Friday, May 27, 2016

Son of Satan... Son of Satannish!

With the Defenders hitting their stride in their own series in the early '70s, it made sense for them to join other Marvel titles in branching out to the "Giant-Size" line of books which Marvel had launched across the board. The non-team's first such issue skimped a bit and built its story around a reprint of a 1966 tale featuring an old foe of Dr. Strange, the deadly Mr. Rasputin--but with its reception apparently a success, the next Giant-Size Defenders plunged in all the way with a full-size story that guest-stars the Son of Satan in his first appearance with the group, as they meet an enemy who forces each of them to face their own personal hell.

Scripted by Len Wein, who at the time was wrapping up his stay on the now-monthly Defenders book, the story also features the first-rate artistry of Gil Kane and Klaus Janson--and with Wein just about to step aboard Incredible Hulk as its regular writer, he seems to get a head start here by making the book's first nine pages a fairly decent Hulk story before dealing in the Defenders. For whatever reason, the Hulk appearing regularly in The Defenders (however unlikely that would be for a character like the Hulk) helped the comic's sales considerably--particularly when The Incredible Hulk television series began airing in 1978, but still holding true in 1974 when this story was published. Naturally, the Hulk going up against assault teams hitting him with everything they have is a scene which leads off the story with a bang--and as usual, the Hulk gives as good as he gets.

You weren't expecting the heavy artillery to fare any better, were you?

Normally, a military battle would be a Hulk story's bread and butter, though it would usually take place further into the story as events heated up; yet in this case, the clash between the Hulk and men and machinery is only a prelude to a more subtle method of leading the Hulk to a far more deadly threat. A threat that initially takes the form of a little girl named Laurie, who procures from the Hulk one of the few things he ever willingly surrenders--his trust.

Laurie leads the unsuspecting Hulk past a forbidding doorway and down a dark stairwell--until his trust in this little girl is suddenly ripped away with her facade, as she transforms to a demon who springs a trap. And the Hulk finds himself confronted with his second life-or-death battle of the day--facing an enemy which strikes to the core of his being.

The Hulk is in dire straits, his strength unable to harm these manifestations of Bruce Banner who brutally and mercilessly pound away at him. But the scene is witnessed by those who count the Hulk among their informal group--the Defenders, who have been informed of the Hulk's situation by one who hopes to soon have all of them at his mercy.

Fanning out, the Defenders scour the city for any trace of the hideous house which the Hulk had been led into, a search that ends in failure. But the thought occurs to Dr. Strange to solicit help from a man who specializes in encounters with demons--and Strange and the Defenders are introduced to Marvel's newest "hero," who has direct ties to the lower depths which have snared the Hulk.

Hellstrom then leads the way to the building that had been hidden to the others--and their search for the Hulk begins. Wein, having already become familiar with the Defenders in their regular book, now positions the story to conveniently isolate each of the rescuers in order to explore what might take the form of their own hell, which would end up filling a whopping eleven pages of story space. It's during this interval that Wein's story becomes almost predictable--especially with Hellstrom's presence, which makes it very similar in format to Marvel Team-Up (also practically new, in its second year of publication), a book that specializes in encapsulated crises that only endanger the hero(es) for a set period of time before turning the tables on the villain. In that time, we might also learn a bit about the guest hero's abilities or history, a prime opportunity to plug their own book and the kind of adventures the reader might find there.

In this case, we have four heroes, and four staircases which lead in different directions, necessitating that they each take a staircase in order to more quickly locate the Hulk. (Assuming he's at the end of any of them.) That gives Wein eleven pages to draw out this story with individual scenes of Strange, Hellstrom, the Valkyrie, and Nighthawk; and for the most part, the characters make decent use of the space they've been given, offering insights to those unfamiliar with their backgrounds and thus giving them more dimension than simply heroes tackling a threat. Though of these four heroes, if you could choose one character whose scene might come up short as far as not having much character development to substantiate their scene, who would it be? We'll see if your guess pans out as we move through these segments.

Dr. Strange is the first to face his hell, and it's a powerful image indeed--the victims of those who died before he turned to the mystic arts.

Yet Wein's scripting doesn't add up here, given the circumstances that he's relying on. The scene is driven by those specters from the past who claim that Strange was too consumed with self-pity to be concerned with saving their lives--and to a certain extent, that could apply. Following the accident which injured his hands and effectively ended his career as a surgeon, Strange went into seclusion, refusing to work as a consultant with other physicians; but there's no way he can be faulted by these spirits for refusing to perform their operations, since his hands by that point were irreparably damaged and incapable of that kind of delicate work. In his heydey as a prominent surgeon, there were times when Strange would refuse to help those who couldn't meet his fee--but that's entirely different than the scene which Wein is presenting here. Strange wasn't a coward or careless, nor need he be overwhelmed by guilt from seeing "the haunted faces of those whose deaths he might have saved had he not wallowed in self-pity"--he could save no one after the accident that injured him. His shame was always due to his greed and self-centeredness while he was a practicing surgeon--and these spirits make mention of neither.

