Dedicated to the definitive superhero non-team.

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).

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