Wednesday, November 9, 2016

All Signs Point To... Death!

While the villain known as Scorpio prepares to unleash a new grouping of Zodiac to the world, the Defenders have moved to invade his New Jersey headquarters in an effort to save two of their own as well as put an end to his plans. But one angry Defender has been carefully (and, to say the least, recklessly) herded to arrive ahead of them--a behemoth who has clashed with Scorpio before, and who wishes to express very specific sentiments on how the score between them will be settled:

It's the bludgeoning, beer-popping conclusion to the classic 1977 tale featuring the Defenders vs. the new Zodiac--and just in time for the group's knockout fiftieth issue!

The Defenders face the power of the Zodiac key, plus 4 to 1 odds against them--or do they?

To size up this situation, Scorpio himself offers a formidable threat to the Defenders, holding the powerful Zodiac key that thwarted the group previously as well as helping him capture one of their members, Nighthawk. But he's also recently completed a procedure that has created and activated artificial Life Model Decoy versions of the members of Zodiac, embodying the powers and traits of their namesakes. In fact, why don't we let them bring us up to speed on their identities and assets?

(Wait a minute--Aquarius is just a guy with a water tank and a dispenser? What kind of power is that?)

As this fight explodes, Scorpio himself has given us an idea of how the odds against the Defenders may not be as stacked as we were led to believe. Let's take another look at the numbers:

  • Three Zodiac members are unaccounted for;
  • Scorpio skips out on the fight to ascertain their whereabouts, using his power to transform to water (Aquarius can't be too happy about that);
  • Libra isn't even sure he wants to join this fight, while Gemini is undecided on which side to throw in with;
  • Scorpio's exit also removes the power of the Zodiac key from play.

That leaves the Defenders with just six members of Zodiac to contend with--currently. It's too early in the game to place our bets--and as we'll see, the players will shift a bit more for both sides.

For instance, just because Gemini is deliberating... er, with himself, concerning which side to support, it doesn't mean he won't defend himself if attacked, and he has a unique way of instantly outnumbering his opponent.

And what of "Nick Fury," whom we've recently discovered is another LMD that Scorpio (Jake Fury) has substituted for the brother he despises? It seems the only side that Fury is interested in joining is Scorpio's.

Artist Keith Giffen only had a brief stint on The Defenders, but his style has suited this story well, taking each of the Defenders and dealing them into this fight as equally as possible in terms of exposure. Obviously the Hulk has received the lion's share of Giffen's attention, perhaps intentionally (the consensus seems to be that the character is the book's moneymaker, which is hard to argue); but when Giffen has the team join ranks later, it changes the fight's tone and makes "the Defenders" seem to be as much a team as any, particularly with the character of Moon Knight giving such a good accounting of himself at their side. You may also notice that Giffen's work has strong intimations of Jack Kirby, though his own style is nicely blended in with Kirby's methods rather than being overwhelmed by them.

The Defenders seem to be turning the Hulk's rampage to their advantage, chaos which keeps the Zodiac crew from applying any sense of teamwork to their attack. It also doesn't hurt that Scorpio is M.I.A., or that Libra and now Aquarius are sitting out this fight. That leaves only Sagittarius, Leo, Aries, Cancer, and Taurus on their feet, with Gemini and Taurus about to be outmaneuvered and taken out, respectively. And with evening falling outside, one Defender in captivity will finally be able to help improve the odds for his teammates.

As for Scorpio, he's invested a great deal of effort in this project--seven years' worth--but as we've previously seen, this is far more than a project to him, having rejected all that society stands for and spending much of his adult life in lonely solitude while coming to harbor a deep hatred of his brother. To Scorpio, his creations represent more than fellow criminals; rather, as the captive Jack Norriss notes, to Scorpio the Zodiac are "some kinda substitute for a real human relationship." An assessment that Scorpio basically agrees with: "I can't relate to real people. I never learned how. So I've manufactured my own... they will understand me. They will see things my way. They will help me." But Scorpio has been forced to activate the Zodiac prematurely in order to deal with the attacking Defenders--and in his fragile mental state, it's perhaps not surprising for him to leave the battle to the others and rush to the Zodiac chamber in order to assess the status of the missing members.  And one member, specifically--his primary concern appearing to be for Virgo, the female LMD that he's developed feelings for.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly under the circumstances, he finds disaster waiting for him, as seven years of hope seem to evaporate in an instant.

