It isn’t true that every new comic book needs a distinct identity to set it apart from its many fellows. Through the decades, success has, of course, frequently arrived from the cloning of the appeal of existing titles. A little copyright-outflanking here to avoid the lawsuits, a slight change in detail and emphasis there to spice up the project: it’s amazing how exciting and compelling – and ultimately individual – these clones can be. At first glance, The Defenders in their opening trio of appearances in 1971’s Marvel Feature were very much in the tradition of 1940’s Justice Society Of America: a collection of headlining super-people working together for the common good. And for the spin to give the new team its own somewhat unique flavour, each member was a powerful loner who had often faced public mistrust if not open, and frequently justified in the case of Namor and The Hulk, hostility.
But The Defenders in their earliest incarnation possessed one defining characteristic which set them way out on their own, namely, their staggering incompetence. No existing superteam had ever been this bad at defeating its antagonists. And here was the paradox at the heart of the concept that, whether it was intended by its creators or not, helped make The Defenders so initially beguiling. For they were only ever called into action when the day was more or less already lost by Dr Strange, which meant, chance and bravery aside, that the arrival of two super-muscular powerhouses was unlikely to make things better. There is, after all, a strict limit to the number of menaces that could best Strange and yet be defeated by naked strength and hostility.
Barely more than mistrusting strangers each given to bouts of hauteur and/or hyper-aggression, the three Defenders struggled even to arrive in the same place at the same time. And when they did, that was usually the highpoint of the day’s teamwork. In the very first Defenders tale, Strange recruits the Sub-Mariner and The Hulk to help him destroy the Omegatron, a vast world-destroying machine constructed by the dying Yandroth using an extra-dimensional fusion of magic and science. So far ahead of Strange is Yandroth in his scheming that he foresees the Sorcerer Supreme’s enlistment of the two proto-Defenders and rigs the Omegatron to explode when they batter their way through its walls. Indeed, Yandroth has ensured that the very force of their assault will be used to trigger the Omegatron’s apocalyptic explosion. In short, Strange has been used to bring about the very world-ending disaster that he set out to forestall.
So far, so typical of the genre. After all, it’s in the very nature of super-villains as a breed to lie and cheat and manipulate. But it’s in the consequences of Strange’s attempts to get the Sub-Mariner and The Hulk to stop their attack that we can see what a disastrous proposition the Defenders is. For convincing themselves that Strange is in truth an illusion created by the Omegatron to stymie their assault, Namor and the Hulk lay into their comrade with all their power. With the world seconds away from being destroyed, Strange has to focus on creating the magic that will turn both of his allies against each other, that will cause them to beat up one another rather than their ally or the Omegatron itself. It had been a confrontation that clear heads and dialogue might have avoided, but then, a great part of the fun of these Defenders is that those very qualities are often entirely absent from the strip’s leads. As Namor will later say, “… we all but caused the Earth’s destruction — while we sought to be its valiant defenders“. And so they did, while Yandroth’s diabolic machine is finally halted by a spell that Strange could have put to use himself without ever asking for anyone else’s help.
This aspect of The Defenders would soon be pushed further and further out of sight, and I can’t help but believe that was a mistake. (Whatever other virtues it had, the final incarcaration of the team saw The Defenders recast it as a family of outsiders, which seemed as far from the original tales as it was possible to travel.) The very nature of The Defenders might have remained that they arrive at the scene only when all hope is pretty much lost. Other super-people attempting to do the right thing might get called in before the very last micro-second on the doomsday clock, but The Defenders’ very reason to be could have been that they turned up when little but fearsome power and dumb luck might, one time out of a thousand, yield bizarrely fortuitous results. Of all Marvel’s many superteams, The Defenders might well have been the very worst sight that any onlookers might ever see, for their arrival would signal, at the very best, an excess of chaos and disaster. Any disaster that Strange couldn’t handle on his own was likely to be too threatening for anyone else to face up to, while the presence of the infant-minded Hulk and the permanently irascible Namor hardly promised an orderly and well-planned response. Unpredictable, knee-deep in personal conflict and endlessly flexible, it remains a set-up worth persevering with.
Despite Dr Strange’s uncharacteristic fondness for the idea of The Defenders and his initial loyalty to the first two allies he’d recruited as super-powered henchmen, the team was clearly an absurdly dangerous and dysfunctional prospect. Now that was a USP to cherish. Not a comic about a group of individuals who learned to work together, but rather, one about a cast who never could, and yet still, somehow, at great cost, sometimes managed to save the day.
And, vitally, sometimes didn’t.
ps: I love all the various versions of The Defenders and will defend each in the coming weeks as if they should all still be in print. As I wish they were. If the above reads otherwise, I would add that my favourite run of title is the last 18 months or so of the Gerber/S. Buscema collaboration, comics that wouldn’t exist had the model of The Defenders defended in the piece above been persevered with.
1971’s Marvel Feature #1-3 by Roy Thomas, Ross Andru, Bill Everett, Sal Buscema et al.