Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Defenders No More!

During the first run of The Defenders, the original lineup of Dr. Strange, the Sub-Mariner, and the Hulk, as well as the Silver Surfer (who some still tenaciously claim was one of the original members) would depart the book twice. The reasons for their doing so were twofold, and turned out to be the same in each case. In the first instance, occurring at the end of the Avengers-Defenders war at the end of 1973, Strange would stay on while the Hulk, the Surfer, and Namor followed Hawkeye out the door--Hawkeye, to continue pursuing a solo career, while the others resumed their own affairs. I didn't know the Hulk had affairs to resume--maybe he just liked his alone time in the wide open spaces more than cooling his heels in Strange's sanctum. But being the book's only reliable moneymaker, the character would return immediately in the next issue, though Strange would finally making his own departure in 1977.

But there were shifting lineups behind the scenes, as well, with Len Wein taking the writing reins from Steve Englehart. And in 1983, there were more assignments changing hands when the book was taken in an entirely new direction, with only one early-'70s Defender remaining to provide the team with a semblance of familiarity to readers.

The transition took the form of a hard sell that sought to introduce the "New Defenders" even before the new lineup had been formed. As Strange and the others were involved in their final adventure in these pages, their penultimate issue was practically sweeping them out the door while taking the opportunity to usher in the new Defenders-to-be in a flagrant promotional appearance in the story's final panel.

And for good measure, the issue's letters page featured only two letters (and a house ad) which competed for space with a flurry of F.Y.I. information blurbs that announced... well, what didn't they announce?

That leaves us with the reasons why the Defenders themselves wish to shake up their lineup in '83, ten years after they first did so. It's been touched on previously that the Beast wanted to formalize the Defenders as a team and eject the "non-team" designation, which explains why he's brought the Angel and the Iceman into the fold--while Moondragon's appearance follows up on her power play from a previous Avengers story. But why have Strange and the others decided to turn in their non-membership cards?

From what we've seen so far, it appears that the answer has something to do with the infamous "Elf with a gun," an inexplicable assassin created by writer Steve Gerber who was injected into Defenders stories in the mid-'70s and began targeting and taking out random innocents in carefully planned kills with a revolver--the character's purpose, until Gerber decided to give us more. With Gerber's departure from the book, we never did find out who or what was behind the Elf's random shootings, if anyone. But when the mysterious Tribunal begins its activities in the book, we're finally presented with an explanation--one which will include the death of the human race, the end of the world, and a fateful decision by the Defenders.

While the dust is still settling from the shifting of editors and the new format of the book being put into place, writer J.M. DeMatteis turns in excellent work on this tale, considering all the plates he must keep spinning as well as the loose ends he must tie up by the time the book is handed off to the new team. One of those loose ends, as we've so startlingly seen, is the woman named Luann Bloom, who was retained as a nurse for the paralyzed Kyle Richmond (a/k/a Nighthawk) and who later fell in love with him. At this point in time, Richmond was deceased; and while attempting to investigate his death, she fell prey to her own armed elf, who brought her to face the Tribunal--"face" being the operative word here.

Luann, it turns out, was one of the methods the Tribunal used to gather intel on the Defenders. For what purpose, we've yet to discover; but once Luann has relayed her recorded information, it soon becomes clear to the Tribunal that this construct has developed a malfunction, since, for Luann, the alternative is too horrifying to accept.

As for the Defenders, they, too, become "victims" of an elf, who takes them on a journey through time to the 24th century and presents them with not only a devastated planet Earth, but also makes a shocking accusation naming those who are responsible for its destruction.

And so, the Defenders at last face those who have so diligently and methodically infiltrated their affairs, having been directly responsible for a number of developments we've seen in the book for the past few years. It's only now that we as well as the Defenders will learn the full extent of the Tribunal's involvement; for now, however, the Defenders, having witnessed a dead and barren Earth, and having been accused of causing it, are only interested in immediate answers, and pay the price for their perceived impertinence.

With the Defenders properly disciplined, the Tribunal begin to explain in detail not only their form and purpose, but also the answer to the longstanding mystery of Gerber's elf, a character that Defenders writers Roger Slifer and David Kraft had finally put to rest by having him run down by a truck (the same issue where Dr. Strange leaves the team). The Elf--one of many "agents" specifically bred for time travel--played an important role for the Tribunal in locating the focal point in Earth's history that would indicate the cause of the planetary cataclysm. The elf-agents were not entirely successful--but for the Tribunal's purposes, they were successful enough to bring the activities of the Defenders under their scrutiny.

