Marvel was long known as the company of the superhero teams. By design or coincidence, each Marvel team has its own theme, though the theme could change. The Fantastic Four are a family. The Avengers started out as the premier league, but later became a reform school when Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch joined. The X-Men started as a school and became an extended (and fractious) minority community. The Champions weren’t much of anything and so flopped. Thunderbolts took on the reform school thing until…well, that’s a story in itself.
At first sight, the Defenders don’t have a real theme, either. They are simply the “non-group” of people who don’t want to work together but have to. But something more than that kept the title selling enough copies for a 125-issue run from 1972 to 1983.
Something made Marvel revive the Defenders 12 times, not including their late-issue revamp as the New Defenders or the all female Fearless Defenders.
You could just say they were good stories, and I’d be on board for that. But I don’t think that’s the whole answer. There was good stuff in Omega the Unknown, too, but that lasted ten issues and a bad script-killing crossover.
But the Defenders did a lot of things you saw later, elsewhere. Take Spider-Man. For years we all bought into the idea he was too much of a loner to be a member of a group, and then he joined the Avengers. It was a landmark move by Marvel
Now think of Dr Strange. He is about as much of a loner as you can get. He’s literally not always in the same world as the rest of us. Even when he is in this world his view of things is very skewed compared to ours. He’s seen things like Dormammu and even among comic-book superheroes that is kind of weird. I mean, look where the guy lives.
And yet he joined the Defenders and was just fine.
Then there’s the latest hot-stuff event: Thor is a woman. It happened in the Defenders, and her name is Valkyrie.
When Thor started he had a human host, Dr Donald Blake. Whoever held the hammer, if he (yes, he) was worthy, would have the power of Thor. Dr Blake was a host. There may have been others before. Later, of course, Dr Blake was always Thor, a secret identity so secret it was even a secret from him.
Brunhilde is called Valkyrie and is the leader of the Asgardian Valkyries. Barbara Norriss was her usual Donald Blake, though there were others. Valkyrie had a magical weapon, not a hammer but a sword named Dragonfang. To fly she rode a winged horse named Aragorn. But she is a variation on Thor, a kind of Mon-el to his Superman.
But good ideas are not enough. Omega the Unknown had some interesting ideas and a ten-issue run plus a bad script-killing crossover.
It’s the theme. Not the theme of the “non-group,” which was how it was sold. That is a nonsense. What is a non-group of people? It’s a group of people who aren’t together, and the Defenders were together. As to them not wanting to be together but they had to be, two of them got married. The clue is in the membership.
There’s no Captain America. And he shouldn’t be. The Black Widow isn’t there. Neither are any members of the Fantastic Four. None of them should be there. They wouldn’t fit in because they fit in.
The Defenders are not a non-group, the are an out-group. They are the people society doesn’t like, those who came from outside and never got it, or who can no longer see the world in the way other people do. Let’s take the three original members.
The Hulk. The government spends tax dollars to stop this guy from saving the world. This is not an election issue. I don’t know why that is. But he’s kind of unpopular.
Then there’s Namor the Sub-Mariner. Bloody immigrant. Namor doesn’t really get this society despite having been dealing with it for, like, 45 years by the end of the Defenders run.
Everything America does, Atlantis does differently and there isn’t a lot of common ground. A monarchy versus a republic; a warrior versus a commercial society; a history of being attacked and having to find refuge versus a history of conquering a large area of the planet.
Dr. Strange was accepted by this society. He was a surgeon, and a very good one. Naturally, that made him rich. Then came the accident and he turned to the mystic arts.
Dr. Strange perceives in a way others cannot understand. It’s like the one person who’s been to war or the one person who’s lived rough on the streets. The ones who’ve never seen battle or always knew where their next meal was coming from will never understand.
From there the other members basically fit in one or more of these categories. The Silver Surfer perceives differently and is an immigrant. Valkyrie is an immigrant.
The Beast is rejected like the Hulk. Luke Cage is a reject who is also an immigrant, since he comes from a subculture which does things differently. But speaking of rejection, you can’t go past Son of Satan. The Son of Satan is just that, a child of Satan himself. The Gargoyle is Isaac Christians, who makes a deal with a coalition of demons. Let’s think about that for a second. This goes way beyond Avengers or Thunderbolts as a reform school.
Even atheists hate people who make deals with the devil. Let alone people who are the Devil’s son. Put them in with the rejected.
Nighthawk and Hellcat are the closest-to-normal regular members the Defenders ever had. And that was probably why Nighthawk never really worked. Again and again, Nighthawk simply calls on the Defenders for help, he is frequently kidnapped, and a bomb injures him and causes his girlfriend to lose an arm. She then leaves him. Basically, Nighthawk never got past his origin as an imitation Batman.
