Porpoise Army! — Review of Essential Defenders, Vol. 1
“Come, friends–let us go away from this dumb place.”
- The Hulk, Defenders #12, Steve Englehart
If two failed Hulk movies, and the way that same character stole The Avengers, can teach us anything, it’s that Bruce Banner’s big, angry alter-ego generally works best in small doses. I’ve always been happy when Hulk would show up in any story I was reading, but I’ve almost never taken the time to read a Hulk solo comic. I decided to finally read this Defenders volume I’d had sitting around for awhile because of the Avengers movie, actually; sure I also have some classic Avengers books, but Hulk doesn’t play well with others, and he was only with the Avengers for, what, three issues? Something like that.
What makes the Defenders so much fun, though, is that, rather than being a team, they’re a collection of misanthropes who can barely stand each other and actively, constantly, refuse to be considered a team. It’s the kind of shit that, as I said on Tumblr, DC would never ever do, and the perfect example of what makes Marvel’s weirdly free early 70s period so crazy.
The Defenders aren’t really a team, and they don’t even have an origin. This collection starts with a bunch of issues from solo titles in which some combination of Dr. Strange/Namor/Hulk/Silver Surfer teamed up. There’s one story in which those latter three quite literally work together because they all hate humanity, even if, of course, they save the world. Naturally, throughout the book ”work together” usually means “try to get something done until Hulk fucks it up and it all devolves into a fight,” which is great.
The first almost half of the volume are those solo-ish adventures and a few issues of Marvel Feature in which the Defenders first form. They form pretty much entirely because there’s a big threat that requires a team up and none of them can stand anyone else, even if they barely like each other. (Through most of the book, Hulk’s name for Dr. Strange is “Dumb Magician.”) These issues are all written by Roy Thomas, comics’ first ascended fanboy, a writer who was already really into comics.
Thomas is immensely important to Marvel, and to comics, because he was the first writer who actually cared about things like continuity and such. That said, he’s always read, to me, a bit like Stan Lee-lite. The Roy Thomas issues in here are definitely enjoyable, full of Lovecraftian horror, wonderfully maudlin Hulk brooding, a big fluffy white alien that tries to steal Earth’s children, and Namor generally being a weirdly haughty hobo. They’re great fun, but it’s when Englehart takes over with the first issue of the actual Defenders comic that the book jumps into greatness.
Now, by greatness I mean more modern, character-driven comics. I also mean crazier shit. Multicolored devil man (left)? Villain crowing over his army of porpoises? Pathetic evil sorceror whose failed plan makes him reconsider his life? Silver Surfer and The Vision fighting waist-deep in lava? Gold man who wants to buy the Earth? Terrifying doomsday computer that nearly destroys the world pretty much entirely so one of our heroes can come to terms with her issues? Check.
About a decade before the Defenders, Stan Lee had started to make superheroes more human, and it definitely feels like the next step forward when Englehart makes the characters even more central to their own stories. Besides, The Defenders is the perfect setup for superhero characterization because, again, these characters barely even tolerate each other. The Silver Surfer is fed up with watching humanity kill each other, Namor is just about the most arrogant being in the Marvel Universe, Hulk is entirely based around overreacting to perceived slights, Dr. Strange is just a fucking weirdo, and Valkyrie, when she shows up, is a being created wholecloth from a personality template that used to just be an angry reactionary. What’s more, this non-team is made up of some of the most powerful characters around: they’d out-class everybody if they could even get past shutting down anyone who refers to them as a team.
Valkyrie may be the standout here, actually. This is probably because she was the only “team” member in these issues who didn’t have her own solo book at the time, and could therefore actually have some real emotional evolution within the pages of The Defenders. That and the fact that she’s a clumsy, but earnest, attempt at making a feminist superhero make her awfully fun. That said, in his own special way, the ever-petulant Hulk is, of course, great.
I remember reading, somewhere, that the Avengers/Defenders War crossover, which takes up a good chunk of the book’s latter half, and indeed features a war between the two teams, was just Englehart going, “Hey, I write both of these books, let’s do something fun!” because early 70s Marvel did not give a fuck and it was awesome.
There’s something lovely about the freedom of these comics, and the way they capitalize on the generally acrimonious relationships between heroes that Marvel had been setting up ever since Spider-Man was first a dick to the Fantastic Four for no good reason. The Avengers are extremely quick to assume that the Defenders — at this point made up of a bunch of ex-villains and, well, creepy and weird Dr. Strange — are trying to conquer the universe. And the Defenders? Well, most of them don’t really need much reason to wallop on Thor or Captain America, because fuck those guys.
This sentiment carries over into all parts of the collection, though. Many are the issues that end with one or more of the Defenders storming away from the others in rage, or the group pondering why they should have left well enough alone (sometimes with bonus insane screaming woman in the foreground). There’s no sense of Avengers-like teamwork, or even X-Men-like dysfunctional family that loves each other deep down: the Defenders are perhaps the apotheothis of what set Marvel apart from the rest in the 60s and 70s. All rage and disdain and violence, but still goofy as hell and with phrases like “SUPER-MANIAC” being thrown around, and with each moment when one member of the team seems, for just a second, to actually like another one feeling terribly earned.
Also: an army of porpoises. Seriously. How are you not reading this?