Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Non-Team

Never did a team comic book so thoroughly pull the wool over our eyes than Roy Thomas's The Defenders. It seemed a concept near and dear to Thomas's heart, at least at first--a teaming of three diverse and powerful characters, intriguing because they are so different from one another. Dr. Strange, the Sub-Mariner, and the Hulk--all strong-willed, all immensely powerful--and all the most unlikely candidates to work in a "team" format. It was a grouping as odd, and as sales-oriented, as the original Avengers.

Small wonder, then, that the original grouping lasted about as long as the first Avengers line-up--and not even that long. But there were noteworthy differences between the two. In the Avengers, the Hulk--at the time having at least a measure of cognition--left the group almost immediately. But when the Defenders were formed, his mind was much simpler, and consequently it was much easier for him to be coerced into assisting the group. (Ye gods, one issue even had him playing frisbee with other members.) He was perfect. Easy enough to draft into service--yet, enraged, becoming a powerful addition to their ranks. He could be drawn into group missions perpetually.

Dr. Strange, the original catalyst in forming the group, became the default "leader," if you will--the most knowledgeable and reasoned, and the most likely to direct the course of events. Not to mention the fact that it was usually he who called the group together. The problem was that there were really only so many "dire" situations which could merit summoning Namor and the Hulk to his side; so, eventually, he embraced formalizing the Defenders into a bona fide team group, if only semantically. At heart, he valued his sanctum as a sanctum--and the circumstances of his life eventually made shepherding the Defenders impractical, as well as undesirable.

As for Namor, it was predictable that he would formally depart the group first--frankly, I'm surprised he stayed as long as he did. At the time, he was still ruler of Atlantis, and you'd think a kingdom would occupy your time to the point of not allowing you to drop everything and rush off with a group of surface dwellers. But aside from that, Namor's temperament and bearing don't lend themselves to operating within a group. He's far too independent, and not exactly a novice when it comes to determining a course of action. That he deferred to Dr. Strange as often as he did surprised me on many levels. And really, what was he there for? It couldn't be for muscle--that was the Hulk's province. And he was rarely allowed to fully add the enormous personality dynamic that he carried.

The dramatic impact of the formation of the "Defenders," at least in its original inception, could only last so long under such circumstances. So other team "members" were brought in--Marvel D-list characters like the Valkyrie and Nighthawk, who could add somewhat more variety and make the continued existence of the group, now a title in good standing, more plausible. The group was still bookended by Dr. Strange and the Hulk, the latter still being easy to find and collar into service--to hell with Bruce Banner's plight, right? Unfortunately, since the team was actually dubbed a "non-team," other characters could be added at will, for as long as they felt like staying--making the Defenders, in fact if not name, a team-up book. Except in this case, the team-up characters stuck around for awhile.

The group's last members before the title ended--Beast, Iceman, Angel, Moondragon, Gargoyle, and the Valkyrie--were a far cry from the marquee value of heavyweights like Namor, Strange, and the Hulk. I wasn't really pleased to see three original X-Men shoehorned into this group, simply because they were at loose ends and available. (Hell, these three were always at loose ends and available.) But Moondragon added a welcome edge to the group dynamic--and Valkyrie had been a stalwart member since issue #4. And as I said, a grouping like Namor and the others could only endure for so long.

By the way, "the Defenders" was really the culmination of this train of thought from Roy Thomas. Can you recall the first time he dipped his toes into these waters--and what the group was first called?

It was about ten months earlier...

The group was called "Titans Three," if only informally--and with the Silver Surfer in the group, instead of Dr. Strange, Thomas was free to let Namor flex his leadership and decision-making skills and call the shots. Which would have been odd if he hadn't, considering this two-part story happened in his own book. Namor formed the group more to offset a conflict rather than cause one--but that didn't stop the Avengers from coming in and turning it into one.

The Defenders title ran for an even 152 issues before it was retired--which, given its often confusing line-ups, is impressive. It's probably more due to the name recognition of the original concept of the "big three" Defenders that Marvel has since, from time to time, successfully (if briefly) resurrected the name and various groupings under its own masthead or in other books (most recently in the Red Hulk series)--even though, for the bulk of its run, the book was hiding in plain sight as a team-up title. Then again, you could accuse the Avengers, in its various runs, of being the same thing. In Avengers #300, the group consisted of Thor, USAgent, Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, and the Forgotten One, so it's hardly a model of stability. Ironically, instability was presumably the fuel on which the grouping of Strange, the Hulk, and Namor would run. And for a time, it worked. Maybe, to extend the metaphor, it was really just running on empty.

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