I’m still making my way through the digital comics I bought just after Christmas, and this time around I read the first Marvel Masterworks collection of The Defenders. (Twice!) I discovered The Defenders back in the mid-1980s at a 4th of July celebration and flea market at Lake Sacajawea in Longview, WA, USA. I stumbled across a booth that was selling cheap comics (either 50 cents each or maybe three for a buck) and I begged my mom for a couple of dollars, coming home with half a dozen books with characters like “Son of Satan” and “Hellcat” and “Gargoyle” and “Nighthawk,” because I thought that sounded like the type of book I should be reading… I LOVED The Defenders as a teenager, and so I bought this collection to see if the magic was still there…
Roy Thomas, Ross Andru, Steve Englehart, and Sal Buscema – The Defenders – Marvel Masterworks Volume 1 (2016)
According to the introduction, written by Roy Thomas, The Defenders sprang from a storyline he originally wrote in the Sub-Mariner comic, called “Titans Three,” and the original “Titans” were Sub-Mariner, The Hulk, and The Silver Surfer. However, Stan Lee, who was the almighty ruler of Marvel for about a thousand years, didn’t really like other people besides himself writing The Silver Surfer, so Thomas decided to replace the Surfer with Dr. Strange, when the concept for The Defenders actually got moving and shaking. By “moving and shaking,” I mean Roy Thomas was given a book called Marvel Feature for a few issues, which could feature stories about The Defenders, along with some other tales. These first few stories were pretty good fun (in that late 60s / early 70s style) in which Hulk gets mad and wants to “smash,” and the Silver Surfer (who pops in as a guest every now and then) wants to be left alone because humans are so horrible, and the Sub-Mariner is noble but hot-headed, and Dr. Strange is the “master” of the mystic arts, but constantly gets duped or screws up his spells almost causing the end of the world… Great stuff.
Then, by the time the most dysfunctional super-team ever got their own book, The Defenders #1, a new writer had taken over, Steve Englehart, and the stories start getting weirder and more psychedelic. Sal Buscema’s art is very good (compared to the charming but more 50s style of Andru), and rubber starts hitting road. The Englehart / Buscema team puts together some creepy, almost horror oriented tales, lots of knives and demonic beasts, and the tone that I remember from the books I bought that fateful day at Lake Sacajawea is almost complete. They even introduce (or re-introduce) a character called Valkyrie, a feminist warrior created when an evil sorceress grafts an artificial personality onto a catatonic, insane woman. It’s weird and kinda creepy, and for someone like me, very enjoyable.
The books reprinted in this collection are all from the very early 1970s, ‘71 to ’73, to be precise, and they came along at a time when Stan Lee was starting to let other writers with different voices (not just echoes of his own) take a bit of control and move the individual books into new directions. Roy Thomas, the original writer for “Titans Three” and the first Defenders stories, eventually became the editor for the series, and he let Englehart have free reign during his run as writer for the series, and Englehart took it into a much darker and stranger direction. (At least for the stories that I’ve read.)
This is a pretty entertaining collection, and it’s interesting to see how the series developed from a mere crossover event into a solid, dynamic concept. The first few tales in the book are kinda hokey, in that very 1960s, very “Stan Lee” style, but they are fun. Gradually, though, the stories do start to get darker, and by the time we get to Marvel Feature #3, the final story before The Defenders graduated to their own book, things have gotten VERY dark. That tale is about a weird space titan, Xemnu, who takes over the body of an astronaut returning from space and starts a children’s television show so that he can hypnotize a bunch of kids into coming with him on a rocket-ship to his home planet. We never learn exactly what Xemnu is going to do with the kids once he gets them into the rocket, but we assume it’s something awful. AND, unlike a lot of comics in this era, Xemna isn’t messing around and actually KILLS people. Gutsy! It’s dark stuff, and it set the tone for Englehart and Buscema, who took over directly afterward and really created something creepy and entertaining.
So if you like superheroes and magic, light horror and psychedelic art, you will probably enjoy The Defenders first Masterworks collection. The series kept going for about 150 issues, give or take a “giant sized” or “annual” book, here and there, before eventually giving up the ghost. What this mean for READERS is that there are a ton of stories of this stripe out there, if you decide you like the series. I really do, and I’m looking forward to being rich enough to buy the next volume someday! Until then, KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE SKIES! And keep reading. (But don’t strain your neck…)
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)