Monday, November 7, 2016

Who Remembers Scorpio?

There seems to be little argument that the three-part 1977 story from The Defenders, "Who Remembers Scorpio?", is a fan favorite, spotlighting as it does this arachnid member of Zodiac and the exploration of his character in depth by writer David Kraft. Scorpio--whose identity is again that of Jake Fury, the brother of the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury--is a mixture of introspection and cynicism, critical of the world's social ills and pressures and mired in depression over his solitude. Yet he has the Zodiac key, as well as the means to alleviate his loneliness--while his ruthlessness and resources drive him to sweep aside the societal constraints that he regards as dangerous and self-defeating and establish his own supremacy.

In this tale, Kraft writes Scorpio as if the character were delivering the lines in a one-man show, with the Defenders waiting in the wings while he moves ahead with his plans. His headquarters, a building in Belleville, New Jersey, almost comes across as a carefully lit set, with its dimness and many shadows only sparsely broken up by pieces of equipment and recessed lighting. One could easily make the case that the environment matches his contemplative mood; yet it's that mood that drives him to act to alleviate his state of frustration, and he is no less the "super-villain" because of it. There are many villains who wish to alter their circumstances through the use of force--people such as Magneto, or Doom, or Loki--but instead of using their broad brush, Scorpio seeks to strike back at the core of society, rejecting its dictates while becoming his own ideal. To do that, he'll need some sort of positive reinforcement in place that provides him with affirmation and support, which will come to him from two sources--each of which will be something of a surprise in terms of what form they take. (And as the story's events fall into place, we'll see just how literal that description should be regarded.)

In a prior issue, a prelude to Scorpio's involvement with the Defenders (as well as the introduction to this arc's title) has already taken place, when he made an incursion at the heroes' riding academy H.Q. in an apparent effort to kidnap Kyle Richmond. When his plan failed, he was forced to adopt a contingency plan and set his sights on Jack Norriss, who had been married to the Valkyrie's human host, Barbara, and who has remained in the Defenders' orbit only to be frustrated by his inability to reach Barbara on any level. Norriss has consequently become embedded with the Defenders to a certain extent, and his activities in a recent power play by the Headmen have brought him to the attention of SHIELD, interrogated but subsequently released by Fury.

But Norriss soon found that Fury was after him again, and this time he wasn't asking for Norriss' cooperation. Yet Fury's heavy-handed treatment of Norriss draws the attention of the adventurer known as Moon Night, who manages to drive off Fury and his agents and then informally becomes Norriss' protector in order to get to the bottom of the mystery.

(Selected scenes from issue #47)

It's a splendid introduction of Moon Knight to the book--and there's no denying the impact he makes on the story, since taking on Fury and his agents is nothing short of impressive, buoyed by the fact that Moon Knight operates on the strength of his convictions and his loyalties are to whomever he's trying to help. After an altercation between the Defenders and Wonder Man, one of the Avengers, it comes as something of a surprise when Fury changes his approach vis-à-vis Norriss, deciding to substitute diplomacy for the use of force.

Norriss' instinct proves to be correct, since the Defenders are convinced that Fury wouldn't circumvent the law and that no harm will come to Norriss.

Unfortunately, in the opening of Kraft's follow-up story that will bring Scorpio's plans front and center, we're not so sure anymore that the Defenders made the right call--and even less sure of Fury's good intentions.

You might want to pop open a Schlitz and relax while you can--Scorpio's melancholy won't last.

Speaking of the very recognizable brand of beer that Scorpio likes to stock, Kraft makes the canned beverage prevalent throughout this story, beginning with its splash page and even continuing through the story's climactic battle. In a way, the brew's unfortunate history almost seems a metaphor for Scorpio's state of mind and how his life had spiralled down--deviating so tellingly from that of his brother, whom he grew to resent and then hate.

In the early '70s, Schlitz had changed its formula in order to trim the cost of production while keeping up with larger demand, yet the move resulted in a one-two punch from which the Schlitz company never recovered--a less flavorful beer, and one that spoiled more quickly than the original. That led to declining sales, which fell further in 1976 when a new agent was introduced to the beer in order to skirt around the requirements of the FDA to disclose the beer's ingredients (and thereby blow the lid, so to speak, on the artificial additive that was part of the new formula); but the agent reacted badly with the beer's foam stabilizer, forcing the recall of 10 million bottles of beer at a hefty financial loss. By mid-1977, when this Defenders story was published, Schlitz was in decline--and a disastrous ad campaign backfired and put another nail in the company's coffin. Finally, in 1981, following a strike of 700 production workers, the company was sold to Stroh Brewery in Detroit; yet the Schlitz brand didn't recover until its sale in 1999 to Pabst, which returned the beer to its original formula.

