The Defenders first appeared in the debut issue of Marvel Feature published in the third full week of July 1971. The title’s initial quarterly schedule meant that the second Defenders tale wouldn’t appear until mid-October of the same year, with the non-team’s final tryout appearance arriving in January 1972. The sales must have shown some promise, at the very least, since, four months later, The Defenders would reappear in their own title.
The 8 month period during which those opening three Defenders tales arrived was a strangely underwhelming moment in the history of the superhero comic. What had recently seemed so promising now appeared to be in something of a decline. Marvel, now bereft of creative founder Jack Kirby’s titanic creative gifts, continued the drift that had set in during 1968, when its publisher Martin Goodman had inveighed against more ambitious storytelling. The output of DC Comics was similarly meandering, stepping back from several years of inventive and intriguing stories while backtracking from its brief, partial flirtation with “relevancy”. None of this means that the period was lacking in work of great quality, as I hope what follows will underscore. But it does mean that, nostalgia aside, these months served as a kind of lacuna, a catching of breath before the industry struck out again on several years of (often desperate) experimentation and achievement.
But, as nearly always, the best in the genre on the page was outstanding, regardless of the mass of product on sale, and since making sense of The Defenders can always benefit from a touch of context, here’s my nominations for the first five of ten Most Important Superhero Titles from July 1971 to January 1972.
- The Avengers #96, by Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, Tom Palmer et al.
I’ll try not to cover familiar ground here. The importance of the Kree/Skrull War is, I’m sure, pretty much familiar and taken-for-granted in 2021. What does seem to be too-often forgotten is how fascinating and popular a character The Vision was under Thomas and his collaborators on The Avengers in these years. For almost a decade, The Vision occupied that space in readers’ affections which would later be occupied by the likes of Wolverine: the fascinating fan-favourite outsider with the twin capacity for bottomless angst and terrifying violence. The virtues of this issue, and the epic that it serves as the penultimate chapter of, are many. But to my mind, the depiction of the manner in which The Vision sets out to discover what has become of the Scarlet Witch remains utterly chilling. Though much has been gained in many of the depictions of the character as he’s been humanised and dehumanised and humanised again, much has been lost too, and The Andromeda Swarm stands as the evidence of that. Never again would The Vision seem so formidable and unsettling. *
*Many other contradictory opinions are available.
2. Green Lantern/Green Arrow #87 by Denny O’Neill, Neal Adams, Dick Giordano et al
The title which had kicked off the brief, and limited, trend for “relevancy” – or “politics” as it might have also have been labelled – at DC Comics wasn’t long for the world. Nor was the full-on engagement with contemporary issues that characterised the storytelling in GL/GA’s pages, which had spilled out into titles such as Justice League Of America , Aquaman and even – memorably – in Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane, going to remain as prominent in DC’s titles. But in Beware My Power, O’Neill and Adams returned again to the issues of race and representation with which they’d begun their run on their title, and for which they’ve received a fair and understandable degree of criticism for. Here, as delivered with the creator’s sumptuous storytelling, we’re shown Hal Jordan – sadly only temporarily – being replaced as Sector 2814’s Green Lantern in a tale of a racist politician scheming to be made President. Even just considering the issue’s cover, I wonder if there’d ever been a selling shot featuring a super-heroic person of colour as wonderfully passionate and committed and consciously challenging as this. I very much doubt it. We can debate the strengths and weaknesses of this issue in the light of where we stand today, but whatever else we conclude for good and ill, this was brave and powerful and inspiring work.
3/4. Superman From The Thirties To The Seventies and Batman From The Thirties To The Seventies.
In our age of seemingly innumerable print and digital collections of old superhero tales, it can be hard to recall a distant age when the like barely existed at all. These two collections were in many ways the beginning of today’s “graphic novel” culture in the cape’n’chest-insignia genre. And they were in so many ways of considerable importance. What they provided, for the first time ever, was a substantial canon of key tales chosen in chronological order from almost three-and-a-half decades of stories. Until this point in time, reprints had been exceedingly partial affairs. Even in a marketplace filled with titles featuring old stories, antique tales appeared according to editorial taste. Tales from different periods would be juxtaposed with each other in the likes of DC’s 100 Page collections and Marvel’s squarebound reprint titles, but the broadest historical sweep was always, inevitably, missing. But here, reflecting the exceedingly expert curating by the admirable E. Nelson Bridwell, the Superman and Batman tales lend a convincing sense of how characters, genre and, to a degree, medium had developed over time. To younger onlookers such as myself, they also made it plain that the reinvention of superheroes was part and parcel of the genre. What had previously been a matter of inevitably-partial reading and often-dubious supposition on the part of many fans now became helpfully embedded in a helpful, welcoming historical framework.
Preference was given to no particular period or interpretation, thankfully, as you’d expect from ENB, which encouraged readers to make their own judgements about what worked for them, and, inevitably, what didn’t. And since these books, in their original and updated forms, found their way into high street newsagents and bookshops and, most helpfully, libraries, they served as feet in the door helping to force an opening for subsequent generations of collections to elbow through.
The Forever People #8 by Jack Kirby, Mike Royer et al
Jack Kirby’s work for DC during the 70s has proved to be remarkably prescient. Of all the creators, established and new, who worked in and around the superhero genre during the period, it was Kirby who constantly and most successfully underscored the many ways in which the individual can be deliberately dehumanised and fascism triumph. 2021 would no doubt have dismayed Kirby, but I very much doubt it would have surprised him too much.
There is a belief that Kirby lost control over his Fourth World titles as the venture continued towards its premature, and profoundly tragic, cancellation. Too many characters, too many plot-lines, too much sprawl and too little focus. Yet most of the very finest of Kirby’s New Gods/Darkseid stories appeared in the second half of his time on the line: ‘Himon’ in Mister Miracle #9, ‘The Glory Boat’ and ‘The Pact’ in New Gods #6/7 are all widely acclaimed masterpieces. Less acknowledged, and for no good reason that I can grasp, is ‘The Prisoners Of The Power’ in The Forever People #8, in which a shadowy cabal led by uber-capitalist Billion Dollar Bates is flirting with the power to obliterate all individual free will. Grounded in horror as much as super-people action/adventure, it’s as much a tale for today as was for Nixon’s America some 50 years ago.
And in its climax, when Darkseid confronts the young Forever People and convinces them, and pretty much the reader too, that he’s effectively assassinated them, Kirby delivered one of the greatest examples of his comics genius. I can think of nobody else who would have imagined that magnificent closing sequence, let alone possessing the supreme skills to make it play out on the page as Kirby did.
Part 2 of this list will appear next Monday. The next post about The Defenders is scheduled for the coming Friday, January 15th.