Dedicated to the definitive superhero non-team.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Generation Gap

When Marvel Comics launched Fantastic Four #1 (Nov. 1961), the youngest member of the new team was already recognizable. Teenage Johnny Storm matched the the powers and codename of Jim Hammond, the Human Torch who fought during World War II. So it was only fitting that the Human Torch was the first of Marvel's new generation of heroes to meet a crimefighter from that earlier era.

Fed up with the bickering among his teammates, Johnny took a breather from the Fantastic Four and checked into a rooming house (F.F. #4). Happening upon a Sub-Mariner comic book from the 1940s, the young hero recalled what he had heard about the fabled Prince of Atlantis.

Johnny Storm: (Thinking) I remember sis talking about him once! He used to be the world's most unusual character! Yeah, just like sis said, he could live underwater, and was as strong as ten men! He was supposed to be immortal!

Those thoughts spoke volumes.
  • The strength of ten men may have sounded impressive at the time. But like many of Marvel's strongmen, Sub-Mariner would prove to be far more powerful in future issues.

  • Suggesting that Prince Namor could be immortal—or at least long lived—allowed him to keep his World War II backstory and still look relatively young no matter how much time elapsed.

Back at the rooming house, Johnny Storm intervened when a fight broke out between a group of locals and a boarder who suffered amnesia and exhibited unusual strength.

Using his flame powers as the Human Torch, Johnny hoped that trimming the destitute man's unkempt hair would help him regain his memory.

Lo and behold, the clean-shaven stranger turned out to be none other than the legendary Sub-Mariner!

Though none of the characters mentioned it at the time, the return of the Sub-Mariner in Fantastic Four #4 was an almost reunion. After all, the Prince of Atlantis frequently fought alongside the original Human Torch (and sidekick Toro) during World War II.

Fantastic Four. Vol. 1. No. 4. May 1962. "The Coming of … Sub-Mariner!" Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby (penciler), Sol Brodsky (inker), Art Simek (letterer).
The Human Torch #5 (Summer 1941) was one of the many instances when Sub-Mariner teamed up with the original Human Torch.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Silver Sacrifice

One of the first objectives of the Defenders was to free the Silver Surfer from the cosmic barrier that trapped him on Earth. To much chagrin, the attempt failed (Defenders #3).

But why was the Silver Surfer trapped on Earth in the first place?

While working as the herald of Galactus, the Silver Surfer had scouted the Milky Way for a planet with the energy and resources necessary to sustain his master (Fantastic Four #48).

Soon after he arrived on Earth, a chance encounter with sculptress Alicia Masters persuaded the Surfer that it was wrong to let Galactus devour the planet (#49).

So in defense of humanity, the cosmic champion turned against Galactus (#50).

Silver Surfer: These are not ants, master! They think … they feel … they have even created the primitive civilization which we see all about us!

Unapologetically regarding himself as the top of the cosmic food chain, Galactus accused his herald of betrayal.
Silver Surfer: Betray you?? Never! But in truth I should betray myself if I did not fight to prevent the annihilation of a people! For here … on this lonely little world … I have found what men call … conscience!

All this time, the extraterrestrial Watcher had been observing the battle. At last, he decided to break his code of neutrality and intervene. With the Watcher's assistance, Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four stepped in and unveiled the Ultimate Nullifier, a weapon so powerful that it drove off Galactus.

As far as Silver Surfer was concerned, however, the eater of world got the last word.
Galactus: Since you shall be herald to Galactus no longer, I remove your space-time powers! Henceforth, the Silver Surfer shall roam the galaxies no more!

The Silver Surfer had been ready to die to spare the Earth. But for all his nobility, could he endure the emotional shortcomings and ethical lapses he might find among humankind?
Fantastic Four. Vol. 1. No. 50. May 1966. "The Startling Saga of the Silver Surfer!" Stan Lee (script), Jack Kirby (art), Joe Sinnott (inks), S. Rosen (lettering).

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

They Were the Champions

With the Son of Zeus and a demonic motorcyclist part of the regular lineup, the loosely organized Champions of Los Angeles played out like a West Coast branch of the Defenders.

A combination of camaraderie and necessity held the Champions together—but only for only so long. Interestingly enough, soon after the series ended with Champions #17, Hercules became a leader of the Defenders for a Day.

Iceman and Angel, of course, later joined the New Defenders (with Angel wearing the halo-crested costume he adopted during his time with the Champions).

A letter to writer Bill Mantlo and editor Archie Goodwin in Champions #15 discussed the five founding members of the team.

Dear Bill and Archie,

Thanks a lot! With CHAMPIONS #12 you've become my favorite Marvel mag, ousting AVENGERS out of the #1 spot—and that takes some doing!

Now to other things. The art was fabulous. Please keep John Byrne on CHAMPS, but have him inked by Frank Giacoia. As to the team itself:

  1. Hercules—By all means, keep him. Without Herc, the Champs would have no power. But try to keep his temper down, huh?

  2. Black Widow—She shows a great instinct for leadership, and the Champs definitely need a leader. But she needs to exhibit more control. Have her give orders, but don't overdo it.

