Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

02 May 2011

Essential Defenders, v. 5

Collects: Defenders #92-106,Marvel Team-Up #101, 111, and 116, and Captain America #268 (1981-2)

Released: July 2010 (Marvel)

Format: 448 pages / black and white / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785145370

What is this?: The Defenders fight a war with the Six-Fingered Hand and deal with other challenges.

The culprits: Writer J.M. DeMatteis and artist Don Perlin (and others)

The last Essential I went over, Essential Avengers, v. 6, was unusual in that it was mostly devoted to one extended storyline. Similarly, more than a third of Essential Defenders, v. 5, is devoted to the Defenders’ battle against the Six-Fingered Hand, a band of six demons whose union has made them more than the sum of their parts.

Even more interesting, the entire book is written by J.M. DeMatteis — not only does he write all fifteen Defenders issues, he also writes the included Marvel Team-Up and Captain America issues. Other than a throwaway MTU issue, this allows for a narrative continuity not always seen in the later volumes of Essential titles. Creators of characters or teams may stick around for long runs, but later writers? Not so often. (DeMatteis stuck around until #131, missing only #119.) Is this continuity a good thing?

Essential Defenders, v. 5, coverThe fights with the Six-Fingered Hand make up a traditionally structured comic-book battle; for five consecutive issues, they battle a different member of the Hand. In the sixth, they fight the Hand all together, with the battle spilling into the double-sized issue #100. It is a landmark storyline, in the sense that you can use it to remember where you are in the continuity of the series. During this storyline, they pick up a new member in the person of Gargoyle, whom they allow to join them for reasons never completely elucidated. By the time you can really decide to question his presence, he’s been around for too long to easily boot off.

The other major storyline involves a group of telepaths created by a shadowy agency that claimed ties to the federal government; Nighthawk’s former girlfriend Mindy is part of that group. This is also a standard, unexceptional but unobjectionable storyline, crossing over near the end with Captain America. It simmers in the background throughout the entire volume, and it is so low-key at one point that it seems as if Dr. Strange and Clea forget the existence of members who are captured in #104 until Dr. Strange gets a telepathic summons in #106 (with the Captain America part of the crossover falling just before #106). It does make for a heck of a cliffhanger, in which you may actually believe a member of the non-team has been killed in a moment of self-sacrifice.

And that self-sacrifice makes sense — not just in the general heroic sense but in the development of that character. That’s where DeMatteis’s work shines. Most of the lesser characters — those without their own books — get a nice moment in the sun. Hellcat has to deal with tragedy in her life and with potential lies about her paternity. Nighthawk is paralyzed by a mysterious affliction after coming to grips with what he perceives as his own non-heroic nature. We see Gargoyle’s background, even if we can’t see why he’s part of the Defenders. The Son of Satan deals with his demonic side in a way that was inevitable but previous issues feared to deal with. Even Devil-Slayer gets some personal development, despite his ludicrous career path (Marine turned alcoholic turned mob hitman turned cultist turned demon hunter). While the plot is nothing to grab readers, the characters are at least entertaining in their own right.

As those who have read DeMatteis’s work on Spider-titles in the ‘90s would expect, this book features characters in mental institutions and characters with daddy issues. The Son of Satan fills the latter role, obviously, and DeMatteis works in the rare female character with mommy issues, as Hellcat deals with the idea that her domineering and disapproving mother tried to barter Hellcat’s soul for a longer life. Nighthawk also has to institutionalize an insane ex-girlfriend, who switches between love and hate for Kyle.

In a way, it’s surprising what DeMatteis (and Marvel) are getting away with here. These issues came out in the early ‘80s, not very temporally distant from the era in which Dungeons & Dragons was getting excoriated by parental groups for its demonic ties. Beyond the Six-Fingered Hand, one character of the heroes is the Son of Satan, and another one is Devil Slayer — even if he’s against devils and demons, you know they are going to figure prominently into his adventures. The Son of Satan has an extended storyline in which his father (You-Know-Who) tries to purge his human half. On the other hand, Marvel had a line-wide crossover featuring demons at the other end of the ‘80s (Inferno), so demons in comics obviously weren’t as important to pop-culture watchdogs as demons in role-playing games.

Essential Defenders, v. 5, feels a bit thin, and it is. It’s a rare Essential that doesn’t top 500 pages, but v. 5 doesn’t come close to that mark. On first glance, this is surprising, given that there are many more Defenders issues to reprint — the series lasted for 152 issues. However, the classic Defenders team — one that included Dr. Strange, Hulk, Silver Surfer, or Namor — ended with #125, and the rest of the run was the New Defenders, which had a lineup almost half made up of the original X-Men (Beast, who is introduced as a Defender in this volume, and Iceman and Angel). My guess is that Marvel wanted to have another Essentials volume of the classic Defenders, and this smaller volume leaves eighteen issues to put in that volume plus whatever they can squeeze out of other titles at the time. Still, a smaller volume should be accompanied by a smaller price tag — $17.99 or $16.99 for a slimmer Essential would be appropriate.

I appreciate wanting a unified v. 6 — those New Defenders would be quite a clash with the Defenders — but it does cause the quality and value of v. 5 to suffer. The volume includes three issues of Marvel Team-Up and a single issue of Captain America to help pad out the volume. Captain America #268 is necessary, as it’s a direct crossover with Defenders #106. Marvel Team-Up #101 also explains what the deal is with Kyle’s ex-girlfriend Mindy and why she’s in a mental institution; given how much she appears in the volume, that’s an important issue to include as well. But MTU #111 and #116 are included because they peripherally include Defenders: #111 has Valkyrie being possessed and attacking Spider-Man, and #116 has a very brief appearance by the Defenders at the end of the issue. Both end up raising more questions than they answer; in #111, Spider-Man smashes Valkyrie’s sword, Dragonfang, to end her possession, and its reforging is handled off panel, while #116 ends with Dr. Strange’s solemn pronouncement that Spider-Man may die before the day ends. In some Essentials, this sort of flotsam would hardly be remarkable, but given the rather tight storylines in v. 5, it’s quite noticeable.

The art is nearly as unified as the writing, as Don Perlin pencils all of the Defenders issues in this book. He’s a solid artist, much in the Marvel house style of the time, who has a good narrative sense and can convey a decent amount of emotion in a three-row layout. Really, you can’t ask for much more from an artist; flashiness and innovation is nice, but the art should be all about storytelling, and Perlin — whose name you don’t hear much any more — is a good storyteller. Jerry Bingham contributed one issue of MTU and the ever-reliable Herb Trimpe two; Mike Zeck penciled the Captain America issue.

Essential Defenders, v. 5 is a low-key Essential — good but unspectacular art, consistent writing, interesting characterization moments, and unspectacular plots. The book should have “steady” on its cover copy somewhere; if you’re looking for a slice of Bronze Age Marvel or are a fan of the Defenders, it’s worth a look.

Rating: Defenders symbol Defenders symbol Defenders symbol (3 of 5)

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