Hellcat was an Avenger. As Patsy Walker she started in 1944 as a character in teen comedy but her titles had ceased publications before she was revived and made into the Hellcat by putting on the costume of the Cat.
How do they fit into the categories of membership? Actually, the characters don’t but their publication histories do. I know what you’re thinking, I would, too. But hear me out.
Nighthawk is a cheap imitation not just of style but significant plot points of Batman. He’s the playboy son of a millionaire who’s a chemist who puts on a dark costume and uses themed devices. He has a black man to run his companies, JC Pennysworth, one ‘s’ away from the name of Batman’s butler. So even little touches referred back to the original.
Patsy Walker came from a different era of comics. She was a comedy figure who had a boyfriend “Buzz” Baxter. She was not originally part of this society but a previous one.
Too much of a stretch? I would think so, too, but the Defenders did it again.
One of the most imaginative villains the Defenders ever faced were the Headmen. This group still has a lot of untapped potential.
Like most Defenders villains, they had some unique elements. All four members had something different from normal with their heads.
Dr Jerold Morgan accidentally shrunk his skeleton, giving his head a look like melted wax. Dr Arthur Nathan’s apes, whom he used as donors for transplantation to humans, agreed with his wacko ideas and put his human head on a gorilla body. Chondu the Mystic was a circus stage magician who actually had mystic powers.
In their second appearance the three men were joined by Ruby Thursday, a statuesque woman who had her own head cut off and replaced with an organic computer. This took the shape of a red sphere most of the time, but it could change shape such as to become big red lips (she kisses Nighthawk but, yeah, I get the reference) or to extend tendrils to grab people.
They are basically in the reject category. Though I think they could still be of use like in fights with with the Leader or MODOK, who are basically potential Headmen, themselves. Some superhero’s bound to get caught in that crossfire.
The Headmen had one of the most interesting backgrounds of any supervillain group ever. To this day, nearly forty years after their first appearance, their only origin is their publishing history.
The original three all appeared in an Atlas comic. They were separate stories done in the days when Marvel subsisted on horror stories. They were taken up and put together as a team of villains. That’s it, the whole story.
So if they can make the Headmen exist based on their publishing history, why can’t the publishing history of Nighthawk and Hellcat have a similar influence on their characters? It’s kind of like breaking the fourth wall in reverse but it seems to be something the Defenders did. Looking at it, maybe they should do it more often in comics.
Even without the fourth wall element, though, Nighthawk is a rich criminal and that makes him unacceptable. It’s not like he was stealing food to eat.
And when Patsy Walker was reintroduced, she was a social isolate. She was estranged from her husband, her high-school sweetheart. She redeemed her weak reject status by marrying the Son of Satan.
The Defenders stand outside society. For whatever reason they are the outgroup. And who gets accepted, who gets to judge others, and what is reality were three story themes that helped bind the Defenders together.
Take Alpha the Ultimate Mutant. Created and controlled by Magneto, this ultimate mutant begins life unintelligent and ape-like. But as he uses his powers, Alpha’s cranium grows. So do his intelligence and maturity.
Eventually he uses his telepathy to see into the hearts of the Defenders and Magneto. That tells him who are the good guys. He then decides he is too evolved to stay on Earth, so he flies into space under his own power.
Who gets to judge is an underlying theme of Defenders stories. It is only when Alpha is ready can the judgment occur. But Alpha himself, before he can make that judgment, does as he is told by Magneto. None of his attacks caused permanent damage but they were attacks.
Was Alpha just obeying orders?
How does Magneto create a mutant like Alpha? Not through anything that’s fun. He discovers a lost alien civilization under the Earth, gets hold of its books (which are on paper, amazing) and learns how to artificially create the ultimate mutant.
So Alpha is like Namor and Valkyrie: the product of a different civilization. In many ways, it’s the reverse of the Superman story.
You could write whole dissertations about Alpha and morality.
Take another example, Nebulon the Celestial Man. He is a silver haired, golden skinned man with a starfield costume. He is also one of those alien entities who is technologically advanced and/or superpowered but morally bankrupt.
He wants to melt the polar icecaps and flood the world. It will kill everyone but his people will be able to move to this planet. For some reason he recruits the Squadron Sinister to help him.
Technically he doesn’t need supervillains, but that’s who he recruits. But Nighthawk doesn’t like the idea so he contacts the Defenders. He asks the other Squadron members why they’re helping Nebulon: the death of the Earth will kill them, too. They tell him there are any number of interdimensional Earths Nebulon can send them to.
