Defenders 107-124

The Defenders 107-124 were written by JM DeMatteis, except for issue written by Steven Grant and drawn by Sal Buscema, and issue 109 which was co-scripted by Mark Gruenwald. All issues except 109 were drawn  by Bill Perlin and a rotating cast of inkers. Perlin also get a co-plotter credit for some of the issues are 110. The team and many of its characters were created by Steve Gerber, who worked on the most influential and recognizable version of the team, and all issues were published by Marvel Comics; the first issue here is cover dated May 1982; the last is dated October 1983.

The Defenders bear the unlikely tag of “the anti-team”—growing someone out of the Avengers, the group is known for squabbling and going off on their own; I think the idea is that the core members—Dr. Strange, The Hulk, Namor, and The Silver Surfer, in the classic formulation, only come together under extraordinary circumstances, but don’t share quarters and a bowling league like the Avengers, the X-Men, or the Fantastic Four. Of course, after one hundred issues of this “anti-team” thing, it’s a little hard to see how that concept plays out, and that’s one of the things I’m interested in understanding here. The other thing worth mentioning is that at the end of the run I’m talking about, Beast, a member of the team who was previously an X-Men and an Avenger, talks about making the Defenders more like an actual team—explicitly voiding the anti-team concept. But that doesn’t really take off until after the issues under review (essentially, Beast reassembles the “X-Men: First Class” line-up, sans Cyclops (still in Uncanny X-Men) and Jean Grey/ Marvel Girl/ Phoenix (still dead). This team will shift slightly to become X-Factor, and will replace Defenders in Marvel’s publishing schedule. But at this point, that’s still a few years away.

I mentioned that I think there’s something to be said for the anti-team concept here, and I maintain that it’s true—though “anti-team” might be a hard term to fully define or defend. What you’ve got, really, are more like two discrete clusters of characters. On the one hand, you’ve got the classic line-up, some of whom have titles of their own (Dr. Strange, the Hulk, maybe Silver Surfer) or else strong ties to another property (Namor, who definitely exists in the orbit of the FF books). These are your hallmark characters, and you can’t do too much with them, so while DeMatteis uses them, they don’t really get storylines; instead, they kind of show up for the fight and then leave (except Dr. Strange, who does, contrary to what I said, at least have solo scenes and introspection—he laments the loss of his longtime lover Clea, he has people over to the house, etc).

Then there’s the other cluster of characters—Beast, Patsy Walker: Hellcat, Daimon Hellstom: Son of Satan, Valkerie, and Gargoyle. These are characters whose particular individual storylines will be worked out in this book—so when I started reading, Daimon Hellstrom has just resolved his issue with his demonic parentage and is wondering what comes next; Patsy Walker goes looking for her own father, and Valkerie searches for ways to reconcile her new status quo (too complicated to relate) with her current actions. Gargoyle really has no storyline, because despite an occasionally cool look, he must be the most poorly conceived “cool” character ever, an elderly man trapped in the body of an orange skinned gargoyle. You can sort of see how this must seemed like a good character idea at one point, but at least under DeMatteis pen, Gargoyle’s private life is an interesting as you imagined your own grandparents’ lives being when you were twelve. Profoundly awkward.

The way the book works, and here’s where I think the anti-team notion gets a workout, is that one of the characters in this second group will set out on a personal mission, and then they will encounter something that requires the whole team’s help. Or else not—Patsy Walker resolves her issues solo, and Valkerie kind of does, but Daimon Hellstrom, at least, needs help pretty much every time he leaves the house, or so it seems. What we have are some pretty emo characters, agonizing in public, and then trying to do something about it. Cue adventure! Maybe, then, it is significant that though Strange does whine, he doesn’t actually take any action, which makes him different than the characters outside his cluster.

So how is it? Eh. It’s okay, I think, though there are some things that are a little awkward to get through.I think that in these 16 issues, the team visit at least five different non-earthly realms, which gets a little tiresome, even when one of them is a world based on Seuss. One storyline that does take place on earth, when Hellstrom tries to visit a monk for counsel, takes place in the wilds of Western Massachusetts. I’m a Mass native, and this place where they visit in the comic is as alien to my experience as any other fantasy realm, so if I were in a less factual mode, I might add that to the list. In short, though, too many of these stories throw the characters someplace strange (without being all that interesting) and leave them to find their way home. After a while, it’s kind of a yawn.

DeMatteis loves these Lovecraftian looking monsters, one of several he’ll include that move the book from SF tropes to a more Gothic feel.

The writing, and here I mean the actual words written on the pages, is at once florid and overflowing. Anyone who has read DeMatteis knows he loves language, but here, he’s not as assured or as interesting as he’ll become. But mostly, the book is just over-written, and issues like those that have running text boxes relating entries from Patsy Walker’s diary kind of make your head hurt when you think about reading them. (In this context, the issue written by Stephen Grant is strikingly free of verbiage, even if it’s not an especially good story). Some of this overwriting, though, is just a product of the time period—I think all those words meant, in 1982, that this was a comic that was serious and for an older crowd. And certainly the issues the characters face, and their repeated failures to solve their problems, mark this as a book for older readers—I think I mean fifteen years old, instead of ten, but that’s a big gap at those ages.   The characters, in fact, are all failures, all acting from motives that are pretty compromised—if the ways they were compromised were presented more cleanly and with a bit more realism, this would be Watchmen or something like it. It’s not that good, but there’s definitely a sense of character that recognizes fallibility, and that’s something.

The ugly: note the right-angled yellow brick wall behind Beast, or the absence of any backgrounds behind the other characters here. Someone’s being lazy.

This isn’t Eisner, but it’s much better– dynamic and crackling, this is what Perlin is capable of.

I found the art to alternate between pedestrian and occasionally promising; I ascribe the differences to who was inking Perlin, but I don’t know if that’s fair. There are issues early on where the panel arrangements are either very boring or actually bad at telling the story. But then, later issues have more open arrangements, are much more dynamic, and the characters even start to look a little stylish. The last issue of this run, with a cover that accurately reflect the contents of the next issue, even has shades of Michael Golden, who I liked a lot in the eighties, and I think for good reason—there’s the potential for a kind of torch-lit heroism to these characters, and in these issues, there are flashes of that to be seen. There’re also a lot of ugly panels on display, too, though.

See the way our eye is drawn to the phone Gargoyle’s been talking on– why is that the focus of this panel?

And this is even worse– the legs and wheel of some sort of non-Kirby tech crowd the foreground, leaving little space for the collapsing heroes in the background.

It’s possible I read the last couple of these when they were originally published—I definitely read the run immediately after this and enjoyed it a good deal when I was twelve or so. It’s interesting to me to think about what I was seeing here, since from this distance, I think this is pretty mediocre stuff. I do think it’s the thematic of failure here, that we all act from these compromised circumstances, that even when the results of your actions might be positive, that doesn’t mean that you acted from benevolent values. It’s not like I was a full-blown nihilist, but I think as far as themes go, that’s one I would’ve found pretty appealing.

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