Thursday, February 21, 2013

1981: The Defenders Go Demonic Coda: All Bad Things Do Come To An End


By Jef Willemsen (clarmindcontrol.blogspot.com)

Being a superhero during the silver age must have been rough. No matter how big your adventures, you were expected back on the job the next day, chipper as can be. DeMatteis’ Defenders broke with that tradition in favor of realism.

Blame the zeitgeist. 1981 proved a watershed year for Marvel’s writers fleshing out their characters by having them reflect on how their previous adventures affected them. A prime example was Chris Claremont’s 1981 Avengers Annual.

Famous for introducing Rogue, but also controversial for shedding new light on the events of Avengers # 200, in which Ms. Marvel gave birth to Marcus Immortus, a man she fell head over heels in love with and decided to leave for Limbo with him. As Claremont pointed out, Marcus had been little more than a rapist who had both violated and mind controlled her while the Avengers cheered them on. Ouch.



J.M. DeMatteis used issue # 101 of The Defenders to reflect as well, showing how the team had emerged from their war with the Six Fingered Hand experiencing severe discomfort and depression. Sure, they had won, but the conflict had left them demoralized and even emotionally scarred. A fact the childlike Hulk had considerable difficulty grasping, thereby acting like a perfect intermediary for both inexperienced, young fans and readers new to the book…



“Why does everyone act like something bad happened? We beat devils, didn’t we? World is safe, isn’t it?”

While the Hulk wasn’t too wrong, the loss of Daimon and the corruption of Hellcat weighed heavily on the others… Let alone the fact Doctor Strange was suckered in and almost doomed Earth. Morale was at an all time low, which was what DeMatteis had intended.

After Namor, Hulk and Nighthawk left the pity party, the remaining members made their own plans for the rest of the night. While Gargoyle, Hellcat and Valkyrie decided to visit Patsy’s injured housekeeper Dolly Donahue in the hospital, Doctor Strange and Clea accompanied the Silver Surfer on a rather unique road trip.

Their visit to Dolly takes Hellcat, Valkyrie and Gargoyle straight to the pediatric oncology ward where the old lady spends her time reading to the children. Hellcat was still distraught over being a spawn of the devil ├índ losing her lover who might actually be her half brother. Sobbing away, Patsy got a bit of a reality check…



Having a young girl, clearly suffering from cancer, took center stage in a Comics Code approved title was certainly unique at the time… Especially considering it would take another year or so before Jim Starlin’s Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel would bring the disease into comics. According to DeMatteis, the inclusion of Serina went off without a hitch:

“There was no sign of trepidation from editorial at all.  One of the best things about Defenders is that it wasn’t a high-profile book.  We were off in a corner and I could get as weird and personal as I wanted to without worrying about stepping on anyone’s toes.”

And while Patsy received an ever so gentle reminder that hope was all one needs for a precious and magical life, Doctor Strange, Clea and the Surfer reached their destination and a remarkable multi page scene unfolded…


Setting down in a small African community that had accepted Norrin Rad as one of their own, the locals welcomed their other two supernatural guests by preparing a feast in their honor.



“The doors of the soul do indeed fling open as Doctor Strange and Clea are enveloped in the unfettered, unconditional love that exists between the Silver Surfer and his adopted tribe.”
Forgiving DeMatteis that rather flowery bit of exposition, the simple yet thoroughly joyful rituals and festivities had an obvious effect on Strange.



A profound moment of genuine bliss without repercussion is rare in superhero comics. So, seeing Doctor Strange and Clea throw caution to the wind and, however briefly, forgetting their many, many problems was heart-warming to say the least. And that’s even before the Silver Surfer offered up a nugget or two of wisdom from his unique perspective.



While his dialogue almost made it schmaltzy, DeMatteis’ intended message was crystal clear: no matter who or where you are world, inherent goodness can be found everywhere, if you’re only willing to look for it. An encouraging message, one that spread to all of the Defenders as Devil Slayer discovered when he returned to Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum and found the entire team hanging out on the front steps…



After this opening arc, DeMatteis wrote the title for over two years, delivering several other memorable story lines before shifting the book into the New Defenders. Yet, his initial Six Fingered Hand storyline remained a remarkably early high point. A meticulously, well-constructed, and engaging story with plenty of twists and turns, the Six Fingered Hand Saga has easily withstood the test of time and should have been released in trade paperback ages ago.

Or, as DeMatteis himself stated when asked by this blog how he feels about the Defenders some 30+ years on:

“Looking back I see my younger self:  a writer, with a lot to learn, who poured his heart and soul, every bit of passion he had, into that series.  Defenders was my training ground, a way to explore telling more personal stories in the commercial context of the Marvel Universe.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but writing Defenders got me ready for ‘Moonshadow’ and the other creator-owned, personal projects I’ve done over the years.”
“Having come a long way as a writer, when I read these stories I see all the warts, all the stumbles, all the errors DeMatteis the Younger made; but I also see how much I cared about that book.  And what a good time I had working with Don Perlin.  So I look back on my Defenders days with great fondness.”

And the morning light never seemed brighter indeed…                                                            




3 comments:

  1. Thanks for this, Jef. It was a great story, and the personal touches from DeMatteis were really great. And, like you said, this kind of optimism and happiness is pretty rare in comics. Seeing this little coda just made me really happy. Thanks!

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  2. Hello, just thought I'd comment to let you know that I like your blog. Cheerio!

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  3. That little scene with Patsy and Serina made quite the impression on ten-year old me. As did the rest of the book and the series as a whole. The Defenders was the first major series of which I completed a full run, back when my parents would take me off to flea markets now and then. There was...is...something very special about the book, the characters and the creators who put it all together. Subsequent attemps to revive it failed badly (the 2001 revival was a painful experience), so I think it was also a product of its time. Thanks for a little stroll down memory lane!

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