Friday, 4 December 2015

Essential Defenders volume 7

Essential Defenders volume 7 comprises New Defenders #126 to #139 plus the two four-part limited series Iceman and Beauty and the Beast. Bonus material includes various adverts for the series and Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for the Angel, the Beast, Gargoyle, Iceman, Moondragon and Valkyrie. The main series is written by J.M. DeMatteis and then Peter Gillis. Most issues are drawn by Don Perlin with others by Alan Kupperberg, Sal Buscema and Mike Zeck. A brief comedy piece in #127 is co-written by Ann Nocenti and Marie Severin and drawn by the latter. The Iceman limited series is written by DeMatteis and drawn by Kupperberg and the Beauty and the Beast limited series is written by Nocenti and drawn by Perlin.

Were the New Defenders created even a decade later it's very likely that the existing title would have been cancelled and replaced with a new series starting from issue #1 in spite of some continuity of personnel, as happened with later examples such as the New Mutants/X-Force or the Avengers/New Avengers. And in turn it's probable that it would have been reprinted in a different format so I wouldn't actually be writing this post. (Indeed the early issues have also been collected in the Classic-in-all-but-name format but so far there hasn't been a second volume.) But instead at the time it was more standard to continue the existing title and numbering through a bold new direction rather than rebooting the numbering and creating yet more issue #1s and volumes to confuse us all.

The New Defenders differ from the previous incarnation in having a more formalised and institutionally recognised team, though it takes some time before they sort out matters such as a leader, a fully resourced base and government clearance. By this point none of the founding members are around and instead the team is initially made up of the Valkyrie, Gargoyle, Beast, Angel, Iceman and Moondragon, with newish character Cloud subsequently joining them. Even by the standards of the Defenders this is a rather bizarre line-up drawing characters from all over and it helps to explain why this team is one of the most obscure and forgotten in Marvel's history despite having no less than three former X-Men on the team. This is also a series that tries to continue to explore the weird and offbeat rather than battling big name supervillains. It also seeks to do some things with the characters that are quite different from the norm, though it doesn't always do so in the best way.

The early issues resolve the ongoing Secret Empire saga, with the newly organised New Defenders battling alongside S.H.I.E.L.D. against a succession of agents and robots. Much of the situation is mundane apart from Professor Power now occupying the body of his son whose mind was destroyed in a battle with Professor X, fuelling a desire for vengeance against Xavier's children at the same time as wider plans for global destruction and conquest. The real emphasis is on how the team is still coming together, with the members learning the hard way that they need to co-ordinate their actions whilst the question of leadership is still unsettled. At the same time their traditional New York home is destroyed and the team relocate to the Angel's remote mountain home in New Mexico. The resolution is also a brutal introduction to the very different ethics amongst the team with Moondragon demonstrating the complexity that will recur throughout the run.

Subsequent issues have a variety of foes from the surreal to the wacky. Gargoyle is captured by a middle eastern wizard and grown to enormous size in order to battle his teammates whom the wizard mistakenly believe are demons. A visit to San Francisco sees the team working with a hard arse private detective in a run-in with drug smugglers that's fairly mundane in itself but as revenge the assassin Manslaughter is sent to their base to dispose of them and his powers and skills make for a tense issue as he sneaks through, picking off the team one by one. The base is also invaded by a set of mutant plant spores that prove nearly impossible to destroy. The nearby town harbours a criminal whose body is invulnerable to fire, making him the perfect arsonist for hire. On the sillier side is the introduction of the Walrus, a man endowed with the proportionate ability and strength of his namesake. His attack is damaging to the Beast's slowly developing career as a lecturer, with the situation made worse by the intervention of would-be hero the Fabulous Frog-Man. In times past Frog-Man would wind up on the list of Defenders members but instead the new organisation means he becomes the first costumed hero to truly ally with the team. The second is Red Wolf, who works with the team in investigating the many deaths around a silver mine that turns out to be a portal to the realm of the Asgardian trolls.

