Friday, 31 July 2015

Essential Defenders volume 6

Essential Defenders volume 6 is made up of issues #107 to #125 plus Avengers Annual #11 and Marvel Team-Up #119. Nearly everything is written by J.M. DeMatteis with some assistance by Mark Gruenwald and Don Perlin and one issue by Steven Grant. Perlin draws all but one of the regular issues; the exception is drawn by Sal Buscema. The Avengers annual is drawn by Al Milgrom and the Marvel Team-Up issue is drawn by Kerry Gammill.

The main themes in this volume is of resolving outstanding matters from the past and tidying up loose ends and inefficiencies. Over the course of these issues we get a number of solo tales of the various heroes that see them exploring past connections and resolving ongoing troubles to the point that they become much more complete individuals who are able to move forwards. At the same time there are a number of returns of old foes, with attempts to give some of them clear conclusions. This even spills out beyond the regular series.

The Avengers annual comes from a period in the early 1980s when a number of Marvel annuals often forget just which title they were for. This works in this volume's favour as it feels more of a Defenders story than an Avengers one, though in its implicit sequel to the Avengers-Defenders war it can just about claim a place in either's title. But it focuses on the Defenders' old foe Nebulon who has been exiled to Earth and seeks help from the Avengers whilst another of species, the lady Supernalia, recruits the Defenders into battling them. It's a strong story but its placement feels odd as it serves as part of a wider wrapping up of various long-term themes for the series. Also reproduced from the annual is the Avengers Membership Manual, containing the organisation's charter and by-laws. It's a surprise to find it included here but it helps to show just how different the Defenders are from more conventional superhero teams. The theme of old foes returning for seemingly one last attempt comes up again in the regular series when Yandroth returns briefly, having taken over a woman's body to seek revenge by setting the Defenders against one another.

Big revelations come as Hellcat searches for her father and also the truth about Satan's claims. She settles the question of her paternity by fighting off her darker self and showing she is not a true daughter of hell. This is also, I think, the first time the various characters representing the Devil/Satan are addressed with Satan explaining they are all different manifestations. Patsy then finds her real father and reconciles with him, discovering that she also has a step-mother and step-siblings. It's a key step towards bringing her and Daimon fully together for the climax at the end of the volume.

Daimon Hellstrom the Son of Satan is himself undergoing a further voyage of discovery as he learns that a demon has impersonated him to take his place teaching at a university and marrying an old sweetheart, depressing the real Daimon further as he realises even the demon has a happier life. He then turns to a monastery but finds one of the fellow monks is an amnesiac Miracle Man who soon regains his memory and steals the power of Daimon's Darksoul, leading to a final showdown between the two which the other Defenders arrive in time for. With both their problems resolved, Patsy and agree to get married and leave the group to pursue their own aims, with the wedding right at the end of the volume. In typical superhero wedding style the ceremony gets interrupted, this time by Mad Dog, aka Patsy's former husband Buzz Baxter, and the Mutant Force members Burner, Lifter, Slither and Paralyzer.

Devil-Slayer also gets a strong solo tale as he faces up to his guilt from his past and travels across the world via his shadow cloak, slowly making peace with his ghosts before reconciling with his wife and then surrendering to the police for his past crimes. A more literal completeness comes with the Valkyrie, who in the opening issues is killed. But after her funeral the Defenders learn that her soul has survived inside her sword and this leads to a quest to recover her original body in which they have to battle with the Enchantress. There are some wacky moments along the way but they have a serious side such as when half the Defenders find themselves in a bizarre world of tranquillity brought by the Rose of Purity and Hellcat has to struggle with her conscience as she decides whether or not to cut down the Rose for the Enchantress or else lose the chance to save her dearest friend forever. Once restored Valkyrie is different from before, exercising her full memories and speaking in a more traditional style used by many of the Asgardians. She seems much more brutal and ever more an Asgardian warrior than before, a change that horrifies Hellcat but the two soon rediscover their close friendship.

