Monday, January 13, 2020

Havoc Is The Headmen!

OR: "I Think We're All Bozos In This Plot"
(with apologies to the Firesign Theatre)

When you form a villain group named the Headmen, there are probably a number of ways you could read into just why its members have settled on such a name for themselves. In the case of Arthur Nagan, Jerry Morgan, Ruby (Thursday), and Harvey Schlemerman (a.k.a. Chondu the Mystic), who made their first appearance in 1975* in an extended arc of The Defenders, the reason is rather apparent for each, though you'd have to dig beneath the surface to get a sense of what they've joined together to accomplish (with the exception of Chondu, who's clearly in it for the money).

*Not quite, but we'll get to that in due time.

Both Morgan and Ruby are following Nagan's lead in achieving their ends--as does Chondu, when he's brought aboard in part to facilitate a city-wide blackout, the effects of which drive many of its residents into a mad frenzy as a distraction which allows Nagan to plunder for funds. In this early stage of their formation, Nagan's focus is still limited to conducting his ghoulish experiments (which backfired on himself), though he's already thinking down the road in terms of long-term goals.

Eventually, we'll see how Chondu would become more of a "fit" for the Headmen beyond merely having a preference for wearing a stylish turban (in a development which, hoo boy, won't exactly thrill him).

Writer Steve Gerber's handling of the Headmen would take place over a span of eighteen months--inserting them here and there as, behind the scenes, they work toward world "conquest" in a way that would employ political and economic machinations rather than the use of outright force. Naturally, the Defenders will have a few other irons in the fire in the meantime; in fact, Gerber, in his own unique style that seems to thrive on the offbeat and outrageous, will have a number of plates spinning at once during this time, consisting of a jumble of different concepts that would look almost insane on paper--while artist Sal Buscema will benefit from a sundry mix of inkers assigned to the book for the duration, which will result in some of his finest work on the series.

Appropriately, the saga begins ominously when one Defender, Nighthawk, has a run-in with the startling form of Nagan during the blackout--and when the Hulk, as well, falls victim to the city-wide madness, the other Defenders sense a threat that is only now making itself known.

For Nighthawk in particular, the threat of the Headmen becomes clear on a personal level when he is ambushed ten issues later and awakens in Nagan's macabre lab, a room where experimental procedures involving the part of the body above the neck often end gruesomely for the patient. In Kyle Richmond's case, he becomes the victim of a mind transplant--his brain removed, and that of Chondu put in its place. Naturally, Kyle is more than a little curious about what fate is planned for his brain--a subject which, he discovers to his horror, hasn't been terribly given much thought.

Afterward, Chondu, now posing as Nighthawk, stumbles upon the Hulk, who then leads him to the sanctum of Dr. Strange, where he of course discovers that Nighthawk is associated with not only the mightiest mortal on the face of the Earth, but also two other powerful figures--one being this dimension's Sorcerer Supreme. After incapacitating the group (or so he believes), he then *ahem* heads back to the other Headmen to divulge his discovery, certain that the group will want to make use of the Defenders in their plans.

Unfortunately for Chondu, he has seriously underestimated Strange, who, with the others in tow, intercept him well before he can alert his criminal comrades--and in a mystic battle that follows, "Nighthawk" is captured and unmasked, leaving Strange and the others surprised to find it's their friend, Kyle, beneath Nighthawk's mask, and not an impostor. (And still with his full head of hair--not even a bandage to indicate that he's undergone a craniotomy. Nagan must be some surgeon, Mr. Buscema.) Following the group's return to Strange's sanctum to investigate this mystery further, Strange, with the help of Jack Norriss (the husband of the woman whose body now hosts the consciousness of the Valkyrie), helps to identify the man who has appropriated Nighthawk's body.

At first, everyone believes that Chondu has mystically taken control of Nighthawk's form; it's only when Strange makes contact with Kyle's disembodied thoughts do they realize that he's the victim of surgery, rather than sorcery.

Elsewhere, Dr. Morgan is introduced to the newest member of the Headmen--and to say that he's unnerved by the experience is something of an understatement.

Meanwhile, the Defenders close in on Nagan's suburban hideout--while, unknown to their foes, Strange has cast a spell to transfer Chondu's mental essence to an orphaned fawn which the Hulk has brought to the sanctum (what did I tell you about Gerber?) and replaced it with that of Jack Norriss, giving the impression to the Headmen that Chondu has succeeded in his ruse and is now delivering the group into their hands. Even so, Ruby is taking no chances with them, with "Chondu" as well falling victim to their trap.