As we find Scorpio, he obviously remains a loyal Schlitz customer (with the same perhaps holding true for Kraft as well, given the generous product placement the brand enjoys here)--but his patronage at this point comes too little too late, since the beer is approaching its twilight and is only a shadow of its former high-selling brew. The comparison with Scorpio's own state seems apt. As Scorpio notes, he's 52 years of age, and is quite sensitive on the subject--and in a marvelous introductory sequence, he reflects on the years that he's failed to step up and take the reins of his own life.

And so Fury goes to retrieve Norriss, this time with no resistance from any quarter--but Norriss is outraged to find that Fury has turned him over to Scorpio's custody. And the Defenders learn soon enough that Scorpio's ransom plan has finally succeeded--only with a different hostage now depending on their cooperation.

It's not clear why either the Valkyrie or Richmond wish to come to Norriss' aid, albeit for different reasons. The Valkyrie is furious that Norriss has been put in harm's way, though mostly because Scorpio has gotten the better of the Defenders; otherwise, we'd have to believe that she is overly concerned about Norriss, even though she's proven that she has none of the feelings toward him that Barbara would have. As for Richmond, he considers Norriss a thorn in not only his side, but in the team's, and really wants nothing to do with the man. He's already paid Norriss $300,000 to clear out--now he's willing to pay a half-million in ransom for him? Somehow along the way, we've missed the part where Norriss has become important to these people, because he continues to be written as an outsider who keeps showing up in spite of himself.

In New Jersey, Norriss realizes that Fury has screwed him over. What's clear to no one, including the reader at this point, is why. Is Fury undercover for some reason, playing along with his brother? And why is he so subservient to Scorpio? It seems apparent that Norriss figures into all this because of the money he'll bring in--but does Scorpio seem the type to risk a conflict with the Defenders just for a case of money? For some of the answers, Kraft provides another series of pages--and a few more beers--to get us to the heart of it all.

Not another alliance with the Zodiac cartel, but a completely new assemblage of Zodiac "life forms" created in a hidden lab. If Fury is deceiving Scorpio, now might be a good time for him to blow his cover and make his move--but he's doing neither, is he?

One hero who does make his move is Moon Knight, who isn't so complacent as the Defenders and has his own resources to track Norriss. Unfortunately, Scorpio has prepared his hideout for intruders, and Moon Knight falls into a tank that doubles as a death trap--but a trap where the victim is served (you guessed it) a going-away beer.

The calm mood of normalcy that Scorpio seeks to pivot to directly after condemning Moon Knight to death is handled nicely by Kraft in the form of Norriss' reaction, who is coaxed to retire for the night even as a man is dying in another chamber--while the demeanor of Fury is equally shocking, displaying not a hint of consternation or any indication that he's prepared to act. We have to assume that he's still just playing along, and that he's already planned for Moon Knight's escape; but Kraft continues to keep us as much in the dark as Scorpio's surroundings are.

At dawn, all three men are surprised to find that Moon Knight has indeed escaped his fate, leaving nothing behind but an empty beer can. Obviously he wasn't averse to washing down his troubles with even a Schlitz whose glory days were behind it; but curiously, there's no sign of him, and Scorpio has an appointment with Nighthawk to meet.

Once Nighthawk has delivered the ransom, he attacks, but falls victim to the power of the Zodiac key and is taken captive by Scorpio, who now has the cash that he needs to proceed with his plans--which we learn have to do with completing the Zodiac procedure. But with Moon Knight's escape, there is no time to make use of those funds--and the procedure must be moved up.

Elsewhere, however, we learn that Moon Knight has returned to the Defenders seeking reinforcements for returning to New Jersey in order to save Norriss, with MK under the impression that Scorpio has SHIELD in his pocket (and as things currently stand, we as readers are in no position to either confirm or deny that). The Valkyrie decides to enlist the Hulk to add to their forces; unfortunately, the Hulk has determined to set aside the day in Central Park to abstain from fighting and not be bothered by anyone, even his friends. And considering that time is of the essence, that simply won't do.

