Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Wanted: The Squadron Sinister!

With a guest-star like Yellowjacket, we know there has to be more to this fourth issue of Giant-Size Defenders than just another battle between the team and the remaining members of the notorious Squadron Sinister; indeed, the fact that there is more going on in this story than meets the eye is partially the reason why the Defenders are shown engaging in battle with Hyperion, Dr. Spectrum, and the Whizzer.

It's one of the reasons why this tale by writer Steve Gerber and artist Don Heck is such a splendid story, as well as something of a page-turner--for as we flip through those pages, you begin to feel the need to question some of the subtle clues thrown our way as this story unfolds. Why are the Defenders fighting the Squadron in the first place? Did they really kill Nighthawk, their former member who left their ranks and his criminal past behind in order to join with the Defenders? We know from the story's beginning that an attempt was made on Kyle Richmond's life--or was it? We know that two and two probably add up to four, in terms of the trail of those behind the murder attempt leading back to the Squadron--or do we? The story's pacing is nicely handled by Gerber--and Yellowjacket will prove to be the key which reveals the truth, while the members of the Squadron find themselves caught in the middle.

To start off, Heck (inked by fellow veteran artist Vince Colletta) opens with what's arguably one of the most nicely rendered splash pages he's ever presented, giving us the impression of so much activity happening in front of our eyes, frozen like a snapshot taken for our benefit--yet simply two celebrities happily navigating their way through a mob of reporters amongst a busy social setting outside of a concert hall. The couple at the center of attention are Kyle Richmond and Trish Starr, the latter character you may remember from the pages of Marvel Feature when Hank Pym became trapped at ant size. The list of credentials which Trish has gone on to gather since that time are impressive in their own right even without having one of New York's most eligible bachelors on her arm, and those too are pertinent bits of information which Gerber plants to tuck away in our thoughts until later. (Though Gerber's sense of subtlety in doing so leaves much to be desired.)

The evening, however, is marred by tragedy, as the vehicle the two climb into explodes from a hidden bomb that detonates on ignition, sending both Kyle and Trish to the hospital in critical condition. Thanks to all the news coverage, word reaches Stephen Strange, who arrives at the hospital along with the Valkyrie to check on Kyle's condition. While there, he runs into Kyle's surgeon, Dr. Wynter, an old friend who happens to be headed in to operate on Kyle (while Trish is being treated in a second surgical bay) and who asks for Strange's presence in the room as a consultant. With his surgical career abruptly ended due to his automobile accident, the feeling of again entering into an operating theater where a patient's life is on the line has a predictable effect on Strange; yet it's more a matter of perspective which preoccupies him, given his incredible occult background that he's acquired in the years since, a scene of reflection that Gerber gives due attention to.

Another interesting item of information we're presented with here--that Kyle's auto had no fuel to be ignited by the explosion, something that Strange will gather the Defenders to investigate once Kyle is able to be questioned.

In the meantime, we look in on Hank Pym, who like many others has caught the news report, and who subsequently launches his own investigation based on the familiar face from his past and the fact that she's related to Elihas Starr, alias the one and only Egghead.

Pym, at this point in time, is on the verge of returning to action with the Avengers (if only briefly), but still has traces in his blood of the microbe which trapped him at insect height and must limit his size-changing; nevertheless, he's the perfect guest-star for Gerber to use in order to get to the bottom of the nagging thought that Egghead might somehow be involved with the automobile explosion that injured Trish. As for which costumed identity for him to assume for the duration, it's not really clear what advantages Yellowjacket offers him that Ant-Man lacks, given that Yellowjacket has (for whatever reason) ditched his gauntlet stingers in favor of the disruptor gun he wears at his side; further, Yellowjacket must shrink in order to use his costume's artificial "wings" for flight beyond anything other than short leaps, though you wouldn't know it by the way Heck portrays him.

Now out of surgery, however, Trish confirms Pym's fears.

As Trish has related to Pym, Egghead has indeed fallen on hard times, having to seek shelter in the Bowery. Regrettably, he's lost none of his former ambition, or arrogance--which has made accommodations difficult to come by.

While Pym soars away from the hospital in search of Egghead (soars away at full size, mind you), Strange and the Valkyrie pay their own visit to the hospital, to speak with another patient who subsequently puts them on the trail of those he feels are likely responsible for the attempt on his life.

Obviously, the scale of blame that Gerber has put in place could tilt either way at this point. But as the Valkyrie points out, the only question remaining is: Why would the Squadron bother with draining the fuel tank of Kyle's car? And while we're on the subject, why would Egghead? Nevertheless, the Defenders, like Yellowjacket, head off in search of those they believe to be the perpetrators.

