The Defenders: A Non-Team History - Part 3

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In the latest part of Tony's analysis of Defenders history we cover the Conway, Slifer/Kraft and Hannigan eras. New members! A new headquarters! And the chance to be a "Defender for a Day"...

The Defenders #42 marked a change in style for the book as Gerry Conway took over from Steve Gerber as writer, bringing a slightly less complex, more accessible and ‘mainstream’ feel to the story. Keith Giffen and Klaus Janson’s art though, being rather more overtly cartoony than Sal Buscema’s, was not quite in the Marvel house style and served to help the book keep its quirky individuality. Conway’s tenure proved brief, however - just two issues, in which he pitted the Defenders against Egghead’s Emissaries of Evil, and introduced a new threat - the mysterious Red Rajah, wielder of the Star of Capistan.

From #44 Roger Slifer and David Anthony Kraft took the reins, quickly disposing of the Rajah (a possessed Dr Strange) and bringing in the Hellcat, a super-heroine in the Batgirl mould who is quite obviously going to be Strange’s replacement. Hellcat has a long and rather strange history - the costume she wears formerly belonged to The Cat, a short lived character from the early 70s Claws of the Cat later reinvented as ‘Tigra, the were-woman’ in Giant-Size Creatures #1 (an odd appellation, since ‘were’ actually means ‘man’ and not, as some befuddled writer appeared to believe, ‘beast’). The woman behind the mask, however, is one Patsy Walker, formerly the star of several teenage romance titles published by Marvel in the 1960s! Definitely a natural for the world’s unlikeliest superteam!

Issue #46 established a new core line-up which would stay in place for some years (though, in keeping with the Defenders’ ‘non-team’ status, others would come and go). More significantly, most of these characters - Nighthawk, Hellcat and Valkyrie - were actually committed to the Defenders as a team, with only the Hulk (the last of the founding members) still being a sometimes unwilling participant. Curiously, though the green goliath was very much a loner in his own book, he always seemed to fit naturally in this one.

Of the other members, Dr Strange would resurface later, as would the Red Guardian, though Luke Cage’s defending days were over for good. Another former ‘regular’ departed with this issue too, as the ever enigmatic Elf With a Gun, who had been popping up to commit apparently random homicides throughout Steve Gerber’s time on the book, was run over by a truck. Who was he? What was he? Why did the Defenders never even meet him? What, in short, was the point? Maybe Gerber knew, or Kraft and Slifer. But if so, they weren’t telling…

The new team assembled just in time to be attacked in their own headquarters (now the Richmond Riding Academy on Long Island) by Scorpio, an old villain formerly faced by S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers. The Scorpio saga, which ran until issue #50 (barring a fill-in issue by John Warner in #47), is probably one of the most memorable Defenders tales, developing the villain of the piece to a degree rarely seen at that time and making Scorpio a genuinely sympathetic character despite his bitterness. It ended, shockingly, with him committing suicide after his android Zodiac cartel, the ‘friends’ he has created for himself, abandon him.

By contrast, ‘The Power Principle’ in issue #s 52-56 is something of a convoluted mess, detailing the Red Guardian’s transformation into the more-than-human consort of radioactive Russian rogue The Presence. It also brought back Sub-Mariner and introduced Lunatik, a recurring character whose motives seemed at first as pointless as the Elf’s, without being half as interesting. Fortunately, after a fill in by Chris Claremont and George Tuska on #57 (the book was going through another phase of revolving art teams), the writer seemed to find his feet again.

Issue #58 introduces a new occasional member to the team in the shape of soldier of fortune turned supernatural trouble-shooter Devil-Slayer, actually a slightly redesigned version of Demon Hunter, a character developed by Kraft for the short lived Atlas-Seaboard company some years before. With Jack Norris having departed after the Scorpio storyline (Nighthawk basically pays him to go away) Kraft also gave the book a new supporting character in the shape of would-be movie producer Dollar Bill. It is Bill who, in #s 62-64, instigates possibly the most anarchic and wildly funny fiasco in the book’s run by throwing a recruitment drive for the Defenders! The ‘Defenders for a day’ arc guest stars more than 20 Marvel heroes including X-Men Havok and Polaris, the ludicrous Captain Ultra and the totally obscure Tagak the Leopard Lord, plus a horde of minor supervillains, all claiming to be Defenders, demonstrating wonderfully just what a crazy, fun place the Marvel Universe can be.

Kraft’s stint as writer ended with #68 after a three part storyline set in Asgard which explored the origins of the Valkyrie, now revealed as Brunnhilde, former leader of the Norse Choosers of the Slain, rendered amnesiac and bonded to a human host. Following a fill-in by Mary Jo Duffy in #69, though, new writer Ed Hannigan found himself having to tie-up one of Kraft’s loose ends, the trailing Lunatik plotline, and he did so in fine style with a four parter bringing in characters from Marvel’s long since cancelled ‘Man-Wolf’ series and introducing a new threat, the disembodied demon lord called The Unnameable.

In issue #74, Hannigan reintroduced Foolkiller, the deranged vigilante created by Steve Gerber in his Man-Thing series (or a new version thereof), and also the three principal supporting characters from Gerber’s unfinished Omega the Unknown book, including ‘everyman’ Richard Rory. Unfortunately, writer Steven Grant’s subsequent attempt to clear up the trailing plotlines from Omega in issue #s 76-77 is a total mess: Omega was a confusing series but a layered and complex one nonetheless, clearly heading for a specific resolution. Whatever direction Gerber’s storyline was heading in though, Grant’s takes a route all its own-and it proves to be a dead end, a deeply uninteresting story about alien robots which left Omega fans feeling, for the most part, rather cheated. Of slightly more interest to Defenders fans was the reappearance in the same story of Ruby Thursday of the Headmen

With Hannigan back in the driver’s seat, issue #78 kicks off a lengthy story arc involving not one but two sets of Defenders. While the three founders, Dr Strange, the Hulk and Sub-Mariner, reunite to travel into the Tolkienesque realm of Tunnelworld to deal with the lingering threat of The Unnameable, Hellcat, Valkyrie, sometime Defender Yellowjacket and his partner the Wasp are embroiled in the machinations of the Mandrill and his servants, the Mutant Force. (Nighthawk was out of action while being investigated by the IRS, a new first for a superhero and one which could only have happened in The Defenders). Of these two, the Tunnelworld saga is by far the most interesting, The Defenders being a book in which magic and fantasy tend to work well.

From issue #82, the headshots in the cover corner box (a fixture in Marvel titles back then) would alter each issue to reflect which characters were guest starring that month, reinforcing the idea of the Defenders as a fluid ‘non-team’. The Black Panther dropped in for a several issue stint, as did Daredevil, and there were a number of rather unusual standalone stories. Most notable of these was ‘Inquest’ in #87, in which the long-forgotten Jack Norris makes one final appearance in the book, interrogated over the Defenders’ activities by a shadowy tribunal. The resolution of that particular plot would take some years to arrive, but in the meantime there was just time for the increasingly irritating Mandrill to be disposed of before, in #92, a new, permanent writer arrived…

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

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