Thursday, October 15, 2015

At Your Side Stands... the Valkyrie!

The fourth issue of The Defenders, published in early 1973, sported a dramatic cover which could only increase the excitement and buzz among readers of this new and very different team of heroes:

Yet, in accepting its newest member, the team was already showing signs of why this concept of noted Marvel writer Roy Thomas might possess what's known in engineering circles as a "design flaw." Even putting aside for the moment the unlikelihood of Dr. Strange, the Sub-Mariner, and the Hulk regularly featured together in a monthly comic, look at a few of the other things working against it. Right off the bat, we can assume without even thinking about it too hard that Namor and the Hulk have other things to do and other places to be in their complicated and controversial lives--and there are only so many times that Strange can summon them to his side without the practice becoming a running joke, to say nothing of annoying to these two willful individuals who don't take kindly to being "summoned" even when the cause is just. There's also the fact that the Hulk is at odds with and hunted by the country's military forces, who aren't going to take kindly to their target being harbored; further, do we just put Bruce Banner's plight on hold while the Hulk is on loan to the Defenders?

And then there's Dr. Strange, whose vocation may on rare occasion intersect with the activities of Namor and the Hulk, but which otherwise places demands on this sorcerer that require him to proceed alone and interact with forces that are far beyond the ken of either of his two colleagues--even Namor, who has been known to grasp elements of Strange's world but whose sole resource of strength can be insufficient to or inappropriate for the task at hand.

And so now we add to this already odd mix a woman warrior--who brings a good right arm and super-strength to a group already bursting with super-strong individuals who, joined with Strange's mystic abilities, make "the Defenders" a nearly invincible match for any foes they encounter--barring some very creative writing that in some way hampers the power they bring to the table (another device that threatens to become tired with overuse). At the time the Valkyrie invites herself to join this group, Strange himself puts the matter bluntly:

Yet the Valkyrie's debut is nevertheless exciting, or at least intriguing enough to table the practical concerns of the makeup or longevity of the Defenders--particularly since we've met her before. And she arrives in the nick of time, too, since it looks like the Defenders are splintering at the seams and might be in need of new blood soon.

Returning from another dimension during an attempt to free the Silver Surfer from the confines of Earth, the angry Hulk carries the body of Barbara Norris, a captive of the Nameless One who was forcibly freed from the demon's influence and who lost her sanity as a result. Tensions between the Hulk and Strange had already been building, given Strange's tendency to treat the more civilized Sub-Mariner with respect while virtually taking the Hulk's assistance for granted--and Strange's treatment of Barbara (though the effect on her being unexpected, and inadvertent) has finally snapped the last straw for the behemoth. When they appear outside of Garrett Castle, home of the Black Knight, the Hulk seeks sanctuary for her there--and he makes clear in no uncertain terms that he's not to be interfered with.

Within the castle, however, there is no sign of the Hulk, or of Barbara, or even the Knight--and as the castle's mystic brazier unexpectedly flares into life, Strange and Namor find themselves transported to another realm, to face a reception committee bent on their capture. Overwhelmed, and unceremoniously tossed into holding cells, they join Barbara, Bruce Banner, the Knight--and one other.

It turns out the Enchantress has conscripted the Knight to aid her in retrieving her companion in crime, the brutish Executioner, from the influence of this realm's mystic queen, Casiolena. The fact they they've also wound up in captivity gives you an idea of how successful they were in the attempt, though they knew the odds going in.

But with the arrival of the Defenders, they need not remain captives--because in their midst is a distaff prisoner, whose sex makes her perfectly suited for the Enchantress to effect their escape.

And liberate them all she does, by impressively crashing through their cell doors. One question you might be asking is:  What does the Enchantress need with Barbara Norris, when the Enchantress herself once took the form of the Valkyrie to lead the so-called Lady Liberators? If you read that prior story carefully, however, you'll notice that the Valkyrie never demonstrated super-strength (except in a flashback, as part of the false origin she created for herself for the benefit of those she was trying to deceive in order to gain their services)--and it stands to reason that the disguise of the Valkyrie was only a disguise,with no actual properties of the Valkyrie persona which the Enchantress mystically arranges to possess Barbara's body.

