The Defenders: A Non-Team History - Part 2

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The Last Defenders #1 debuted yesterday and Broken Frontier's tie-in coverage of the long, and often bizarre, history of this Marvel super-team continues this week. Those wanting to catch up will find the first part of Tony's series here.

The Defenders were always an odd group, and the book never quite the same as most other Marvel titles in its approach. That was undoubtedly its strength. But between issues #20 and #41, this weirdest of titles hit new heights of weirdness thanks to one of the most innovative writers ever to lurk in the hallowed halls of Marvel - the great Steve Gerber.

Gerber’s debut issue was actually the conclusion of a two parter begun in Marvel Two-In-One #7 and at first it seems like something of a throwaway story; a forgettable tale about Valkyrie investigating the past of Barbara Norris, the woman whose body she inhabits. The thing about Gerber’s stories, though, is that everything is there for a reason. This story is no exception, as it includes the first mention in the book of one Jack Norris, Barbara’s husband, who would effectively become the book's "reader identification point", a normal man caught up in a strange world.

Gerber would craft some of the best, and the strangest, Defenders tales ever written. While Len Wein’s issues were always entertaining, Gerber’s are a delight - intricately plotted with an edge of sheer lunacy, and #21 is where he really gets into his stride, introducing the group who would become our heroes’ nemeses, the Headmen! These weirdoes, including Arthur Nagan (a man whose head has been transplanted onto the body of a gorilla), Jerry Morgan (a fruitcake who shrank his own skull by accident) and Chondu the Mystic (a turbaned telepath) were all refugees from Marvel’s old horror books, who had caught Gerber’s eye when their only previous outings had all been reprinted in the same issue of Weird Wonder Tales. Together with new recruit Ruby Thursday (a woman who had replaced her head with an "organic computer") they would bedevil The Defenders throughout the writer’s run on the book.

The Defenders #s 22-25 are the title’s first real attempt at that staple of 70s comics, social relevance, tackling the problem of racism through old standby hate group the Sons of the Serpent. The twist in the tale, that the white supremacist group are being funded by Nighthawk’s treacherous assistant Pennyworth (a black man) for purely monetary reasons, would be more effective if it weren’t a virtual replay of the Serpents' first appearance (in The Avengers , some years before). This story, though, also introduces three new occasional Defenders: Daredevil, the size-changing Yellowjacket and the alarmingly named Daimon Hellstrom, Son of Satan, all of whom had previously worked with the group in one off tales in three consecutive issues of Giant Size Defenders #s 2-4! (Giant Size Defenders #1 was all reprint).

The Defenders #25 is notable for something else, too, though. It contains a one-page interlude which introduces one of Marvel’s most enigmatic characters - the Elf with a gun! This peculiar being, a traditional leprechaun-like creature with a distinctly New York way of speaking, turns up and shoots a country music fan named Tom Pritchett for no discernible reason. It has absolutely nothing to do with the ongoing story, and our heroes never hear about it. Over the next few months, the Elf would make random reappearances on several occasions, frequently in disguise, and shoot someone else each time. Increasingly frustrated queries about him from readers in the letters page would be met with a confused "Elf? What Elf?" from the editor. Gerber never explained who he was or why he was there. Predictably, he’s something of a fan favorite even now….

Giant Size Defenders #5, the final issue of that quarterly book, leads directly into The Defenders #s 26-29 in which a little known group of heroes from the future, the Guardians of the Galaxy, guest star. The Guardians had appeared only twice before and gone largely unnoticed both times, but here they are set up for greater things, and Gerber also gives them a new member in the mysterious Starhawk. A few months later, he would continue their adventures in their own title, Marvel Presents. This story also introduces young Vance Astrovik, eventually to become the Avenger named Justice.

Following a forgettable fill-in by Bill Mantlo in #30, issue #31 begins one of the Defenders’ weirdest sagas - "Nighthawk’s Brain". It begins with the high-flying Defender being kidnapped by the Headmen, who intend to transplant Chondu’s brain into his skull for reasons best known to themselves. Meanwhile, the Hulk adopts a baby deer whose mother has been shot by hunters. Chondu, as Nighthawk, attacks our heroes while Nighthawk’s brain rests in a dish in the Headmen’s lab, having understandably strange dreams. Over the next few issues, things become ever more complex as Chondu’s mind is displaced into the baby deer’s body, while Dr Strange transfers Jack Norris’s mind into Chondu’s brain in Nighthawk’s skull in order to infiltrate the villains HQ. I said Gerber’s plots were complex. Did I mention they were often insane?

This already confused situation becomes even more so when Jack/Nighthawk encounters old Defenders foe Nebulon the Celestial Man, now trying to forcibly end all war on Earth by spreading the word of the cult of Celestial Mind Control and its disciples, the clown masked "Bozos". Throw in several minor Marvel villains and a Russian superhero, the Red Guardian, who coincidentally happens to also be the only neurosurgeon able to save Nighthawk, and things can’t get much more complicated - until the Headmen inexplicably transplant the restored Chondu’s head onto a monstrous hybrid creature’s body, much to his annoyance!

This story demonstrates just what sets Gerber’s Headmen apart from other villains. Their actions, in particular Chondu’s transformation, make no sense whatsoever. Nagan, in particular, seems far less interested in monetary gain or power than in just seeing what bizarre operation he can perform next. In a world full of super-villains with grandiose plans to conquer the universe, it’s rather refreshing to come across a group of mad scientists whose principal motivation is just being mad scientists! By contrast, the alien Nebulon is a full-blown James Bond bad guy, determined to save humanity from itself by taking over the world, though it’s noticeable that Gerber could not bring himself to have either menace motivated purely by a boring lust for power.

The Headmen/Nebulon storyline takes in everything from straight super-villain fights as the Plant Man terrorises New York, to cosmic strangeness as the Defenders are trapped in another dimension by Nebulon, to a pastiche of old women-in-prison movies as Valkyrie is arrested and causes chaos in #39’s wildly funny "Riot in Cell Block 12", before concluding in The Defenders Annual #1 as Jack and the Defenders prevent the Headmen from shrinking Earth’s population to minuscule size. Nebulon, meanwhile, abandons the planet in sheer frustration, deciding we’re too crazy to be worth saving!

Gerber and artist John Buscema’s tenure on The Defenders ends with the mediocre issue #41 in which little of note happens, the majority of Gerber’s plot points having been tied up the previous month. But these twenty-odd issues remain for the most part the highest high point in a series full of them. And as this underappreciated genius wandered off to wreak havoc in pastures new, just one question was left on fandom’s collective lips:

"Ok, but what about the Elf?"

The Last Defenders #1 is on sale now from Marvel Comics priced $2.99

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