But at times it seems the biggest threat is within the team's own midst. Moondragon previously took over a whole world and as part of her rehabilitation Odin has assigned her to the Valkyrie and placed a metal band around the telepath's head to restrict her from using her power too much for personal gain. Throughout the run Moondragon frequently declares her available power is insufficient to deal with the problem at hand and urges the others to remove the band. Gargoyle eventually sees inside her mind during a link and discovers how in the past her mind was invaded by the ancient Titan demon known as the Dragon of the Moon. In fighting off the demon she has become like it, even taking its name. Eventually the trolls offer to remove the headband, bringing Moondragon's struggle to learn humility and control to the fore. There are also hints that Moondragon has used her powers to influence other team members to fall for her. Early on both Iceman and the Angel fall for her and repeatedly think exactly identical thoughts but this disappears after a change in writers.

In general the rest of the existing members are developed slowly with hints more than anything else. The Beast launches a career as a lecturer that takes him away from the team at times, though not always from danger. Valkyrie continues her mission to watch over Moondragon but also demonstrates that she still performs her mythological role when she guides the spirit of a dying heroic sheriff to the afterlife. Gargoyle continues his friendship with the Defenders' housekeeper Dolly Donahue. The Angel continues worrying about how the Champions fell apart and determining that it won't happen to this team. Iceman finds himself drawn to not only Moondragon but also Cloud, with confusion as a result. The team's eventual leader is a surprise as she's not active in the field but instead a manager who is good at organising the team and getting the base's facilities sorted, Candy Southern. It's a change from the normal type of superhero team leader, showing how things are done differently. The team is a little more conventional in having a cute pet in the form of Sassafras the dog.

Cloud, the newest member, throws up some of the most promising but also frustrating developments. A young woman with the ability to turn into a cloud (when she changes back naked there's always conveniently enough vapour covering up exactly the right places), she has been used as an agent by the Secret Empire who killed her parents and deceived her into believing Seraph was her sister. The fact that Seraph was a Soviet double agent just compounds the confusion and so it seems only the Defenders can offer a place where Cloud can truly belong. She settles in well and finds herself attracted to Moondragon, declaring her feelings for her at the end of one issue. Then it gets seriously messy. Cloud is torn between wanting to go with her feelings and her instinct that they are wrong, a dilemma many who've struggled with their sexuality will recognise. But then Cloud decides the only way to make things right is to change her human form to male. This in turn makes Iceman very uneasy as he had been drawn to Cloud, and Cloud's subsequent switching between male and female forms does not help the situation.

It's incredible that a regular Marvel comic was willing to go anywhere near these subjects in 1984 and it shows the advantages some of the more obscure titles had in being able to push boundaries. But the combination of both sexuality and transgender issues feels less like a pushing of the boat as far as possible and more like a cack-handed, and possibly editorial driven, attempt to back away from having a lesbian relationship storyline. Cloud's transformation feels not like an embracing of true identity but rather an attempt to conform to societal norms by changing gender to avoid a same sex relationship. It feels uncomfortably close to a practice that even today is still carried out in parts of the world whereby lesbians, gays and bisexuals are forced to undergo gender reassignment surgery to "cure" them of their sexuality by making them the opposite gender to those they have feelings for. Further issues try to undo some of the damage with a revelation that Cloud's true self is somehow two separate beings, one female, one male, but the precise implications of this aren't explored before the end of the volume. What's left is a bold step forward and two chaotic steps back.

Issue #127 fell in "Assistant Editors' Month" when all the Marvel editors were supposedly out of the office for a month and their assistants were able to run loose with wacky ideas. But here the sole contribution (bar a comedy figure in the cover box) is a two page comedy strip in which Ann Nocenti daydreams about having all power and transforming the line - before the production manager appears in the dream with a load of mundane tasks that need address, shocking her back to reality. Given that this really only the second issue of the new incarnation of the team (issue #125 may have sported the "New Defenders" series title but was as much about out with the old as anything else) it would have been foolish to suddenly switch away from the norm for a month, showing the problems that come with line wide events that have no respect for individual series's autonomy.

