Defenders Marvel Masterworks volume 4

By Steve Gerber, Bill Mantlo, Gerry Conway, Roger Slifer, Len Wein, Chris Claremont, Scott Edelman, Sal Buscema, Mike Esposito, Don Heck, Sam Grainger & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6627-6 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Monumental Marvel Magic for Festive Fun Seekers… 8/10

The Defenders were the last of the big star-name conglomerate super-groups, and would eventually number amongst their membership almost every hero – and some few villains – in the Marvel Universe. No real surprise there, since the initial line-up was composed of the company’s major league bad-boys: misunderstood and mad, outcast and bad and so often actually dangerous to know.

The genesis of the team derived from their status as publicly distrusted “villains”, and they never achieved the “in-continuity” fame or acceptance of other teams, but that simply seemed to leave the creators open to taking a few more chances and playing the occasional narrative wild card.

This Fabulous fourth hardcover/eBook Masterworks collection assembles a veritable host of Fights ‘n’ Tights wonders from across the Marvel firmament to star in Defenders #22-30 and Giant-Sized Defenders #5: cumulatively encompassing cover-dates April-December 1975 and irrevocably reshaping their shared and ever-expanding universe.

The action commences after Steve Englehart shares recollections of the brilliant and much missed Steve Gerber before the action opens with Defenders #22’s ‘Fangs of Fire and Blood!’ (by Gerber, Sal Buscema & Mike Esposito) as the sinister secret society known as the Sons of the Serpent begin another hate-fuelled, racist terror-pogrom, forcing the outcast champions into an uncomfortably public response.

The stakes are raised in ‘The Snakes Shall Inherit the Earth!’ with Hank Pym – in his Yellowjacket persona – returning to the Defenders to confront his most reviled old enemies. Even with his assistance, the Defenders are defeated in combat and left ‘…In the Jaws of the Serpent!’ (inked by Bob McLeod), necessitating a nick-of-time rescue by Daredevil, Luke Cage and Son of Satan Daimon Hellstrom before the epic ends in a stunning and still sickening realistic twist as ‘The Serpent Sheds its Skin’ (inked by Jack Abel)…

Giant Sized Defenders #5 was an all-hands-on-deck production, detailing a story that would transform a seminal and rare early Marvel non-event. ‘Eelar Moves in Mysterious Ways’credited to writers Gerber, Gerry Conway, Roger Slifer, Len Wein, Chris Claremont & Scott Edelman – was illustrated by dependable Don Heck & Esposito: a spectacular and satisfyingly cohesive result revealing how the Defenders meet with future heroes the Guardians of the Galaxy in a time-twisting disaster yarn that sets up the next continued arc for the monthly comicbook…

‘Savage Time’ (Defenders #26 by Gerber, Buscema & Vince Colletta) has Hulk, Doctor Strange, Nighthawk and Valkyrie accompany the Guardians back to 3015AD in a bold bid to liberate the last survivors of mankind from the alien, all-conquering Badoon, after hearing the future history of the world as dictated by time-lost space explorer Vance Astro.

The mission properly commences with ‘Three Worlds to Conquer!’ which introduces stellar enigma and future god Starhawk to his soon to be companions Martinex, Yondu and Charlie 27 (as well as us).

Events becomes infinitely more complicated and satirically scathing when ‘My Mother, The Badoon!’ reveals the sex-based divisions that so compellingly motivate the marauding lizard-men and then triumphantly climaxes in the stirring ‘Let My Planet Go!’

The pressures of producing regular comics is staggering and constant, with the slightest communications delay, illness, personal emergency or even work lost in transit causing all manner of costly hiccups. During the 1970s these “Dreaded Deadline Dooms” occurred all too often and in response Marvel instituted a policy of keeping one-size-fits-all, complete stories for every title in “inventory”: i.e. stashed in a drawer ready to use in an emergency. Designed to fill pages on time but produced with the intention of never being used, most of them were not that good, but despite at first glance seeming to be one of those, ‘Gold Diggers of Fear!’ (Defenders #30, by Bill Mantlo, Sam Grainger & Abel) manages to tap into Gerber’s off-the-wall sensibilities with impressive effect.

The done-in-one yarn pits Strange, Hulk, Nighthawk and Valkyrie against Tapping Tommy, a high-tech Maggia assassin who bases his murderous modus operandi and weaponry on Busby Berkeley musical numbers…

This bizarrely appealing volume ends with a rerun of the first appearance of future warriors from Marvel Super Heroes #18 (January 1969).

‘Guardians of the Galaxy: Earth Shall Overcome!’ is a terse, grittily engaging encounter which introduces a disparate band of freedom fighters united to save Earth from occupation and humanity from extinction at the scaly hands of the reptilian Brotherhood of Badoon.

It all starts when Jovian militia-man Charlie-27 returns home from a six-month tour of scout duty to find his entire colony subjugated by invading aliens. Fighting free, he jumps into a randomly programmed teleporter and emerges on Pluto, just in time to scotch the escape of crystalline scientist Martinex.

Both are examples of radical human genetic engineering: subspecies carefully designed to populate and colonise Sol system’s outer planets but now possibly the last of their kinds. After helping the mineral man complete his mission of sabotage – blowing up potentially useful material before the Badoon can get their hands on it – the odd couple set the teleporter for Earth and jump…

Unfortunately, the invaders have already taken the homeworld…

The Supreme Badoon Elite are there, busily mocking the oldest Earthman alive. Major Vance Astro had been humanity’s first intersolar astronaut; solo flying in cold sleep to Alpha Centauri at a plodding fraction of the speed of light.

When he got there 1000 years later, humanity was waiting for him, having cracked trans-luminal speeds a mere two centuries after he took off. Now he and Centauri aborigine Yondu are a comedy exhibit for the cruel conquerors actively eradicating both of their races…

The smug invaders are utterly overwhelmed when Astro breaks free, utilising psionic powers he developed in hibernation, before Yondu butchers them with the sound-controlled energy arrows he carries.

In their pell-mell flight, the pair stumble across incoming Martinex and Charlie-27 and a new legend of valiant resistance was born…

The eccentric team, as originally envisioned by Arnold Drake, Gene Colan & Mike Esposito were presented to an audience undergoing immense social change, with dissent in the air, riot in the streets and with the Vietnam War on their TV screens every night.

Perhaps the jingoistic militaristic overtones were off-putting or maybe the tenor of the times were against the Guardians, since costumed hero titles were entering a temporary downturn, but whatever the reason the feature was a rare “Miss” for Early Marvel and the futuristic freedom fighters were not seen again for years until Gerber incorporated them into his run on Marvel Two-In-One

And once the action concludes you can still enjoy a brief gallery of original art pages by Buscema & Colletta and Grainger & Abel.

For the longest time The Defenders was the best and weirdest superhero comicbook in the business, and this bitty, unwieldy collection was where it all started. The next volume would see the inspirational unconventionality reach even greater heights of drama and lunacy…

If you love superheroes but crave something just a little different these yarns are for you… and the best is still to come.
© 1968, 1975, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.