Dedicated to the definitive superhero non-team.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Hellcat: A Mind of Her Own

Hellcat was an oxymoron. She wanted to be a superhero but didn't want to admit she had superpowers.

Patsy Walker began her adventuring career as an Avengers trainee, wearing a cat uniform she found while assisting them (Avengers #144). Although the original Cat did not gain powers from her costume, Hellcat attributed her newfound athletic prowess to the costume rather than to her own innate ability.

When an opportunity came to officially join the Avengers, Hellcat accepted another request instead. In an unexpected turn of events, the sometimes-heroic Moondragon informed Hellcat that she too had extensive psionic potential, which required training to cultivate (Avengers #151).

Hellcat accompanied Moondragon to Titan, the moon of Saturn where Moondragon herself had been raised. But when celestial matters required Moondragon's attention, Hellcat returned to Earth six-weeks later and put her psionic development on hold (Defenders #44). That only lasted for so long.

When she almost died from strangulation at the hands of the supervillain Blob, Hellcat's full psychokinetic powers finally unleashed … BEEEEEE ZZZZZOW … knocking unconscious all of the villains (and heroes) in the vicinity (Defenders #64). This was just one of the reasons that many Defenders for a Day didn't stay longer.

Hellcat: Moondragon never told me I'd be able to do anything like this! But, then, she never mentioned the mind-power migraine it might give me either.

Following that unprecedented display of power, Hellcat remained reluctant to hone her mental abilities. In later issues of the Defenders, the unusual hero named Over-Mind jumped in as a psychic mentor to Hellcat. Even with the extra training, she never seemed comfortable moving objects with her mind or projecting psychokinetic bolts.

Incidentally, I think Hellcat's exceptional acrobatic skills make most sense when viewed, at least in part, as an manifestation of her mind-over-matter abilities.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Pretender-Defenders

Frog-Man may have been the only hero ever to get turned down by the Defenders. The problem was he showed up too late.

While Beast was on the lecture circuit, discussing the ins and outs of superheroics (Defenders #131), he and teammates Iceman and Angel faced the barely-super crook named Walrus.

The teenage hero known as Frog-Man joined the experienced trio during the fight and asked to become a Defender. For a time, that was about all it took to join. But the group's membership had largely solidified in #125, and the three New Defenders rejected the struggling young hero without even consulting the rest of the team.

At the end of the battle, Frog-Man's father (the reformed villain known as Leap-Frog) showed up to scold him for taking the frog-suit without permission.

Here's the kicker (which was not acknowledged in that issue): Leap-Frog was one of the numerous criminals who once pretended to be Defenders, hoping that their claims to heroism would protect them from arrest while committing crimes.

Several of the villainous Defenders for a Day had fought the Defenders before: Libra and Sagittarius (of the Zodiac), Plantman, Porcupine, and the Blob (fully recovered after he and other members of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants reverted to infancy in Defenders #16).

Other villains posing as Defenders that day were Batroc the Leaper, Beetle, Boomerang, Electro, Joe the Gorilla, Looter, Melter, Pecos, Shocker, Toad, and Whirlwind (#63-64), until a group of real Defenders stopped them.

The scene of supervillains comes from Defenders #63. The above image of Frog-Man first appeared in The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Defenders for a Day

The day after a TV documentary promoted the Defenders' loose membership policy, more than a dozen heroes arrived at Nighthawk's ranch ready to join the team. Instead of welcoming the prospective members, Nighthawk was enraged.

It's no wonder that the new members' first line of business was to get someone else in charge. Putting it to a vote, they elected Hercules as their leader, but only after Captain Mar-vell said he didn't want the job (Defenders #62).

In a highly strategic move, Valkyrie proposed that the crowd of heroes would work best if they divided into three smaller teams. Nighthawk and Hercules concurred.

Picking his team first, the Son of Zeus chose Black Goliath, Captain Ultra, Havok, Hellcat, Iron Fist, and White Tiger.

Valkyrie then selected Falcon, Jack of Hearts, Prowler, Stingray, and Torpedo. This set a precedent for Valkyrie's later stance (in #121, #126) that the Defenders did not need an official leader, unless of course it was her.

That left Nighthawk leading Marvel Man (Quasar), Nova, Polaris, Tagak, and Daimon Hellstrom ("Son of Satan"), who questioned Nighthawk's leadership skills from the get-go

Although all of the heroes who joined in issue #62 left by the end of #65, Hellstrom later became a regular member of the team. As an aside, there were no signs that Hellstrom and future-spouse Hellcat even noticed one another when he was a Defender for a Day.

As for Captain Mar-vell, the Kree warrior decided he didn't want to join the Defenders at all.

Ms. Marvel, who guest starred in #57, basically returned here to brag that she was now booked up as an Avenger.

And Paladin, who also arrived at the ranch that day, declined to join the team because he worked only for pay.

The Hulk, meanwhile, lept away after many of the one-shot Defenders tried to capture him.

Defenders. Vol. 1. No. 63. September 1978. "Deadlier by the Dozen!" David Kraft (story), Sal Buscema and Jim Mooney (artwork), J. Costanza (letters), R. Slifer (colors), Jim Shooter (editor-in-chief).

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Day the Defenders Stood Still

Although it read like a farce, Defenders for a Day became a defining moment in the team's history. This is the first of several posts discussing the foreshadowing and impact of that fateful day.

Nighthawk, Valkyrie, Hellcat, and Hulk were the core members of the group in Defenders #62. But when a well-intentioned TV documentary explained that the team lacked an official roster, numerous heroes arrived at the Richmond Riding Academy to announce their membership.

