Monday, September 5, 2016

The Coming of... The Defenders!

The premiere issue of The Defenders in August of 1972 caught something of a break, as opposed to other #1 launches that had to spend time introducing their title character(s) and crafting an origin story. The original members of this group--the Hulk, Dr. Strange, and the Sub-Mariner--were already well-established classic characters of Marvel who needed no introduction; and as for their "team," which at this point was more accurately only a series of "team-ups" thus far, the Defenders had already debuted during a staggered trial run in the first three issues of the tri-monthly Marvel Feature publication beginning in late 1971. As a result, when the group's formal series hit the stands, it had the advantage of being able to plunge directly into adventure without having to slacken its momentum and detour into segments meant to gain the interest of readers new to the concept or characters. That task had already long since been taken care of.

And so we now had a regular series featuring what Roy Thomas had long envisioned since he joined together the so-called "Titans Three" as presented in the pages of Sub-Mariner--a super-group made up of three men who displayed very different personalities, had very different backgrounds, walked very different paths, and came to the table with strong and assertive natures. In this group, the Silver Surfer was replaced with the Master of the Mystic Arts, Dr. Strange; and while the Surfer would be dealt into the mix soon enough, we had here the three men who shared one thing between them in their respective titles: all three had dealings with the Undying Ones and their powerful, two-headed servant, the Nameless One, mystic beings from another dimension who sought to find their way into and subjugate our universe (much like Dormammu). It was Strange who discovered their presence while investigating the death of his friend, Kenneth Ward--an investigation which later called for the involvement of the Sub-Mariner, who was forced to abandon Strange to their realm; and it would be the Hulk who would eventually enter that dimension and free Strange from imprisonment.

And it's that connection which draws these men--these Defenders--together again, as Necrodamus, an agent of the Undying Ones, seeks to sacrifice Namor on an altar when the stars in the night sky fall into perfect alignment. But from the beginning of this story, it seems apparent that Namor has already fallen into their grasp--and if he's indeed their victim, why is he now falling from the sky, within plain view of another who has enough might to help him?

Yet Necrodamus comes. Will those who once defied the Undying Ones survive the night?

In these early issues of The Defenders, there still remains the question of how these individuals will come to join together to avert the crises that arise. Either they will be drawn together by the coincidence of all of them arriving to take on the same threat, or one of them will discover a threat that merits summoning the other two. That person will likely be Strange or the Sub-Mariner, since either will have the resources to do so; yet with Namor showing little to no interest in meeting with these men any more than when he considers it absolutely necessary, it will be Strange who likely sends out the call. Already, that has begun to grow old, too repetitive, especially when considering the character of either the Hulk or Namor--neither of whom want to become involved in human conflicts, and who both chafe at the thought of being expected to respond to a summons. If they both make a habit of relenting and coming anyway, eventually their initial reluctance to come when called will become a running joke in the book. That point hasn't yet been reached; but for these particular Defenders to stay together--to come together--a way must eventually be found for the process to work without coercion or perpetual, initial resistance.

For now, this first issue adds a new and unexpected twist to the situation, by actually finding a way for the Hulk to initiate the process of bringing the members together. Granted, at this point, he doesn't have much to think about (thank goodness for that), since one of his sometime-allies has practically fallen into his lap; and perhaps thanks to no more than simple association, he makes the connection to the one other person who would know what to do to help revive Namor.

"Do not worry, fish-man--Hulk will save day!" That delightful remark alone was probably worth the 20¢ I shelled out for this issue. Yet aside from that, writer Steve Englehart has the Hulk reasonably sorting out the pros and cons of involving Strange and deciding on the right option regardless of his pride. Englehart strikes just the right balance with the Hulk's unpredictable and prone-to-anger personality in this new book--and without the Sub-Mariner yet conscious to take the lion's share of the dialog from him, that will become more apparent as his interaction with Strange continues.

What will also be apparent as this series begins is Strange's continued disdain for the Hulk, regarding him as a near-mindless behemoth whose might can be utilized well in a conflict if he's handled properly. The fact that Strange has usually been treated by his writers as a man "apart" whose mind is often on matters esoteric has worked well for him as a character in his own right, regarding those such as the Avengers and the Sub-Mariner as welcome allies yet keeping them somewhat at a distance while he operates almost independently, often taking the initiative and feeling that he alone can observe the "bigger picture" in a crisis and knows best how to handle things. To him, the Hulk is someone to be dealt into a developing situation--spoken to, but not communicated with in the sense of Strange's course of action being deterred. Strange has even given Namor such brusque treatment when necessary:

Now that he's in a series without his name emblazoned on the masthead, it will be interesting to see if Strange tones down his peremptory treatment of these people. That will become more likely with the Sub-Mariner, as Namor is currently the only person he can converse with on an intelligent level as well as someone who has his own ideas on how to best approach a crisis situation. As for the Hulk, perhaps a good place for Strange to start is to cease thinking of a being who's one-third of his strike force as some sort of lackey who needs to be instructed on what to do and when to do it--and while he's at it, maybe stop referring to him in such derogatory terms as "monster" or "brute."

As for this story's villain, he makes himself known in a bold appearance that lets Strange and the Hulk know exactly who and what they're up against and practically daring them to stop him.

The use of the Undying Ones is a nice touch by Englehart in this first issue, as it makes perfect sense for those beings to come after these three men who have separately interfered in their plans--and this time in the same tale, when previously their struggles were handled in each of their own titles. Curiously, the plan of the Undying Ones (through Necrodamus) involves only sacrifice and revenge, rather than their plan allowing them to make any inroads toward crossing over into our plane of existence; you wouldn't expect beings like the Undying Ones to take such elaborate steps that stop short of total victory for them.

