Defenders of the Bronze Age
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.
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).
- Title: The Defenders
- Published By: Marvel Comics, 1972-1986
- Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: #20-41, February 1975-November 1976
- Your Appropriately Off-Center Soundtrack For This Series: People Are Strange — The Doors
- LBG Letter Grade For This Run: B-
- Read The Reprints: Longbox Graveyard Store
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #34 Gerber’s Baby