One Page, One Thought, More Or Less: On 1973’s The Defenders #4 (1/4)

Cover by Jim Starlin, John Buscema, Franl Giacoia, Morrie Kuramoto, etc.

In which the blogger does something he’s always wanted to do, namely, working through a comic and offering one brief thought, mostly, for each of its pages.

Page 1: The splash of The Defenders #4 is a prime example of how colour can inadvertently diminish the virtues of black and white art. By this, I mean no disrespect to the able Petra Goldberg, for it’s hard to imagine how the tech and traditions of the early 70s in US comics could have been used to match, let alone accentuate, the precision and power of Sal Buscema and Frank McLaughlin’s original work. If you’ll forgive the poor quality of the scan below, necessitated by the exceedingly tight spine of Essential Defenders Vol 1, you’ll immediately note how immensely threatening The Hulk originally was. Without the green for his skin, the fury in his darkened eyes is all the more intimidating. Without the purple for his trousers, the shadows that define his form set The Hulk out threateningly against the landscape, as if he were a creature stepping out of another dimension’s nighttime into the UK’s afternoon sun in order to threaten Namor and Strange.

Page 2: As has been noted here at Them Darned Superpeople before in these Defenders posts, Englehart made every effort to depict a respectful working relationship between the Sub-Mariner and Dr Strange. In short, and for all the extremes of their personalities, Englehart appears to have been determined that these two characters should behave, on the whole, as adults. And the developing closeness between the two, as colleagues if not friends, can be seen in the following panel from page 2:

Strange is shown being willing to openly admit that his decisions in the past issue have led to Barbara Norris’ catatonic state, while Namor is presented as a strategically sharp thinker whose decisiveness is vital to the non-team’s survival. For Strange, trustfully ceding responsibility to others was a rare, rare event. For Namor, accepting a surface dweller as his equal was similarly almost without precedent.

At other times, these same virtues have had the opposite effects to those shown here: Namor’s tendency, for example, to swiftly settle on a single and, to say the least, direct course of action would lead him constantly astray. One of the strengths of Englehart’s writing in the period was that he recognised how virtues and vices are situational rather than absolute.

Page 3: While searching an unnamed, mysterious British castle, Strange and Namor are magically transported to another reality, where they encounter a brutal foe who’s unfamiliar to them, although very well-known to many Marvel readers: The Executioner. If there’s a weakness that both Englehart and Thomas’ takes on The Defenders share up until this point, it’s their mutual reliance on one-note occult menaces. After 6 issues of over-similar fare, at last the non-team are pitched here against an enemy driven by something more engaging than sheer wickedness for wickednesses’ sake and naught but. If the Executioner is barely more than a one-dimensional character, he is an upgrade on old Timely monsters and gangs of magical acolytes in identi-kit robes. With him on board comes a genuine sense of thread – it’s not for nothing that, as we’ve discussed, Strange seemed to have spent his career staying quite deliberately clear of Asgardians – along with the almost-inevitable presence of his on-off lover and Godly partner-in-mayhem, the Enchantress.

It always was a challenge to find antagonists worthy of the original Defenders time and effort. More than one writer testified to that fact. But here, the threat is real, substantial and convincing.

Page 4: It’s unlikely that a modern-era writer would opt to have Namor deliver the exposition about his own vulnerability that Englehart wrote for the above panel. Such is no longer as fashionable a narrative technique as it once was. But here, I believe it works to truly good effect. For one thing, it helps create a convincing sense of jeopardy: swords are often present in superbooks, but they rarely carry a sense of threat. Here, we’re being told that these aren’t the kind of swords that only work to, at worst, flat-bat an opponent into unconsciousness. And by having Namor declare his awareness that these weapons will carve into him if he doesn’t take the offensive, we’re encouraged to imagine that very violation occurring while admiring both the Sub-Mariner’s clarity of thought and bravery.

Page 5 introduces us to the least interesting, and indeed most thoroughly unconvincing, aspects of the issue, namely the “misty realm of Casiolena” and its defenders, including “Fragon, conqueror to the Queen”. As thin as cheap Seventies comics paper, this aspect of the tale comes across as nothing more than boilerplate: a bad queen, a fiendish wizard, a bare castle, a great floating mass of mist, entirely characterless armoured soldiers: this is all we’re given and it isn’t nearly enough. Typically, Englehart does keep the plot turning with the grease of characterisation, but it’s always obvious that large sections of the story could fit without adaption into a pre-Marvel Revolution Silver Age children’s tale. The problem is, that jars seriously with the more sophisticated aspects of the writer’s storytelling.

Sadly, Sal Buscema wasn’t always at his best when designing magical set-ups. To take but one example, Fragon is no more or less than a carbon-copy Merlin, all wavy waist-length beard, ridiculously star-spangled robes and a pointy triangular hat. (SB’s lack of comfort with the conventions of magic-flecked super-people would be even more obvious in The Defenders #11, which, in time, we’ll return to here.) In truth, both Englehart and Buscema’s interests seem to have lain elsewhere, away from Casiolena and its cardboard stage-sets and entirely stereotypical inhabitants. Instead, it’s The Defenders themselves that both creators seem most energised by, and it’s there that the issue truly shines.

continued here, with a look at pages 6 to 10, in which some fascinating storytelling is to be found …

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