Both Strange and the Hulk try to break through to Namor using their own means, of course, but are unable to penetrate the aura surrounding him. With the clock ticking, Strange resorts to a spell he's used before, one that will slow time to such a degree that it gains hours to think of countermeasures. Only in this instance, the effort proves futile.

There is no given reason for Strange's failure here, other than an admission that such a feat is beyond Strange's means; but reading between the lines, we're left to assume that Englehart has chosen to abolish this tactic that, if left on the books, would allow Strange a ready-made method of salvaging victory from near-defeat in the event that an enemy is poised to triumph. In so doing, we're being asked to overlook a prior instance when the spell was used--against the Omegatron in an earlier Defenders story, where it was accomplished with ease.

In this newer tale, Englehart even goes so far as having Strange's effort disrupt that earlier spell, causing the Omegatron to resume its countdown to nuclear conflagration, albeit at an extremely slow rate. It's a little difficult to downplay a prior scene when a future story is being plotted around it.

Regardless, Strange is forced to meditate to regain his strength, while the Hulk decides to continue to break through to Namor by force. As the time approaches for the sacrifice, Strange attempts what he believes will foil the plan of Necrodamus--but the plan proves to be insufficient, and Strange and the Hulk are now in a race against time to locate their friend and at all costs prevent the ritual that threatens his life.

The Hulk's blows resonate right off the printed page, with the reader likely more than ready to see these two begin to successfully fight back against the forces set against them. And while it was artist Ross Andru who brought the Defenders to us in the pages of Marvel Feature, the dynamic style of Sal Buscema has been tapped to portray their adventures in their regular series, an artist who seems a splendid choice. And while Buscema has drawn both the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner (the latter extensively in his own title), if I'm not mistaken this is his first pencilling of Dr. Strange, and appearing to take to the character very well.

As the pair descend deeper into the cavern, they're greeted with a shocking site: not only of the helpless Namor on the altar of Necrodamus, but also an apparition of the Nameless One. The time has come--and as the stars continue toward their alignment, Necrodamus is empowered to carry out his deadly task.

With the Hulk in danger of being slain--such words admittedly being difficult to fathom--Strange, whose spells are useless against this enemy so near the hour of sacrifice, finds his only course of action must be in freeing Namor. And since his own efforts toward that end have failed, he places his hopes in Namor freeing himself.

With the Hulk down, it would seem that Necrodamus will indeed prevail. But while Strange was earlier unable to use time to his benefit, time will nevertheless play a crucial part in this affair, as Bruce Banner joins the fray--which would normally be a negligible contribution when pitted against such might, but in this case his efforts last just long enough to make the difference in derailing this ritual.

Necrodamus, reverting to his dwarfish form, vanishes in defeat with the ghostly vision of his master, spouting words of vengeance and blood. But it's the words of the Sub-Mariner that prove more interesting in these closing panels to the story, as they set the stage for a character to return from Namor's past--a character once allied with both Namor and the Hulk but who now seems to have betrayed the Sub-Mariner for reasons unknown.

It's a fine opening issue all around, one that closes with a teaser that *ahem* heralds the arrival of the Silver Surfer in these pages--a character who hasn't been seen in comics for nine months, since he joined with Thor to defeat Durok the Demolisher. Exactly why the Surfer seemingly turned against Namor would be revealed when the Defenders went on to confront Calizuma and his so-called Warrior Wizards--a prelude to an incredible tale that not only had the Defenders finally facing the Nameless One on his home ground, but also would explore the possibility of the Surfer being freed of his imprisonment on Earth.

The Defenders #1

Script: Steve Englehart
Pencils: Sal Buscema
Inks: Frank Giacoia
Letterers: Artie Simek


david_b said...

Great column..., LOVE the early Defenders.., up to around ish 30 or so.

The art's a bit wobbly in the Marvel Premiere issues, but the Englehart/Buscema team once again wins for the first dozen or so issues.

Actually I pretty much prefer only the Sal-drawn issues, especially if Englehart, Wein or Gerber are at the writing helm. They were great at crafting the weird dynamics we came to love so much. After that, it was just another team to me.

I do wish Hawkeye would have stayed a bit longer, even a longer YellowJacket stint would have been super. Having some not-so-active Avengers on the 'non-team' was always fun.

Comicsfan said...

The only problem I had with Wein on the book, david, is that he tended to formalize the concept of the Defenders as a bona fide team. When Nighthawk would make such remarks, that was one thing, since making the Defenders a team (complete with headquarters and meeting table) was something he always wanted; but having Dr. Strange chastise the Valkyrie when she pulled her sword on mesmerized townsfolk by saying how "a true Defender may never raise arms against the innocent" made me want to crumple my issue. Mantlo would also do the same to an extent, when Bruce Banner was in control of the Hulk and Strange wondered if Banner would still remain "a Defender." I'm surprised we didn't start seeing Defenders I.D. cards.

Anonymous said...

The rampaging Hulk is just a big ol' green Care Bear, wanting to wake up Subby just so he could tell him "hi". Shucks!
On another note, what made the Defenders cool was indeed their non-team status, and you just never knew who was going to show up and hang with the team for an issue or three. The illustrious ranks of these guest-stars included Yellowjacket, Ben Grimm, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Son of Satan, Clea, Luke Cage, the Red Guardian, Moonknight, and Howard the Duck! (yes, it's true)
And let's not forget Dollar Bill!

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