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Marvel?s ?Non-Team?

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If the Avengers are Marvel’s quintessential superhero team, the Defenders are the antithesis of that. A loosely organized gathering of costumed heroes with no fixed roster, the Defenders enjoyed a successful run through the 1970s and early 80s as Marvel’s “non-team.”

In the 1990s and then in 2001, Marvel attempted to re-launch the Defenders with little success. This past week, a new Defenders mini-series began, seemingly poised to recapture the magic of the property, albeit with a humorous undertone. Over the course of the past 35 years, this motley group of super-powered adventurers has amassed a long and storied history.

Writer Roy Thomas (along with artists Sal Buscema and Jim Mooney) established the groundwork for the Defenders in the Sub-Mariner #34 & #35 (February/March 1971). In it, the unlikely alliance of the arrogant Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner, the stoic Silver Surfer and the brutish Incredible Hulk teamed up against a common foe. Over the course of the two-part adventure, the trio of heroes successfully vanquished their rival despite a constant bickering among themselves. The story proved to be surprisingly successful, once again proving that the human frailties the Marvel heroes resonated strongly with fans.

Building on this prototype, Thomas, Penciller Ross Andru and inker Bill Everett launched The Defenders in the pages of December 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. In this story, The Hulk and The Sub-Mariner join forces against the other-dimensionally Yandroth. Despite the success of the original trio, Stan Lee was reluctant to allow the Silver Surfer to appear regularly in another title (even though the Surfer’s own series had recently been cancelled, Lee was particularly protective of this creation). To fill this gap, Thomas brought Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts, Dr. Strange, out of self-imposed retirement. Once again, The Defenders struck a chord with fans leading to the launch of their own title in August 1972. The team operated as a trio in the first issue, but by #2, The Silver Surfer finally appeared, creating the core of Marvel’s “non-team.”

As the Avengers had a decade earlier, it didn’t take long for the roster of The Defenders to grow and change. Unlike their mighty counterparts however, the loose-knit organization of The Defenders meant there was no “official” members – only heroes that happened to work together frequently. The first “new” addition to The Defenders was The Valkyrie (#4, February 1973), a mighty female warrior who was often the voice of reason that kept the disparate Defenders together. Other key “members” included the reformed villain Nighthawk (#14, July 1974), Son of Satan Daimon Hellstrom (Giant-Sized Defenders #2, October 1974), Russian heroine The Red Guardian (Defenders #35, May 1976), the mage Clea (#39, September 1976), comic book fan Hellcat (#44, February 1977) and the Devil Slayer (#57, March 1978).

Up to that point, the population of the Marvel Universe generally did not know of the existence of The Defenders. When a film documentary exposed the team in the arc “Defender for a Day” (#62-64, August-October 1978), dozens of second-tier heroes (including Marvel Man, Havok, Captain Ultra and Jack of Hearts) turned out to vie for membership. None-the-less, The Defenders maintained their loose organization over the next several years, only adding three new recurring allies in the monstrous Gargoyle (#94, April 1981), the X-Men’s Beast (#104, February 1982) and Over Mind (#115, January 1983).

A major shift in the philosophy of the Defenders’ comic occurred with the anniversary issue #125 (November 1983) when the core of Doctor Strange, The Silver Surfer, The Hulk and Namor left the team. Under The Beast, the Defender’s were organized into a more typical superteam, with a fixed base of operations and roster. Former X-Men Angel and Iceman joined the team, along with the telepathic martial artist Moondragon, as the series was re-titled the New Defenders (later additions included Cloud, Andromeda, Manslaughter and Interloper). This new direction failed to re-vitalize the franchise however and the series was cancelled. In the final issue (#152, November 1983) the team faced a traitorous Moondragon, resulting in a high body count. Angel, Beast and Iceman all survived (to star in the new X-Men title, X-Factor) and even the deceased members eventually returned as the short-lived team “Dragon Circle” (appearing in Doctor Strange #3 & 4, May 1989).

The Defenders property laid dormant until 1992 when a new series was announced. As before, the “Newer” Defenders first appeared as a prototype in Doctor Strange #50 (February 1993), with Strange, Hulk, Silver Surfer and Ghost Rider joining forces. This was followed by the launch of Secret Defenders in March, written by Roy Thomas (who was followed by several other writers). Taking the “non-team” concept to the furthest extreme, the book focused on Dr. Strange who, using his tarot cards, would assemble a team tailored to the specific mission. 

Strange’s teams were made up of ecclectic mix of popular 90s heroes and anti-heroes including Wolverine, Nomad, Darkhawk, Spider-Woman II, The Punisher, Namorita, Sleepwalker, Scarlet Witch, Spider-Man, Captain America, War Machine, Thunderstike and Nova. Writer Ron Marz introduced a second, unrelated group of Secret Defenders in issues #12-14 (February-April 1994), consiting entirely of villians – Thanos, Geatar, Super-Skrull, Nitro, Titanium Man and Rhino. With issue #15 (May 1994), Tom Brevoort and Mike Kanterovich took the series in a new direction, as Dr. Strange appointed Dr. Druid as team leader. Druid’s various recruits proved again to be an ecclectic mix (including Deadpool, Luke Cage, Shadowwoman, Cadaver, Iron Fist, Giant-Man, US Agent, Sepulcre, Deathlok, Drax the Destroyer and Dagger), but could not sustain the already flagging series. Secret Defenders was quietly cancelled after March 1995’s issue #25.

It was Kurt Buseik and Erik Larsen that next resurrected the Defenders with a new series in March of 2001. Due to a curse cast by Yandroth, Dr. Strange, Hulk, Namor and the Silver Surfer found themselves drawn together to face various crisises. The series also brought back many classic Defenders characters, including Nighthawk, Valkyrie and Hellcat (as well as a new recruit – Red Raven – in issue #7, September 2001). Defenders Volume 2 concluded after issue #12, which spun off into a new mini-series by Busiek and Jo Duffy. In The Order, the four core members of the Defenders became more aggressive, deciding to take over the world in order to better defend it. Opposed by many of their former allies, the Order broken when it was revealled that Yardoth was influencing the four heroes mental state. Freed from Yardoth’s domination, the Defenders reunited, but the story was never continued following The Order #6. 

The most recent version of the Defenders launched this past week, with Defenders Volume 3 #1, beginning a 5-part mini-series by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire. Best known for their work on the late 80s version of the Justice League (and more recently, Formerly Known as the Justice League and I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League), the creators reunite Doctor Strange, Namor, The Hulk and (to a lesser degree) the Silver Surfer against the combined threat of Dormammu and Umar. Infusing The Defenders with a decidedly less serious tone (in an interview, Giffen liken Hulk, Namor and Dr. Strange to Bluto Blutarsky, Niles Crane and Bob Newhart, respectively), the trio of creators hope to revitalize the Defenders franchise – assuming the mini-series sells well, Giffen, DeMatteis and Maguire have all expressed interest in working on an ongoing Defenders series.

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