Monday, May 7, 2012

Comics: Remembering the Defenders, pt. 1

The new Avengers movie is fantastic. It is -- without a doubt -- the best of the new Marvel Movies to date. Yes, even better than Spider-Man 1 and Iron Man 1 or Captain America. This isn't too surprising, as  this movie is the culmination of work that was laid out in many of the previous movies.

Normally, when you get too many characters together in a movie, like the X-Men, you can wind up with some of them just standing around while the "hot" characters take the lead and then the minor characters get a few good scenes to justify their presence. There's a little bit of that in Avengers -- Tony Stark does seem to have a few more good scenes than the others, but not so much that he steals the show like Logan/Wolverine did in the early X-Men movies.

Thinking of the Avengers -- and their classic bot not-canonical line-up (of the movie cast, only Hulk, Iron Man and Thor were actually in Avengers #1), I started thinking of another team that I enjoyed -- and actually preferred to "Eath's Mightiest Heroes," and that would be "The Greatest Non-Team of them all," The Defenders.

The Defenders first appeared in late 1971 and featured three of the most powerful heroes in the Marvel Universe: Doctor Strange, Hulk and the Sub-Mariner. The thing was, they were not an official team like the Avengers, but three power houses who joined together to save the world and then went on their way... only to be drawn back together when needed.

Here's what it says at Wikipedia:
The Defenders is the name of a number of Marvel Comics superhero groups which are usually presented as a "non-team" of individualistic "outsiders," each known for following their own agendas. The team usually battled mystic and supernatural threats. Its original incarnation, often considered the most powerful formation of superheroes in the Marvel Universe, was led by Doctor Strange and also included the Hulk, Namor, and as a kind of belated addition, the Silver Surfer. They first appeared as The Defenders in Marvel Feature #1 (December 1971).

I picked up a few issues here and there when they first came out, but the series didn't really click for me until I picked up Defenders #45. I remember getting this issue and really enjoying seeing all these heroes that I didn't know, but who obviously had rich back stories, like Nighthawk and Hellcat. Not to mention Valkyrie, Power Man and Hulk, who I knew but hadn't seen in a while.

I don't recall much of the story (and if I pulled each issue to reread it, my next update would be sometime in July), but I seem to recall that half of the team was being controlled by someone and the other half of the team had to fight them. Typical stuff... and typically wonderful! This issue was a blast and I greatly enjoyed it. So much so that I hunted down recent back issues. In those days, you could often find 2-3 months of back issues just sitting on the stands, hiding behind the other comics at 7-11. As for comic book stores? This was 1977, people. Comic book stores were rare things in those days. More often you'd find a box of abused comics at a used book store and if you asked your mom nicely, she'd buy you 5-10 for a buck.

But back to the "Non-Team." You see, that's what the Defenders called themselves. A "non-Team." Whereas the Avengers had a battle cry, a leader, a base, equipment, and even begrudging recognition from S.H.I.E.L.D. and the US Government, the Defenders were not that official. By the time I came along in the mid 40s issues, David Anthony Kraft was presenting them almost as a group of super-powered buddies who hung out with each other and bashed baddies as a sideline. This was a radical departure from the other teams out at that time.
  • The Avengers were warriors
  • The Fantastic Four were family
  • X-Men were students
  • The Champions... well, I was never clear on what they were
But the Defenders were friends, and that's probably the reason why they were able to keep the Hulk around so long. I always figured that the Hulk didn't like being told what to do, which is why he resented the authority and orders that were always being barked at him in the early issues of the Avengers. Plus, let's be honest, he really didn't belong -- nor could he stay -- a member in that team and have it make any sense at all. After all, it would be ridiculous to have him standing next to Captain America and Thor in the Avengers only to have him being hounded by Gen. Thunderbolt Ross in the Hulk comic a few days later. It would diminish the authority and respect people have for the Avengers and just play too much havoc with continuity in general.

But in a team like the Defenders? Why not? They were not out to grab headlines, and in fact, most of them preferred to keep a low profile, anyway. In fact, half the time the team was complaining about how they didn't want to be there in the first place and were usually annoyed because Doctor Strange sometimes manipulated his "friends" into helping him save the universe. Plus, there weren't all those pesky rules over at the Avengers (training, roll-calls, meeting, etc.). The biggest rule at the Defenders seemed to be not to mess up Doc Strange's house while you were hanging out there.

The three of them together, along with the almost-immediate additions of the Silver Surfer and the Valkyrie, had a great combination of raw power and diverse skills to take on any and all comers, which they did on a regular basis.

But we'll talk more about that on Wednesday.

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