  3. Angel—You're developing him beautifully. I think his new costume is great, and I've been waiting for a long time for the halo on his chest.

  4. Iceman—Mr. Drake is improving, also. Don't, I repeat, don't ditch the Iceman!

  5. Ghost Rider—You have a problem here. After reading the past lettercols, I get the feeling most fans don't think he fits in well, and I agree.

Danny Dragos
Kings Park, NY

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Seven Little Superheroes

The Defenders never had a television series of their own. But an episode of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends certainly had a Defenders-esque charm.

Spider-Man teamed up with Firestar and Iceman each week on the NBC Saturday-morning cartoon from the early 1980s. The episode titled 7 Little Superheroes upped the ante by bringing Sub-Mariner, Dr. Strange, Captain America, and Shanna the Jungle Queen into the mix.

Following the formula that Agatha Christie popularized in Ten Little Indians (a.k.a. And Then There Were None), each of the seven heroes received an invitation to an island estate. Not until they arrived did the heroes learn that their host was the mysterious Chameleon.

Revamped for the TV series, Chameleon made a suitably resourceful opponent. Using disguises and traps, he captured each hero one by one—from the dehydration devices that immobilized Sub-Mariner to the demon-robot that snatched Dr. Strange.

One of the episode's many highlights came near the end when Spider-Man triggered a chain of events that—like a reverse game of Mousetrap—allowed each of the other heroes to escape.

Equally praiseworthy were the apt portrayals of the guest stars—notably the standoffish short fuse of Sub-Mariner, the serene intellection of Dr. Strange, and the cooperative spirit of Captain America.

The episode 7 Little Superheroes first aired on NBC in the fall of 1981, before Iceman joined the Defenders and Firestar made her comic book debut.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Magic in the Mirror

An epic showdown between the Defenders and mind-controlled members the Squadron Supreme introduced the Earth-S hero named Arcanna and provided a glimpse at magic in the parallel universe that the Squadron called home (Defenders #113).

At the time, all of the heroes from the Squadron's world were thinly veiled versions of the Justice League of America. So when Arcanna readied to attack, she made like Zatanna from the JLA and spoke magic words backward to cast a spell.

Arcanna: sgnir fo ecrof dnuorrus ym ymeme.

Before the "rings of force" could surround anyone, though, a hex bolt from the Scarlet Witch defeated Arcanna. Future depictions of the character dropped the homage to Zatanna and allowed Arcanna to use her powers without reciting any magic words.

Later stories about the Squadron Supreme introduced another mage from Earth-S, the retired Professor Imam (first seen in Captain America #314). Carrying the title Wizard Supreme (as opposed to Sorcerer Supreme), Professor Imam filled a niche on Earth-S similar to that of Dr. Strange and his mentor, the Ancient One, in the mainstream Marvel Universe.

This image of Arcanna, from the first edition of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, shows the costume she wore in Defenders #113.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Defenders & Dragons

Ads for the Basic and Expert versions of the Dungeons & Dragons game appeared regularly in comic books during the early 1980s. Many of my friends who collected comics at the time also played D&D.

It occurred to me that several of the Defenders would work reasonably well as characters within that game.

  • Dr. Strange was surely a Magic-User, and a high-level one at that.
  • Hellcat's exceptional Dexterity and climbing abilities fit the bill for a law-abiding Thief.
  • With armor and sword, Valkyrie was a shoe-in for a Fighter with the maximum Strength score allowable for a player-character in the game. D&D stats for a pegasus would easily apply to Valkyrie's winged horse, Aragorn.
  • Daimon Hellstrom's religious motivation and healing powers approximated those of a Cleric (even if a trident wasn't one of the weapons available to that character class).
Of all the Defenders, Gargoyle was the closest match to one of the monsters from D&D. A gargoyle in the game, of course, would lack the hero's energy powers.
The above Dungeons & Dragons ad was from 1982.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Cover Versions: Death

The cover of Contest of Champions #3 (August 1982) may have felt oddly familiar to fans of the Defenders. The image of heroes circling the skull of Death was strikingly similar to the cover of Defenders #107 (May 1982).

Yet the purple-cloaked, skeleton figure of Death who introduced herself in Contest of Champions had not appeared in Defenders #107. Rather, the skull and dark background on that Defenders cover merely set the tone for the haunting story that issue, which mourned the apparent deaths of Nighthawk and Valkyrie. (Both characters, incidentally, were alive during Contest of Champions and among the numerous heroes to appear in the three-part series.)

Covers of the first two issues of the Contest of Champions appear below.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Contest of Champions

In what arguably was the first limited series in comics, Grandmaster and the personified entity of Death mystically transported almost every hero on Earth for consideration in the three-issue Contest of Champions (June, July, August 1982).

Dr. Strange, Mr. Fantastic, Professor X, and other leading minds tried to discern why everyone had been summoned until Grandmaster and Death finally outlined the rules of the competition.