But if that’s the case, why not just go to other dimensions and find a flooded Earth with no intelligent life ever developed?
Nebulon is not the sharpest tool in the shed, and there are only sledgehammers in there.
The Defenders intervene. In the battle, Nebulon is hit enough that he changes back to his natural form. He’s a kind of ten-foot-long lamprey with tentacles and he drools a lot. I don’t know why he needs that much spit. If he’s aquatic, keeping his mouth moist should not be a problem. Still, he’s defeated.
And Nebulon returns. This time he decides he has to save the Earth whether it wants to be saved or not. At least he lets everyone know they’re in danger and offers his solution: a cult. It was the seventies after all.
Once again the Defenders stop him and once again he tries something else. But Nebulon’s own actions catch up with him and so do his people. It seems planet destroying was not on their agenda. So they try Nebulon for treason – and Nebulon runs away.
He changes form again, and as the deceased Lady Dorma tries to convince the Atlanteans to attack London. The Avengers and Defenders come in, as does Nebulon’s wife. The upshot is Nebulon and his wife die and the couple are buried on Earth. In a surprising plot twist, they stay dead.
The Defenders often face bizarre and occult opponents. They owe their origin to the Cthulhu-like Undying Ones lead by the Nameless One. There is The Six-Fingered Hand (a coalition of minor demons), the Dragon of the Moon, Loki, and Dormammu.
They also face the Sons of the Serpent. I’m not sure if that’s an editorial comment that racists get put on the villain roster with mostly diabolical inhuman evil, but if it is it’s a bloody brilliant.
And that returns us to that other theme of the Defenders. This is the one that made it succeed for so long, made it seem so revivable, and yet was overlooked so the revivals have not been very successful.
These people are members of an outgroup. They are judged as insufficient by the ingroup despite their enormous talents. But who gets to make that call? Who has the right to judge people or society as a whole?
Is the Hulk worthless for not being smart? Is Dr Strange…well…strange for having a different opinion of how the world works? I know everyone will say no, but in reality a former surgeon who turns to the occult would be considered insane. He would be fair game for the media.
An old man who makes a deal with a coalition of demons? A criminal trying to go straight? Figures to be mocked and criticized.
And yet, the enemies of these people judge society. And they mostly find it wanting. And a lot of them want to overturn it, take it over, or kill it. Yandroth was going to blow it up. Nebulon was going to flood it. And so on.
It was this element that made the bizarre parts work. Nebulon, in starting a cult, tries to intimidate non-members with followers in Bozo masks shouting “bozo” at them. It is this that makes “Defender for a Day” work.
I know fans either love or hate this story and, let’s be honest, I love it. Basically, a call is made for some new members. Heaps of people show up.
I always liked it because why would so few applicants show up to Legion tryouts? They have a universe full of superpowered people and they get three or four applicants at a time, most of whom are jokes – though some of those jokes turn out to be incredibly powerful, like Color Kid.
But in this case the story underlines several things. The Defenders are an outgroup, but an outgroup of very capable people. The candidates have severe limitations. The issue – which is important for fiction – is that the outgroup does not deserve their rejection.
It’s partly a way to get us to invest in the characters. Unworthy people who are rejected do not tell much of a story. But it also shows they who are judged, will judge. There is no magic formula of who gets to judge whom. Once the Defenders have something they have something to defend.
In the seventies, this was a significant issue for a lot of people on a very personal basis. Many old shibboleths were being turned upside down, broken up, and sometimes put together into new forms – many of those scams. That’s why Nebulon forms a cult with clowns calling other people clowns. That’s why stories can enter the bizarre with guest stars like Howard the Duck and yet also have straight supervillains like the Wrecking Crew (first appearance was in the Defenders, by the way).
You probably expect me to say the eighties were different and that’s why the Defenders were canceled. But there have been many attempts to revive them. The latest – the Fearless Defenders – even used the outgroup thing.
Valkyrie has much the same “I’m an immigrant I don’t get things” role but ramped up. Misty Knight parallels Luke Cage. A non-combatant lesbian, Annabelle Riggs, has the hots for Valkyrie (who can blame her). As members are added they generally fall into the same categories as before.
But the team was all female and Marvel didn’t have enough female characters to fill such themed slots. There wasn’t the element of judgment. The two titles, Defenders and Fearless Defenders, had too little connection. But I believe the idea of a team – possibly all women – who have seen so much they cannot connect with others – would still work. The Defenders stories have not dated like some other stories from the era. Possibly that’s why the Defenders are the best that Marvel offered in the 1970s. In terms of cosmic realities, forty years later isn’t that far away.