In preparing for this review, I reread the first two volumes of The Defenders – Marvel Masterworks, (which I’ve already reviewed: 1 and 2), and then I read Volume 3 twice. The reason I did all this extra reading is because I wanted to see how the early adventures of this “non-group” compared to the later stuff, to see how the storyline develops as the series progresses—and (to be honest) to get the most BANG for my buck. (I’m poor, and I can’t afford to buy new books all the time, so I reread the old ones.) So how does this volume compare to the first two? Follow me into the spandex wastelands and let’s find out!!!
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual digital book that I read. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Len Wein, Steve Gerber, Sal Buscema, and various others – The Defenders – Marvel Masterworks Volume 3 (2016)
Where the first adventures of “The Titans Three” brought together Silver Surfer, The Hulk, and The Sub-Mariner, who first fought against each other, and then banded together to save the world, by this point in the series, the non-group (who seems to shatter at the end of every issue) has almost become a true, organized collective, with a fairly regular cast of characters, including The Hulk, Dr. Strange, Valkyrie, and Nighthawk—with Nighthawk (a rich playboy by day, and secret super-hero by night) using his millions of dollars to buy a ranch that The Defenders have fashioned into a secret headquarters… However, as per usual, something always happens to disrupt group cohesion. The Hulk gets his feelings hurt (usually because Dr. Strange says something condescending to him) and leaves, or—as part of a major story arc in this volume—Valkyrie has some personal issues and goes off in search of her past… This is all part of the game, though, part of who The Defenders are. The whole “team” seems on the verge of collapse at any moment, yet they somehow always manage to come back together and defend the world from destruction whenever the need arises.
What’s odd about this volume is that there aren’t THAT many issues of the actual Defenders comic even collected here—there are only five (issues 17 to 21). Instead, we get three “Giant Sized” issues (which are pretty good and have some fantastic guest artists and writers having their ways with The Defenders, like Jim Starlin, Chris Claremont, and Gil Kane.) There are also a couple of issues of Marvel Two-In-One, which feature The Thing (from The Fantastic Four) pretty heavily—and that’s one element of The Defenders, as a CONCEPT, that is sort of interesting and sort of frustrating to me—they’re constantly crossing over with different characters: Luke Cage (aka Power Man), The Thing, Daimon Hellstrom (aka Son of Satan), Daredevil, Hank Pym (in his Yellowjacket persona)—and that’s just in THIS volume! It’s almost as if the writers didn’t think The Defenders were strong enough to hold their own as a title, so they constantly bring in EXTRA characters from other books to keep readers interested. Either that or the book was SO popular that they were using The Defenders to PUSH these other characters’ stories. (I find it hard to believe that Daredevil needed a boost—but who knows? I don’t have the sales figures for the early 1970’s, which was a freaky-ass time. Maybe comics were slumping during this period, and the creators were using any tricks they had up their sleeves to keep folks buying!)
The OTHER possibility, I suppose, is that they were just having fun, and whatever criticism one might put on these issues (that they are nonsensical, that they are extremely melodramatic, that they are—to be frank—as cheesy as a wedge of Camembert), the one thing that does come across loud and clear is that the creators were having fun. The stories are entertaining, which I think is the point of most comics—showing readers a good time. And for the psychedelic crowd, there are also some really weird, convoluted, trippy stories in this collection, too. There’s one about the characters being attacked by evil construction workers, one where each of the Defenders gets trapped in a personal Hell, one where they are drafted into a FIGHT-TO-THE-DEATH style tournament by The Grandmaster, and one (no joke) where a personification of Destiny is playing a harmonica in a subway then gets pushed in front of a train car and explodes, but not before asking Dr. Strange to protect THE HARMONICA at all costs…
Yeah, there’s some weird shit going on in this volume, but you know what. I still love it. The writing is super-cheesy, the situations are bizarre and nonsensical, the BIG NAME characters (especially The Hulk and Dr. Strange) are woefully static…(“Hulk smash!” gets pretty fucking old, to me—but I remember from when I read these books as a kid that eventually the big names drop away, and the stories are taken over by characters, like Valkyrie and Nighthawk, who don’t have these massive backstories keeping their characters stuck in a rut. In fact, the most satisfying story arc in this book is Valkyrie’s search for her past—and it’s told in the most ludicrous way possible, but she CHANGES and DEVELOPS as a character as the book proceeds—because SHE CAN! Her character isn’t pigeonholed by public expectation, so the writers can do more interesting things with her. Same with Nighthawk, who in one issue presented in this collection, has a bomb go off as he’s starting his car—which, surprisingly, has ACTUAL consequences for the character and his girlfriend!
So—while this book doesn’t have the gravitas of Watchmen or the surreal, psychological exploration of The Sandman, it still has some fun, bizarre situations in it, a ton of crossovers with other characters (if you’re into that), and some surprising CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT, which you don’t always find in an early ‘70’s superhero title. It has a real, B-Movie, almost exploitation vibe at times (lots of horror elements—but “acted” so badly that you almost have to laugh at the most dramatic scenes), although thanks to the Comics Code, there isn’t any foul language, nudity, or overt gore—although there are a couple of death scenes that might surprise a youngster or someone expecting complete fluff. (Not much blood, though, so if you’re into that, you’ll have to look elsewhere.) This isn’t my favorite Defenders collection so far, but it wasn’t bad either, (important for the continuity to read it, for sure), and if you know what to expect going in—good, goofy, slightly horror tinged, nonsensical superhero comics—it definitely delivers the goods. And that’s enough for me!
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
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