However, half of the superheroes featured on the cover of #62 didn't show up in the story. For starters, Spider-Woman and Human Torch were not Defenders for a Day. Neither was Angel, although he later joined in #125.

Power Man, a former Defender, did not return for this issue either. But his business partner, Iron Fist, was a Defender for a Day without him. A flashback in Last Defenders #3 (2008) pictured Luke Cage's future wife (Jessica Jones) among the Defenders for a Day. This was one of several attempts to situate her heroic alias into the history of the Marvel Universe.

As for the rest, Captain Mar-Vell, Falcon, Jack of Hearts, Nova, and Hercules were Defenders for a Day, along with many heroes not pictured on the cover of Defenders #62.

Iron Man finally arrived in #63. But instead becoming one of the Defenders, he alerted them that swarms of villains also had declared their membership!

Defenders. Vol. 1. No. 62. August 1978. "Membership Madness!" David Kraft (dashing dialogue), Sal Buscema and Jim Mooney (pandemonius pictures), J. Costanza (lively letters), B. Sharen (cozy colors), Bob Hall (enthusiastic editing), Jim Shooter (editor-in-chief).

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

No Time Like the Presence

The Defenders saved the Earth from interdimensional enemies countless times, but the brooding realism of Defenders #52-56 still stands out, as the non-team warded off the threat of nuclear destruction.

Carmine Infantino and Klaus Janson's artwork was absolutely stunning during this run on the Defenders, adding immeasurably to this multi-part story by David Kraft.

A series of underwater nuclear tests prompted the Sub-Mariner to reacquaint himself with the Defenders in an effort to save Atlantis from deadly radioactive emissions.

Joined by Hellcat, Nighthawk, and Hulk, Prince Namor led the heroes into battle against a nihilistic Soviet scientist known as the Presence, whose unauthorized experiments had garnished him with vastly destructive power. As Hulk's alter ego, Dr. Bruce Banner expertise in nuclear physics did not go to waste on this mission.

In a quest for companionship along with power, the Presence had transformed the Red Guardian into a being of nuclear energy to stand by his side as he conquered the world. The Defenders were horrified to fend off attacks from their former teammate, mentally enslaved by the twisted genius.

When the Red Guardian regained her own will, she emotionally depleted the Presence by scorned him for the inhuman futility of his plan. The mission concluded with the Defenders exceptionally ill, in need of treatment for radiation poisoning. In time, the two radioactive beings left the Earth to protect humanity from the dangerous side effects of their new forms (in a subplot that ended in Defenders #65).

Though presumed dead, Red Guardian and the Presence returned in The Incredible Hulk #258-259 (1981), this time facing the Soviet Super Soldiers.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Red Guardian: The Super Surgeon

The Red Guardian's role in the Defenders was largely symbolic. When Nighthawk needed brain surgery, Dr. Strange sought the help of world-renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Tania Belinsky.

Her introduction reminded readers that slight nerve damage had ended Stephen Strange's surgical career, and that modern medicine could be more powerful than magic. (To further illustrate this point, Nighthawk's medical problems became a recurring theme in the series.)

Only after Dr. Belinsky arrived in the United States did the Defenders discover that she was secretly a superhero, the latest incarnation of the Red Guardian (Defenders #35).

While envisioning herself as a Soviet version of Captain America, the Red Guardian fought crime covertly in her homeland. In the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet Union suppressed superheroes, regarding them as too "American," no matter how patriotic their intentions. The end result villainized the Soviet government while explaining the shortage of communist heroes in the world of Marvel Comics.

The Red Guardian was standoffish toward the other Defenders, but without inciting the emotional tug-of-war reminiscent of other tempestuous members of the team. Although the results may have been less dramatic, they provided an understated sophistication to the character.

Dr. Belinsky's neurosurgical skill again came into play during a complicated story involving the Cobalt Man (Defenders #43, basically a sequel to his debut in X-Men #31).

The above image of Red Guardian first appeared in The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. A male Soviet agent with a similar costume had died in Avengers #44.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Cover Title Treatments

The gold-plated nameplate of Defenders #50 set the tone for that landmark issue, with the heroes moving from behind the title treatment to the front. Several later issues further incorporated the title into the cover scenes.

On a subtle level, of course, numerous issues show a cover element partially overlapping the title, but without drawing the title into the action.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Milestone with Moon Knight

Moon Knight could have made a great Defender. With his mystical background, nocturnal inclinations, silver costume, and handful of alter egos, he was like half the Defenders rolled into one.

Although Moon Knight thought highly of the team, the self-styled solo adventurer accompanied the Defenders for only five issues (#47-51), barely enough time to scratch the surface of the complex character.

This two-page Defenders spread comes from their milestone 50th issue. Hulk was the only original Defedner in the group at that point, with Valkyrie and Nighthawk as longtime members. Hellcat was still a new recruit, and Moon Knight fashioned himself as a temporary Defender.

Defenders Dialogue: Elf

The Defenders faced several serial killers over the years. But few villains garnished as much mail as the inexplicable gun-toting elf. Here's an editorial note from Defenders #43 and the letter that followed.

The elf sub-plot has been one of the most controversial in the history of the DEFENDERS mag. Fan mail has been split almost down the middle as to whether it should ever have been started in the first place. But Paul Butler kind've put the situation in a very appropriate tongue-in-cheek perspective. It gave the Bullpen a big laugh, and we think it'll give you some snickers.

Dear Marvel,

Report on the elf phenomenon by the Univac 1108 computer.

A: Elf appeared in DEFENDERS #25, #31, #38, #40. NO APPRECIABLE PATTERN.

B: Victims of elf were Tom/Pritchett, Charles Lester, Stewart (no last name given), and an unidentified woman. NO APPRECIABLE PATTERN.

