continued from the post discussing the first five pages of Defenders #4 here
And so to page 6, which reveals little that’s new and absolutely essential bar the Executioner’s identity and his somewhat amped-up power set. Yet if the plot is little advanced, it is a sequence that sees Englehart and Buscema reconciling Namor’s fiercely combative nature with the more thoughtful persona they’d recently been portraying. Faced with overwhelming odds and certain that he was sure to be defeated, their Sub-Mariner doesn’t think twice about fighting on. An attempt at surrender might have been the more rational option, but that was never going to be a consideration where Namor is concerned. If that, or any other kind of negotiation, ever crossed his mind, I would imagine it would only have been for a micro-second. In what must have felt like the end, Englehart and Buscema’s Sub-Mariner remains a supremely proud and suicidally brave warrior.
Others have struggled to convincingly portray a Namor who is both wild and cultured, headstrong and judicious, compassionate and self-directed, murderous and merciful. But here is the evidence that the extremes of Namor’s character can be woven together in a way that makes him more rather than less enchanting. When Marvel added “The Savage” to the title of The Sub-Mariner’s solo title during 1973, it took a punt on the word making Namor seem more enticingly violent and brutal. But as a description of the character, it falls way short of summing the contradictions that make him so fascinating. Still, I suppose “The Savage and the Not-Savage-At-All-Depending-On-Character-And-Circumstance” would hardly have made for a snappy addition to those covers. (The book itself was dead by the summer of 1974.)
In page 7, it is unsurprisingly revealed that Strange and Namor have been condemned to the castle’s dungeons. There they are incarcerated in a cell with Bruce Banner and Barbara Norris. It can’t be said that Buscema and McLaughlin, for all their skill, made the slightest attempt to do anything but sketch out a cliched suggestion of a darkened underground brick chamber here. In a year in which a younger generation of artists – from Ploog to Wrightson, Kaluta to Cockrum – were recasting familiar genre settings in intriguing, imaginative ways, here we’re given the barest of bones shaped from nothing but stereotypes. That the storytelling is beautifully clear is undeniable. That the artists were delivering exactly what was being asked from them in a pressurised environment in which productivity and promptness were vital is similarly unquestionable. But for all of that, the sequence still feels, in terms of its staging, flat and even slipshod.
Within this cardboard stage set, we’re introduced to two new cast members: The Enchantress and The Black Knight. On the one hand, it’s an enjoyable example of Marvel Comics inter-textuality, with The Defenders beginning to interact with a broader variety of company characters and their evermore closely-woven storylines. On the other, the presence of two Asgardians and the Black Knight will take a good few pages of rather stodgy exposition to explain and justify. Up until now, Englehart had displayed a lighter-touch than was typical in the day when it came to continuity-play. Here, it would all bog down the issue in back-story shenanigans.
Still, the Black Knight did have a history with Strange, having guest-starred in the Doctor’s first solo series, and could have made an interesting addition to the ever-broadening ranks of The Defenders. Sadly, the Knight’s presence set up something other than his return to the comics spotlight.
Page 8 explains that the Enchantress is in “the misty realm” to win back the hand and heart of The Enchantress from Queen Casiolena, and that as part of her scheming, she’s caused The Black Knight to fall obsessively in love with her. Delivered as an info-dump, it’s a sadly prosaic depiction of a potentially fascinating plot-twist. After all, the Knight had been previously depicted as a determinedly honourable man, and his corruption was surely worthy of more than a single panel and a single enticingly noxious kiss. Such are the costs of a seriously overloaded plot.
Having said that, things are brightened up for British readers by the speech pattern given to the Knight by Englehart. “You must be dreaming, bird.”, to take but one example, ranks with any of American comics’ least-convincing takes on British slang. “Bird”? Really? I think not.
By page 9, Englehart and Buscema recap events that could have been covered in a line or two of dialogue. For, once again, the attempt by The Enchantress and the Black Knight to invade the unconvincing otherworld of Casiolena adds nothing to the tale at all. Every point here has already been made. What is interesting is that this particular sequence follows almost exactly the same sequence of trials as that endured by Strange and Namor in the first 6 pages of the issue. Both duos encounter superior forces. Both have their magic-wielder defeated by a more powerful magician. Both have the accompanying muscle battered and defeated by vastly superior forces in a heroic but futile last stand. Yet despite this mirroring, nothing is made of it. It’s simply the same shard of plot used, conspicuously, twice in the same issue.
But on page 10, we hit one of those moments of conflict and characterisation that Englehart was always – right from his very first Beast story – a master of. Not a battle of fists and power-beams, but of principle. While The Enchantress plots to transform Barbara Norris into the “warrior woman called — Valkyrie!”, in order to achieve their escape, The Defenders challenge her on the grounds of Norris’ inability to grant informed consent to the process. It’s in many ways a very modern discussion, and for the first time in the tale, we feel a sense of genuine evil and jeopardy radiating from the issue’s pages.
It’s clear that The Defenders would rather rot in the dungeon than have Barbara Norris’ consciousness “totally submerged and forgotten”. Their concern is as visceral as it is principled, and it makes them more sympathetic and admirable than any number of fight scenes could have. From the beginning, The Defenders had seemed more like an interesting marketing concept than a convincing joining together of disparate characters. In that seperateness lay a great deal of the title’s appeal: how could this group be kept together when it was so evidently composed of profoundly unstable relationships? Yet that in itself can become a repetitive and wearisome conceit. But here Englehart shows what does bind this team of dangerous outsiders together, namely, a common if narrow code of ethics. In this, the writer didn’t take away any of the personal conflict that made the team/non-team dynamic such a precarious and compelling conceit. But he did underscore that there were some common beliefs that bound them all to the same causes, if not to the same means or ends.
It’s also the first time, to my knowledge, that Namor associates himself fully with The Defenders, and indeeds takes the lead as the group’s spokesperson: “the Defenders must speak for her – and we say no!“. Whether the writer had asked Buscema to show the Sub-Mariner as a dominant figure in the debate with The Enchantress, or, as I suspect, Englehart instead took advantage of the artist’s choices in the panel above, the result is a further tightening of the bonds between the group’s various members. It is something of an irony that Englehart was, and would continue, to place Namor as a viable field leader for The Defenders, when later creators would soon write the character right out of the title. Even now, the original Defenders is often seen as a book in which Stephen Strange leads a congregation of other characters. What Englehart’s work suggests is that Strange could have been removed entirely from the group and the Sub-Mariner lent the role of leader. It wouldn’t have been a smooth ride, mind you, but who wants that? It would have certainly been a compelling one, and, indeed, it still could be.