More plausible is the encounter experienced by the Valkyrie, whose existence is owed to the Enchantress and who has sought to carve a life for herself among the Defenders. But what happens when that state of nonexistence comes back to haunt you?

Then there's Nighthawk, who began his super-powered career as a criminal before aiding the Defenders against his former partners in the Squadron Sinister and thereafter fighting on the side of his new friends. As a costumed character, Nighthawk arguably didn't have much going for him, aside from his strength being doubled at night and travelling around in his "hawk plane"; and how he qualified as a member of the heavy hitters in the Squadron is a mystery only the Grandmaster can explain. So Kyle Richmond really has no "hell" to confront him--only a mistake in judgment that he's well on the way to atoning for. Yet Wein seeks to make much more of it than it really is.

As for Hellstrom, his origin can indeed furnish enough painful images to confront him with, if need be. But his scene offers something more, our first look at this story's antagonist who happens to be another foe of Dr. Strange looking for revenge--Asmodeus, the former leader of a cult called the Sons of Satannish, whose scheme eventually led to his death (or so Strange thought).

(You shouldn't read too much into the name "Satannish," a demon who was probably created to mimic the real deal before his namesake was allowed to appear in comics. Satannish went about establishing bargains with mortal mystics--empowering them for a set time period in exchange for either their own soul, or the soul of another mystic to take their place, in the way that Satan was often described as tempting mortals with material desires in order to eventually gain their souls. In two years' time, Strange would face Satan himself, and on his foe's home turf--but in earlier stories, Satannish and his agents would have to suffice.)

And now that everyone has been threatened, the time comes for each of them to find release. Consequently, Strange finds that he wasn't so debilitated by guilt, after all. (Maybe because "guilt" was never really applicable to his situation.)

With Strange now free to search for the others, whom he fears may have suffered similar traps, he first comes to the Valkyrie's timely rescue. The Valkyrie is unfortunately the only character that Wein spends more than minimal time on; here, even when her foes are duly dispatched, Wein follows up with a nice scene where she is reminded by Strange of the life that is now hers to make her own.

From there, the two make their way to Nighthawk, who finds himself on the tight end of a noose--yet his rescue is the most expedient of all. "What kept you guys?" he casually asks. He doesn't seem very traumatized by his so-called hell, does he?

As the Defenders charge to the Hulk's rescue, by now Hellstrom has rid himself of his own tormentors and reaches the brute before them--and it seems that this ultra-powerful gang of Banners need only be scattered for the Hulk to mop up the stygian depths with them.

As for Asmodeus, it's his flawed nature which truly brings about his end. Apparently, Satannish has sufficiently empowered him to crush his enemies, which he could have done at any time instead of bothering with these diversions; instead, he doesn't overtly make his move against the Defenders until just short of the deadline which Satannish has set for him. That's foolishly cutting it close, even under normal circumstances--but when you have an unknown factor among the group who calls himself the Son of Satan, Asmodeus practically seals his own doom.

(Heh, the clock tolling midnight--a nice touch, though Asmodeus didn't seem to think so.)

Hellstrom receives a nice foot in the door here to his future appearances with the Defenders, though as a result the Defenders are a bit underused and might have even succumbed to Asmodeus were it not for Hellstrom saving the day. In a way, you could also say the same of Daredevil, when he guest-stars in Giant-Size Defenders #3 in a story that again features the Defenders splitting up, this time to save their world.

To what degree is the artist to blame for a story's discrepancies?
Stan Lee explains the balancing act that leads to the finished product!

Giant-Size Defenders #2

Script: Len Wein
Pencils: Gil Kane
Inks: Klaus Janson
Letterer: Dave Hunt


Mike said...

Thanks for the great Gil Kane art, never saw this one before. If he was still drawing comics I would buy them, sigh.

Comicsfan said...

Kane's presence here was a hidden gem for me as well, Mike--I'd forgotten his work on this one. :)

Anonymous said...

Marvel had a perfectly good Satan alternative in Mephisto and then they go and complicate things by introducing Satannish and Satan. Johnny Blaze made a deal with Satan but Peter Parker made a deal with Mephisto. And Marvel already had a Satan-like figure before Mephisto - The Dread Dormammu.

Anonymous said...

They had a bunch of those guys, Thog, Asmodeus, and probably half a dozen others. It probably got very confusing for would-be practitioners of the black arts.
I imagine Marvel was hesitant to use Satan himself, but the big guy did pop up in Tomb of Dracula and Dr. Strange.

dbutler16 said...

For what it's worth (probably not much) I believe that the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe stated more or less that Satan had never appeared in a Marvel comic, so up through the mid-80's, and Marvel appearance by "Satan" was actually somebody, or something, else.

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