With only the repeated insinuation that the Defenders are to blame for Earth's fate, and with nothing yet offered in the way of proof, Namor once again grows impatient with these proceedings and lashes out at the Tribunal, only to be viciously cut down in response. (Currently, Bruce Banner's more level-headed mind is in control of the Hulk--so among this group of Defenders, Namor is really the only one present to act so impulsively.)

With the chamber once more silent, the Tribunal continue, further detailing their involvement in past situations where the Defenders played a part in one form or another. For instance, they had once posed as government agents and strung along the so-called Mutant Force--all the while tapping the psychic impressions and karmic imprints from their subjects which would provide further proof of the Defenders being the cause of the disaster. And there was, of course, Luann, the perfect mole, whose proximity to the Defenders yielded valuable data. Even now, "Luann" continues to be convinced of her status as a human--but now we learn the cause of her "malfunction."

Finally, the moment comes when the Defenders become insistent on cutting to the chase and hearing the Tribunal's evidence against them--a point well raised. The things that DeMatteis has so meticulously unearthed and revealed were necessary to set the stage--but with the Tribunal's goal and methods now "on the record," as it were, it only remains to formally implicate the Defenders for their part in what's to come.

The revelation begins with an event dated October, 1983 (which happens to be when this particular issue is dated), as we find Strange tracking the arrival of an alien vessel, which at first glance appears to have a nefarious purpose.

Using mystic means to translate the aliens' language, Strange learns that the vessel is under repair, and that their leader--Prince Ch'Kra--has fallen prey to an Earth disease, which can only be treated by tapping into the bio-energies of the captive humans. Strange concludes that these aliens are desperate, not evil, and decides to approach them and offer his assistance in exchange for releasing the captives. Instead, the aliens, who have fled their world along with their prince, fear that Strange may be an agent of their empire (which they appear to be fleeing from), and incapacitate him. Afterward, they connect Strange to their machinery and add his energies to the process that's sustaining their prince--quickly followed by their immediate lift-off, in case their empire has already tracked them to this world.

Fortunately, Strange has released his astral self to summon the Hulk, Namor, and the Surfer for assistance, explaining to them the aliens' situation and stressing the need to bring them down uninjured. Once the three have succeeded in disabling the craft and boarding it, however, they are shocked to find that their efforts to offer their help have instead been met with a shocking response.

It's here that Banner questions the evidence that they're being presented with--not only noting the lack of proof itself, but also raising the point that the images being displayed could have been doctored. It's a fair point; the Tribunal stated that their "eternity-mirror" displays "a psycho-historical re-creation of events, based upon the masses of information this Tribunal compiled." In layman's terms, however, that boils down to what for us would amount to a computer fabrication of events, based on data that has been compiled by determinations based on probability and circumstance.  And while the principles of an "eternity-mirror" are obviously going to operate quite differently, it still amounts to a case that's built on circumstantial evidence, at least thus far. This Tribunal has presented no witnesses--and how would that work, anyway? Would they be retrieved through time? So far, the only witnesses have killed themselves (again, presumably, since there are only the "facts" of the eternity-mirror to go by).

In response, the Tribunal invite Strange to use the most reliable means at his disposal to ascertain the truth.*

*The skeptic in me would say that Strange has played into the Tribunal's hands. Strange is now satisfied that the Tribunal are providing the Defenders with the truth--that is, what the Tribunal believes to be the truth.  Those are two separate things.

But the questions remain. Why did the aliens kill themselves? And what has this incident to do with the fate of the human race? How does the entire matter implicate the Defenders?

For the answers, we have to know the whole story behind Prince Ch'Kra, who was part of a warrior race known as the Kamado--"near-immortal warriors, conquerors of two dozen star systems... feared and respected by untold billions." Bad asses of the highest order, in other words. The Kamado are ruled by Ch'Kri, whose son (you guessed it--Ch'Kra) was groomed to be Ch'Kri's heir but who rejected the ways of war and embraced higher ideals. In time, Ch'Kra amassed a large group of like-minded followers, dissidents who were eventually executed without mercy--and those who escaped execution fled from their world with Ch'Kra, hunted by the king's forces for 500 years.

