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Defenders of the Bronze Age

Longbox Graveyard #33

When I began Longbox Graveyard I’d never heard of the Bronze Age of comics. All I knew was that I had a pile of old books that I needed to catalog and appreciate. A check of the worth-what-you-paid-for-it listing at Wikipedia revealed that the “Bronze Age” runs from 1970 to 1985 — which almost exactly overlaps the majority of my comics collection — and so, bingo, Longbox Graveyard was a Bronze Age comics blog.

That same Wikipedia listing notes that Bronze Age books feature “… darker plot elements and more socially-relevant storylines … featuring real-world issues, such as drug use, alcoholism, and environmental pollution …” and while I didn’t think much of it at the time, I have found some truth in this as I’ve revisited my Bronze Age books these past six months.

Never has this definition been more on-target than in Steve Gerber‘s run on The Defenders. By that Wikipedia definition, Gerber’s Defenders is the soul of the Bronze Age.

The Defenders had run for about two years before Gerber took over scripting chores, and I don’t intend to review those early issues here. They were neither very good nor very bad, typifying the kind of mid-list quality that was a strength of Marvel Comics in the 1970s. Following the adventures of a loosely-connected group of heroes centering around Doctor Strange, the Hulk, and the Sub-Mariner, the Defenders came together to face world-threatening events, often supernatural in nature. Much was made of the group being a non-team, consciously distinct from the Avengers with that team’s more glamorous members and endless wrangling over rosters and bylaws. If the Avengers were the high school football team, then the Defenders were the dangerous kids who cut class and showed up for picture day in an AC/DC t-shirt.

In this book Gerber inherited a box of parts that didn’t fit, but rather than try to rationalize the team, Steve purposefully threw sand in the gears. To the core roster of Hulk, Doctor Strange, Valkyrie, and Nighthawk, Gerber added a revolving door of guest-stars and semi-teammates: Son of Satan, Daredevil, Power Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Yellowjacket, Red Guardian. Second-tier characters for the most part, and when you saw them in the same room it looked like a pack of honorable mentions from a cosplay convention got dressed in the dark.

No matter how many times they saved the world, “The Defenders” as an institution just never took root. No one called the Defenders for help — often it was the opposite, with the Defenders calling in someone like Luke Cage when the team needed more muscle. Of all the Marvel superteams, only the Champions were lamer.

If no one was supposed to take the Defenders seriously, Steve Gerber missed the memo, because his scripts were always grounded by real-world issues and emotions, whether his goofy heroes were fighting cultists, the race-baiting Sons of the Serpent, or an interstellar invasion from the baleful Badoon (and he made the Badoon interesting — a minor miracle!). Gerber seemed bored by superhero action — when a fight broke out, he’d find an excuse to break away from fist city to show some innocent being rescued, or he’d frame a single, wide shot to get the compulsory action out the way, then cut back to something he found more interesting.

today’s supervillian — poverty!

With Sal Buscema on pencils, this was an especially wise approach. If you dig this run of Defenders it will be despite the art, rather than because of it — our pal Sal can serve up any meal you like, so long as what you like is a mayonnaise sandwich. I’m sure there’s a virtue to Sal’s consistency, timeliness, and volume of work, and it’s not like what he’s done here is poor — it’s just undistinguished and instantly forgettable. The same poses, panel after uninspired panel, and everyone has the same damn expression on their face, too. Sal only looks as good as his inker allows (and he seemingly has a different inker every month during this run, with Klaus Jansen by far the best of the bunch). Doctor Strange has never been less dynamic than under Buscema’s pencils — a flying guy in a bathrobe, basically, and the Hulk a slack-jawed brute.

thanks, Klaus, for inks above and beyond the call of duty!

As mentioned, Gerber wasn’t all that interested in action, and he filled his scripts with stuff even Sal’s more talented brother, John, would have found difficult getting on paper. Gerber’s run on the Defenders sees the team battling slum lords, hate groups, brain-thieves, and cultists, and calls for the Hulk to go undercover in a trench coat, and wear a bozo mask. We also get the Headmen — including a guy with a gorilla’s body, and a deer occupied by the intellect of a cranky sorcerer — and the worst supervillain of all time (in a fill-in issue by Bill Mantlo) … the long-forgotten Tapping Tommy. Really, by any objective measure, this is a terrible run of comic-books, and I won’t even try to summarize the plot … but I still love these books, because they are so damn singular, and because Gerber holds nothing back.

