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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
But rather than usher in a new and evil age of Aquarius, that ominous “klik” instead transitions directly to …
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???
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
… 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.
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.
- Title: The Defenders
- Published By: Marvel Comics, 1972-1986
- Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: #48-50, June-August 1977
- LBG Letter Grade For This Run: B
- Own the originals (dirt cheap!): MyComicShop.com
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #86 Star-Lord