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Defenders #48

Read my columns about The DefendersDefenders Of The Bronze Age and Defenders: Who Remembers Scorpio?

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Defenders: Who Remembers Scorpio?

Longbox Graveyard #85

Last year I lauded Steve Gerber’s Defenders run as among the strangest and most entertaining in the history of mainstream superhero comics, but The Defenders, as a title, continued long after Mr. Gerber left the building. And while Gerber took his Bozo masks and homicidal elves with him, Gerber’s era left a lingering aura of weirdness that The Defenders never were quite quit of.

Another odd and entertaining run of the book began just three issues later, when David Anthony Kraft took over scripting chores from the pedestrian Gerry Conway beginning with issue #44.

Kraft’s tenure would last twenty-four issue on Defenders, and featured superior stories throughout. That the run isn’t more celebrated is I think due to two factors. First, this is The Defenders, and even on their best day, our favorite non-team dwells in the shadows of the Avengers. Second, while the artwork was competent throughout the run, it was rarely consistent, and especially prey to that 1970s Marvel plague — the Dreaded Deadline Doom. A rotating cast of pencillers and inkers — exacerbated by fill-in issues and truncated main features, with inferior back-up strips — prevented the series from getting traction and kneecapped some promising tales.

Defenders #48

Where the pieces best came together was the three-part “Who Remembers Scorpio” arc in Defenders #48-50. Keith Giffen penciled each issue (though with three different inkers, including his own inks in issue #50). As a team, Giffen and Kraft had some storytelling mojo that still holds up after more than three decades.

This story revolves around the machinations of the eponymous Scorpio, and you can be forgiven if despite this arc’s title you don’t remember him — I don’t think anyone else did, either. First appearing in Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1, Scorpio was Jake Fury, Nick Fury’s inadequate brother, who through a series of plot twists too tedious to recount took on the identity of Scorpio and headed up the Zodiac crime syndicate.

All well and good, but what distinguishes Zodiac from Hydra and A.I.M. and all those other sinister super-spy organizations (at least in this Defenders run) is Scorpio himself, a pathetic figure struggling with inadequacy, depression, and self-doubt — a condition only made worse by coming up second to his much more famous brother, Nick.

Defenders #48 by Keith Giffen & David Anthony Kraft

Scorpio is an unusually self-aware villain, but what he can’t see is that his own well-realized inadequacies have manifested themselves in a kind of paranoia about a “system” out to get him. Now, the system may indeed be out to get Scorpio, but only to the degree that it is out to get everyone. By himself, Scorpio doesn’t rate. The world doesn’t even know he exists at this point, but Scorpio’s delusions make him the bullseye of a worldwide conspiracy. In a particularly self-aware and meta moment, Scorpio admits he is a second-rate character (and that’s giving him all the best of it), but he refuses to fade into obscurity. He has a plan. Lacking significance, Scorpio has constructed a great drama where he can be the star … and everything about it is constructed, right down to the (admittedly confusing) appearance of Nick Fury in that page above. But more on that later.

Scorpio is central to this arc but he is only part of what makes this a great run. Also on display is Kraft’s deft hand at characterization, an important quality in a book like The Defenders, where the absence of a center of gravity (or even a secret clubhouse!) continually threatens to send the cast spinning off on their own arcs. Rather than try to hammer the team into some convenient shape, Kraft embraced the disparate nature of the non-team’s cast of characters, bouncing from character to character in a series of interweaving subplots that keep readers hooked with hints of future action while also (more often than not) providing some comic relief.

I particularly liked the way Kraft handled the Hulk. The 1970s saw the Hulk at his most childish, but even the Hulk has a canny self-awareness in Kraft’s Defenders …

Defenders #48 by Keith Giffen & David Anthony Kraft

Kraft’s Hulk is a force of nature, and more interesting here than we was in his own book at the time. Perennial Defender Nighthawk remains a bit of a stiff even on Kraft’s watch, but Valkyrie is brought to life through an extended subplot (later in this run) where she tries to enroll in college. Moon Knight also features in this arc, though we never really get under his skin, but where Kraft really hits it out of the park is in his handling of Hellcat, an emotionally-direct breath of fresh air who joins the Defenders without really meaning to, then sticks around to shake things up (and put the Hulk in his place when he misbehaves).

The series is grounded in little details. Often, little details are all we have. Scorpio must have some grand plan of conquest, but all we learn from this arc is that he intends to extort money from Kyle Richards/Nighthawk to help spawn his new Zodiac. What he intends to do with these loonies is left to the imagination … but our villain isn’t so busy that he can’t offer his hostage a beer.

Defenders #48 by Keith Giffen & David Anthony Kraft

Being on the hard side of fifty myself, it cuts a little close to the bone that Scorpio is driven to distraction by being fifty-two … but these books came out in 1977, well before fifty became the new thirty (wrote the blogger, desperately).

Keith Giffen’s art was polarizing on this run. I liked his detail and dynamic action, and wasn’t bothered that Giffen openly emulated Jack Kirby, never more so than when his pencils were finished by long-time Kirby inker Mike Royer in issue #49.

Defenders #49 by Keith Giffen & David Anthony Kraft

Giffen’s storytelling had a snappy visual pace, and by channeling that broad-shouldered Kirby aesthetic, the operatic exaggeration at the heart of Kraft’s scripts was made to feel natural.

