Thursday, December 27, 2012

Hail and Farewell

I think I've mentioned once or twice before how the original Defenders group could realistically have only a short shelf life--that it could only be a matter of time before these three individuals would have to part company and return to their very separate lives. With the informal addition of the Silver Surfer, any hope that they could make a lasting commitment to band together seemed to become even more unlikely.

Yet if there was ever any one issue of The Defenders which could convince me otherwise--that Dr. Strange, the Hulk, and the Sub-Mariner could indeed make a go of operating (if loosely) in common cause--it would surely have to be issue #3, the issue where Dr. Strange is convinced he can free the Surfer from the confines of Earth. The subject is broached after a battle where the Defenders have solved the mystery of how the Surfer was manipulated into abducting the Sub-Mariner in a scheme involving Necrodamus and the Undying Ones:

This one picture of the original Defenders seems as natural as any team formation I've seen in comics. Yet I'd stop far short of formalizing their association as a "team"; if we must put a word to their gathering, perhaps "comrades" would be more descriptive of their decision to band together. No aversion to working together when the situation warrants a joining of forces--yet no wish to make a commitment beyond the immediate need. If a series could be built on that premise, it would surely have to be a limited one.

That said, writer Steve Englehart makes a remarkable effort in these initial issues, though even that exhausts itself during his tenure on the book. That's why the first three issues of The Defenders not only stand out from the entire series, but also stand alongside the ranks of Marvel's other titles in the early 1970s that are giving the company its second wind. And from what Englehart presents us with in these early Defenders stories, we had every indication that this new series would be something unique and memorable.

And when I use the word "unique," I'm not just referring to the team make-up itself. Like the Avengers, the Defenders consist of strong-minded individuals; but unlike their predecessors, the Defenders really have nothing formal binding them together and acting as a tether in terms of their responsibilities. It's their character that must resolve their differences, if only in the short term. That proved impossible for the Hulk when he was with the Avengers--yet look at how an almost identical scenario, again involving an angry departure from a group he feels has wronged him, is handled by the use of sincerity rather than belligerence:

The difference of course is that here, the Hulk doesn't possess the acerbic personality he had in his time with the Avengers. Though a creature of rage, his mood in the Defenders was the result of circumstances around him, rather than an actively aggressive posture.

Englehart also provides other nice touches before the focus of the story begins. For instance, the Sub-Mariner, whose personality and character must compensate in a book like this which already has a powerhouse in the Hulk, has a completely unexpected moment where he indulges in the source of his power:

It's a splendid personal moment for Namor in such company, as well as a way to build anticipation for what must surely be a carrot on a stick to Silver Surfer fans: a way to bypass the barrier of Galactus and free him to travel space once more. And Dr. Strange fills us in on the details:

But what fun would that be? We have here four of the most powerful beings in the world, and we're going to spend an entire issue navigating past a barrier? Yet one thing Strange hasn't considered is their proximity to the site of their recent battle with followers of a dimensional entity three of these four men have had prior dealings with, which influences Strange's spell and brings the group instead to the dimension of:

Strange and his group also find that Barbara Norris, the girl Strange was forced to leave behind when he escaped this dimension in a prior story, has in effect mated with the Nameless One and now is a third head on this formerly two-headed entity.

So the Defenders have their work cut out for them. And while Englehart gives each member his moment to shine, as well as effectively having them work as a team, we begin to see why the options for these characters grouped together in a series of their own are somewhat limited. First let's take a look at the Surfer:

Well he can't keep doing that, can he? This book isn't called "The Herald of Galactus," after all.  But there are only so many times you can find ways to hamstring the Surfer's power before it starts to get old--and, indeed, what you've just seen is all you're really going to see of the Surfer's power against the Nameless One for this issue. While the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk, taking the battle to the creature with lots of punches and other displays of strength, demonstrate how redundant their abilities are going to be alongside each other in this battle as well as others yet to come:

The battle concludes when Dr. Strange and the Surfer fashion mystic/cosmic snares to snag the demon in one of its own traps, so that the group can escape. But Strange feels a responsibility to free Barbara from the Nameless One's influence, and in a twist to the story makes an error in judgment:

Yet as low a point as has been reached here, and as veered-off as this story has become from its original intent, "Four Against The Gods" (well, maybe one god this time) has probably shown us the one way "The Defenders" as a concept can succeed--by mixing things up as much as the book can get away with reasonably, and not giving these characters a chance to really dwell on their status as a group. And such distractions can work, as we've seen here.

But let's at least resolve one thing here--the Surfer's imminent freedom. You're probably thinking that, since this conflict with the Nameless One has left the tone of the story in a very depressed state, having it end on an upbeat note would just be wrong for the story as well as render the situation with Barbara meaningless. So when the Surfer's "sense of space" tells them that they've passed beyond the barrier of Galactus, and Strange returns them to their own dimension, things go from bad to worse:

I'd probably argue that appearing in a meadow is much more preferable than materializing in space and, well, dying in the void--but I don't think this group is very receptive right now. Suffice to say that things are at a low point, and it makes an excellent ending:

And look at what's happened from the reader's perspective. Not only do we want to pick up the next issue--not only do we want to see further interaction with these characters--but we're starting to think that maybe this grouping has lasting potential. The story does everything we want it to, having just the right mix of action and characterization to ignite interest and cement the launch of this title.

