Defenders Masterworks volume 1

By Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, Sal Buscema, Ross Andru & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3044-4 (HC)

Last of the big star conglomerate super-groups, the Defenders would eventually count amongst its membership almost every hero – and a few villains – in the Marvel Universe. No surprise there then, as initially they were composed of the company’s bad-boy antiheroes: misunderstood, outcast and often actually dangerous to know.

For Marvel, the outsider super-group must have seemed a conceptual inevitability – once they’d finally published it. Apart from Spider-Man and Daredevil all their superstars regularly teamed up in various mob-handed assemblages and, in the wake of the Defenders’ success, even more super-teams comprising pre-existing characters were rapidly mustered. These included the Champions, Invaders, New Warriors and so on – but none of them had any really Very Big Guns…

For kids – of any and all ages – there is a positively primal fascination with brute strength and feeling dangerous, which surely goes some way towards explaining the perennial interest in angry tough guys who break stuff as best exemplified by Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner and the Incredible Hulk. When you add the mystery and magic of Doctor Strange, the recipe for thrills, spills and chills becomes simply irresistible…

Although the genesis of the team may have derived from their status as publicly distrusted but well-selling “villains”, originator Roy Thomas shares his own recollections and deeper ruminations in an informative Introduction which namechecks a pivotal continued experimental crossover which didn’t make the cut in this sterling and sturdy hardcover (and eBook) compendium.

I only mention it as the sinister antagonists of those tales play a crucial role in the later stories that do appear here; namely Sub-Mariner #34-35, Marvel Feature #1-3 and Defenders #1-6, spanning February 1971 through June 1973…

So, for fuller enjoyment, you might want to track down Dr. Strange #183(November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970) and Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970) – Essential Defenders volume 1 has those plus all these and much more, but only in stark monochrome reproduction – which collectively detailed how ancient necromantic threat the Undying Ones returned to bedevil Earth…

An elder race of demons hungry to reconquer humanity, they clashed with Stephen Strange, but as his series unexpectedly ended with that issue the story went nowhere until the Sub-Mariner #22 brought the Prince of Atlantis into the mix. A sterling tale of sacrifice in which the Master of the Mystic Arts seemingly died holding the gates of Hell shut with the Undying Ones pent behind them then concluded on an upbeat note in Incredible Hulk #126, after a New England cult dispatched helpless Bruce Banner to the nether realms in an attempt to undo Strange’s heroic gesture.

Luckily cultist Barbara Norris had last-minute second thoughts and her own sacrifice freed the mystic, seemingly ending the threat of the Undying Ones forever. At the end of that issue Strange retired, forsaking magic, although he was back before too long as the fates – and fickle reading tastes – called him back to duty.

The Defenders’ story officially begins here with Sub-Mariner #34-35 of his own title (February and March 1971). The Prince of Atlantis had become an early advocate of the ecology movement, and here he took the next step in their evolution by fractiously recruiting Hulk and the Silver Surfer to help him destroy an American Nuclear Weather-Control station.

In ‘Titans Three’ and the concluding ‘Confrontation’ (by Thomas, Sal Buscema & Jim Mooney) the always-misunderstood trio battled a despotic dictator’s forces, the US Army, UN defence forces and the mighty Avengers to prevent the malfunctioning station from accidentally vaporising half the planet…

With that debacle smoothed over life resumed its usual frenetic pace for the Hulk and Namor until giant-sized try-out comic Marvel Feature #1 (December 1971) presented ‘The Day of the Defenders!’ wherein a mysteriously returned Dr. Strange recruited the Avenging Son and the Jade Giant to help him stop the deathbed doom of crazed super-mind Yandroth.

Determined to not go gently into the dark, the Scientist Supreme had built an Omegatron weapon programmed to obliterate the Earth as soon as Yandroth’s heart stopped beating and only the brute strength of the misunderstood misanthropes could possibly stop it…

Naturally the fiend hadn’t told the whole truth but the day was saved – or at least postponed – in a canny classic from Thomas, Ross Andru & Bill Everett.

Clearly and immediately destined for great things, the astounding antiheroes returned in Marvel Feature #2 (March 1972) with Sal Buscema replacing Everett as inker for late Halloween treat ‘Nightmare on Bald Mountain!’

By capturing arch-foe Dr. Strange, extra-dimensional dark lord Dormammu sought to invade our realm through a portal in Vermont, only to be savagely beaten back by the mage’s surly sometime comrades, whilst in #3 (June 1972) Thomas, Andru & Everett reunited to revive an old Lee/Kirby “furry underpants” monster in ‘A Titan Walks Among Us!’

Xemnu the Titan was an alien super-telepath seeking to repopulate his desolate homeworld by stealing America’s children until thrashed by the Defenders, but older fans recognised him as the cover-hogging star of Journey into Mystery #62 (November 1960) where he acted as a road-test for a later Marvel star in a short tale entitled ‘I Was a Slave of the Living Hulk!’

An assured hit, The Defenders exploded swiftly into their own title (cover-dated August 1972), to begin a bold and offbeat run of reluctant adventures scripted by super-team wunderkind Steve Englehart. As a group of eclectic associates occasionally called together to save the world (albeit on a miraculously monotonous monthly basis) they were billed as a “non-team” – whatever that is – but it didn’t affect the quality of their super-heroic shenanigans.

With Sal Buscema as regular penciller an epic adventure ensued with ‘I Slay by the Stars!’ (inked by Giacoia) as sorcerer Necrodamus attempted to sacrifice Namor and free those pesky Undying Ones; a mission that promptly led to conflict with an old ally in ‘The Secret of the Silver Surfer!’ (inked by John Verpoorten) before concluding in the Jim Mooney-inked ‘Four Against the Gods!’

Here the Defenders took the war to the dimensional dungeon of the Undying Ones and rescued the long-imprisoned and now utterly insane Barbara Norris.

Clearly a fan of large casts and extended epics, Englehart added a fighting female to the non-team with ‘The New Defender!’ (inked by new regular Frank McLaughlin) as Asgardians exiles Enchantress and Executioner embroiled the antiheroes in their long-running and lethal love-spat. The fallout included bringing the Black Knight briefly into the mix and turning Barbara into the latest incarnation of Feminist Fury (these were far less enlightened days) The Valkyrie.

Defenders #5 began a long-running plot thread that would have major repercussions for the Marvel Universe. The denouement of the previous tale had left the Black Knight an ensorcelled, immobile stone statue, and, as Strange and Co. searched for a cure, the long defused Omegatron suddenly resumed its countdown to global annihilation in ‘World Without End?’

This initial collection then concludes with the increasingly isolationist Silver Surfer momentarily “rejoining” in #6 to share ‘The Dreams of Death!’ as new lightweight magic menace Cyrus Black attacked, and was as rapidly repulsed…

After a spiffy team pin-up by Sal Buscema, a revelatory Afterword by Steve Englehart segues into a brief bonus feature including unpublished cover art, contemporary house ads and creator biographies.

For a brief while The Defenders would be one of the best and weirdest superhero comics in the business, but to get there you really need to observe this unruly, uncomfortable selection of misfit heroes in their salad days here. At least the fact that their widespread and far-reaching origins are still so eminently entertaining should be both a relief and delight.

Go on, Enjoy, Pilgrim… the best is yet to come…
© 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 2009, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.