Tuesday, February 5, 2013

1981 - The Defenders Go Demonic!

By Jef Willemsen (clarmindcontrol.blogspot.com)

Most writers set out to leave their mark on whatever new book they take on. As we’ll see in this retrospective of J.M. DeMatteis’ initial arc on the Defenders, that mark was shaped like a six fingered hand. 

Ever since their inception in 1971, the Defenders had always been in flux. Not only because their membership was more eclectic than a Yoko Ono jam session, the tone of the book also tended to shift dramatically whenever a new writer came in.

From the semi-straightforward superheroics of Roy Thomas to the utterly bizarre Elf with a gun days of the late great Steve Gerber: the Defenders did it all and while this certainly proved the team’s versatility, it also found them without any convincing, long term raison d’etre

It took ten years and the arrival of writer J.M. DeMatteis to give the non-team a bit more focus beyond beating the baddie du jour. DeMatteis pulled this off by locking on to the slightly dark vibe the book had always exuded and running with it, while also focusing on character development.  

Consider the opening page of Defenders # 92. At first, it might seem a little silly to have Earth’s mightiest mortal playing house with a Dormammu doll in Doctor Strange’s living room. But it actually showed how well DeMatteis understood the dynamic between the Defenders. The team had been using Strange’s sanctum sanctorum as a meeting place since the early days and for the Hulk, it had literally become a sanctuary as well. Here, with no enemies to hound him, the childlike creature could finally drop his guard, showing an almost endearing vulnerability.

Its interesting to note that in an interview with this blog, author J.M. DeMatteis would later reveal that the Hulk wasn’t a character he was at all comfortable with. That’s why the green giant would ever so gently be written out of the stories. DeMatteis felt he didn’t seem to fit with his take on the team.

A character who wás a natural fit for the Defenders was the Hulk’s fellow founder Doctor Strange. In fact, as DeMatteis recalled, Strange is what got him the job in the first place. I certainly didn’t lobby for the gig—Ed Hannigan was writing the book at the time and doing a fine job of it—so I was very surprised when I walked into Jim Shooter’s office one day and he told me I was taking over Defenders:  “Because,” he said, “I know you like Doctor Strange.”  Which is true:  I love Doctor Strange!”

Under DeMatteis, Strange quickly became more than team leader and reluctant land lord, the doctor wasn’t beyond giving his own special kind of stern pep talk. As shown here, when he interrupts Nighthawk’s lament on the sorry state of his life. He declares himself a failure as both a superhero and in his private life as millionaire playboy Kyle Richmond. In response, Doctor Strange sets him straight, just as the real action begins.

The white panel isn’t just an easy way for artist Don Perlin to meet his page rate, it’s also indicative of a problem with Eternity, the physical representative of our entire universe. As Doctor Strange learns when he goes to meet the entity: there are pieces of Eternity missing. Y’see, in order to understand himself (aka: the universe) better, he regularly breaks off pieces of himself to… well. Ehm. Let’s have him explain it.

It’s an interesting, if not slightly confusing explanation. Yes, it *is* imaginable our universe has a semblance of sentience and therefore feels completely alone because there’s nothing else like it out there.

But, let’s consider the scope here. The embodiment of everything wants to ‘learn the meaning of otherness’ by briefly functioning as part of, well, itself. And an almost microscopic part at that. Its like trying to experience humanity by being an electron inside one of the molecules that make up your toe nail. You are already part of you. What’s the new perspective to gain when you’ve been yourself all along?

Still, let’s not get too metaphysical. The problems with reality are being caused by three of Eternity’s fragments who are unwilling to relinquish their new existence. As fate would have it, they were all residing on Earth, which forces Doctor Strange to split up the team and teleport the group in smaller squads to persuade these aspects of Eternity. A tactic straight from dozens of a 60s split-and-conquer Justice League of America stories, DeMatteis took the opportunity to set up an important subplot as well.

When the Son of Satan sees a darkness in your soul, that’d be cause to worry. But the usually happy go lucky Patsy Walker seemed ever ready to ignore his warning. In retrospect, this is all major foreshadowing, but they’re too busy confronting Eternity’s aspects. Thankfully,  after the obligatory fight scenes, Nighthawk manages to convince them to rejoin the greater collective.

Issue # 93 starts with Daimon trying to warn Strange of a coming darkness, but before the doctor could investigate, Nighthawk literally drops dead. Back in Defenders # 14, he had suffered fatal injuries which Strange healed with a potent spell. Someone or something had disrupted this magic, and while Strange was able to salvage the situation and return Kyle to life, he failed to fully heal his body, leaving the acrobatic superhero paralyzed from the waist down.

Meanwhile, Hellcat is advancing her little subplot as well.

And, as if that wasn’t enough for one issue, the Defenders get called to action when longtime member Namor declares war on the surface world for the heck of it. This time, fired up by his lover, the lady Dorma. Yes, the same Dorma that had died a decade earlier saving Namor’s life. As Atlantean troops invade London, Strange hesitantly teleports the Defenders, minus Nighthawk and Clea, across the globe to deal with the situation.

Yes, Doctor Strange *has* been teleporting around an awful lot lately. Well, I’m sure he knows what he’s doing… He is the sorcerer supreme after all.

After an entertaining fight scene, Dorma stands revealed as Nebulon, the Celestial Man in disguise. This old, cross dressing Defenders foe used his shape shifting and mind control abilities to fool Namor and the Atlanteans in yet another failed attempt to conquer Earth.  He is quickly dealt with by the Sub-Mariner himself, as the issue draws to a close and the promo blurb for # 94 promises something we’ve already sensed was coming...

Be here for part II of The Defenders Go Demonic: Night of the Geriatric Gargoyle


  1. My first Marvel "Epic". Always have fond memories of this one. And it's still a fun story today. Shame MPC line finished up as this run would have been perfect.

  2. Comics in the 70s & 80s were the best in my opinion. The stories, the art...the artists had their own style. Today, you see too many art styles, no imagination and the inability of artists to tell a story (panel by panel).

    1. A lot of them seem to overdo the lightbox/photograph method. I wonder if they could draw a scene without reference.

  3. I've been busy reading (for the first time!) the entire run of The Defenders over the last year, and have just a few weeks ago arrived at this very story arc; it'll be quite interesting experiencing this as a longtime comics fan and then reading this "new" review. Awesome timing.

    By the way, I also enjoy Jef's blog on Claremont, and he's echoing a lot of thoughts I've had about ol' Chris for twenty-five years.

    Thanks guys!

  4. These were some of the very first Marvel comics I ever read and have loomed large in my imagination ever since - excellent write-up; looking forward to part two.

  5. I will eagerly awaiting part two.



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