C: Locations of crimes were a mobile home park in California; Las Vegas, Nevada; the Grand Canyon in Colorado; somewhere in the southwestern United States. CRIMES WERE COMMITTED IN THE WESTERN HALF OF THE UNITED STATES.

D: Activities of the victims at the time of death were singing, gambling, exploring, hiding. NO APPRECIABLE PATTERN.

@Conclusion. Steve Gerber is suffering from a severe mental disorder which zorf gglmf ndjb. BLAM!

The Univac 1108 computer is unable to complete its report due to an unidentified elf with a gun! But all seriousness aside, when is this thing coming to a head?

Paul Butler
Madison, WI
This image of the Elf comes from Defenders #25. Long after his killing spree, the Elf returned in an equally ambiguous subplot that convinced early members of the team to step aside, making way for the New Defenders.

Monday, October 27, 2008

An Illusionary Adventure

Watch out! Clea's casting a spell that could destroy the Earth, and only Power Man, Red Guardian, and Nighthawk can stop her! So why is Dr. Strange interfering? And what startling discoveries await the Hulk?

Defenders #39 looked like an amazing issue. In actuality, though, the inside didn't have anything to do with the cover. Clea's spell was actually an illusionary fireball to distract the public so the Defenders could rescue Valkyrie from wrongful imprisonment without anyone noticing. All of the heroes were in the loop, so none of them had to fight one another.

Despite the inconsistencies, #39 remains one of my favorite Defenders covers. For what it's worth, by the way, Hulk appeared only in a three-panel flashback (to Omega the Unknown #2).

Defenders. Vol. 1. No. 39. September 1976. "Riot in Cellblock 12!" Steve Gerber (script) Sal Buscema (layouts), Klaus Janson (finished art), Hipp & Watanabe (letterers), Don Warfield (colorist), Archie Goodwin (editor).

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Cat Came Back

Before Patsy Walker ever took to fighting crime, Greer Nelson wore the original yellow-and-blue Cat costume. But after four issues of her own series, and a guest spot in Marvel Team-Up #8 (1972), the Cat seemed to disappear.

When Spider-Man first spotted Hellcat in Defenders #61 (1978), the astute arachnid knew there was something different about the woman in the Cat suit. Hellcat (Patsy Walker) acknowledged that she wasn't the first person to try on the uniform.

Interestingly, though, when the wall-crawler first encountered the transformed Tigra in Marvel Team-Up #67 (also 1978), his spider-memory didn't recall how had met this woman before she had stripes. Thought balloons privately divulged that Spider-Man recognized Tigra only from news photos in The Daily Bugle.

Although Tigra (Greer Nelson) spoke to "Spidey" in a familiar tone, he must have thought she was just being friendly. She didn't reveal how Cat People had turned her into a virtual tiger-woman back in Giant-Size Creatures #1 (1974). Tigra, incidently, never became a Defender.


Friday, October 17, 2008

The Patsy Walker Story

Patsy Walker was perhaps the least likely character to become a superhero. Making her debut in 1944, she starred in humor and romance comics for 20 years before crossing into the world of costumed crimefighters.

It began with a guest appearance in Fantastic Four Annual #3 (1965), attending the wedding of Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Girl. A decade later, Patsy's backstory turned on its ear.

Her longtime boyfriend and eventual husband, Robert "Buzz" Baxter, became a crook (later the villain Mad-Dog) in an intricate storyline that prompted Patsy to become the heroic Hellcat.

To explain the genre-defying discontinuity, Marvel Comics explained that although Patsy and "Buzz" existed in the same world as the Fantastic Four, the numerous comics showing the couple's idyllic courtship actually hadn't taken place. In fact, all of the issues of Patsy Walker's own series became metatext, apocryphal accounts penned by Patsy's mother, Dorothy Walker (herself a character in the series).

After Hellcat joined the Defenders, flashbacks showed how Patsy never lived up to the pristine expectations of her demanding mother. If that wasn't bad enough, when Dorothy Walker suffered from a terminal illness, she tried to safeguard her own life by selling Patsy's soul to a demon, in one of the scariest story arcs the non-team ever faced.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Crux of the Defenders

Defenders #16 began a tradition of placing a descriptive paragraph about the team at the top of Page 1.

The mysterious DR. STRANGE! The vibrant VALKYRIE! The savage SUB-MARINER! The high-flying NIGHTHAWK! The incredible HULK! Evil-doers TREMBLE at the names … for these five form the crux of the greatest NON-TEAM in history, heroes called together only when the need arises … to battle MENACES that threaten the security … or the very LIFE … of the planet EARTH!

In later issues, "five" became "four" as Sub-Mariner (and then Dr. Strange) left the group for extended periods of time. Although numerous superheroes had brief stints with the Defenders, only one subsequent member ever joined the "crux" of the group. That, of course, was …
The happy-go-lucky HELLCAT!
First adventuring with the Defenders in #44, Hellcat's tagline entered the opening pargraph in #47.

After Defenders #76, different descriptions of the non-team sometimes appeared instead, before the series dropped the opening block of text altogether.
This image of Hellcat appeared in The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

Friday, October 10, 2008

What if Wolverine Had Killed the Hulk?

Although Hulk's temper stayed largely in check around the Defenders, his rampages continued when left on his own. It was only a matter of time before new heroes popped up to drive off the Hulk. Enter: Wolverine.

Their historic first encounter established that the Canadian hero was tough enough to keep fighting after Hulk tossed him around, and that Wolverine's claws were sharp enough to penetrate Hulk's gamma-tough skin (Incredible Hulk 180-181). There was a chance Wolverine might win.