The fact that Scorpio invests such feelings of profound loss in artificial, lifeless creations speaks volumes as to his mental state, yet he says it himself: "Why is it that whenever I really care about something and really want it to succeed--it always fails, instead?" To Scorpio, this was his last such attempt--and it remains to be seen if his long struggle ends here in despair, or returning to the battle in a fit of vengeance.

Meanwhile, Giffen and writer David Kraft pivot the story back to the raging battle, as Nighthawk returns just in time for an impressive pin-up of this non-team's current line-up.

In response, the remaining Zodiac members switch foes, with Cancer pitting his armored suit and weaponry against the Hulk, Sagittarius taking Leo's place with the Valkyrie, and Leo going claw-to-claw with Hellcat, who finds herself unprepared for Leo's ferocity and becomes seriously injured by his slashing claws while trying to match him--a welcome twist by Kraft that keeps this battle from becoming too dependent on wisecracks. But Gemini, who finally reaches self-consensus and decides to throw his support to the Defenders (apparently he's become a fan), is in a position to help her--and his decision makes it possible for Libra and Aquarius to finally abandon the battle altogether.

Thanks to the Valkyrie's fighting spirit, Sagittarius also decides to bail--but as the Defenders mop up, both Taurus and Cancer are going to have to take their lumps, with the coup de grĂ¢ce reserved for the hapless Taurus.

It may seem unfortunate that Scorpio has been so neglected for most of this battle--but it's his more personal struggle that's proven more of a contribution to the overall story, and that struggle is nearly over as he sees his plans and his dreams crumbling around him. Earlier, the Fury LMD guessed correctly that Scorpio would need him--as it turns out, to bear witness to Scorpio's sense of resignation as well as his acknowledgment of the hopelessness of his future.

Kraft has placed noticeable emphasis on Scorpio's repeated mention of his age throughout this story, apparently to underscore Scorpio's belief that he would have nothing to live for if he didn't succeed with the Zodiac. For those of us in our 50s and 60s (and beyond), Scorpio's cut-off point would in the eyes of many be seen as premature and ill-considered as far as what life has to offer during those years. Yet, mired in his perceived inadequacies as well as the shadow of his brother that has loomed over him for decades, combined with the character's irrational outlook and behavior, it's not difficult to accept the picture that Kraft presents of Jake Fury here, who finally reaches the culmination of his character following his first appearance (if not by name) ten years ago to the month.

Jake Fury's story would continue in another ten years, when it's revealed in a tale in West Coast Avengers that his life force, linked to the Zodiac key, survived his suicide attempt and was placed by the key in a Scorpio LMD. (And likely the first LMD to have a fondness for Judy Garland.)

Just how did Moon Knight escape from Scorpio's death trap?

The Defenders #50

Script: David Kraft
Pencils and Inks: Keith Giffen
Letterer: John Costanza


Anonymous said...

I...I just have nothing further to add, C.F.
I think you covered just about everything.
I will raise a can of beer (not Schlitz, that beer is terrible) to this post.

Comicsfan said...

Thanks, M.P.--like Norriss, I hope you got the cold one!

Gordon Turner said...

Great post! I am looking forward to seeing how Moon Knight escaped Bloefeld-err-Scorpio's watery death trap. Also, I am not that familiar with Geffen's work-did he become less Kirbyish in his later career?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, actually it did, Gordon. He went through a few different "phases", I guess you could say. A lot of it depended on who was inking him, but check out his work at D.C., Legion of Superheros and Justice League.
I kinda like his "Kirby period" stuff from the '70's best, myself. There's a lot of humor in it, I think.

johnlindwall said...

This was my first Defenders issue! (I had mistakenly thought it was #49) and I just loved it (still do!). That pin-up double page splash is etched in my mind! I love how Hulk is saying "me no care about Defenders, just want to smash". Classic. What great battle issue! What a great comic!

I have read that Giffen regretted trying to imitate Kirby in those days and his style moved away from that approach. I can appreciate his wish to find his own unique style, HOWEVER I really love his look in this book! You can't go wrong using The King as inspiration!

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