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The Defenders: A Non-Team History - Part 1

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The Defenders, the greatest super-hero non-team that almost never were, return next week in Marvel's The Last Defenders #1. To celebrate Joe Casey's new direction for the team Broken Frontier kicks off with the first part in a history of this oddball super-group.

The Defenders was an idea that, by rights, should never have worked. Put a group of solo characters who, because of their basic natures, would never join a group, in just such a group and see what happens.

Strangely, what happened was a surprising success story

The Defenders first came together in issues #1-3 of Marvel Feature, published quarterly between December 1971 and June 1972 and were the creation of writer Roy Thomas and artist Ross Andru. The concept, however, had already been tried out once before, in two issues of Sub-Mariner (#s 34-35) earlier in 1971

Then, Thomas had teamed the ever grumpy fish man with the even grumpier Hulk and the frankly depressing Silver Surfer in a loose alliance called, strikingly but ungrammatically, ‘Titans Three’. The tale was always intended as a tryout for a more permanent teaming of the characters, and readers liked it. But Marvel supremo Stan Lee was then fiercely possessive of the Surfer, so when Thomas was given the go ahead for a further tryout, there was no way the surfboarding misery could be a regular part of it. This decision undoubtedly had an overwhelmingly positive effect on the team’s future, as the character Roy chose as his replacement proved central to the Defenders’ subsequent development!

Doctor Strange was at that time something of a faded star in Marvel’s firmament. The mystic master’s own series had been cancelled some time before, though he’d made a few guest appearances, noticeably in Sub-Mariner #22. Still, in his last appearance, he’d retired from the hero business, supposedly for good. A backup story in Marvel Feature #1, though, established how and why he was back in harness (and eliminated his short-lived masked hero look at the same time). It was Doc who actually gathered the Hulk and Sub Mariner to aid him in thwarting the schemes of the villainous Yandroth, a minor bad guy from Strange’s past whose apparent death in this issue wouldn’t stop him from becoming the group's most persistent nemesis.

The name ‘Defenders’ is coined at the end of their first issue, but the trio clearly have no wish to ever reunite. Nonetheless, reunite they do, twice more in the next few months to face a cult of worshippers of the dread Dormammu (Marvel Feature #2) and the ever so slightly silly Xemnu the Titan from Marvel’s old monster titles (Marvel Feature #3). With issue #4, Marvel Feature gained a new star in Ant-Man, but the Defenders’ future was assured. Roy Thomas, however, would not be a part of it...

The Defenders #1 appeared in August 1972, written by Steve Englehart and drawn by the ever reliable Sal Buscema. At first, the stories followed the same basic formula as the Marvel Feature run, with Strange, the Hulk and Sub-Mariner coming together reluctantly to face a variety of mystical menaces. They were joined briefly in issue #s 2-3 by the Silver Surfer (who has been inexplicably regarded as a founding member by more recent writers despite his minimal involvement in this series). Issue #4, however, changes the status quo by introducing The Valkyrie, a mysterious, amnesiac warrior woman who is the group’s first new recruit.

Some months before, Hulk #142 had introduced the character of The Valkyrie, a woman named Samantha Parrington transformed by the evil Enchantress into a sword-swinging man-hater. It was a temporary transformation but, later, the Enchantress had used the Valkyrie identity herself in a scheme to attack the Avengers. Now, a third Valkyrie was created, bonded to the insane former cultist Barbara Norris (first seen in Sub-Mariner #22, one of the issues which had led indirectly to the Defenders’ formation). Abandoned by the Enchantress, and having decided in any case that she’s on the side of the angels, Valkyrie decides to join the Defenders - to the consternation of the other three, who insist that there is no such team.

Naturally, if the book was to succeed, it could not rely on some coincidence causing the three founders to join together every issue, and the arrival of the first member to belong solely to the Defenders (as opposed to being an established solo character) is the first step towards formalising the teams existence. The "big three", though, would continue to insist that the Defenders were a "non team". Another secondary character was introduced a couple of issues later, in the shape of former Avenger Hawkeye (it’s notable that having just quit the Avengers to prove that he can make it on his own, Hawk immediately finds another group to join). Ironically, following a skirmish with the Atlantean warlord Attuma and his ally the Red Ghost, the battling bowman almost immediately finds himself up against his former team-mates as issue #8 sees the beginning of the Avengers-Defenders War

This seven part crossover (Defenders #s 8-10 and Avengers #s 115-118) was fairly predictable with hindsight, given that Steve Englehart was also writing Avengers at the time, but it remains a high point of the series all the same. The Valkyrie’s debut story had guest starred ex-Avenger the Black Knight, who was turned to stone by a vengeful Enchantress at the tale’s conclusion (Val had inherited his Ebony Blade and flying horse Aragorn). The Knight’s fate is used by Dormammu and old Avengers foe Loki to set the two teams against each other for their own purposes. Naturally, our heroes part as friends, and the Defenders go on to discover in issue #11 (Englehart’s last) that the Black Knight’s spirit has travelled back to the Twelfth Century to fight in the Crusades alongside King Richard, inhabiting the body of his own ancestor! Luckily, Valkyrie got to keep the horse...

Hawkeye had never been intended to be more than a guest star, but new writer Len Wein quickly introduced another new member to the team who would prove to have a bit more staying power. Issues #13-14 see the Defenders go up against the Squadron Sinister and their alien employer, Nebulon the Celestial Man - all of whom would become recurring foes. Nebulon plans to flood the Earth, which the Squadron have obligingly sold to him, in order to make it suitable for colonisation by his own race. In the end it’s not the Defenders, but Squadron member Nighthawk, whose change of heart saves the world, almost at the cost of his own life. With Nighthawk, really wealthy playboy Kyle Richmond, having effectively "replaced" the constantly sulking Sub-Mariner, the Defenders’ team status is more or less cemented

Issues #15-16 are notable for the appearances of guest star Professor Xavier of the X-Men and the villainous Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, the latter out to rule the world with the artificially created "ultimate mutant", Alpha. Fortunately for the world, otherwise doomed to languish under the tyranny of a bloke with a bucket on his head, Alpha has no desire to conquer anything and quickly abandons Magneto and Earth, never to be seen again (at least until he turned up in Quasar in the 1990s). It’s worth noting, though, that Magneto’s forced regression to infanthood at Alpha’s hands here has been used to explain his continued longevity ever since (otherwise, the noted Holocaust survivor would be in his eighties by now).

Defenders #17-19, Wein’s swansong on the book, introduce both the villainous Wrecking Crew, now among Marvel’s more popular recurring B-list villains, and another new member, hero-for-hire Luke Cage. The following issue, however, would introduce a name that would have far more of a lasting impact on the Defenders' fortunes - the new series writer, Steve Gerber!

The Last Defenders debuts next week from Marvel Comics priced $2.99.

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