Yet it makes one glaring stumble--with that last panel, it assigns Dr. Strange as the group's "leader," just by having him muse to that effect. Mind you, no one asked or otherwise chose Strange to lead--no one had the slightest impression that he led this group or called the shots. In fact, almost every step of the way, Strange included everyone--even the Hulk--in the decision-making process. Strange's power may have taken the group to another dimension, and he may have suggested a course of action in regard to the Surfer--but that's a big leap to seeing any other person in this group following the orders of Strange at this early stage, Sorcerer Supreme or not. If we're going to go down that road, Namor would arguably be as effective in that role as Strange. By having Strange designate himself the leader--in a thought balloon, no less--"the Defenders" is formalized as a bona fide super-group, to readers if not to its contingent.

In other words, no longer do we have a loose-knit grouping of fascinating characters operating in tandem with each other because circumstances warrant; instead, we have a reason for Dr. Strange to regard these men as de facto allies, with the grouping continuing to operate together in unspoken agreement. Strange has indeed "assumed too much," though it's not the assumption he thinks--and, whether a knee-jerk development by Englehart or not, it will eventually give the book the feel of these people banding together because they seemingly have nothing better to do. And that is simply an absurd presumption for any of these men--even the Hulk, whose persona of Bruce Banner and his pursuit by the military are conveniently suspended for the duration.

Thanks to these initial issues, though, the Hulk isn't on board this group yet, as the beginning of the next issue makes clear:

For a few more priceless pages, at least, we get a last look at the intangible quality that made The Defenders catch on with readers. Later, as super-villains pour out of the woodwork to challenge them, and as their "roster" changes, it becomes more difficult to distinguish the Defenders that appeared in issue #3 with such individuality and unpredictability. It took only a few more stories, though, before we were predicting the kind of scene that we'd see just eight issues later:

Practically the full complement of original Defenders, quickly swept out the door like the discarded concept the grouping had become.  Dr. Strange makes a remark in the last panel as to whether we'd ever see their like again; and though we didn't realize it fully at the time, in the last seven or eight issues we'd begun to feel that perhaps that moment had already passed.


Super-Duper ToyBox said...

the Defenders always get back together- that's part of the dynamic, along with their revolving membership and Dr. Strange's tenuous stature as the group's leader. I love that about this group! Great post, as always!

Comicsfan said...

You'd probably enjoy the Defenders: Indefensible series (also in TPB form). It features the original group, but with a much greater emphasis on humor. In fact, it certainly deserves a post of its own, which I may get around to one day. :)

Super-Duper ToyBox said...

Read that! And you are correct, I loved it! I also liked the Avengers-Defenders War, and pick up any stray/odd 70's/80's issues I find :)

Terence Stewart said...

While I am more partial to Steve Gerber's run on The Defenders, I recently read through Englehart and Wein's runs and found much to enjoy - except Englehart's over reliance on mysticism.
The concept of the non-team was always a difficult one, especially when it encompasses many characters that just weren't designed to be team members (I would say I was surprised that Spider-Man never got a shot at The Defenders during this period, considering his decidedly non-team standing),so I was pleased to see the gradual inclusion of characters that seemed more interested in being part of a group (Valkyrie and Nighthawk) to give the non-team some cohesion.
Considering it was a series that lasted 150 issues, I'm surprised that Marvel can't seem to make it work as a concept today. Ah well..
Good post!

Comicsfan said...

I don't know--"lasted" perhaps speaks more to the title itself than the book's content. The makeup of the Defenders has gone through innumerable turnovers, with not even a core membership taking firm root and lasting. Perhaps only the Fantastic Four can claim that type of description; and even the Avengers, having more membership turnovers than I can count, always seems to have Iron Man, Thor, and Cap at its core, either as active members or to revive the team when necessary. With the Defenders, only the Valkyrie seemed to be a constant presence, with Nighthawk and even the Hulk finally going their separate ways.

I think I did my final bit of eye-rolling with the Defenders with that silly two-issue membership brawl in #s 62-63. It almost seemed to be indulging in a parody of the state of the book itself. There were still some good stories ahead--but for me, the unique original concept of the Defenders had long since been lost. Or maybe "abandoned" would be a better word.

Terence Stewart said...

I kind of lost interest in The Defenders after Kraft, but I do remember that awful membership drive storyline. I started paying attention again with J. M. DeMatteis (if only for the string of excellent Michael Golden covers), but lost interest again because of the over-reliance on mysticism and the bland Don Perlin art. By the time they became a 'proper' team trying to ride on the coattails of Mutant Mania, I was gone.

Comicsfan said...

I have to agree that Perlin was a poor fit for the book. A decent artist, certainly, but he didn't really infuse the pages with any degree of excitement.