Comic Book Review: Essential Defenders Vol. 6

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.

Essential Defenders Vol. 6

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.

 

Magazine Review: The Avenger #8: House of Death | The Hate Master

Book Review: The Avenger #8: House of Death | The Hate Master by Kenneth Robeson

Quick recap:  The Avenger, Richard Henry Benson, is a wealthy adventurer who took early retirement to spend time with his wife and daughter.  They were murdered by criminals, and he has sworn vengeance on crimedom, gathering a team of highly skilled people known as “Justice, Inc.”  As mentioned in my review of #7, sales on the title weren’t doing so well, so editorial ordered some changes that removed the Avenger’s weird appearance and retconned his age to be considerably younger, with these changes taking place in Murder on Wheels.

The Avenger #8

This had a direct effect on the first story in this volume, House of Death.  It had originally been finished by Paul Ernst (writing as Kenneth Robeson) under the title “House of Hate.”  But then the editorial decision came down, Murder on Wheels was hastily put in place instead, and this story was stowed away.   Then it was rewritten to change Benson’s appearance to the new look, excise his uncanny face-change ability, and put in a line explaining where the new team member Cole Wilson was.  By that time, the next story also had “Hate” in the title, so this story was retitled.

So, what is House of Death about?  It’s about an once powerful and wealthy family, the Haygars.  Political changes and bad health have whittled away the family’s fortune and numbers, leaving only a handful of cousins from various parts of the world.  They have come to America for a reunion, each bearing a small gold coin to identify themselves.  However, those coins also mark the bearers for death, and at least one of the Haygars is an impostor.

The story has an interesting opening, focusing on Milky Morley, a down on his luck mugger who attacks a man on a lonely street for the “profit” of a wad of bills from a country that doesn’t exist any more, and a small gold coin of no known nation.  He is only the first person in the story to die because he’s touched one of the coins.

Nellie Gray gets to be particularly useful in this story once the scene switches to an island off the coast of Maine.  She brachiates ala  Tarzan, kills a guard dog with an improvised boar spear, and saves the lives of several of the male members of the team.  And if she gets in trouble in the deadly house of the title, it’s because everyone else has had a turn.

The Hate Master, also by Paul Ernst, opens with a scientist disappearing from an isolated laboratory by unknown means.  Then a Scottish terrier is torn to pieces by rabbits.  It’s soon clear that the scientist has developed some means of causing animals and people to hate on command, which may be tied to a wealthy politician who’s running for president.  (Will Murray’s article in this volume claims this was the first appearance of a “hate plague” in the hero pulps.)  There’s an unpleasant scene of the political candidate whipping a dog with a copper wire

Both stories happen to have the gigantic Smitty’s ankles torn up by small animals, and have sections set in Maine.

After the two main stories, there are two shorts.  “A Coffin for the Avenger” by Emile Tepperman appeared in Clues Detective, and has the Avenger up against a Nazi spy codenamed “the Black Tulip” after the villain’s horticultural ambitions.  There’s a chilling first bit with a straitjacketed man forced to “drive” a car into a hotel lobby, only one of a series of events the Black Tulip has orchestrated.  The villain boasts that he never overlooks a detail–he’s wrong, and it’s a short story because the Black Tulip’s henchman has failed to notice the neighborhood kids playing games.

“Death Paces the Widow’s Walk” by Bruce Elliott stars detective Nick Carter (see the review I did of one of his books) investigating an apparent suicide on Martha’s Vineyard.  The suicide note is an obvious forgery, and the most likely suspect, the man with bald nostrils, has vanished.  It’s a double “locked room mystery” and Nick cuts the solution very close to his own death.

While not quite up to the earlier stories in the series, these Avenger tales have some great plot twists and exciting action.  Recommended to pulp fans.

Manga Review: The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 14

Manga Review: The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 14 story by Eiji Ohtsuka, art by Housui Yamazaki

It’s finally out!  To recap for newer readers, the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is five students at a Buddhist college that each have skills or talents related to the dead.  They form a small firm that fulfills the last requests of corpses, resulting in creepy yet funny stories often focused around odd bits of Japanese culture.

Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 14

This volume has three stories; the first has our heroes going up against a fake Kurosagi team of corpse disposal workers who are actually making a profit.  It unfolds into a conspiracy involving a completely unnecessary dam project  that has been claiming lives for three generations.  The story also introduces a mysterious man named Nishi who manipulates social media and may communicate with the dead via smartphone app.

The second story is a one-shot breather about an Americanized cartoon version of the series, where the boys are all pizza delivery workers (with special talents) who wind up employed by the FBI’s Black Heron division identifying corpses that died in bizarre circumstances.  There are interesting touches, like making one of the delivery guys a former rescue worker who discovered his powers on 9/11, and the diminutive embalmer an actual child prodigy.  But it would never fly as an actual American cartoon due to the morbid bits.  (At the end we learn it’s a bootleg DVD Numata picked up…along with a leather jacket with a really cool design…which turns out to be made by the bad guys in the cartoon!)

And the volume wraps up with another political story, as a museum of execution devices is abruptly closed by the government agency that controls it just before an investigation into its funding is about to take place.  It seems that more than one person is losing their head over bureaucracy.   The villain uses a gender-based slur.

As usual, the art and writing are excellent, with the “cartoon” section allowing the artist (and assistants) to show off some range.  There’s an extensive endnotes section with all the cultural references and in-jokes, which Kurosagi is rich with.  It’s been about two years since the last volume due to undeservedly poor sales; the problem is that this series, while of superior quality, is very niche in its appeal.  Dark Horse will be releasing the early volumes in “omnibus” editions, so I urge readers to purchase those to increase the chances we’ll see volume 15 this decade.

This particular volume doesn’t have any appreciable nudity, but there is some nasty violence and dismembered corpses, so the mature readers warning still applies.

Book Review: Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic

Book Review: Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic edited by David Sklar & Sarah Avery

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic

This fantasy anthology has a dual theme, as indicated by its title; magic as transaction, and magic while traveling.  The former theme brings to mind the classic Faustian bargain story, and the preface mentions that the editors got a bushel full of them, only a few making the cut.

There are eighteen stories, nine for each theme, divided into groups of three by subtheme, such as “Bad Roads.”  Most of the stories are new, but some have been previously printed.  Some standouts include:

  • “Ghost Diamonds” by Scott Hungerford.  A woman and her niece discover that compressing  crematorium ashes into a diamond allows calling the ghost of the deceased.  But they aren’t the only ones who have made this discovery, and someone’s been switching the ghost diamonds with fakes.  But why?
  • “Across the Darien Gap” by Daniel Braum.   A guide attempts to take a hunted woman through the rain forest between Central and South America.  His two-dimensional thinking may doom them.  This one has been made into an episode of Psuedopod, a horror podcast, and is now being lengthened into a book.
  • “Only a Week” by Joyce Chng.  This one might actually be science fiction, set in a futuristic Chinatown.  A courtesan seeks to regain her youthful beauty, but the medicine has side effects and can be taken only for one week….
  • “And the Deep Blue Sea” by Elizabeth Bear.  A courier must cross the postapocalyptic Southwest to deliver vital supplies.  But a deal she made years ago is coming due.  Can Harrie finish her delivery with the devil himself in the way?

There’s a good diversity of protagonists, and both happy and sad endings.  A couple of stories are perhaps a little too cliche, but the quality is generally good.

Unlike many small press books I’ve read lately, the proofreading is excellent.

I would recommend this book to fantasy fans in general, and modern fantasy fans in particular.

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