For Those Who Came In Late: Our marathon DEFENDERS coverage marches on, last time discussing the last few recruits of what’s considered the “classic” Defenders lineup, one of whom longed for something a bit more stable…
For most of the character’s history, Hank “The Beast” McCoy had been a team player. First in his formative years in the X-Men, then throughout the mid-to-late 1970s and early ’80s as an Avenger. In fact, other than his brief solo run in AMAZING ADVENTURES (where he gained his blue furry look that comics fans know and love), the Beast had always been on a superhero team, and DEFENDERS writer J.M. DeMatteis cannily incorporated that into the Beast’s characterization. While happy to find a new place to hang after leaving the Avengers, the Beast soon began to grow dissatisfied with the loose-knit, extremely casual nature of the Defenders’ team status, and began grumbling about making the Defenders “a real team.” He even began recruiting, calling up his old X-buddy Iceman to hang out and trying to convince his fellow Avengers expatriates Vision and Scarlet Witch to sign up as well, with little success.
Potential new members continued to arrive, however — first was another visiting friend of the Beast’s, Warren “Angel” Worthington, who had returned to the superhero life with renewed determination following his wings being clipped by the Morlock Callisto in the pages of X-MEN.
Also returning was the Valkyrie, fresh from a trip to Asgard where she’d been charged by Odin himself to watch over former Avenger-turned-Avengers-foe Moondragon. An extremely powerful psychic, Moondragon was judged by Odin to be of good intent if not action, and had sentenced her to wear a headband that would painfully curtail her psychic powers if she attempted to again use them to control the minds of others. It was to be Valkyrie’s job to keep Moondragon on the straight and narrow path.
It was this batch of heroes, along with the Gargoyle, that crystallized as what would be called “the New Defenders,” at, of all places, the wedding of the Son of Satan and the Hellcat.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a superhero wedding without supervillain gatecrashers, which was what we got in NEW DEFENDERS #125, when old Defenders enemies the Mutant Force attacked the ceremony, led by the Hellcat’s ex-husband Buzz Baxter, who had taken up his own supervillain career as the Mad Dog.
Despite a few early missteps, the New Defenders mop up the joint with the Mutant Force, convincing them to follow the Beast’s lead and become a full-time “serious” superhero team, whatever the hell that means.
But what about the “old” Defenders, you ask? They’d taken themselves off the lineup permanently, thanks to a talking-to from some time-travelling cosmic types calling themselves “The Tribunal,” who had convinced them that their unique combination of karma, their lifelines, if you will, would inevitably lead to the end of the world. The only way to prevent it was never to team up again. After a quick and mysterious goodbye at Daimon and Patsy’s wedding, the four founding Defenders fly off into the sunset.
So how was the NEW DEFENDERS as a series? Surprisingly good, I was pleased to-rediscover. Based out of Warren Worthington’s Colorado mansion known as “the Aerie,” the New Defenders quickly made a real run of things as a bona fide super-team, even earning official government clearance after receiving Nick Fury’s blessings. Writer J.M. DeMatteis soon handed off the storytelling reins to Peter B. Gillis, who took the book in a slightly less mainstream direction, with a moodier, more atmospheric feel and occasional side trips into noir and horror.
Take for example NEW DEFENDERS #134, in which the assassin Manslaughter begins hunting down the Defenders one by one in their own headquarters, in a creepy scenario straight out of Agatha Christie.
New member Cloud, a young woman with the ability to become, well, a cloud (and who tended to run around naked with wisps of cloud covering up the naughty bits), brought a shot of youth and excitement to the book (and a hint of romance to Iceman as well), and Valkyrie really came into her own here as the series’ resident strongwoman and the team’s “big gun.”
There was also another innovation brought to the series, in the decision that, since the Defenders operated so smoothly in battle that a field leader wasn’t necessary, the team’s leader would actually be Angel’s longtime girlfriend Candy Southern, who had been already operating as the team’s administrative coordinator.
The series’ artistic look also took a great stride forward, including a series of fantastic covers by Kevin Nowlan.
Also, when Gillis took over the series, he began incorporating the Eisnerian device of incorporating the series’ title into the splash page, a la THE SPIRIT, a fun tradition I much enjoyed. Artist Don Perlin did some of the best work of his career on this series, a great mixture of an open, cartoony style with a darker edgy feel.
But mostly the book got much darker, as it became clearer who the team’s true enemy was: one of their own, Moondragon, whose struggles with the “Dragon” within her, an ancient alien being she’d bonded with years before, were becoming increasingly evident. When the Dragon finally takes control, the battle with the Defenders is a brutal one, leading to the Gargoyle’s loss of a hand and the blinding of the Angel. It’s only through the Valkyrie’s assumption of her true godlike form and her calling in of her fellow Valkyries that the day is won, with the help of a betrayed Cloud, whose love for Moondragon manages to drive the Dragon back.
The series ended in NEW DEFENDERS #152, to make way for the premiere of X-FACTOR, which would reunite New Defenders Beast, Angel and Iceman with their old X-teammates Cyclops and the about-to-be-resurrected Jean Grey. However, the series went out with a bang, with a final colossal battle with Moondragon, one that would cost the lives of Gargoyle, Valkyrie and the most recently recruited New Defender Andromeda, an Atlantean warrior who’d barely gotten her foot in the door before making the ultimate sacrifice. As with most comic-book deaths, they’d be undone in good time, but that doesn’t lessen the power of this issue any, a fine finale by Gillis and Perlin.
Overshadowed by the classic DEFENDERS run that everyone remembers, NEW DEFENDERS was a gem of a series with keen characterization, sharp wit and a moody vibe that made it unlike anything else Marvel was publishing. Track down the back issues if you can.