Further, the battle was interrupted by the cannibalistic man-monster called Wendigo, then cut short when a villain's magic spell put Hulk and Wolverine to sleep. The set up was ripe to consider what might have happened if the heroes hadn't been forced into a mystical draw. More specifically, "What if Wolverine Had Killed the Hulk?"

Faced with murder charges after fatally wounding the green goliath in self-defense, the clawed Canadian in this storyline fled from authorities. Recruited by Magneto into the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, Wolverine's first assignment was to infilterate the X-Men.

Wolverine trained in the Danger Room with most of the original team, and proved himself against the Sentinels. So when time came to double-cross the mutant heroes, he instead turned on the master of magnetism. The story ended in a tragic draw, with Wolverine and Magneto killing each other (What If? #31).

For continuity lovers, this hypothetical tale hinged on the premise that Incredible Hulk #181 (October 1974) ended before Defenders #15 (September 1974), when Professor X turned to the Defenders to stop Magneto and Alpha the Ultimate Mutant. Len Wein wrote both of those classic stories.

During the 1990s, Hulk and Wolverine worked together briefly as Secret Defenders.

What If ? Vol. 1. No. 31. February 1982. "What if Wolverine Had Killed the Hulk?" Rich Margopoulos (script), Bob Budiansky (pencils), Mike Esposito (inks), Bob Sharen (colors), Karin Nemri (letters), Tom DeFalco (edits), Jim Shooter (chief).

Friday, October 3, 2008

Defenders Dialogue: Dragonfang

In this two-page fight scene from Defenders #25, Valkyrie's opponent seemed to fall backward in battle instead of getting cut by her magical blade. In other issues, Valkyrie held out the sword Dragonfang, only to punch enemies with her fist. A letter from #25 pointed out the complications of Valkyerie's weapon.

Dear Marvel,

I've just finished reading Defenders 22. Not bad. It's good to "see" Valkyrie out of costume, even if it's still there. Valkyrie is a good character and fits well in the Defenders. Still, there's one thing about her that bugs me. It's that sword. What is it good for, anyway? In this issue she stabs a rat on page 7, then on page 30 chops a gun, apparently knocking another guy down with the wind. I'm not trying to put the writers down, but the sword stinks. All it's good for in a fight is cutting people in half, and that's in poor taste. Every time there's a fight you see her waving the thing around, but usually not connecting. So why a sword? Why not something else? A mace, maybe. At least she could hit somebody without taking his arm off. What might make a better weapon for her, in my opinion at least, would be some type of quarterstaff. Thing about it. It's a versatile weapon, capable of striking and deflecting more blows than you're liable to use in one story. And best of all, it doesn't dismember the opposition! Molenna and Firelord have similar weapons, but as long as you don't build any gimmicks into Valkyrie's staff (you know, keep it a plain striking instrument) it should be fairly unique. So let's leave the swords in Asgard. They just don't make it in New York.

Brian Murphy
Cleveland, Ohio

Here's how the Marvel staff repsonded:

Truth to tell, Brian, the same thought has occurred to us from time to time about Val's sword, but we've been hesitant to make any change because Dragonfang seems to have become a sort of trademark for the warrior-woman. But how 'bout it, people? Do you agree? Should Val take up a slightly more blunted bit of armament? Should she use any weapon at all besides her physical strength (which is considerable)? Again, we're very interested in your opinions. The dialogue resumes in thirty days.

Defenders. Vol. 1. No. 25. "The Serpect Sheds Its Skin." Steve Gerber (writer), Sal Buscema (artist), Jack Abel (inker), Ray Holloway (letterer), Petra G. (colorist), Len Wein (editor).

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Return of Yellowjacket

Hank Pym's career in the Avengers had plenty of ups and downs. Though a founding member of the team, he wasn't satisfied with his original alter ego, changing from Ant-Man to Giant-Man, and then to Goliath, before settling on Yellowjacket.

Following a lengthly leave of absence, Yellowjacket returned to fighting crime … this time in the pages of the Defenders. Narrative text and a footnote pointed out that four years had passed between his last adventure (Avengers #74) and his costumed return (Giant-Size Defenders #4). Granted, time within the comic books would have passed at a slower rate, but it was significant nonetheless.

Given his perpetual identity crises and bouts of self-doubt, Yellowjacket's short run with the Defenders reestablished him as a hero, without relying on his history as an Avenger or longtime partnership with the Wasp. Although "man in bug-suit" had fought alongside the Hulk during their early days in the Avengers, the green-skinned Defender didn't recognize Henry Pym dressed as Yellowjacket.

This image of Yellowjacket readying to attack members of the Sons of the Serpent appeared in Defenders #23, launching a storyline that continued through #25.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Pawns of the Grandmaster

Nighthawk may have reformed from a life of crime, but the Grandmaster wasn't about to forget his ties to the one-time villain. In Giant-Size Defenders #3, the extraterrestrial game-player forced Nighthawk to enlist the help of five other heroes and participate in a cosmic wager. Dr. Strange, Valkyrie, Sub-Mariner, Hulk, and Daredevil all accepted the challenge—some more begrudgingly than others.

Following the rules of the contest, the heroes squared off against animal-like creatures summoned by the intelligent robot called the Prime Mover. If the Defenders won, the Earth would be spared; if they lost, the Grandmaster would give the Prime Mover enough power to enslave the planet.

The Defenders won the challenge, yet their problems weren't over. The Grandmaster unexpectedly declared that the people of Earth were "uniquely suited to selective breeding to produce and entire world of super-powered pawns." Although the heroes were not strong enough to stop these plans, there was still hope.

