated and Kyle winds up using the psychic powers to save his fellow heroes but at the cost of his own life. The final page showing the other heroes alive but realising Kyle is not makes for a truly sad ending to the volume but a point of final redemption for Kyle.

This volume encompasses a fairly dark period for the Defenders with a clear emphasis on character building and demon confrontation over and above the out and out bizarre and wacky situations that have been more prevalent in earlier years. But it shows a strong grasp of the main characters whilst at the same time effortlessly absorbing the likes of Gargoyle or Devil-Slayer to make them feel completely at home in the title. Although some of the group members are not given the strongest of attention here, making the Marvel Team-Up issue's throwaway references to Valkyrie and Thor's shared past frustrating as they're not explored here, each of Nighthawk, Hellcat, Daimon Hellstorm the Son of Satan, Devil-Slayer and Gargoyle gets a strong character arc that explores what makes them tick, shows them confronting their past and/or their heritage and making each of them a much stronger character as a result. The situations and threats function well to advance these developments, making for a very strong and coherent volume. It's just a pity it's padded out by two Marvel Team-Up issues that are at best unnecessary and at worst irritatingly for what they leave out. Otherwise, this is one of the best periods for the Defenders.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...