Eventually, word reaches Ch'Kri of his son's death on Earth--and the fate of the human race is sealed.

The Defenders are understandably horrified at their role in these events--but it's only when they offer to make reparations that they discover the ramifications to themselves... the decision they would be forced to make for the good of the entire world.

Normally, the decision to never again act as "Defenders" would carry little weight as far as voting in its favor, since the Defenders are made up of individuals who band together in common cause at irregular intervals, with no ties or obligations to be on call as "members." But the implication seems clear enough: these four specific individuals can never again come together, period. The loophole here, of course, is that two or three of them could band together--and if the time ever came when the Surfer escaped Earth, the problem is effectively solved for good.

Or the Tribunal could just banish the Kamado homeworld to another dimension, and that would be that. After all, if the Tribunal's goal is to eradicate the disease--in this case, the cause of the destruction of Earth--they should go to the source. (Strange could also take the same approach, if the Tribunal aren't so inclined.)

But since there's a new, formal team of Defenders waiting in the wings, and dollar signs are dancing in the eyes of Editor Carl Potts, there can only be one end result for this otherwise nicely crafted story.

If you look at this situation in a more positive light, "the Defenders" would go on--albeit for a limited period of just over two years, when both the team and the book meet a rather dismal end. Fortunately, in a story in Incredible Hulk from mid-1990, when the need for a story device like the Tribunal had become moot, writer Peter David disposes of their intervention with just a few succinct words--thanks to Dr. Strange, who apparently didn't put much stock in the Eye of Agamotto's assessment of the Tribunal.

Or, to again put it in layman's terms: Nuts to you, Tribunal!

An encore for our elf, who hosts two of this story's splash pages.

By the way, about that house ad:

Can anyone shed any light on this?
As far as I can tell, nothing weird happened on any of Marvel's '83 June-Dec. covers.

(Maybe that wand backfired?)


dbutler16 said...

In the 70's, The Defenders was about the only team book I didn't buy regularly, for some reason even I can't now divine. I didn't become a regular follower until the team had the Beast, Angel, and Iceman. Three ex-X-Men? How could I not buy that? I have to say, the reasoning for the original Defenders' breakup seems pretty weak and specious to me.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I was scratching my head the first time I read this story. I thought the mysterious Tribunal had some possibilities at first, and it was interesting to see the Elf again, (or his brother since the original Elf got flattened my a moving van back in the '70's.)
But I don't see why they had to have an explanation as to why the original Defenders line-up wasn't getting back together. They were a pretty unstable group to begin with it, and it would have been easy to just say they didn't wanna hang out together anymore. The Hulk was maybe hard on the Sanctum Sanctorum's plumbing, Namor isn't a team player, the Surfer is fed up, something like that, instead of this weird explanation.
Years later, Peter David had Doc Strange saying it all was a cosmic hoax anyway.
I and I think I rather preferred not knowing who the Elf was anyway. Leave a good mystery alone!


Erik J Kreffel said...

Maybe the change from Newsstand distribution to Direct Market (Diamond) is what the house ad is alluding to.

Comicsfan said...

M.P., perhaps DeMatteis was trying to set in stone for future writers that The New Defenders was going to stand on its own without any guest appearances by the originals. Given the book's eventual demise, apparently he needn't have bothered; and as you can see above, Peter David worked around it easily enough. :)

Jared said...

I like when you write about stories I haven't read or don't know very much about.

I think Marvel started a push in the 80s to have as many heroes appearing every month as possible. The Avengers got a West Coast edition. And minor characters became the focus of the main team instead of Cap and Thor who had their own books. Alpha Flight got their own title. The X-Men started getting spinoffs.

I am wondering if the New Defenders was the start of this push to get as many heroes as possible on printed pages every month. Hulk and Strange had their own books, and they always seemed to be trying to drum up interest for ongoings for Namor and Silver Surfer. I feel like through the 80s Marvel wanted their team books to focus less on characters with solo titles.

Comicsfan said...

To add to that train of thought, Jared, I suppose there was a sort of quid pro quo in effect in respect to team books whose characters had their own titles (and vice versa), since each could plug the character's appearance in the other. The regrettable caveat to such an arrangement would be if the reader found that the character they were following up on was being written/handled very differently in the other title and not at all as they were expecting.