Naturally, we have to assume that Ruby made sure that their ally wasn't caught in the brunt of the blast; and so Jack awakens to find the Defenders undergoing a strange procedure, the effects of which won't be immediately apparent to the reader--while Jack himself is in the unenviable position of having to pretend to be aware of everything that Chondu would be aware of regarding the Headmen and their plans, which he most definitely is not.

To his credit, however, Jack manages to take the heat off himself by manipulating the Headmen into reviewing their goals so that they're all on the same page at this stage of their association--a scene which not only provides Jack with much-needed information but also serves to bring the reader up to speed on these bizarre individuals.

Shortly afterward, the Defenders awaken. Like Morgan, we might be expecting them to be more compliant in some way; but on the contrary, they appear to have changed not at all, with the Hulk immediately lashing out at these enemies only to see Strange step in and take a less fatal but equally forthright approach to dealing with the Headmen. In the process, the Defenders are able to surprise their foes on two fronts, by (1) alarming them by making it clear that they're aware of what the Headmen have done to Nighthawk, and (2) continuing to withhold the fact that Chondu is no longer in command of Nighthawk's body.

But despite being thrown off guard, the villains are able to escape, leaving Gerber to introduce a separate yet interactive element into the continuing story of the Headmen in the form of Nebulon, the Celestial Man, who returns in the company of alien Ludberdites to take control of the Earth in a different way--intent on becoming mankind's savior with the use of a scam he terms "Celestial Mind Control" which dupes his followers into thinking that they could learn to use their own minds to mimic the very abilities that he makes use of. To that end, however, his pupils were compelled to admit "what a stinking mess you've made of everything so far--how stupidly you've arranged your lives--how little any of you know about anything!" Deeming them all "bozos," complete with being forced to don demeaning bozo masks, Gerber's completely off-the-wall tangent is in full swing.

Nebulon's movement is unknowingly in conflict with the agenda of the Headmen--but how to bring them all together? From here, things admittedly begin happening pell-mell:

  • Nebulon intercepts Nighthawk (with Kyle's brain in tow), as well as the fawn carrying Chondu's mental faculties;
  • The Defenders get wind of the CMC seminar hosted by "puny four-eyes," as the Hulk calls him (a mortal facade used by Nebulon), leading to hostilities and to Nebulon's unintentional escape (thanks to Chondu/the fawn tapping into Nebulon's own power, transporting the two of them to the Headmen);
  • The Headmen, to their shock, are made to realize by Chondu/the fawn not only what has happened to him, but also that they've unintentionally revealed their origins and strategy to someone else posing as Nighthawk (an impostor-impostor, as the story emphasizes to the by-this-point dizzied reader);
  • Nebulon abruptly departs the Headmen's midst, without delay;
  • Strange re-transfers Jack's mental essence back to his own body;
  • The Defenders welcome a new addition to their ranks--the Red Guardian, who, in her guise as world-renowned neuro-surgeon Dr. Tania Belinsky, arrives in response to Strange's petition to the State Department in order to restore Kyle's brain to his body (he even gets a proper bandage this time);
  • The Headmen turn their attention to Chondu, using an engram-transfer procedure to restore his thoughts and memories to his original body.

With all of Gerber's developments, however (and folks, the man's just getting started), it's apparently slipped his mind (heh, a pun which you'll get it in a moment) that there is no longer a brain in Chondu's body to transfer those engrams to (heaven only knows what Dr. Belinsky did with it after performing Kyle's operation). But hold that thought (jeez, another pun, somebody stop me!) for a moment--the answer is forthcoming, though a physical brain will be the least of Chondu's concerns given that Nagan has once more indulged in what appears to have become a sick hobby of his.

Leave it to Ruby to try to put a happy face on an otherwise ghastly situation.

Elsewhere, the Eel and the Porcupine have effectively become bozos in Nebulon's thrall, while the Plantman has rejected their course of action and instead abducted Kyle Richmond in order to demand a ransom of $10 million from Richmond Enterprises. In response, Jack makes a telephone plea to Luke Cage for assistance, who manages to drive off the Plantman--while Jack, Strange, and the Guardian learn of Chondu's attack on the Valkyrie and her subsequent disappearance. From there... jeez, where do I start? The Plantman decides to give the CMC a try, but is attacked by Nebulon; the Valkyrie ends up in a women's prison; Strange, the Guardian, and Power Man are attacked by the Eel and the Porcupine and awaken in a hostile dimension; and the Elf With A Gun returns in the mag to surprise and shoot people seemingly at random. (Again, what did I tell you about Gerber?)