One might argue that after what we've seen, Egghead is hardly in a position to launch a sophisticated attack--I mean, how many destitute men do you know who can gather the materials to make an IED? But given a choice between the two patients in the hospital--the characters around which this entire story orbits--Egghead being revealed as the guilty party would likely add more to the story than a simple revenge plan by the Squadron Sinister against their former partner. And if that's the case, the scene's effect will depend on Egghead's motivations--reasons which Yellowjacket, finally locating his old enemy, plans to wring out of him.

The revelation from Egghead, along with the tragic news that curtails the vibrant life and accomplishments that Trish once enjoyed, satisfyingly brings to a close the mystery that Gerber put in place that served as the driving force behind the actions of both Yellowjacket and the Defenders. But the paths of the two investigations cross too late, as Yellowjacket looks in on Kyle at Trish's request and Kyle feels his jaw drop when he learns the truth.

Unfortunately, the Defenders' mission is already in progress--as the Squadron Sinister, secure in the belief that no one is even aware of their return, are in the middle of planning their revenge on the Defenders, only to discover that their targets are thinking along the same lines.

Yet though the Squadron has been caught flat-footed by the attack of the Defenders, Dr. Spectrum reaches for the weapon created by their former alien ally, and makes use of it on the nearest likely target. From there, they impressively close ranks against the remaining Defenders, and soon have them at their mercy.

Thanks to the Hulk's inadvertent blunder, the Squadron now have added reason to make a clean sweep of their plans for revenge and head after Nighthawk. In the interim, Yellowjacket arrives at the Squadron's observatory hideout and locates the imprisoned Defenders, freeing them from the shackles which served to counter their abilities. (We'll have to presume that Strange in some way mystically dealt with Dr. Spectrum's adamantium-alloy block which completely encased Valkyrie's forearms. Though frankly, I'm not quite buying how even Spectrum would create something made of adamantium.)

The attack on Kyle is already underway, with the Defenders arriving for Round Two.

Despite how it appears, the Squadron give a good accounting of themselves, with Spectrum the logical choice to counter Strange--this time within a soundproof cube that prevents him from speaking any mystical names. The Whizzer doesn't make out so well against Yellowjacket; while the Hulk manages to deal with not only Hyperion, but Spectrum, as well.

With the Squadron's fall, the story seems poised to be tied up neatly, with all parties accounted for. Yet it seems only fitting for Gerber to insert an epilog that features the very two people we began with--Kyle and Trish, who are again strolling on a snowy night but considerably more burdened than when we first saw them.

It's a somewhat meager offhand comment (not pictured here) that Gerber gives Kyle to end the scene with, though perhaps Trish has a point when she mentions that everything has been said.

We would encounter Trish at another time in a later Defenders story, before she would move on to become one of the characters involved in the Hulk's life while he was battling with the Corporation. She would also join with Pym after Egghead's death, as her dead uncle's ashes were scattered at sea. "It's awful to say this," she remarked at the time, "but I can't find it in myself to be sorry. I think I'm glad he's dead."  It's clear by that point that Trish had moved on with her life since her uncle's atrocity toward her; and though Egghead would likely not have been pleased by how the circle was closed by his niece, maybe everything had now truly been said.

Giant-Size Defenders #4

Script: Steve Gerber
Pencils: Don Heck
Inks: Vince Colletta
Letterer: David Hunt


david_b said...

Thanks for the great post.., per my comment yesterday, actually Vinnie can do a LOT of great cleanup. Some folks say he typically came on too heavy, but frankly, some weaker artists **needed** it.

These panels look better than I remember, but I still wish for a Starlin or perhaps even a George Tuska. If you ever get a chance to pickup the short-lived Shanna series, Vinnie made Tuska's faces look gorgeous.

Also a great early Gerber series.., where he finished up the storylines in none other than DD/BW 109-112.

Comicsfan said...

I have mixed luck in getting through Gerber stories, david (take Omega the Unknown, for instance), but I'll be sure to check out those DD issues you mention at some point. I did find his DD/BW/Hawkeye encounter to have some decent moments.

david_b said...

Check out Steve's entire DD run.., it's not your trad DD/BW (as most fans stared to whine about in the letters page...), but I found it very cool back in the day. I'm not sure his initial issue, but it's primarily the introduction of Moondragon in ish 105 through 112.

Moondragon intro ushers in the entire Thanos/MarVell mix to these pages (?), then Gerber brings back the Black Spectre story (Nekra/Mandrill) from the short-lived 5issue Shanna series ('course, Shanna appears as well..).

Lots of nice brooding Bob Brown art as well. :)

david_b said...

Actually, Gerber stays on for another dozen some issues. I know folks typically don't like the pre-Miller DD days, but I found the issues (like 113-114 with Gladiator and Death Stalker) quite raw and amazing.

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