undercover Hulk, in a Bozo mask

So rather than criticize Sal Buscema’s pencils, maybe the man deserves a medal, both for making sense of Gerber’s crazy ideas and for sticking with the book for Gerber’s entire run. And I think he was a part of something great here. Gerber’s Defenders are exhibit A for “Bronze Age” comic book writing — the same silly characters and plots of the Silver Age storytelling, but with an undercurrent of social realism. Poverty, racism, drug addiction, snuff films, gender issues, identity, new age religion, prison reform — Gerber’s Defenders tackles them all.

a trademark Steve Gerber technique — the all-text story page

For all that the world is threatening, it is not grim. An old man is burned to death by racist Sons of Serpent thugs, and the Hulk tosses people around in ways that look fatal, but for the most part, Gerber sticks to the sunny side of the street. Re-reading these issues really points up the divide between Bronze Age and Modern Age sensibilities. Touchy issues are addressed with a kind of 1970s television sensibility, lending the books depth but not veering off into some dark, depressing corner, or losing sight of the fact that these are adventure stories about people in tights with magical powers. There are drug addicts in Gerber’s world, but he’d never turn Karen Page into a heroin-addicted prostitute.

the Sons of the Serpent weren’t pulling any punches

There are some things that don’t work. The subplot with amnesic Valkyrie and the husband she no longer knows or loves careens from pathos to pathetic, and some elements never come to fruition — most famously Gerber’s crazy elf with a gun, who pops up out of nowhere to assassinate folks at random, and was just one of several plot threads left dangling when Gerber abruptly left the series after issue #41.

the infamous elf

I’ve hunted around the internet (without success) to determine if Gerber’s departure from Defenders was amicable. Creators were shuffled around all the time in this era, and the surprise shouldn’t be that Gerber left the book, but that he lasted over twenty issues on it in the first place. The letter column of the run’s final issue says that Gerber has been “relieved of his duties” after being “shipped off to the duck farm where he belongs,” and promises the Defenders will again “resemble a super-hero book” — doubtless tongue-in-cheek as were all the letter columns of the day, but it has a little bit of bite. (A later Defenders letter column discloses that Gerber penned that response himself). I can see where superhero fans might have just wanted a normal story, for crying out loud (and maybe I felt that way myself in 1976, I can’t remember), but all these years later, it’s a shame we didn’t get more of Gerber’s Defenders. There’s never been a book quite like it, before or since.

And neither has there ever been another guy quite like the deeply-missed Steve Gerber! Next week I will tell my own little Steve Gerber story — about a creator, a writer, a muck monster, a few life lessons, and a lost Steve Gerber comic script (sort of).

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #34 Gerber’s Baby

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978, published once a month or so at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on February 1, 2012, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 40 Comments.

  1. Good summary, Paul. I think The Defenders is where Gerber’s skills really shine – they aren’t “great” comics in the same way that people think about Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen, but they are great fun and they’re insane. Where I think Gerber found his creative footing was taking elements that pre-existed and then “throwing sand” as you put it.

    I much prefer his Defenders stuff – even when it doesn’t work – to his Howard The Duck or Man-Thing. Defenders always felt like Marvel threw it at Gerber and said, “yeah, whatever” and that’s what he did – expanding on the idea of the non-team team, bringing in lame characters who either self-identified as lame or refused to, threw in all that funky NY-in-the-’70s stuff (slumlords, rats biting kids, trash in the streets, gun-toting thugs around every corner) and brought in a bunch of weird villains. Who would ever put the Hulk undercover in a Bozo mask? The only possible answer is “1970s Gerber.”

    And while Sal’s art isn’t ground-breaking, I think it works. It’s this odd juxtaposition of what genuinely looks like a traditional Marvel comic of the day…until you read it. The art doesn’t detract from the writing and it doesn’t telegraph it either. Also, given Gerber’s well-known lateness problems, Sal was probably the only artist available who was fast enough to still get the book out on schedule.

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    • I’ve read a few Howard the Ducks on my digital sub recently — they’re decent, but because they’re absurd to begin with, they lack the subversive vibe of the absurdist Defenders. Superior art, though, that book was blessed with some talent — Frank Brunner, Val Mayerick, Gene Colan, sheesh that’s some heavyweight art for a talking duck book. I may review it here in a couple weeks if only to redress the mortal sin of leaving Bev Switzler off my list of “best Marvel Comics girlfriends of the 1970s.”