Defenders #49 by Keith Giffen & David Anthony Kraft

But rather than usher in a new and evil age of Aquarius, that ominous “klik” instead transitions directly to …

Defenders #49 by Keith Giffen & David Anthony Kraft

It is a great piece of visual juxtaposition and comic timing, and illuminates one of the great charms of this run — how melodramatic superhero action is intercut with mundane and funny scenes that illuminate character and ground a pretty crazy story in the “real” world. It’s the same kind of storytelling sleight-of-hand Joss Whedon would manage so well on the big screen, decades later, which his shawarma-eating Avengers. I mean, we know our heroes will put paid to Scorpio one way or the other, but will Hellcat figure how to safely brew a cup of coffee?

Well, will she???

The lesson here is that it is the little stakes that matter. I recently finished the Avengers vs. X-Men omnibus, and that I didn’t much like it is neither here nor there. But one of the things I disliked about the book was how emotionally remote the whole thing felt. Here were the biggest stars of the Marvel Universe slugging it out over the fate of the earth and all mutantkind but I just … couldn’t … care about it. It was too big, too orchestrated, too over-the-top. (I felt kind of the same way when Thanos destroyed half the universe with a snap of his fingers).

But little stories like this Scorpio arc — leavened with interpersonal relationships, and conflicts between members of the team — this story feels meaningful, because the stakes are human-scaled. Will Hellcat ever brew that coffee? Will Hulk get to eat his lunch in peace?

Well, will he???

Defenders #49 by Keith Giffen & David Anthony Kraft

But this Defenders arc isn’t just about little things. For all of its characterization and soul-searching supervillains, this run is foremost an action comic, with the bulk of the last two issues given over to blockbuster punch-outs of the highest order. That scene with the Hulk above is a set-up for issue #49, as Hellcat, Valkyrie, and Moon Knight hatch a harebrained plan to enrage the man brute, that he might follow them to Scorpio’s hideout. It’s really just a thin excuse to spend an issue showing the Hulk tearing up Manhattan … but it works in the flow of the story, it helps emphasize the bass-ackwards nature of the Defenders, and it gives the cast a chance to play off of each other as they realize they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.

Fun comics, pure and simple … offering exposition-through-action in the way the comics form does best.

Defenders #49 by Keith Giffen & David Anthony Kraft

Issue #50 brings this brief epic to a close, and once again it’s an all-action issue, made memorable by Kraft’s characterization, with the doomed Scorpio at the center of what might otherwise be a pedestrian punch-out. Scorpio’s plan comes to fruition as he reveals his new Zodiac army, with some nifty character designs each patterned after astrological signs.

Defenders #50 by Keith Giffen & David Anthony Kraft

It would have been enough for the fiftieth issue to be a mindless action brawl between our heroes and these villains, but the proceedings are spiced up a bit by having the Zodiac behave in accordance with their astrological nature, with Gemini arguing against himself, and Libra balancing everything out before his late (and decisive) design to join the fray to the detriment of his teammates.

Sure, it’s just “Hulk Smash” … but it is smashing with a purpose, smashing with dimension, and smashing that frames the story of Scorpio’s psychological collapse.

Defenders #50 by Keith Giffen & David Anthony Kraft

Giffen’s attention to detail serves him well in that fiftieth issue brawl. I love how the geometry of Scorpio’s base serves as a kind of artificial panel border in this sequence below, separating and framing parallel action … and I also love how the Hulk smashing Taurus into Scipio’s refrigerator sends the bad guy’s beer stash spraying across the room. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a beer fridge in a supervillain’s lair. It’s wonderful.

Defenders #50 by Keith Giffen & David Anthony Kraft

It’s all action, but it’s meaningful action, demonstrating the choices and consequences of characters we’ve come to care about.

And the character we might most care about by this point is Scorpio, as the true purpose for his new criminal elite is revealed. The Zodiac was to have been Scorpio’s family — a family where Scorpio would be in charge, loved, respected, and needed. Over-the-top, improbable, melodramatic … and meaningful. Great stakes for a comic book.

Defenders #50 by Keith Giffen & David Anthony Kraft

Giffen continues with his clever panel construction as the big brawl wraps up, and even the heroes sense that Scorpio is about to do something extreme …

Defenders #50 by Keith Giffen & David Anthony Kraft

… but they will arrive too late to prevent Scorpio from taking his own life, comforted only by the Nick Fury “Life Model Decoy” that was standing in for his estranged brother all along. With his interior destruction complete, Scorpio’s physical destruction is inevitable. True to the series’ ethos, Scorpio doesn’t go out in a blaze of glory — instead he puts on a Judy Garland record, refuses a Schlitz beer, and rejects the world’s last attempt to offer him love.

Defenders #50 by Keith Giffen & David Anthony Kraft

And then it is over! Kraft and Giffen would stay together five more issues, but their next major arc — “The Power Principle,” which also explored the emotional needs of a flawed supervillian — would come up short, sputtering through shortened page counts before Carmine Infantino came aboard to finish artistic duties for Giffen. It’s a shame this team didn’t stay together longer, because “Power Principle” was shaping up to be a great tale in its own right …

… but at least we have this Scorpio arc, a little gem of a story, and further proof that sometimes the best superhero comics are more obscure titles like The Defenders, where supervillains can wistfully listen to “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and creators can indulge their muse telling the kinds of stories that comics tell better than any other art form.

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #86 Star-Lord

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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