Basically viewing Grandmaster as a compulsive gambler, Daredevil challenged him to a double-or-nothing coin toss. If the Grandmaster won, he would get the Earth and the moon. But the Grandmaster lost, relinquishing his claim on the planet. In the privacy of his own thoughts, the "man without fear" acknowledged that his extraordinary senses had enabled him to tell how the coin would land even before it was tossed.

Artistically ahead of its time, the issue included two pages where the dialogue and actions were described in typewritten prose, instead of through multi-panel scenes with word balloons.

Giant-Size Defenders #3. January 1975. "Games Godlings Play!" Steve Gerber, Jim Starlin, and Lein Wein plotted this tale together. Then Jim did the layouts, Steve wrote the script, and Dan Adkins, Don Newton and Jim Mooney finished the art. Charlotte Jetter lettered it, Glynis Wein colored it, Roy Thomas edited it, and aren't these credits ridiculously complicated?

Nighthawk battled the "man without fear" in Daredevil #62 (reprinted in Giant-Size Defenders #5).

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Luke Cage, Defender for Hire

Working as a security guard for Richmond Enterprises, Power Man first accompanied the Defenders in #17-19, when Nighthawk's corporation came under attack by the villainous Wrecking Crew.

Lacking the inheritance of Nighthawk, or the taken-for-granted resources of other heroes, Power Man kept a realistic approach to fighting crime. During his recurring adventures with the Defenders, Power Man often was the first to point out the bizarre nature of magic or superheroics in general.

When Bruce Banner telephoned Luke Cage in #24, requesting help on another mission, the hero for hire responded skeptically to Hulk's alter ego.

Power Man: (Speaking into the phone) Bruce who? No , man, I ain't never heard o'--Oh, uh-huh. You're the Hulk--an' I'm George Wallace!

Although Hulk was more powerful than Power Man, Luke Cage had enough strength and invulnerability to save the team more than once, and without any hulkish drawbacks. Further, Power Man seemed physically stronger during his stints with the Defenders in the 1970s than he did in the 1980s, when Marvel Comics estimated that he could lift only a few tons (far less than most heavy-hitters at the time).
This scene of Power Man vs. Piledriver of the Wrecking Crew appeared in Defenders #19.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Hulking Cover Versions

Poor Hulk. These covers gave the impression that the Defenders spent much of their time stopping the good-intentioned goliath from smashing someone who shouldn't be harmed or breaking something better left alone.

But covers aren't always right. In Defenders #41, for instance, no one was encased in a crystalline cage, and the Hulk posed no threat to his teammates. The cover simply gave Hulk a bad reputation.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Somber Surfer

A backup story reprinted in Giant-Size Defenders #1 helped explain the brooding disposition of one of the team's strongest affiliates.

"The Peerless Power of the Silver Surfer" opened with the cosmic champion waxing philosophical as he rode across the skyline. Speaking to himself, in his customary style, the hero in exile projected his own frustrations onto the inhabitants of Earth. Adding to the Surfer's own despondence was this seldom-discussed hypersensitivity to the feelings of others.

Silver Surfer: Thru how many ages shall they be condemned to dwell--like insects in a hive--never knowing the glories of the endless universe? … I cannot endure being near them for more than a few of their minutes--the waves of human emotion which I sense are overwhelming! Fear--envy--greed--and hatred engulf me in ever-increasing torrents!!

Sensing a specifically inhuman torment, the Surfer discovered Quasimodo, the living computer with human-like emotions who longed for his abandoned master, the Mad Thinker.

Wielding cosmic energy, the Surfer forged a robotic body to liberate Quasimodo. But with powerful arms and legs, Quasimodo returned to his original programming and set forth on a destructive rampage. The Surfer felt responsible for the outcome.

As the robot tried to escape, the Surfer again enveloped Quasimodo in cosmic energy, this time transforming him into a motionless statue, resting on a clock tower. Because his best intentions had backfired, the Surfer questioned his own ability to understand or act in the defense of others. No wonder he felt most comfortable alone.
This story originally appeared in Fantastic Four Annual #5 (1967). Stan (The Man) Lee and Jack Kirby (King) Kirby, F. Giacoia (inking), Artie Simek (lettering). The illustration of Quasimodo appeared in The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

By the Seven Circles

During a surprise party at X-Mansion, Nightcrawler received a sabotaged gift on his 21st birthday, triggering a mystical explosion that rendered him unconscious. Called in as a consultant, Dr. Strange diagnosed the condition: someone had taken Nightcrawler's soul (X-Men King-Size Annual #4). The story that followed played off many of the themes prevalent in the Defenders.

Although Dr. Strange initially pegged Nightcrawler as half-demon, the Eye of Agamotto revealed that there was nothing supernatural about the mutant's appearance. Accepting a metaphysical challenge to save the young hero, Dr. Strange accompanied members of the X-Men through a magic portal and into the Inferno from Dante's Divine Comedy.

The heroes fought harpies and other threats as they traversed down the Seven Circles. Yet all along Dr. Strange doubted they were in true hell, as he did not sense evil, just a strong anger toward Nightcrawler.

At the center of the Inferno, Dr. Strange detected that the giant creature calling itself Satan was part of an elaborate illusion created by Nightcrawler's foster mother, Margali. The powerful sorceress wanted to punish Nightcrawler for murdering his foster brother shortly before joining the X-Men. But Margali had a change of heart after discovering that her biological son had become violently crazed, prompting Nightcrawler to stop him.

The X-Men were glad to have their friend restored to health, and Dr. Strange pondered why he was only now learning of Margali, whose powers rivaled his own.

X-Men King-Size Annual #4. 1980. "Nightcrawler's Inferno." Chris Claremont (writer), John Romita Jr. and Bob McCleod (artists), Tom Orzechowski (letterer), Glynis Wein (colorist), Louise Jones (editor), Jim Shooter (editor-in-chief). The Nightcrawler image comes from The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Death Becomes Her

The forces of evil finally got the better of Dr. Strange, transforming the sorcerer supreme into a werewolf (Marvel Team-Up #80-81).