      Was Gerber late with books even in the 70s? If so that means Sal can augment that medal I gave him with an oak leaf cluster. I should send him a Purple Heart, too. I like your observation that having such vanilla, generic superhero art on the series elevates the weirdness — not sure if that’s making a virtue of a necessity, but it’s certainly true. If the series was drawn like a Mad Magazine parody or even the aforementioned Howard the Duck it likely wouldn’t have been half as enjoyable, because then it would have been overtly a gag, like a Fred Hembeck book or something. Because Sal played it straight we readers were left to wonder if anyone else found the book as gonzo and bizarre as we did.

      It would be even better if Sal didn’t realize the book was a joke, and thought of it the same way he did all the other stuff that got thrown on his desk those days. It would be like that (probably apocryphal) tale that everyone on the set of Ben Hur was hip to the gay subtext except Charlton Heston. What if everyone knew the Defenders were whack except Sal Buscema, who found it indistinguishable from Steve! Englehart! and whoever else he was saddle in 1977 … what if Gerber kept putting crazy crap like the Elf and Ruby Thursday in the book to get a rise out of Buscema, never dreaming he’d draw the stuff, but the pages kept coming back, month after month, uninspired and without comment?

      I don’t care that this is a total fabrication. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it. Off now to edit the Defenders Wikipedia entry …

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  2. I think that’s my problem with Howard the Duck. For as much as I love “Hellcow” and “Garko,” a little goes a long way, and the set-up is so surreal that the other Gerber-esque elements seem to be trying too hard. (It’s the same problem I had with Nevada – “Look! One character’s an ostrich and the other’s a lamp!”)

    Gerber’s lateness was pretty well-known and followed him everywhere. There are lots of references to it on the Google. Scott Edelman – who was on staff – posted a memo he wrote in 1976 and sent to Archie Goodwin that detailed Gerber’s status on several Marvel projects. Lots of them were late to the point of concern. http://bit.ly/igzuQN

    I spent a couple of years sitting at a conference table (and restaurant table and desk) with him (and many others) and I’d pretty much give anything to do that again. We once had a discussion that extended over three days where I refused to believe that Dr. Bong (from Howard The Duck) was not a drug reference.

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    • Damn, Tom, I wonder if Gerber was late in the 1970s and you hand me the freaking memo! THAT is a rare skill and I’m not sure whether to hug you or shove you in a gym locker.

      I miss Gerber too, though I didn’t have a fraction of the time with him that you guys did. Wish I’d known him better. I’ll get (more) maudlin about it next week.

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  3. Last night, I went looking in my two remaining long boxes to see what Defenders books I had left. I got none. Now while I admit to buying some Defenders books back in the day, I was never a loyal reader of the title. Their stories never captivated me. In fact, my favorite Defenders story is Hulk #206-#207.

    As to Steve Gerber, Tom Mason mentions the early Howard the Duck stories. Those stories still resonate with me. Gerber’s storytelling with Frank Brunner’s art.

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    • The Defenders are never going to be a top-tier book but I think this Gerber run and the weird Keith Giffen/David Anthony Kraft run belong in a 1970s Marvel library. I’ll get to those later Defenders books someday …

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  4. Tom Mason wrote: “…Sal was probably the only artist available who was fast enough to still get the book out on schedule.”

    LOL! I believe it! Dependable Sal.

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    • Sal was a machine, no doubt. He epitomizes that Woody Allen quote that eighty percent of success in life is just showing up. One of my few virtues as a comic book writer is that I never blew a deadline, so I genuinely admire Sal’s professionalism, timeliness, longevity, and volume of work.

      Unfortunately, none of those characteristics are especially virtuous when looking at his body of work all these years later. If he’s a Hall of Famer it’s the same way that Don Sutton is a baseball Hall of Famer. Sal hit his deadlines and probably bailed out a lot of late writers but I have never — and I mean never — been excited to see Sal’s name on the splash page.

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  5. One more thing.

    A great super team will have at least one memorable nemesis.

    The Fantastic Four have Dr. Doom, Galactus, the Mole Man, Annihilus, etc.

    The Avengers have Ultron, The Grim Reaper, Count Nefaria, Korvac (“The Enemy”), etc.