As comical as this scene is shaping up to be, it certainly lends credibility to the notion that heroes are often irresponsible with the powers they possess and perhaps need to be kept on a tight leash. It's hard to dispute that purposely antagonizing the Hulk and leading him through congested, populated areas of New York City in order to goad him to follow the Defenders to Scorpio's building falls into that category. Endangering hundreds of people in order to save two? It's also hard to fathom that this idea comes from the Valkyrie, who, if Steve Englehart or Roy Thomas were writing her, would balk at the notion of needing to go to such lengths to secure a man's aid to confront an enemy, especially with a "sister" at her side. Did it occur to her that she would have to battle the Hulk all the way to New Jersey, with possibly a lot of collateral damage left in their wake?

Regardless, it's a confrontation with the Defenders that Scorpio has been trying to avoid all along, preferring a quick, behind-the-scenes influx of cash that would allow him to complete work on the Zodiac project. But time has run out, and his efforts will likely be compromised. But with Scorpio's frantic preparations to receive the enemy, crucial information is divulged that finally gives us insight on the odd behavior of "Nick Fury."

It almost seems surprising that Scorpio finds even an artificial Nick Fury intolerable, even when the L.M.D. has supported him in every way--most importantly in its reinforcement of Scorpio's reasoning and opinions, which appears to be something that Scorpio has always sought from his brother. The other aspect to this "effigy" that Scorpio no doubt appreciates is that he and his brother are on more equal ground, with Fury no longer the more respected, more accomplished, more dynamic of the two; indeed, Fury as a rule (and maybe it is a rule) defers to Scorpio and gives him his complete loyalty. Though the fact that this Fury isn't the real McCoy has obviously gnawed at Scorpio all along.

The source of Scorpio's alarm can be found moments earlier outside and approaching Scorpio's building, where Moon Knight and the others have met with success leading the Hulk on a merry chase to Scorpio (with hopefully no fatalities along the way), with MK knowing precisely the path of least resistance to the heart of Scorpio's lair. But Scorpio is now joined by the Zodiac, free of their lab pods and at his side for the conflict that's now imminent--and Jack Norriss is probably finding that sticking around with the Defenders probably wasn't such a good idea after all.

The knock-down drag-out between Zodiac and the Defenders!
(But somebody's coming up short!)

From the issue's letters page, a diagram of the Hulk's angry pursuit course!

The Defenders #s 48-49

Script: David Kraft
Pencils: Keith Giffen
Inks: Dan Green and Mike Royer
Letters: Annette Kawecki, Irv Watanabe and Mike Royer


Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful review of what might be my favorite story arc in a comic, C.F., and I think you touched on all the elements that make it so great--the pathos of a lost, broken, and angry man, the action and suspense, and the wildly funny humor, supplied mostly at the Hulk's expense. Or Moon Knight's quips. (He wasn't exactly crazy about the idea of baiting 'ol Greenskin.) The Valkrie and Hellcat are handled wonderfully as well.
The map of the Hulk's path of destruction alone is worth the price of a comic, and it would have been helpful if Marvel had supplied these more often.
Not being a psychologist, it would be difficult for me to describe Scorpio's character, but somehow it rang true to me even at a young age, because I had already witnessed grown men who shared some of these traits, like rage, paranoia, and delusion, or even a twisted sort of idealism. I had issues #50 and #51, and when I got older I hunted down the rest, heck, pretty much every issue of the Defenders I could get my shaking, grubby little hands on.
I love Giffen and Royer on this. For some reason I thought it was Janson who did the inks, but I think he came later. This made me a Giffen fan for life.
Just a great post. Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

So how did Moon Knight escape his watery doom? Don't tell me there was enough oxygen in an empty can of Schlitz.


Comicsfan said...

M.P., thanks for the very kind words--Jake Fury's facets were a pleasure to explore in depth, as many others have. The story of Scorpio is a very off-beat tale, and well-suited to The Defenders.

Gaz, you're on the right track, though there's a little more to it--stay tuned!

johnlindwall said...

This was a huge favorite of mine as a lad! I never read this part of the story though -- I jumped on with the subsequent issue which blew my mind! I know that I did not understand everything that was going on, but I did not care. I loved the art (Giffen channelling Kirby!) and the tortured character of Scorpio.

Anonymous: The inks from the Moon Knight vs "Nick Fury" panels shown above MUST be Janssen! I assume he did part of the inking and Royer did the rest?

Comicsfan said...

John, that's indeed Klaus Janson handling the inks on the "recap" panels that show Norris and Moon Knight giving the SHIELD agents a run for their money. It's the reason I wanted to distinguish those panels as being from issue #47--the issue just before "Who Remembers Scorpio" begins in issue #48. Janson took a 3-issue breather to make way for Green and Royer (and of course Giffen inking his own work in #50), and then returned for #51.

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