KC Carlson doesn't have a cool cape like Doctor Strange, but he has a hat...

KC Carlson doesn’t have a cool cape like Doctor Strange, but he has a hat…

A KC COLUMN by KC Carlson

Defenders: The Best Defense

Defenders: The Best Defense

Whenever I’m asked what my favorite Marvel Comics title (or concept) is, I never have to think about it. It’s The Defenders.

For those that have never read or heard of the series, it wasn’t your typical comic book super team. First, the core members were unusual characters: monarch of a lost underwater city, a (future) Sorcerer Supreme who is often solving problems in other dimensions, and one of the most powerful creatures on Earth who often only has the intelligence of a young child.

Then there was the … ah… instability of the concept — basically, there was no formal team structure. Characters tended to come and go as they wished… often for months or years at a time. Other members drifted in and out depending on who they were, where they operated, and the manner they protected.

I was in high school/college when The Defenders first appeared, and their unstructured ideas of membership really appealed to me, with my ultra-rigid school and work schedules. I needed something goofy and strange to keep my mind off other things, and this comic book was probably better for me than any drug I could get my hands on.


Marvel Feature #1

Marvel Feature #1

Usually described as a “non-team” in its early years, the core Defenders were Doctor Strange, the Hulk, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and (occasionally) the Silver Surfer. They first appear as a group in Marvel Feature #1, cover-dated December 1971. But, unusually (a term often associated with the group), their actual origin appeared before that issue — in crossovers in individual character titles, both written by Roy Thomas.

Sub-Mariner #22, part of an "unofficial" Defenders story.

Sub-Mariner #22, part of an “unofficial” Defenders story.

The first started in Doctor Strange #183 (Nov. 1969) and continued into Sub-Mariner #22 (Feb. 1970) and The Incredible Hulk #126 (Apr. 1970). The three-part story was originally planned to be published in Doctor Strange #183-185, but this title was cancelled with #183 — leaving the other two parts of the story to be run months later in the other titles. This was just the first in a very long list of odd things about the Defenders. The next odd thing also happens in this story — one of the characters, Barbara Norriss, later becomes the fourth regular Defender.

Sub-Mariner #35. Don't fight the Avengers. That trick never works.

Sub-Mariner #35. Don’t fight the Avengers. That trick never works.

The other “proto-Defenders” story ran in Sub-Mariner #34-35 (Feb.-Mar. 1971), where Namor enlists both the Hulk and the Silver Surfer (a future part-time Defender) to stop an out-of-control weather experiment — which puts them into conflict with The Avengers (because comic books). They operate under the name of “Titans Three!” in this story only.

By the end of 1971, the team was known as The Defenders (at least in the Marvel offices), but there would be one more change/addition before the fans would discover the full Defenders lineup. At this point in Marvel history, Stan Lee was very protective of the Silver Surfer and wanted to write most of his stories. So he was uncomfortable with having the character regularly appear in a super-team title. Stan suggested to Roy Thomas that he use Doctor Strange instead. So, that’s how that happened. Going forward, the Silver Surfer would make occasional guest appearances in the series. Thomas has also speculated that Lee actually came up with the name “The Defenders”.


Defenders #4 featuring Valkyrie

Defenders #4 featuring Valkyrie

By this point, sales on the three Defenders issues of Marvel Feature were quite good, and it was decided that The Defenders would get their own title. Steve Englehart would write, and Sal Buscema would pencil. Englehart would introduce, or more properly, develop the newest Defender — Valkyrie. She was, in fact, the delusional Barbara Norriss character first introduced before the Defenders actually formed. Valkyrie’s personal story developed slowly over many issues of The Defenders, and it became one of the more interesting plots after Steve Gerber became the regular Defenders writer in Giant-Size Defenders #3 and Defenders #20. (Len Wein also briefly wrote the series between Englehart and Gerber’s runs.)

Defenders #33 featuring the villainy of The Headmen (only four of them, not 40,000 Headmen).

Defenders #33 featuring the villainy of The Headmen (only four of them, not 40,000 Headmen).

Gerber’s run on The Defenders lasted until Defenders #41 (and artist Sal Buscema also departed with that issue). His time included many memorable stories, including assembling the Headmen (Dr. Arthur Nagan (a gorilla-man), Dr. Jerry Morgan (aka Shrunken Bones), and Chondu the Mystic, all of whom first appeared in pre-Marvel Atlas Comics mystery/horror titles). Popular enough to return, they did, along with a new Gerber-created monstrosity. Ruby Thursday was a scientist who deliberately grafted an organic computer made of malleable plastic to her head that can assume any form she wishes. Later, she runs for President of the United States. (You have to wonder, if Gerber was still alive — he died in 2008 — what he would think about current events and politics.)

The Defenders team up with the original Guardians of the Galaxy in issue #26

The Defenders team up with the original Guardians of the Galaxy in issue #26

Gerber was also responsible for reviving the original Guardians of the Galaxy, and (in Marvel Treasury Edition #12) he teamed the Defenders with Howard the Duck. But the thing he was best known for by knowledgeable fans is his run on Man-Thing, which appeared in Adventure Into Fear #11-19 and lead into Man-Thing #1-22. Gerber himself appears in Man-Thing #22.

The Defenders carried on after Gerber left, but it was obviously not the same, and my interest in it drifted away shortly after Gerber’s departure in 1976. The Defenders kept going, in one form or another, on and off for decades. I suppose I have a lot of catching up to do.


Namor: The Best Defense #1

Namor: The Best Defense #1

KC CARLSON has been staring at copies of The Best Defense featuring The Immortal Hulk and Namor, sitting on his desk next to the keyboard. Those two one-shots came out last week. Doctor Strange and Silver Surfer are this week, and Defenders: The Best Defense #1, the week after. Can the Defenders save the world — just before Christmas? We better hope so! I’d hate to think what would happen if Hulk didn’t get his stocking or his Hot Spiced Cider this year!

WESTFIELD COMICS is not responsible for the stupid things that KC says. Especially that thing that really irritated you. My stupid back is what’s irritating me right now! ARRRGH! KC SMASH!!!


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