After Spider-Man and Clea jointly discovered the horrific truth, an equally unsettling guest arrived, offering her assistance. It was Satana, the younger sister of Daimon Hellstrom. Daimon and Satana's mother had unwittingly married an evil entity who had taken human form. But while the Son of Satan hated his hellish heritage, the Devil's Daughter seemed to revel in human suffering, acquiring a vampiric thirst for syphoning life energy from others.

At the Sanctum Sanctorum, Satana said she could reverse the curse, as Dr. Strange had neither killed nor tasted human blood since becoming a werewolf. (In that case, she planned to shoot the werewolf-supreme with a silver bullet to put him out of his misery.) Spider-Man sensed that Satana was dangerous yet somehow could be trusted in this instance. This left Clea to question why a servant of evil wanted to save Dr. Strange.

Satana: Perhaps because it amuses me? Or because I am part human, and it is human nature to change. To grow. To rebel. I bow to neither heaven nor hell, Clea. In that, I am much like my satanic sire. I would rather live on earth and be free, whatever the cost--than serve in hell.

Whether or not she was repentent, Satana's act of goodwill established her own free will. Removing the curse of the werewolf greatly weakened Satana, as her body meditated while her spirit entered the astral plane, where malevolent forces tried to stop her. At the end of the mystical ceremony, Dr. Strange was cured, but the Devil's Daughter died for her disobedience in asserting her independence.
Marvel Team-Up. Vol. 1. No. 80. April 1979. "A Sorcerer Possessed!" C. Claremont (author), M. Vosburg (guest penciler), G. Day (inker), D. Wohl (letterer), P. Goldberg (colorist), A.L. Milgrom (editor), J. Shooter (editor-in-chief).
Marvel Team-Up. Vol. 1. No. 81. May 1979. "Last Rights." Chris Claremont (author), Mike Vosburg (penciler), Steve Leialoha (inker), Rick Parker (letterer), Ben Sean (colorist), Allen Milgrom (editor), Jim Shooter (editor-in-chief).

Monday, July 14, 2008

Spotlight Mail: Daimon's Dad

If anyone was born to be a Defender, it was Daimon Hellstrom. With mystical powers and an infernal upbringing, the heroic demonologist was a natural fit for the group. Readers responded favorably to Hellstrom's recurring appearances in the Defenders, based on the "Defenders Dialogue" letters pages.

During his solo stories in Marvel Spotlight, however, some readers were unsure what to make of this provocative character billed as the Son of Satan. In the "Spotlight Mail" page from #21 (April 1975), Marvel Comics writer Steve Gerber replied to the concern of one letter.

Regarding your comic Son of Satan, you are obviously trying to undermine the moral and religious fiber of our young people. At a young and impressionable age you subject them to "heroes" who wear on their chests, of all things, the symbol of the Devil!

Sure, in your comics he's only half-devil and half-"man of God." But how long before you'll invent a a new "hero' who has none of the latter.

Sir, whether you know it or not, I am certain you are being used as a tool of Satan. I realize what I'm doing is like trying to put out a forest fire with a squirt gun, but I felt the need to bring this matter to your attention.

If you are being used as I suspect, I'm sure you'll have not trouble writing me off as another one of the fanatics from whom you must receive letters. However, if you see the light, I hope to have this type of comic discontinued. In its place, may I suggest something that would bring glory to the most high God our Lord.

John Kubrock

Steve G. replies:

Sadly, we're receiving a lot of letters like this on SOS, and though I don't wish to discuss my religious beliefs in detail here, I feel obliged to say something in my defense and that of Marvel Comics.

First of all, John—(and all others who wrote to express similar sentiments), I am not a tool of anybody. Not the Kremlin. Not even Irving Forbush, for crying out loud!! "I am not a number, I am a free man," as someone once put it.

Second, I really do not see at all how a comic in which Satan is consistently defeated every time he so much as tries to poke a pinky into our world can "undermine the moral and religious fiber of our young people." Reality should only be so encouraging!

Want to know who I think is doing Satan's work on earth, folks?

Anyone who asks us to close our minds to any possibility concerning anything in the universe!

God is alive. God is dead. God is in hibernation until spring. God is vacationing in Andromeda. God is within us all—even the Devil's own son! I can't tell you which of those to believe. You've got to make up your own minds. And that you deserve the right to shape your own beliefs is my own strongest belief!

That's why I don't write you off, John, even though I do think you're being fanatical. No one who is concerned with the welfare of other human beings ever, ever writes off anybody.

Better, though, to panic at air we can't breathe, populations that won't stop growing, desert wars that could trigger nuclear holocausts, and onrushing crises in food and energy that nobody wants to admit … than at a comic book.

End of debate, please?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Hello, Mr. Hellstrom

On one of his signature rampages, Hulk fought a rocket-blasting robot the U.S. military had designed for such an occasion. With one punch, the $2.5-million mechanoid was demolished. That was only the beginning of Hulk's problems (Giant-Size Defenders #2).

A mysterious young girl offered to help Hulk flee the scene, leading him through a back alley, then down a secret stairwell to the caverns below. As the green-skinned Defender grew suspicious, the girl transformed into a horned demon, announcing that they were now in hell. Suddenly, six 10-foot-tall versions of Bruce Banner appeared, each with enough strength to injure the Hulk.

