Comic Book Review: Essential Defenders Vol. 6 written (mostly) by J.M. DeMatteis, Pencils by Don Perlin
The Defenders are one of Marvel Comics’ more oddball teams, beginning with a line-up of Doctor Strange, Hulk, Silver Surfer and the Sub-Mariner, four of Marvel’s most powerful characters who did not belong to other teams. After a couple of pilot stories, the “non-team” first assembled in Marvel Feature #1 in 1971 to battle the alien Scientist Supreme Yandroth, and shortly thereafter got their own continuing series.
With four such volatile personalities, it was difficult to justify them staying together very long, and the warrior woman Valkyrie was added to the group to give them “texture” and a reason to cooperate. Other members soon followed, either long-term or temporarily, and the Defenders got a reputation for being whoever happened to show up when danger struck, with Dr. Strange being the linchpin of the group.
This volume covers Defenders issues #107-125, and a couple of extras from 1982-83. We open in the aftermath of a major plotline involving a group of self-proclaimed super-patriots trying to take over America with a group of powerful telepaths. These telepaths and Kyle “Nighthawk” Richmond combined their mental powers to blow up the bad guys’ base, apparently dying in the process. As the assembled heroes reel in shock during the aftermath, a stray minion of the super-patriots manages to get the drop on Valkyrie, killing her.
SPOILERS AHOY FROM THIS POINT!
It turns out that due to her convoluted backstory, involving the Asgardian goddess Amora the Enchantress, Valkyrie isn’t quite dead yet. The heroes split into two groups when Amora offers a deal to restore Valkyrie to full life. This plotline ends with Valkyrie restored to her true form of Brunnhilda, and no longer with the curse of being unable to fight women. (She also loses some of her disdain of men in the process.)
Several members of the Defenders are lost in transit back from Asgard, but before that plotline bears fruit, there are solo issues focusing on Eric Simon “Devil-Slayer” Payne and Patsy “Hellcat” Walker. Then there’s Avengers Annual #11. which features the return of perennial Defenders villain Nebulon. He and his wife Supernalia clash, pitting the Avengers and Defenders against each other.
This is followed by Marvel Team-Up #119, which features Spider-Man and Isaac “Gargoyle” Christians in a story about aging and the acceptance of same. Isaac has some insight into these matters as he was already a senior citizen when he made the Faustian bargain that made him a living gargoyle.
The missing Defenders turn out to have been transported to Earth-S, a parallel universe where the main hero group is the Squadron Supreme, a parody of/homage to the Justice League. On their earth, Kyle Richmond is President of the United States. Which would be great if he weren’t under the mental control of the alien known as Overmind. As is most of the Squadron, saving only Hyperion (their version of Superman), who is suffering from lethal radiation poisoning.
And Nighthawk, “our” Kyle Richmond, is helping him out, having been transported to this Earth by the group mind that were once human telepaths. He brought in the missing Defenders, who now summon the rest of the team for a moon mission to keep the Overmind from conquering the rest of the universe.
Except it turns out that “our” Kyle Richmond is actually “their” Kyle Richmond, given Nighthawk’s memories by the group mind. But wait, then who’s the President? It’s actually Null the Living Darkness, which has been puppeteering the Overmind to draw attention away from its protective shell. The climax is kind of disappointing as it’s the group mind’s show, co-opting everyone else for a battle of wills with the ultimate darkness, only to have Null destroy itself with its own inner light.
So in the aftermath, “our” Kyle Richmond is as really dead as a Marvel superhero gets (not coming back from the dead until 1998!); Earth-S’ Kyle Richmond regains his true memories and reunites with his old teammates (who would go on to the Squadron Supreme miniseries, one of the best superhero stories ever); the group mind inhabits the currently vacant body of the Overmind; and the Defenders return to their own Earth. (With a slight detour for some of them in a Dr. Seuss-inspired adventure.)
The next few issues weave together the resolution of the Patsy Walker/Daimon “Son of Satan” Hellstrom romance, Hank “Beast” McCoy’s growing irritation with the Defender’s “non-team” ethos… and the return of the Elf with a Gun. This last had been a subplot during the Steve Gerber run, involving an elf with a gun popping up and seemingly murdering random people. It was abandoned when Gerber left the book with the apparent death of the elf in an accident.
Mr. DeMatteis wanted to change the direction of the book, so revived the elf (now revealed to be multiple identical beings) as the agent of a time tribunal that was attempting to prevent the destruction of Earth. Removing random Earthlings had not done the trick, so the tribunal had to convince the four original Defenders that they must never all be in the same room together again. Unfortunately, the elf took over the narration for a couple of issues, and he was written as a very annoying character.
The resignation of the four founders gave Beast the opportunity to reconfigure the group as the New Defenders (complete with title change as of #125). He roped in his old X-Men teammates Iceman and Angel, holdovers Valkyrie and Gargoyle, and new member Heather “Moondragon” Douglas. A powerful telepath who had a revolving door hero/villain history, she had been released into the custody of the Valkyrie to re-learn human values. (The Overmind simply disappeared between issues; this would become a plot point later.)
This began a period in which the New Defenders were an official team, with rules and such. But that’s for Volume Seven.
Overall, a decent run with consistent art, and some good character focus stories. Some of the writing is a bit heavy-handed with the morals; there’s a consistent theme of learning to have hope even in a world full of loss and pain. The Dr. Seuss inspired story will either be laugh out loud funny or a total miss depending on your tastes.
Recommended to fans of the characters or 1970s Marvel storytelling.