Essential Defenders, v. 4
Collects: Defenders #61-91 (1978-81)
Released: July 2008 (Marvel)
Format: 584 pages / black and white / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785130611
It’s probably safe to say that the Essential Defenders, v. 4 is not the Defenders you remember.
There’s none of the inspired Steve Gerber madness, the stuff that made Gerber and the comics he worked on intensely interesting and occasionally baffling in the ‘70s. It never has the Big 4 — Silver Surfer, Namor, Dr. Strange, and the Hulk — together at once, although it does have the latter three a few times. But Namor shows up only reluctantly, it seems, and Dr. Strange appears in less than half the book. Heck, his apprentice / lover Clea seems to be around as much. And it’s not quite what it would become, with a full cast of B-level heroes (Son of Satan, Gargoyle, Demon Slayer, Beast, etc.).
So for the most part, you have Nighthawk, Valkyrie, Hellcat, and the Hulk. These are great characters,although the modern Marvel Universe seems to do just fine without them. (The Hulk in this era of The Defenders — simple, touchy, and bean-loving — is not the current incarnation of the Jade Giant.) But they are all seemingly supporting characters, none of whom can support a title. I mean, the Hulk had his own comic, so he could obviously drive a plot, but when he goes, he goes alone. There’s no one stable on this non-team, perhaps by desire, and there’s no one for the team to rally around or be the leader in tough times. (Nighthawk pointedly shoves that obligation away repeatedly.) There’s a reason the X-Men have almost always had either Cyclops or Colossus, despite both of them being as dull as Point Barrow in January.
Writers Ed Hannigan and David Anthony Kraft hatch some good ideas here — excellent ideas, actually. The Mandrill storyline is the best, stretching throughout the volume. Mandrill, the mutant man-ape who can control any female who breathes his pheromones, is a creepy villain who is underplayed (and underused); I can’t tell whether this is because going all out with his powers would be too unsettling for kids (or adults, really) or would have violated the Comics Code. In any event, it’s fascinating to watch Valkyrie’s struggle against a villain simple biology has made an easy target for male heroes but near impossible for her to defeat. Her rage and frustration are nicely played.
A confrontation between Black Panther and Namor is interesting, for no other reason than I don’t think the two rulers had ever clashed before, but the near war between their two nations gets overlooked in the Marvel Universe proper because it happened in Defenders. The “Defenders for a Day” story, in which hanger-on Dollar Bill throws open Defenders membership to anyone, starts off with the chaos of a dozen or two unaffiliated superheroes showing up at Defenders HQ but disappointingly ends with an ineffectual fight against supervillains and petulant heroes.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of ideas that fall flat. I don’t care about the Defenders battling the Unnameable, although I am interested in what Hannigan has against — or for — Houghton-Mifflin. (He uses the company’s name, written backwards, as a foreign language.) When Lunatik went from some weird vigilante to fragments of an interstellar pirate prince, I stopped caring. Foolkiller just doesn’t quite work in the Defenders framework — should a guy with a ray gun really be such a challenge? — and although I’m sure Omega the Unknown’s story deserved to be finished, I wish it hadn’t been dragged into Defenders, even if Ruby Thursday was used to help finish it up. Nighthawk’s millionaire playboy identity is investigated by federal agents, but that story has already been done in Defenders. I don’t care about Valkyrie’s duties in Valhalla; although her interactions with our world are interesting, I don’t care about the war among the Asgardians, especially since it seems to be between Hela (the good guy!) and some upstart. A war in Asgard without Thor or Odin or Loki is pointless.
And there’s only so much of Hellcat’s “golly-whillikers-gee-whiz-shucks” dialogue I can take before I just pray someone beats the cornball right out of her.
The art comes mainly from Herb Trimpe and Don Perlin. Trimpe’s art is good, and as one of the definitive Hulk artists, he’s a good fit for the title. However, his run is marred by multiple inkers and is a good study in the effect different inkers can have on the same penciller. Perlin is a solid ‘70s / ‘80s artist, although perhaps not quite the equal of Trimpe. There’s also a few issues by Sal Buscema, and any chance to see him draw the Hulk is always a bonus.
I want to recommend this book, but I feel it’s missing something. It feels ragged, sometimes; the transitions between status quos aren’t quite as smooth as they should be. It also feels like it’s still having a bit of a hangover from Gerber’s days. It has big ideas that it can’t quite deliver on. To be fair, however, this book was quite forward thinking for its day, featuring strong, independent female leads in the ‘70s. (Not quite as strong as Chris Claremont women — there is such a thing as going too far, after all.)
Still, it falls short of being excellent.
Rating: (2 of 5)