Through his crystal ball, Dr. Strange saw that Hulk was in danger. A shrouded spirit then appeared, insisting that Dr. Strange, Nighthawk, and Valkyrie must aid the forces of evil in exchange for Hulk's freedom. Refusing such demands, Dr. Strange sought out Daimon Hellstrom. With their combined powers, the sorcerer supreme and the "Son of Satan" uncovered the supernatural staircase that Hulk had descended. As they entered, the Defenders each confronted their own personal horrors.

An executioner with a noose scorned Nighthawk for his treacherous past, while faceless amazons mocked Valkyrie as a woman without an identity. Dr. Strange encountered the ghosts of patients whose lives he might have saved as a surgeon, and Daimon Hellstrom witnessed demons torment his deceased mother. The Defenders courageously overcame these haunting images.

Daimon Hellstrom detected the true source behind these metaphysical threats. The wicked Asmodeus had died of a heart attack (Dr. Strange #177) but arranged to return to the world of the living by exchanging the souls of the Defenders for his own. With abilities well-suited against the netherworld (different from the spellbook magic of Dr. Strange), Hellstrom pointed his magic trident and repelled the giant Bruce Banners away from Hulk, then defeated Asmodeus.

Giant-Size Defenders. Vol. 1. No. 2. October 1974. "H … as in Hulk … Hell … and Holocaust!" Len Wein (writer), Gil Kane and Klaus Janson (artists), Glynis Wein (colorist), Dave Hunt (letterer), Roy Thomas (editor).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Portrait of an Atlantean as a Young Man

Created in 1939, Sub-Mariner was one of the first superheroes to appear in print (beating Aquaman of DC Comics by two years).

Following World War II, Sub-Mariner and a handful of other Golden Age heroes continued their adventures in the pages of Atlas Comics (a precursor to Marvel). Two Sub-Mariner stories from that period (reprinted in giant-size issues of the Defenders) shed light on the complicated personality of Prince Namor.

During the mid-1950s, the Prince of Atlantis spent his down time in New York, visiting long-time friend Betty Dean. A former reporter and police officer, Betty fed important news leads to the water-breathing hero. One tip helped Namor foil a band of flesh-eating extraterrestrials responsible for an upsurge in shark attacks (Young Men #25).

Namor's aqua-centricism took center stage in "The World Destroyers!" (Sub-Mariner #38). The Emperor of Atlantis had reinstated the sea kingdom's war against the surface world, leaving Prince Namor feeling despondent. Betty suggested that if Namor was under orders to conquer humanity, he should start by taking on the Fatalists, an evil organization with a death-ray device.

To Betty's chagrin, Namor took gleeful solace in the news, callously reasoning that if the Fatalists used their death-ray destroyed every nation, he wouldn't have to go to the trouble.

Betty: If they use it on the surface folk, they'll use it on your people, too! None of us are safe from it!

Namor: Oh, Betty--don't be stupid! They're not amphibious, are they? So how can they reach us? We live at the bottom of the ocean, under the South Polar ice plateau---they'd drown before they could even find us! No, Betty---you're the ones who have to worry about the death-ray!

Betty: Oh--you! I hate you! Get out of here!
After the argument, Namor saw Betty's point. Concerned that the Fatalists might use submarines and diving gear to bring their deadly device to Atlantis, he battled the villainous group.
Captain America and the android Human Torch were other WWII heroes who starred in Atlas Comics. The Prince Namor stories from Young Men #25 (originally published in 1954) and Sub-Mariner #38 (from 1955) were reprinted in Giant-Size Defenders #2-3, respectively. Bill Everett wrote and illustrated those adventures.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Giant-Size Flashbacks

Five giant-size issues of the Defenders from the 1970s brought readers up to speed on the history of their favorite heroes. Along with new content, these 68-page issues reprinted solo stories that first appeared a decade or more before the Defenders formed.

Giant-Size Defenders #1 framed the reprinted pages within an original story. To help Valkyrie learn more about her teammates, Clea consulted an arcane book she had skimmed, then cast a spell to reveal the early exploits of Dr. Strange, Sub-Mariner, and Hulk.

Unbeknownst to Clea, the spell inadvertently sent the three men into their own pasts, requiring Dr. Strange's years of training to reverse the magic. In addition to demonstrating the sorcerer's extensive experience, the reprints gave context to other members of the group. Pages from The Incredible Hulk #3 showed how much Dr. Banner and his alter ego had relied on the friendship of teenager Rick Jones before meeting the Defenders. And a Sub-Mariner reprint traced the Atlantean's heroism back to World War II.

Subsequent giant-size issues each began with a new Defenders story, set within the regular series continuity. The reprinted content in those issues then simply ran as a bonus feature, without any magical window-dressing. Giant-Size Defenders #2 even reprinted a story from Black Knight #4 (originally published in 1955), unexplicitly acknowledging the medieval hero's tertiary connection to Valkyrie.

The image at the top appeared on the cover from Strange Tales #121, illustrating Dr. Strange's back-up story that issue. Giant-Size Defenders #4 reprinted that tale of "Witchcraft in the Wax Museum."

Saturday, July 5, 2008

What If…? Alternate Origins

The Defenders never starred in their own issue of What If?, but #37 featured parallel tales about two members of the team.

In his classic origin story, Norrin Radd persuaded Galactus to spare his homeworld of Zenn-La. In exchange, he became the Silver Surfer, commissioned to locate other planets for Galactus to devour. After meeting the Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer begged Galactus to spare Earth as well (Fantastic Four #48-50).

"What if Galactus Had Turned the Silver Surfer Back into Norrin Radd?" In this alternate reality, Galactus responded by returning the philosophical Surfer to his original, human-like self. With space-travel technology from Mr. Fantastic, Norrin Radd then returned home only to find a tragic twist of fate. His long lost love, Shalla-Bal, had become the new herald of Galactus in a renewed agreement to preserve Zenn-La. Galactus removed all memories of her former life so she would not challenge him, as the Surfer had. Out of erroneous respect, Galactus also restored powers to Norrin Radd, but with a catch. The Silver Surfer was now trapped on Zenn-La, unable to embark into space or reunite with his true love as she roamed the cosmos.