Following their escape, all hell breaks loose, as the Defenders, the Valkyrie, the Knight, and the Enchantress carve a swath through the Executioner's forces.

Spur to win or not, the story takes a few liberties as far as having the Defenders turn the tables and prevail here, given how quickly and easily almost all of these participants were taken captive. Before the Knight's arrival in this land, for instance, he made a point to bring his winged horse with him for the aerial advantage he'd have astride him, yet he inexplicably dismounts prior to engaging the Executioner's soldiers; here, however, he sticks to the air. The Hulk is also again present, even though he was transformed to Banner almost instantly upon arrival--while Namor is now suddenly a match for the forces against him, and Casiolena hangs back where before she took the initiative against the Enchantress.

As for the Executioner, he remains a formidable presence and begins to make headway against his opponents, dispatching the Defenders' two big guns with both his power axe and his strength. Yet once the Valkyrie gives them some breathing room, all three see to his undoing.

It's only with her forces depleted that Casiolena throws off her snobbery and decides to join the battle from her position on a castle parapet. The Valkyrie, again, demonstrates that she isn't lacking in initiative--but when in a position to end Casiolena's threat, she demonstrates a curious weakness, though it's one her mistress doesn't share.

The Enchantress then coaxes the Executioner back to her side, and the two depart--though not before treacherously transmuting the Knight into a lifeless state in which he'll remain for some time. Stunned, the Defenders make their own preparations for departure--though it seems their ranks will have increased by the time they arrive back in the States.

It's a fine start for this new character (and new Defender); yet, while in subsequent issues she begins on the path to establish some sort of life for herself, none of the others in the group ask the questions that might be important to address under the circumstances. Among them: Where do this woman's loyalties lie? If the Enchantress should reappear in their midst and direct the Valkyrie to attack and/or subdue them, why would she fail to heed her mistress? Also, do Strange and the others not bear some sort of responsibility for the fate of Barbara Norris? Perhaps more meaningful issues to approach the Valkyrie with than a shiny new Defenders membership card.

The Defenders #4

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


Anonymous said...

The "design flaw" of the Defenders was kind of addressed by calling them a non-team, wasn't it ? The idea of the totally unpredictable Hulk in particular being an official member of a team is ridiculous - that was quickly realised in the Avengers - so the "non-team" label is used to get around the unlikelihood of these characters actually being together. Anyway, I really liked Valkyrie - I've mentioned this before but it took a really long time for Val's face to appear in the corner box as if she wasn't really counted as part of the Defenders - Nighthawk's face replaced Namor's but poor old Val was ignored which was ironic as she considered herself equal to, or better than, the men.

david_b said...

One of my favorite issues, at one of my favorite Defender's phases.

I still have to pick up a Legends Val.., to complete my Defenders line (until Nighthawk finally gets made...).

Comicsfan said...

Colin, my impression of the "non-team" tag that was attached to the Defenders was that it was an informal one--i.e., not a label that one of its members or another character designated for it. (Though do correct me if I'm mistaken.) If memory serves, the description might have first come into use in a letters column, either from a writer or by an editor, and simply caught on from that point. Yet the "non-team" label has always met resistance by, of all people, the Defenders themselves--particularly Dr. Strange, who trumpeted the name "Defenders" at every opportunity ("Never, Magneto! Not so long as a Defender draws breath!"), as well as Nighthawk, who set up a Defenders H.Q. (complete with roundtable and chairs) at the riding academy he originally bought to stable Aragorn. (To say nothing of Angel, who provided them with a state-of-the-art facility at his aerie in Colorado.) The term "non-team" nevertheless stuck, but just didn't fly as long as the Defenders maintained its cohesion in one form or another.

Anonymous said...

I liked the Valkrie was portrayed in the Defenders, not as a battle-crazy warrior-goddess but, instead, a reserved, thoughtful person who had her own self-doubts due to her complicated genesis.
In fact I enjoyed how all the women of the Defenders, the Red Guardian, Hellcat, and sometimes Clea, were written, as having very distinct attitudes and personalities. I remember Hellcat used to get on Val's nerves once in a while! (not me, though!)
There was a great balancing act of personalities on that team, or non-team, which made it such a fun comic, and more than just a monthly slug-fest. I remember one issue in which the Hulk did nothing except eat a hot dog!