The New Defenders: Teaming up the non-team part III
By: Jef Willemsen (clarmindcontrol.blogspot.com)
Wrapping up this three part look at The New Defenders, one conclusion already seems obvious. It should really have been titled ‘Moondragon… featuring the New Defenders’.
Both Peter B. Gillis and his predecessor J.M. DeMatteis were rather taken with Moondragon, featuring the arrogant telepath prominently during their runs. Gillis especially seemed determined to mine her backstory for all it was worth. Hinting at a deeper darkness growing underneath Moondragon’s exterior, Gillis revealed how young Heather Douglas grew from an innocent little girl to be the haughty high priestess of the mind.
As it turns out, Moondragon took her codename after beating an evil entity known as the Dragon of the Moon. This immensely powerful, immortal, and subversive creature tried to corrupt her, planting part of his evil inside her head. Refusing his offerings, Heather fought valiantly to remove his presence from her mind. Thinking she had succeeded in defeating the Dragon, her confidence quickly grew to borderline arrogance. In reality, the Dragon had left its permanent mark on her, an ever present and increasing temptation to give in and accept his power.
This approach allowed Gillis to show a new side to Moondragon. She had always been portrayed as a stuck up snob who was in love with her own power, which of course she was. But by having her resist the Dragon’s influence, rightly believing it would corrupt her, she became something of a lamentable anti-hero. At least, that’s what she considered herself to be. She felt she was fighting hard and doing the right thing and grew increasingly frustrated over the fact she didn’t receive any credit for it. A tragic notion that added a new layer to an otherwise one note character and led to an unexpected breakdown.
This outburst was her first step on the path to humility. Remember how Odin had placed that headband on her to dampen her powers, forcing Moondragon to relearn the ways of man? It finally came off when the Defenders were forced to go up against a band of Asgardian trolls who were planning an invasion of Midgard. The team was captured and the trolls offered to remove Moondragon’s headband. Despite being tempted by both her own desire to be free ánd the Dragon of the Moon, she outright refused and redeemed herself in the eyes, well, eye of the All-Father.
Freed from the headband, Moondragon’s full powers returned with a vengeance. Luckily, recent experiences had indeed tempered her arrogant behavior and she actually became a valuable and willing member of the team. Alas, disaster soon struck when the gamma spore creature formerly known as Ephraim Soles returned to threaten the Defenders again. After their initial fight in Gillis’ first issue, the creature escaped as a handful of tiny spores that infected the grass of a local cattle farm. When a rather unlucky cow ate the spore grass, it became pregnant… the eventual birth resulted in a revolting scene that somehow made it past the Comics Code Authority.
Quickly mutating into a massive, uncontrollable form, the spore creature made its way to the New Defenders base where it infected and invaded all it could find. The team defeated it, thanks to an ingenious combination of Moondragon and Gargoyle’s powers. But Moondragon didn’t escape unscathed, as subsequent issues revealed. She had been infected by the sentient spores who were slowly mutating her body into a new host… a process she would not survive. Faced with certain death, Moondragon finally succumbed to the Dragon in a moody, foreboding tale told in issues #143 & 144.
“I am free again, young ones.”
Over the course of # 144, the vastly more powerful Moondragon cleaned the New Defenders’ collective clocks. Blinding Angel, turning Gargoyle’s demon body against him and casually teleporting Valkyrie away, the Dragon seemed assured of victory. That is, until Brunhilda dramatically returned with her fellow Valkyries in tow. Odin had been aware of the Dragon’s presence in Moondragon, that’s why he released her in Valkyrie’s care, in preparation for the creature’s reemergence. In final combat, it was Cloud who delivered the apparent deathblow to Moondragon, but her remains were never found.
In the months that followed, Gillis dealt with the impact of the Moondragon controversy. Angel’s blindness proved incurable, Cloud was revealed to be a sentient nebula that assumed the forms of two teens who were both left comatose following a car accident, the team got a visit from the former Ghostrider and also gained a new member in the Atlantean warrior woman Andromeda. They also finally got around to electing an official leader: Angel’s girlfriend Candy Southern who didn’t have any superpowers but proved quite adept at handling the non team’s official team business. And while all of this was going down… In Siberia a mysterious stranger decided to go for a walk.
All in all, the New Defenders finally seemed ready to have another go at being a proper superhero team. Alas, there were two threats about to end their existence altogether. Moondragon had survived, still possessed by the Dragon and ready for revenge… But there was a far more lethal threat on the horizon: imminent cancellation. The year was 1986, the 25th anniversary of Marvel Comics and then-editor in chief Jim Shooter decided to celebrate a quarter century of established and beloved characters by starting a completely New Universe.
To make room in the company’s publishing schedule, several struggling titles received the axe. Power Man and Iron Fist was cancelled and the New Defenders shared their fate. Under the gun, Peter B. Gillis rushed to wrap up the book… and what better way to end things than by having Moondragon return to kill the team once and for all?
The New Defenders’ swansong was told in issues # 151 and the double sized 152, which was jam packed with the biggest wrap up and deck clearing exercise of the 1980s. The mysterious stranger turned out to be the Interloper, an Eternal who was the Dragon of the Moon’s arch enemy. Interloper revealed he had trained the insane telepathic hitman Manslaughter, who popped up wanting to join the team and actually proved invaluable during the final confrontation with Moondragon...
Gillis gives an impressive final showing in his portrayal of Manslaughter’s madness. Trying to preserve her sanity, Moondragon flees the scene in an attempt to exorcise the demons that just got pumped into her mind. And who would show up during this struggle but… The Beyonder?
Heck, this was still 1986 after all, there had to be a Secret Wars II tie-in at some point, right? The Beyonder did what every other jerry curled deus ex machina does best: show up and mess things up. Not recognizing Moondragon’s deeper issues, the one from beyond falls for her line that she wants to be his disciple… He grants her a fragment of his vast powers and departs, leaving her to head straight back to Defenders headquarters for a final showdown.
It turned out to be a brutal battle, one that only ended after Valkyrie, Andromeda, Manslaughter and the Interloper gave up their very lives to stop Moondragon. Only Beast, Angel and Iceman were left standing when the…dust… settled.
Ashes and dust… all that’s left of the once noble and proud New Defenders… AngelBeast and Iceman were the only ones left alive. They would soon join Cyclops and Jean Grey to form the first incarnation of X-Factor. And what of their fallen comrades? Apart from the Interloper, most of them would eventually return from the dead in a series of tales Gillis wrote for Solo Avengers #16,18, and 20. But those are stories best left for another time.
On a closing note: despite the rush of impending cancellation, Gillis brought Moondragon’s story full circle on the book’s last page. In spite of her being juiced up by the Beyonder’s power, let alone the Dragon’s corruption, she used her final moments to do the right thing. She restored Angel’s sight, cured Cloud’s comatose templates and even healed Chris Larmouth, a largely forgotten victim of the gamma spore creature’s second attack.
More importantly, she performed these Samaritan acts not as Moondragon, mistress of the mind or high priestess of the soul… but as Heather Douglas of Earth. Finally, she had learned just what being human meant… No longer did she seek to impose her will on her fellow man, all she did was give them the chance to live their lives. Heather Douglas triumphed over all her flaws and inherent evil, proving herself at long last to be the most human of us all.