Of the original X-Men, Beast was the first to break from the team and attempt to lead a normal life. Accepting a post as a biochemist with the Brand Corporation, Hank McCoy developed a formula to augment mutations. The result boosted Hank's abilities but left him covered in fur (Amazing Adventures #11). After a half-crazed period of adjustment, Beast continued fighting crime (usually sporting only blue shorts, like Thing of the Fantastic Four).

"What if--the Beast Had Truly Become a Beast?" In this alternate reality, Beast did not regain his composure after the accentuated mutation, attacking his friends in the X-Men while seeking their help. Though still reasonably intelligent, Beast's brutal instincts made him ill-fit for society. Comparing their friend to a wild animal that should not be caged, the X-Men brought Beast to the Savage Land to assist the jungle hero Ka-Zar.
What If ? Vol. 1, No. 37. February 1983. "What if--the Beast Had Truly Become a Beast?" Alan Weiss (scripter/penciler), Jim Sherman (inker/colorist). "What if Galactus Had Turned the Silver Surfer Back into Norrin Radd?" David Anthony Kraft (scripter), Mike Vosburg (penciler), Steve Mitchell (inker), Diana Albers (letterer), Bob Sharen (colorist), Mike Gruenwald (editor), Jim Shooter (editor in chief).

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Clea's Finest Moment

Clea made several guest appearances in the Defenders well before joining the team. Relegated to the role of romantic interest and mystic trainee, however, she stayed overshadowed by Dr. Strange. As a result, it is easy to forget that this mysterious woman from another dimension was instrumental in the team's second mission. This somber tale was one of Clea's strongest issues.

Marvel Feature #2 began with an evil sect plotting to bring the dread Dormammu to Earth on Halloween, when the barriers between dimensions were weakest. Detecting the threat, Dr. Strange traveled in astral form to hold off Dormammu in the Dark Dimension. But moving his consciousness to the astral plane left the magician physically unconscious and vulnerable. Dormammu's followers broke into the Sanctum Sanctorum, left Wong badly beaten, and abducted Dr. Strange's body, intending to bring Dormammu into the sorcerer's physical form.

Responding to Wong's call for help, Clea used Dr. Strange's mystical amulet (the Eye of Agamotto) to locate Sub-Mariner and Hulk. Still an inexperienced spell-caster at this point, Clea used hypnosis to prompt Hulk to revert to Bruce Banner, then outlined a rescue plan. Clea also brought a change of clothes so the tattered Dr. Banner and swim-trunk-clad Sub-Mariner could remain incognito until entering the sect's remote headquarters at Bald Mountain.

Banner took tranquilizers to stay calm and not become Hulk prematurely. This cooperation showed Banner's trust in the Defenders to act as superego to Hulk's impulsive id. When time came to transform, Hulk willingly followed Sub-Mariner's lead even without knowing why they were fighting the cloaked opponents.

Near the end of the battle, Clea's magic revealed that Dr. Strange had been drawing energy from Wong to remain in astral form longer than usual and keep Dormammu at bay. As the gateway to the Dark Dimension sealed, trapping Dormammu, Bald Mountain volcanically erupted. Dr. Strange, now conscious within his physical body, flew Clea and Wong to safety, while Hulk and Sub-Mariner smashed out from under the rubble.

Marvel Feature. Vol. 1. No. 2. March 1972. "Nightmare on Bald Mountain." Stan Lee (editor), Roy Thomas (writer), Ross Andru (artist), Sal Buscema (inker), Sam Rosen (letterer). The image of Clea appeared in The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. Dr. Strange first met Clea during his initial battle against Dormammu (Strange Tales #126-127). Dr. Strange received his cloak of levitation and the Eye of Agamotto at the end of that adventure.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Defenders Headquarters

The Defenders had several headquarters over the course of the original series, changing locations more often than most super teams. As a rule, their base of operations depended on the wealthiest member of the group at a given time.

  1. The Sanctum Sanctorum, home of Stephen Strange. This three-story townhouse at 177A Bleecker Street in New York's Greenwich Village was the Defenders' first and most recognizable meeting place.

  2. A Long Island riding academy owned by Nighthawk. The group first visited the ranch in Defenders #17. Nighthawk's penthouse later served as a base.

  3. A two-story house in Montclair, New Jersey, that Hellcat inherited when her mother died. The team relocated there in Defenders #89 after Nighthawk lost his assets. A street scene that issue placed the house on the corner of Hautvale and Cedar Streets.

  4. A mountaintop estate in New Mexico. Angel owned the mansion and surrounding land, which served as the base for the New Defenders.

I have never seen detailed floor plans of any of the Defenders' headquarters, but a sketch of the Sanctum Sanctorum and related notes appear below. The Defenders usually kept to the first-floor living room and adjoining library when they met there. Only Dr. Strange and his servant, Wong, lived in the building.

Third Floor: meditation chamber, library, storage area for occult artifacts, with a separate room for the Orb of Agamotto crystal ball.
Second Floor: Dr. Strange's bedchambers, guest quarters, Wong's bedchambers, and a study.
First Floor: foyer, drawing room, library, living room, dining room, and kitchen.
Basement: furnace, laundry room, and storage cellar.

An alleyway on Fenno Place led to a courtyard where Valkyrie often kept her winged horse, Aragorn.
Images here appeared in issues of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. Aragorn and the Sanctum Sanctorum are not to scale.