A trip to the Squadron Supreme's world brings up the possibility that Nighthawk has in fact survived but it turns out to be his alter-dimensional counterpart. On that world the Defenders and the Squadron battle Null the Living Darkness and his agents, including the composite entity the Over-Mind who combines the minds of six individuals from the regular universe including Nighthawk's old girlfriend Mindy. The oversized Over-Mind comes to the regular Earth when the Defenders return and becomes the group's newest member but he never really gels as part of the group and just fades away to the point that he is noticeably absent at the end when most of the other current non-founder members agree to the formation of the more organised New Defenders. His most notable story comes as he tries to come to resume the lives of his various component selves but finds they are generally considered dead and he must move on in life.

Over than the Over-Mind there aren't many new Defenders in this volume until the run-up to the final storyline. The Scarlet Witch and the Vision make multiple appearances in this volume but always decline to join the team, much to the Beast's disappointment. The one other character who can be said to have become a Defender in the early pages is none other than Spider-Man, with the cover box on issue #109 including his head and thus cementing his claim. Spider-Man attends the Valkyrie's funeral and stays around afterwards to join the quest for her body, but he doesn't really add anything to distinctive to the group. After this adventure is over he heads off with the Gargoyle in toe and never returns to the title, though the Gargoyle soon does. Also included in this volume is another issue of Marvel Team-Up which shows what Spidey and the Gargoyle get up to, at first working together but then separately dealing with the problems of long life and facing up to mortality. It's not the most essential of inclusions, as it doesn't contain anything especially important for the regular issues in this volume, but it's a nice little character piece that fits in with the overall theme of time marching on. The remaining new members come towards the end.

The big storyline at the end of the volume seeks to resolve matters from right across the whole history of the Defenders. Doctor Strange, Namor the Sub-Mariner, the Hulk and the Silver Surfer are all kidnapped from their current place in time and space and brought before the Tribunal, a group that exists outside of time and seeks to cure problems in the time stream. Meanwhile back at home the other Defenders have to face off against agents of the Secret Empire, including Cloud, Harridan and Seraph. The four original Defenders are shown a horrific vision of the future destruction of Earth due to their own combined actions. It becomes imperative that they prevent this and they agree to cease working as a team, a rather odd and drastic solution to a problem instead of working together to seek it out and resolve it. They return home just in time for Patsy and Daimon's wedding and to see the Beast's proposal for the future of the Defenders.

One of the surprises of the storyline, built up over many issues, is the return of the Elf with a Gun, the curious character who appeared at random and shot a passer-by in interludes completely detached from the main story in many issues during Steve Gerber's run on the title before being run over by a lorry under a new writer without ever really being tied in to the wider story. The Elf with a Gun was clearly a symbol of the wackiness of the Defenders' adventures and a reminder that not everything in life comes with an explanation. But now we find out that the appearances were by multiple Elves who are agents of the Tribunal undertaking actions to heal the timelines through transporting individuals away before they cause significant damage. It just feels like a complete misunderstanding of the original concept. The Elf with a Gun had not been seen for many years and even if there had been a wider purpose enough time had elapsed that this element did not need revisiting. It just feels like a gratuitous attempt to tidy up as many threads as possible in finishing off the story of the original Defenders.

Throughout the volume there's an ongoing tension between the traditional "non-team" ethos of the Defenders and the Beast's desire for the group to be a more efficient and organised team. Over successive issues he becomes increasingly convinced that much more could be achieved with a more organised structure that can have clear leadership and hold people together. At the same time there's a small influx of characters he's worked with on teams before, starting with Iceman and then the Angel, whilst Valkyrie is given a mission by Odin to watch over Moondragon who has had her telepathic powers restrained by a special headband. At first it seems as though they are all just old acquaintances passing through but after working together to defeat the attack against Patsy and Daimon's wedding they agree to the Beast's proposal to come together as a fully organised team, with the original members arriving in time to announce their split and give their blessing to the New Defenders. And so the torch is passed from the old to the new.

This is thus the final volume of the traditional Defenders and it has been aware of that for some time. The overarching themes of resolution and completion generally work well in bringing individual characters' stories to a conclusion before they step away. However it completely missteps when it comes to the Elf with a Gun, failing to realise that the lack of an explanation was part of the whole point of the character. It also rather stumbles into getting the original team members to disband and leave by decree, rather than making it a more natural development, perhaps as the conclusion to a conflict with the Beast over just how the Defenders should function. This makes for a rather weaker ending for the original Defenders than would have been desirable and an inauspicious start for the New Defenders.

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