Following their escape from Nebulon's dimensional exile (thanks in part to a recovered Nighthawk), the Valkyrie is finally located and (yes, I'll say it) liberated from incarceration--after which it becomes clear to each of the Defenders formally captured by the Headmen that something unusual is happening with their behavior, odd reactions which appear triggered by a certain set of circumstances. In the meantime, Nebulon, in his puny four-eyes guise, has maneuvered himself into becoming the new envoy to the United Nations, while Nighthawk becomes sufficiently annoyed by Jack that he pays him $300K to disappear--which Jack gladly does, while making it known that he intends to join the new presidential campaign of Ruby Thursday undercover.

It's understandable if you're thinking by this point that it's going to take a friggin' annual to resolve everything in Gerber's massive, multi-pronged plot, and that's just were we land next--the first (and only) Defenders Annual from November of 1976, as the non-team convenes at their non-H.Q. in Queens to compare notes and sift through all that's been happening, both to the world and to themselves. And unexpectedly, they have Jack's parting words, delivered in a prepared video, to thank for putting them on track.

Fortunately, we don't need to skip around the world with the Defenders in order to cut to the chase, where the Headmen finally make their move against both Nebulon and the Defenders--supplementing their political and economic activities behind the scenes by using Morgan's compression gas to gather everyone (including those assembled at a White House ceremony) into a laboratory environment for intensive and long-term study.

It's not clear why Nagan seems to find the thought of Strange summoning assistance amusing, unless he believes that the procedure he performed on Strange and the others to inhibit their actions is still in effect. By now, Gerber appears to have quietly discarded it, even at at time (perhaps especially at a time) when it could have come in handy for the Headmen in terms of keeping the Defenders contained. At any rate, "contained" is a word rarely used to describe the one Strange manages to bring to their aid, as all hell breaks loose--and the Headmen as well as Nebulon are made to see the error of their ways.

It's a tidy and strangely satisfying ending--and with Strange's comment on the subject, we can consider any activities that the Headmen might have engaged in which furthered their government or financial objectives will be dealt with off-panel, notwithstanding some writer later becoming motivated to pick up that dangling plot thread and make use of it. As for the Headmen, we'll be seeing them again in the PPC--though the bozos, in one form or another, will no doubt always be with us.

Where did the Headmen really first appear?


Big Murr said...

I read those issues when I was a dewey-wet and naive comic book fan. Modern comics have "Rated T for Teen" and "Mature Content". Back then, they had the Comic Code. I just wish there had been some warning label "Warning: Contains Excessive and Possibly Drug-Induced Whackadoodle" for Gerber's Defenders

He kept just enough genuine comic book action to keep me coming back. But, also, that was the age when I stuck with a comic, issue by issue, waiting for any odd plot to turn around.

Still, I had a moment of fond nostalgia when reading relatively recent issues of Dr. Strange. Inside the magicians' hangout, "The Bar With No Doors" we see Chondu, who is now a floating head in a jar, bartending.

(That has to be a contender for one of your longest blog-essays ever, no? Well done!)

Tiboldt said...

"Hello Marvel? I have an idea for a reboot of the Defenders tv series. It's based on the stories written by Steve Gerber and to play the Elf with a Gun I thought that... Hello? Hello? Don't hang up!"

Comicsfan said...

Thank you Murray. By the time I'd realized I'd become entangled in this "odd plot," as you put it, I was too hip-deep in it to throw in the towel! Consider me on a Gerber hiatus, indefinitely.

Tiboldt, I suspect that any writer(s) would regard such a project either a challenge too great to pass on, or no man's land. (Perhaps even a little of both!)

JungGRT said...

I remember the first part of this story when it first came out-iirc, it didn't really grab me. Looking at it now, it REALLY WAS a bizarre story.

Also, why does Arthur Nagan look like Richard Nixon's head on an ape's body?

Anonymous said...

Only Gerber...
I really dug the Headman. They didn't seem to know what they were doing, most of the time, yet somehow I find that endearing. in a super villain. Gerber and Sal had a fantastic and sometimes utterly weird run on this mag.
Personally I thought Nagan looked more like Rod Steiger.
Great post!

Ruby Thursday 2020! This time choose a lesser evil!


Comicsfan said...

Jung, you know us--we'll bring you the bizarre at every opportunity. :D

M.P., I don't know--I'm a little worried not only about a Ruby presidency, but who she might choose as her running mate if Gerber had his way!