For Those Who Came In Late: Last time, we began our discussion of Marvel’s 1970s franchise THE DEFENDERS, conceived by Marvel writer/editor Roy Thomas after noticing the extremely positive fan reaction to a series of team-ups between customary loners Dr. Strange, Sub-Mariner, the Silver Surfer and the Hulk. After a somewhat by-the-numbers first issue, the Defenders’ tryout continued in the pages of MARVEL FEATURE…
The Defenders found themselves reunited in their second official appearance in “Nightmare on Bald Mountain,” again by the writer/artist team of Roy Thomas and Ross Andru, this time finding themselves pulled together at the behest of Dr. Strange’s disciple and main squeeze Clea, following the Sorcerer Supreme’s disappearance.
Turns out Strange had been kidnapped to serve as a host body for his old enemy the Dread Dormammu, and thanks to the interference of Namor, the Hulk, Clea and Doc Strange’s manservant Wong (who had unknowingly been sheltering Strange’s astral self all along), Strange pulls himself together in time to send Dormammu packing back to his own dimension.
It’s not a bad issue, but it’s marred by a bit of inside baseball that reared its ugly head over and over again in comics in the early 1970s written by Thomas and his cohorts Len Wein, Gerry Conway, Steve Englehart and some others: Thomas and company loved to put themselves in whatever comics they were writing, taking a trip to some small-town Halloween parade in Rutland, Vermont. They do this bit so often throughout the ’70s, the second you see it, it takes you right out of the story –“Christ! Rutland, Vermont again!”
There’s another odd detail that was actually quite common in Hulk comics though the late ’60s and ’70s, but seems quite jarring in retrospect in today’s rehab-happy culture: Bruce Banner popping handfuls of downers to keep from turning into the Hulk:
The Defenders’ next appearance in issue #3 wasn’t much more eventful, with the team facing the alien threat of Xemnu the Titan, a 7-foot-tall teddy bear with a steel skullcap who plans to steal Earth’s children to populate his own planet. It’s not much of an evil scheme really, and it ends in a most anti-climactic way, with the Hulk pounding away at Xemnu until he fades away without explanation, and once again the Defenders walk off their separate ways.
So, after having gotten off to such an inauspicious start, why was demand for the Defenders great enough to launch them into their own series only two months later? I don’t have any hard facts, but I do have a couple of theories.
First off, there was the sheer novelty of it. The super-team landscape at Marvel had been primarily two teams for most of the publisher’s existence: the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, with the X-Men coming in a distant third, often cancelled or subject to bimonthly or irregular publication schedules over the years. All of a sudden there was a new team on the scene with fairly big-name members, and that was fresh and exciting, even if the stories so far had been underwhelming. Moreover, the members themselves were new to the team concept, with the sole super-team veteran being the Hulk, who had only been an Avenger for a measly two months.
The other reason? Chemistry. For whatever reason, these three characters (well, actually four, as it wasn’t long before Stan relented and allowed the Silver Surfer to make regular appearances as well) simply gelled in a way no one could have anticipated. Loners and anti-heroes all, each brings a distinctly different vibe to the lineup, and yet they complement each other remarkably well. With the presence of Dr. Strange, you get the much-needed dose of authority and rationality, played against the wildly chaotic and mysterious nature of his powers. The hotheaded Prince Namor gives the team an unpredictable edge, an impulsive nature that sets it off well against the more predictable, responsible teams like the Avengers or the Fantastic Four. The Hulk provides not only the brute strength that every super-team needs, but also the heart, as more often than not the then-childlike Hulk plainly states that the only reason he sticks around is that Strange and Namor are the only ones willing to call him “friend.” Finally, the Silver Surfer brings the team some much-needed innocence and naivete, as well as the sheer power to allow the Defenders to face off against truly cosmic-level threats.
The lineup also gave the book a slight air of danger that the other team books didn’t have, with the members made up of so many loose cannons. It was easy to see that the Defenders would never be welcomed by the civilian population of the Marvel Universe the way the Avengers were. After all, you had an alien who first appeared on Earth working for a giant outer-space conqueror determined to eat the planet, the prince of an undersea nation that had invaded the U.S. more times than anyone could count (and who once threw tourists out of the Statue of Liberty, for pete’s sake), a rampaging green monster that was constantly being chased across the American Southwest by the U.S. Army, and apparently in charge, a creepy black-magic wizard guy.
It was easy to predict that there would be no “Defenders Appreciation Day” parades in the team’s future. And that worked for the series, as the team knew that whatever they did for the world, they’d never receive any credit for, or even any thanks. When the Avengers show up, people feel better, more secure. When the Defenders show up, people get nervous.
It was a theme that would continue with the Defenders’ future recruits, which would include a frequently insane feminist Asgardian goddess, a reformed supervillain, a senior citizen trapped in a hideously monstrous body, and oh, yeah — the anti-Christ.
Seriously. Come back next week and I’ll tell you all about it.