    The X-Men have Magneto, Sauron, The Hellfire Club, Mutant X, etc.

    The Defenders have…?

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    • The Defenders have Tapping Tommy, of course. Sheesh, Horace!

      Look, I admit the Defenders are second-rate (charitably). Like I said in the column, only the Champions were lamer. I actually like the Defenders but that is neither here or there — what I liked about this run wasn’t the Defenders so much as what Gerber did with them. He created the most unusual mainstream Marvel book of the decade.

      I like your villain lists, by the way … I think Kang deserves second billing on your Avengers list, though, and Sauron is a lame-o. Just a terrible villain. But I know you meant to say “Sentinels” instead when you were listing X-Men baddies off the top of your head.

      (Not that I’m trying to change the subject … much …)

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  6. LOL, Paul! Yes, I meant the Sentinels instead of Sauron! Ha, ha!

    I’m at work right now, so I don’t have my copy of “Comic Creators on X-Men” handy. I think Neal Adams said that he and Roy Thomas wanted to have the X-Men battle a vampire. But, Fredric Wertham’s attack on comic books still loomed. Vampires were still seen as too creepy for youngsters. So they created Sauron.

    I agree with you about Kang.

    Back to the Defenders…

    I should probably re-visit this title, as I’ve enjoyed most of what I’ve read by Steve Gerber.

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    • I read reprints of those Adams/Thomas X-Men last year and was kinda shocked at how poor the scripts were … terrific art but I thought the stories nearly unreadable, which was a surprise because I normally like Roy Thomas’ superhero stuff a lot. The Sentinels arc was OK but the Sauron story was a dog with fleas. I remember a John Byrne era Sauron X-Men tale being decent but that character’s origin is the worst.

      Didn’t know about the vampire restriction, makes sense from an era that gave us “zuvembis.”

      Looks like Essential Defenders Volume 2 will cover the bulk of Gerber’s run but Our Pal Sal may be even more exposed without the benefit of color.

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  7. Great write up & while I agree with your thoughts re: Buscema’s pencilling, somehow it was perfect for the era & the stories. When The New Mutants went to Bill Siekenwicz on pencils, I loathed it at the time. But looking back, his style of near-abstract art was a perfect fit for the storylines that were in play at the time. There have been/are/will be done forgettable artists but I’ve always liked Buscema’s work. I know a lot of people felt the same about Mike Zeck but his pencils were flawless on Captain America & Secret Wars.

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    • I’m softening a bit on my opinion of Sal Buscema. His earlier work on Avengers is very good in places. Given that Gerber was notorious for turning in late work I expect Sal had to do a lot of these Defenders pages in a hurry.

      To Cap and Secret Wars add a very respectable run on Master of Kung Fu for Mike Zeck; I will get to those issues eventually here at Longbox Graveyard as I continue my march through that series.

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      • Master of Kung Fu: there’s a title I haven’t thought about in a very long time. Very underrated book.

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        • It is always 1978 here at Longbox Graveyard so it is no trick for Master of Kung Fu to always we top-of-mind. I reviewed the series twice late last year (here and here) and I intend to get back it is sooner rather than later in 2013.

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      • I’m not sure the Gerber Defenders run works without Sal Buscema doing the art. Sal was consistent, Gerber was anything but and I think they balanced each other out. Plus if you had those books drawn by the Byrne and Austin or any of the other A teams of the day you lose the cheesy second banana feel of the series. Did Bill Sienkiewicz ever draw for Gerber? That would have been interesting to see.

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        • There was also the virtue of Sal being able to draw twenty pages practically overnight, which I’m sure he had to do more than once given Gerber’s reputation for meeting deadlines (or failing to do the same). Dunno if Sienkiewicz and Gerber ever worked together (perhaps Horace Austin will chime in) — it seems to be there wasn’t a lot of overlap in their Marvel eras but I could be wrong, and it wouldn’t be the first time.

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  8. Great post, Paul. You sum up the appeal of the Gerber-era Defenders quite well – there’s such a weirdness to it that makes this series fun.

    I don’t think this oddball approach would’ve worked on an A-list book. But for a second-tier book like the Defenders, it’s highly entertaining. The subsequent Kraft/Giffen run isn’t as good, although it’s worth a look just to see how much a young Giffen was trying to emulate Jack Kirby.

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  9. I like how Valkyrie, whose day job is taking the dead to Valhalla, freaks out over a large rat.

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