The Iceman limited series is very bizarre. It was presumably published to capitalise on the character's popularity from his co-starring role in the cartoon Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends but it really doesn't seem to know just what audience it's pitched at or just what it's trying to do. There's a basic theme of parents and children coming to understand one another but otherwise we get a turbulent adventure that goes from a Drake family party in a small town on Long Island to a city during the Second World War to the realm of the mysterious Oblivion. There's time travel, dreamscapes, self-doubt and conflict amidst what at first promises to be a bold solo adventure but turns into an introspective psychological analysis. It feels as though the basics of the story and the entity Oblivion were originally drawn up for some other character but were then used for Iceman without too much thought. The character has a long history of outwardly being the goofy light-hearted member of successive teams whilst inwardly being full of self-doubt and wondering if superheroing is the right thing for him or if he should complete a conventional education. This history is respected and expanded upon through exploring his parents' attitudes to his career choices, whilst he's once again drawn to a woman, this time literally the girl next door, Marge. However it starts going weird when she's attacked by the duo of White Light and the Idiot, goes seriously off the rails when he's flung back to the 1940s and meets his parents in his youth whilst under attack from Kali, before finally becoming a complete mess when Iceman's father is killed in the past, causing him to fade out of existence and into the realm of Oblivion. Iceman simply isn't the right character for a cosmic introspection adventure. On more than one occasion in the series he's confused with the Silver Surfer and one has to wonder if this was on the writer's mind as well. The dedicated limited series was in its early days when this was produced so it may not have been clear if this was meant as a one-off piece of character development or a test run to see if there was both creative and sales potential to support an ongoing title. But whatever the aims, the result is a complicated mishmash which can hardly have appealed to readers lured in by the character's cartoon appearances. It's presumably been included here in order to make up the page count to allow the whole New Defenders era fit two whole volumes, an unfortunate move in hindsight, but it frankly could easily have been left in a pile of long forgotten limited series that don't get dug out for complete sequential reprint runs.

So too could Beauty and the Beast. This is a very odd series that seems to have started with the title and then tried to find appropriate contents. It doesn't really succeed and winds up having to distort both title characters in order to fit into the roles required of them. The Beast takes some time out from the team and goes to Los Angeles where he surprisingly falls for Dazzler despite nothing in their histories together suggesting this and they break up at the end with no real mention of it again. Dazzler is at a low point in her career having been recently outed as a mutant and now finding her work all dried up as a result of prejudice. She foolishly accepts a job in a strange underground theatre that turns out to be a modern gladiatorial arena where she's being drugged to lose control of her powers and dispel notions of leaving. The Beast tries to convince her to leave and there's further complications with the alleged son of Doctor Doom trying to use the set-up for his own purposes plus his father making his own plans despite being dead in other Marvel titles at this time. About the only decent concept in the whole story is the Heartbreak Hotel where a number of mutants with quite ineffective powers have found a safe haven. But otherwise this limited series is a turgid mess of scenario, characterisation and continuity that really should have been completely forgotten rather than being given not one but two reprintings across the Essentials (the other is in Essential Dazzler volume 2).

The inclusion of the two limited series was presumably to help fit the whole New Defenders era into two standard size Essential volumes but with the ending of the line the result is this incarnation only gets halfway and the series as a whole stops tantalisingly close to the final issue. Consequently this volume feels somewhat insubstantial as it only gets part of the way through developing the characters and team, not helped by the change of writers midway through and the limited series having no noticeable impact in the regular title. That's a pity as, numbers aside, this is effectively the first volume of a new title and it could have used some more issues. As a result, what we get is a protracted formalisation of the Defenders that nails down the membership but is still sorting through the rest of the set-up. Some of the characters get more attention than others and the developments with Moondragon are especially strong. Unfortunately the handling of Cloud's feelings for Moondragon starts off well but is then handled in a terrible manner that suggests a sudden change order from on high. Overall this is a title that really tries to do things differently from before but isn't yet hitting stellar heights.

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