In four scavenger hunts situated on different parts of the Earth, three heroes from each side would compete against each other to locate a corner of a mystic globe. If Death's team won, she would add one-million years to the life of Earth's Sun. If Grandmaster's team won, he would stop using Earth's heroes in competitions.

Grandmaster chose:

  • Captain America, Talisman, Darkstar, Captain Britain, Wolverine, Defensor, Sasquatch, She-Hulk, Daredevil, Peregrine, Thing, and Blitzkrieg.
Death selected:
  • Iron Man, Vanguard, Shamrock, Iron Fist, Storm, Arabian Knight, Sabra, Invisible Girl, Angel, Black Panther, Sunfire, and Collective Man.

Official ground rules stated that participation was limited to humans (including mutants). That forbade androids, extraterrestrials, and gods from taking part in this particular competition.

I'd like to imagine that some additional ground rules also came into play.

Given that all 24 of the chosen heroes participated without question, Grandmaster and Death may have sensed which of the summoned heroes felt strongly enough to fight for one cause over the other (further narrowing which combatants were available to each side). This interpretation adds depth to the series by revealing the characters' values. It's telling that Daredevil, who had outsmarted the Grandmaster once (Giant-Size Defenders #3), now fought for Grandmaster's conditional pledge to stop coercing Earth's heroes into battle.

Another unspoken rule must have been that in the event of a tie, Death won. This explains why Death declared herself victorious at the end of the series even though Grandmaster's team won two of the four challenges.

Contest of Champions was reminiscent of an earlier challenge between Grandmaster and the time-traveler Kang, which pinned Nighthawk and other members of the Squadron Sinister against four of Earth's mightiest heroes: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and Goliath (Clint Barton).

Each of those one-on-one battles also took place on a different part of the Earth (Avengers #70).

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Vampire Trouble

The guest appearance of Dracula in Defenders #95 was largely symbolic, drawing attention to aspects of different members of the team.

As a physician turned sorcerer, Dr. Strange found himself delivering some discouraging news. As a belated side effect of the serum that gave Nighthawk super powers combined with the mystic bonds that had restored him to life when he joined the Defenders (#14), Nighthawk now suffered paralysis during the day. Only after dark did he return to health.

Under the circumstances, it was easy to draw comparisons between Nighthawk's nocturnal inclinations and those of a vampire. Defenders #95 even described Nighthawk as swooping down like a man-sized bat as he flew over to greet his teammates. But the vampire parallels ended as soon as Count Dracula himself showed up that evening to do battle against the Defenders.

Although Gargoyle had only recently joined the team (#94), there were no doubts about his allegiance to the side of good. While other Defenders stood dumbstruck over Dracula's arrival, Gargoyle was the first to fight back.

The magic of Daimon Hellstrom revealed that Dracula was not acting of his own accord. Demonic forces had compelled him to hunt down the heroes. Casting out the evil spirits returned the legendary count to his usual blood-sucking self, while readying Hellstrom and the other Defenders for an inevitable final conflict against the netherworld (Defenders #99).

Defenders. Vol. 1. No. 95. May 1981. "The Vampire Strikes Back!" J.M. DeMatteis (writer), Don Perlin and Joe Sinnott (artists, assists by Giacoia & Milgrom), Diana Albers (letterer), George Roussos (colorist), Al Milgrom (editor), Jim Shooter (editor in chief).

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Night and Day

Though largely unacknowledged throughout most of his adventuring career, Nighthawk's strength doubled at night yet returned to normal during the day. The back-up story in Marvel Team-Up #101 brought that limitation to the forefront.

While flying above New York just before dawn, Nighthawk needed to let off steam. This was not surprising given that the main story that issue revisited the tragic mistakes of his past (Defenders #32).

With mini-lasers newly added to his costume, Nighthawk fired at the side of a run-down building. Yet in doing so, the self-doubting hero only made matters worse.

Hearing a cry for help, Nighthawk saw that the wall he had damaged was now coming loose—and about to collapse on top of a girl. Nighthawk used his superhuman strength to hold up a wall just long enough for the the girl to crawl to safety—and just as the sun was beginning to rise. Nighthawk felt his strength slipping away as the wall crashed down on him.

But the hero soon emerged from the rubble relatively unharmed. His reinforced wings had shielded him from injury.

The above image of Nighthawk appeared in The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.
Marvel Team-Up. Vol. 1. No. 101. January 1981.
"To Judge a Nighthawk!" J.M. DeMatteis (writer), Jerry Bingham (artist), Mike Esposito (inker), Diana Albers (letterer), Bob Sharen (colorist), Denny O'Neil (editor), Jim Shooter (ed-in-chief).
"Don't Let the Sun Come Up on Me!" Mike W. Barr (writer), Steve Ditko (artist), Jean Simek (letterer), Bob Sharen (colorist), Denny O'Neil (editor), Jim Shooter (editor-in-chief).