Monday, May 21, 2012

Comics: Remembering the Defenders, pt. 3

In retrospect, the Steve Gerber years of the Defenders were probably the most puzzling, frustrating and utterly amazing run of comics ever written. Steve was clearly ahead of his time and if Eternity were around to meddle with reality for us, then a few tweaks in time and company could easily have seen Steve's version of the Defenders becoming a hit under the Vertigo line at DC comics years later.

There was something subversive about his use of the "Head Men," the often absurdist commentary on society, and utterly bizarre villains made his 20+ issues of the series something unique in comics. And, as I said, if it had been made a few years later, I think his run would have lasted for years and be considered more classic than it already is.

BTW: I don't know who wrote the entry for his Defenders run over at Wikipedia, but they hit the nail right on the head: Steve Gerber’s run on the Defenders saw a deconstruction of the superhero genre that predates the exploration of such ideas in the 1980s and 1990s.[3] Gerber first worked on the characters in Giant-Size Defenders #3 (January 1975) and became the writer of the main title with issue #20 the following month. He wrote the book until issue #41 (November 1976).[4] Gerber developed an individual voice that mixed adventure with social satire and absurdist humor throughout his lengthy run on The Defenders (including the introduction of Korvac). In one issue, for example, a group of supervillains, tired of always being beaten by the good guys, seeks out a self-help guru for motivation. Another important part of Gerber's oeuvre was reviving forgotten characters; he brought back three pre-Marvel characters, the Headmen.[5]The Defenders met Gerber's Howard the Duck in Marvel Treasury Edition #12 (1976).

The Defenders are Just Ducky The Defenders meeting Howard was an utterly mind-blowing experience. And I think one of the oddest things about it was... it worked. It seemed natural and not forced. Howard the Duck was an inter-dimensional traveler and the heroes took him to be just that -- not a guy in a duck suit (which was, of course, a running gag in his own series).

Doctor Strange even gives Howard a tour of the Sanctum Sanctorum (his house) and offers to use his powers to send Howard home. Somehow this odd meeting worked and didn't seem out of continuity or overly strained. You could actually picture Howard and Beverly meeting up with the Defenders, mooching a few meals and crashing at their pad and then moving on. It made sense, particularly since Steve Gerber was writing both titles at the time. Of course, it was the villains in that issue that really stand out as some of Gerber's grandest creations -- or should I say most blandest? The Band of the Bland:
  • Doctor Angst - A mediocre magician bent on seizing power and messing with reality.
  • Tillie the Hun - The aerobics instructor at Hefty Huggable Women's Health Club has a secret. She is none other that pillaging, plus-sized princess of power... TILLIE THE HUN!
  • Black Hole - He's actually the most dangerous of the group, with the ability to open a black hole in his chest and suck matter into some kind of pocket dimension. However, even he thinks this power is gross.
  • The Spanker - a disgraced headmaster fired for using too much corporal punishment.
  • Sitting Bullseye - A CIA operative who was undercover among the Indians to crack a bootlegging ring. The bootleggers, cracking his cover, tattooed a bullseye on his chest and sent him off. The easily identifiable mark would forever hinder his ability to work undercover and, subsequently, cost him his job. So, naturally, he became a super villain.
Despite their utterly absurd powers (or lack of them), they actually give the Defenders and Howard a run for their money in their attempt to assassinate Howard (oh yeah, he was running for the President of the United States back then against Jimmy Carter). I remember that even the Spanker (who I did not realize at the time was sort of a poor-man's Punisher" parody) got in a few cheap shots against Nighthawk and Beverly (he pistol whipped Kyle and took Beverly in hand for an OTK spanking -- that's Over The Knee to you civilians out there).

In all, it was an amusing issue that fit well into the continuity of both series, and even set things up for the Band of the Bland to make a few mediocre appearances elsewhere in the Marvel Universe over the years. Ahead of its time In many ways, I think Steve Gerber's run on the Defenders was just a few years too early to earn the sort of cultural significance it would have earned had it come about 10-20 years later. He was working in the early-to-mid 1970s, but if this series had run in the 1980s or 1990s it would have been received as much attention as the Grant Morrison and Rachel Pollack runs of the DOOM PATROL received.

More next week!

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