The Defenders

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Giant-Size Defenders #1 © 1974 Marvel Comics. (Cover art by Gil Kane and Frank Giacoia.)

The Defenders

(pop culture)

When is a team not a team? When they are a non-team. That, at least, was the logic behind the Defenders, a grouping of Marvel Comics’ misfits, loners, and losers that met with unexpected success and acclaim. Like DC Comics’ All-Star Squadron, the Defenders characters sometimes belong to other superhero groups, but can still hold membership within the team; however, most Defenders are offbeat and eternally team-less, or series-less, characters who unite out of necessity and disband at whim. The seeds of the group were sown in two 1970 issues of Sub-Mariner (#34 and #35), by writer Roy Thomas and artist Sal Buscema, in which the Sub-Mariner recruits the nearby Hulk and Silver Surfer to help him destroy a rogue weather-controlling device. Naturally enough, the three “collaborators” end up fighting both each other and the Avengers, but the combination of such seemingly incompatible characters struck a chord with both Thomas and the fans. Later the next year, Thomas brought the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk back together, teaming them this time with Dr. Strange, as the group the Defenders, for a three-issue run in the new Marvel Feature title. As in the Sub-Mariner strip, the three superheroes came together to dispose of an Earth-destroying device, in this case the Omegatron, created by dying sorcerer Yandroth. While they parted company at the end of the first issue, the pattern was set for adventures to come.

Shortly after the third issue of Marvel Feature, the Defenders were promoted to their own comic (August 1972), with new writer Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema on art (a role that he would hold for the next forty issues). Almost from the outset, the team members—including a returning Silver Surfer—would come and go, with Dr. Strange operating as a de facto leader, while the team used his sanctum sanctorum as their rendezvous point. Issue #4 introduced the first new “regular” team member, Valkyrie, previously seen in The Avengers (as a disguise for a Thor villain, Amora the Enchantress) and The Incredible Hulk (in which the Enchantress used an unwitting host body for Valkyrie’s persona). The current incarnation’s host body was Barbara Norriss, a catatonic ex-cult member. As Valkyrie’s warlike and stridently feminist persona asserted itself, the quest for her true identity became one of the comic’s central themes.

The Defenders fought a variety of Marvel’s stock of villains, including Magneto, the Red Ghost, and Attuma, and they were also part of the first extended inter-title crossover, in the so-called “Avengers/Defenders war,” which ran across eight issues altogether. Soon afterward, the group was joined by a defecting member of the Squadron Sinister, Nighthawk, a.k.a. wealthy heir Kyle Richmond, who had drifted into a life of crime to relieve his boredom but who would soon become one of Marvel’s most complex heroes.

With issue #20 (1975) and the arrival of eccentric genius Steve Gerber as writer, the comic entered its most memorable era. Gerber pitted the team, now reduced to a nucleus of Hulk, Dr. Strange, Valkyrie, and Nighthawk, against a bizarre group of deviant scientists known as the Headmen. One of these had his head transplanted onto the body of a gorilla, while another’s head was a large, ruby-red sphere. Gerber also explored Valkyrie’s schizophrenic existence, as her host body’s husband, Jack Norriss, suddenly appeared looking for his wife. Nighthawk, too, was developed as a character when first his girl-friend lost an arm in an explosion, and then his own brain was removed by the Headmen. Indeed, identity (and brains) proved to be a recurring theme of Gerber’s tenure, as the brain of Headmen member Chondu was transplanted first into an unsuspecting deer and then into a monstrous harpie’s body, while Valkyrie’s erstwhile husband Jack ended up in Nighthawk’s now-vacant body. Add to the mix a new (female) Russian superhero, the Red Guardian, a celestial mind-control cult called the Bozos, a caged-heat-style spell behind bars for Valkyrie, and a murderous elf with a gun, and it’s no wonder that fans were by turns amazed, amused, and bemused. Gerber left the comic after issue #41; his successor David Anthony Kraft sustained something of its strangeness, but by the turn of the decade it was just another superhero title.

The final twist in the team’s existence came in late 1982, when most of the group were jettisoned to make way for X-Men alumni the Angel, Iceman, and the Beast, in a failed attempt to cash-in on the X-Men’s soaring popularity. The fans failed to take the revamp to heart and Marvel—deciding to stick their lucrative stars into a comic with an “X” in its title—canceled The Defenders and created X-Factor in its place, leaving Valkyrie, Gargoyle et al. in limbo.

Since that time, two subsequent revivals have emerged, the first of which (in 1993) went back to the comic’s original premise of the “nonteam” by using “The Defenders” as a catchall title to showcase eclectic or underused superheroes. The Secret Defenders was based on Dr. Strange summoning the likes of Wolverine, Spider-Man, and the Silver Surfer to combat various mystical enemies, and ran for two years. The 2000 revival, with longtime fan Erik Larsen providing art and also co-scripting with popular writer Kurt Busiek, returned to the classic lineup of the team’s early years and was predicated on frantic action and old-style battles. Neither revival matched the popularity or quality of the Defenders’ glory years. —DAR