Steve Englehart Sorts Things Out: On 1972’s The Defenders #1.

On “I Slay The Stars” in August 1972’s The Defenders #1 by Steve Englehart, Sal Buscema, Frank Giacoia, Artie Simek et al.

From the very first page of I Slay The Stars, there’s an acute sense that newly arrived writer Steve Englehart had analysed the strengths and weaknesses of The Defenders’ rather underwhelming try-outs in Marvel Feature 1, 2 & 3 and deliberately set about transforming a promising-enough premise into an excellent series. Yet since serial corporate superhero comics are an inevitably collaborative medium, it’s always a mistake to blithely credit any one creator with a title’s vices and virtues. Who’s to say what discussions Englehart might have had with The Defenders’ creator Roy Thomas about the book’s future direction, or even with Marvel’s soon-departing editor-in-chief Stan Lee? What ideas might have been batted around with the similarly new-to-the-title artist Sal Buscema, and how might the storytelling that the artist crafted around Englehart’s plot have transformed the writer’s thinking? What debates about the nascent franchise might have been engaged in by Englehart and his fellow professionals and fans?

But for all the need to be cautious when ascribing achievement without sufficient evidence, Englehart’s work on The Defenders has such a great deal in common with his other projects in his golden period of 1972-8 that it’s hard not to see him as the creative kingpin here, as, if you will, first among equals. As with his other 70s work on strips such as The Avengers and Captain America, the Justice League Of America and Batman, his Defenders is immediately marked by a clear and purposeful sense of direction. Previous problems are diagnosed, or at the very least intuited. The best of what was is spruced up even further, the very least useful aspects dispatched. Continuity is absolutely respected and yet spun in fresh and exciting ways. Characters are redefined with such logic and respect that Englehart’s vision appears to have always been the definitive one.

Let’s take just a few examples of how Englehart immediately kicked The Defenders into gear. Firstly, he attended to the repetitiveness of the franchise’s first three stories, in which a mystical menace arose, Dr Strange struggled to defeat it, and Namor and The Hulk were then mystically called in as a muscular strike force. It was a formula that had already outstayed its welcome. But in I Slay The Stars, it’s The Hulk who, encountering an unconscious and entrapped Namor, reluctantly seeks out the aid of Strange. This immediately changes the previously-ossified nature of the strip. Where Strange’s allies previously lacked agency, beyond bouts of bad temper and the spat at the end of their third team-up, here we see the world through The Hulk’s eyes and make sense of it, inititially, through the consequences of his actions. Through a simple but highly effective change of POV character, Englehart shows us the world of The Defenders from a completely different perspective. Instead of Strange’s analytical and repressed agenda, The Hulk pursues a path driven by crippling confusion, easily fractured good intentions, barely restrained cognitive overload, bubbling fury, and almost complete distrust. With The Hulk moved, albeit temporarily, to the centre of the story, The Defenders becomes a far darker and a far more unpredictable series.

The relief, in reading this tale after the three preceding ones, is immediate and considerable. Now we have a story about several beguilingly different characters all attempting to maintain an effective alliance rather than yet another episode of Doctor Strange Takes On Another Powerful Bad Guy With The Aid Of His Dangerously Mighty Chums.

None of this means that Englehart ignores Strange even as he brings The Hulk to the story’s forefront. It’s in the very nature of Dr Strange that he’s in the vanguard of any campaign against a mystical threat. But Englehart does two things that previous Defenders tales were crying out for where Strange’s character is concerned. Firstly – as you can see in the scan above – we’re shown Strange immediately accepting The Hulk’s insistence that the Sub-Mariner needs help. Without a thought balloon or the like, we can’t be sure that Strange isn’t offering to help in order to rebuild his ad-hoc alliance with his two ex-colleagues. But the context of the sequences – Strange’s swift assent, his unbidden statement of loyalty, his left hand extended to The Hulk in peace, even pleading, without any indication of a mystical gesture – suggests concern, kindness, faithfulness and sincerity. This is a Strange without a mission of his own embarking on a campaign to help estranged comrades in their hour of need. At this point in the tale, there’s nothing in this for him at all. As a result, this is the first appearance of Strange in the strip as a mutable individual rather than as a duty-sanctified role. For all Stephen Strange’s unintended selfishness and weighty cosmic responsibilities, someone recognisably decent and vulnerable is beginning to emerge, or so it seems, as a result of his interaction here with The Hulk.

It isn’t that Englehart has remade Strange from scratch without paying attention to what came before. His Stephen Strange is still recognisable as the arrogant and rude and demanding Sorcerer Supreme from the Thomas stories. But what’s changed, or rather, is changing, is that Strange is beginning to realise how “blind and abysmally overconfident” he can be. (In fact, he’s even saying so outloud, as you can see in the scan above.) Yet at the same time, Englehart has Strange continuing to imperiously order The Hulk around while, in moments of distress, referring to his ally as a “monster”. This is Earth’s magical defender caught in a fascinating moment in which what is and what might be as regards his personality co-exist one with the other.

There’s so much more that might be commented on: Englehart’s establishment of several enticing sub-plots involving Yandroth’s apocalypse machine and the Silver Surfer removes the sense of a series forever caught in disconnected single-issue confections: the use of Robert Bruce Banner as the saviour of the day through, paradoxically, physical force rather than intellectual effort: the manner in which Namor’s escape from his magical prison is saved up for the story’s climax, where it makes for a thrilling twist that doesn’t quite go according to expectations: and so on and on. By the issue’s final panel, he and Buscema have taken the characters to the point at which they can be convincingly shown as a team united by a common concern rather than Strange’s orders. Best yet, the fact that it’s Banner rather than the Hulk lined up next to Strange and Namor in that closing shot points to a future that is anything but predictable.

Although this was only Englehart’s second full-time Marvel assignment – the first having been The Beast just a few months before – he was clearly already a major talent, insightful, imaginative and skilled. Over the next year or so on The Defenders, before his regrettably early exit from the title, his work would only improve further.

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