Here’s an odd thought, especially in terms of what’s been popular in the Marvel Universe for much of the last three decades. If you were to go back in time to, say, 1976 or so, and ask your neighborhood comic-book reader to name three superhero teams in the Marvel Universe, the X-Men wouldn’t even be on the list. Sure, they were around, but they were hardly on the forefront, appearing in a bimonthly book and not really all that visible in Marvel’s promotion and merchandising at the time. So what would the answer have been?
No question: the Fantastic Four, the Avengers and the Defenders.
Yep, there was indeed a time when this now long-departed super-team franchise was indeed a major player in the Marvel Universe, primarily, I think, because of its willingness to take the normal rules of the team book and throw them out the window. And unlike so many other Marvel stories, this one begins not with Marvel Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee, but with his then-protégé, Roy Thomas.
By 1970, Thomas (or “Rascally Roy,” as the nickname-happy Stan had dubbed him) had taken over the writing duties on many of Marvel’s series, including DR. STRANGE, SUB-MARINER and THE INCREDIBLE HULK. When DR. STRANGE was cancelled due to flagging sales, Thomas tied up one of his dangling Dr. Strange storylines in the pages of SUB-MARINER. Not long after that, Thomas featured Dr. Strange as a guest star in an issue of INCREDIBLE HULK. But things really started to coalesce in January and February of 1971, when Thomas teamed up Sub-Mariner, The Hulk and the Silver Surfer in the pages of SUB-MARINER #34 and #35, in which the three outcasts team up to prevent the implementation of a U.N. nuclear weather-control station, which Namor’s Atlantean scientists are convinced will wreak untold havoc on the planet. Naturally, the arrival of the King of Atlantis, the alien herald of Galactus and the fricking incredible Hulk doesn’t exactly sit well with the UN military forces stationed there to protect the station, but after a quick demonstration by the Surfer, they retreat, only to call in some assistance that’s a little better equipped to deal with the situation: the Avengers.
The arrival of Thor, Iron Man and Goliath on the island sets off an immediate brawl, of course, one which is only halted by the brave pleas of Namor’s betrothed, Lady Dorma, who convinces the military to halt the attack while Namor’s scientists test out the UN weather-control station.
When Namor is proven right, the UN agrees to rethink the implementation of the facility, and Namor, the Surfer and the Hulk go their separate ways, with just a hint towards the future from the Sub-Mariner:
As it turned out, these issues of SUB-MARINER were a big hit, both creatively and on the sales charts, so much so that Thomas soon came back to bossman Stan with a proposal for a new series: THE DEFENDERS, which would feature the team adventures of Namor, the Hulk and the Surfer on a permanent monthly basis. A good idea, and a proven seller. Should be a no-brainer, right?
Back in those days, Stan was very protective of the Silver Surfer, considering him to be his personal trademark character, so much so that he tended not to let anyone else write the character on a permanent basis. (Reportedly, part of the reason for the cancellation of the Surfer’s acclaimed solo series was that he no longer had the time to write it and didn’t have the heart to hand over the reins to anyone else.) Along those lines, the story goes that Stan rejected the DEFENDERS concept due to his attachment to the Surfer, not wanting the character appearing in a monthly series. Undaunted, Roy tried again, this time replacing the Surfer with the at-the-time-seriesless Dr. Strange, and this time it got the green light from Stan the Man, paving the way for the December 1971 official debut of the Defenders in MARVEL FEATURE #1, in “The Day of the Defenders!”, written by Thomas and drawn by Ross Andru.
Here we see Dr.Strange summoned by an old enemy of his, the evil sorcerer/scientist Yandroth, who mystically beckons to Strange from his deathbed to inform him of his final plot: the creation of an unholy device called the Omegatron, which will become active upon his own death, and will five hours later explode every nuclear device on Earth. Talk about your sore losers. Just moments later, Yandroth is a stiff, and Doc Strange has a small matter of Armageddon on his hands.
Realizing he’s going to need a little help with this one, Dr. Strange tracks down Namor and enlists him to help destroy the Omegatron. Agreeing to take part, Namor suggests recruiting his own recent allies from the weather station affair, the Silver Surfer and the Hulk. A magical portal reveals that the Surfer is out of commission after hurling himself yet again at Galactus’ barrier preventing him from leaving Earth (kind of like a parakeet and a glass door). The Hulk, however, is up to nothing special, as Doc Strange discovers when he tracks the Green Goliath down in his astral form. Another discovery is made as well: for some reason, the Hulk can see Dr. Strange in his astral form:
The Hulk is talked into coming along, and the trio is off:
They make their way to a mysterious lighthouse, where they must force their way through a variety of traps and barriers, until Strange finally faces off with the Omegatron, a sentient computer that reveals Yandroth’s final gambit:
Now faced with preventing his new teammates from attacking, Strange uses his sorcery to set them against each other…
…then uses the Eye of Agamotto to warp the flow of time around the Omegatron, insuring that the time of destruction will never arrive.
Dr. Strange relates the tale to his fellow Defenders, who happen to name the team while at the same time declaring not to team up again:
It wouldn’t be the first time we’d see the Defenders part, though. These guys break up more often than Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson…
More on the Defenders’ early days next time. Join us, won’t you?