Monday, September 21, 2009

The Defenders: Non-team, or Avengers Lite?


Marvel Feature #1-3 (December 1971- June 1972)
Writer: Roy ThomasPenciller: Ross Andru
Inker: Bill Everett (#1, 3); Sal Buscema (#2)

Karen: Most comic fans love super-hero teams. There’s something exciting about seeing a whole bunch of characters in one book. It’s easier to explain why the heroes are all together when they share a common background, such as the Fantastic Four or the X-Men. But more haphazard collections of heroes can also work, with team chemistry being manufactured, as in the case of many different line-ups of the Avengers, heroes who have no common ties other than the desire to fight evil.

Doug: Count me among those who have generally been a “group first” buyer. As a kid, I bought all of the titles Karen mentioned, as well as the Champions, the Teen Titans, the Secret Society of Super-Villains, and probably some others I’m forgetting. I always liked the interpersonal dynamics available in group books. While the solo heroes (Spidey, DD) could grow in characterization over the course of a series, there generally wasn’t the possibility for interplay between the hero and the cast – when he was the hero. Interplay was not a problem in a team book.

Karen: By the early 70s, Marvel had two very successful super-teams, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers. The X-Men had fallen into a period of near-dormancy, and other groups, like the Inhumans, never really caught on in their own books. With the increase in the number of titles Marvel was able to put out, it made sense to try to build another winning team.

Doug: Inhumans. Thank you. I knew I forgot to mention another book above. As for them specifically, I just don’t know how committed Marvel was to making them a success in their own book. Same thing for the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Karen: The catalyst for this would be Roy Thomas, the writer/editor who ushered in so many new concepts in Marvel’s second wave of success. Thomas had put together the uneasy team of the Sub-Mariner, Hulk, and Silver Surfer in Sub-Mariner # 34-35 (Feb-Mar 1971), and the sales on those issues were better than usual. Marvel head honcho Stan Lee decided it was a good sign, and declared the team should have their own book, even coming up with the name, “The Defenders”. However, he wouldn’t let Thomas use the Silver Surfer! The Surfer was his pet character and he didn’t want anyone but himself writing him. Instead, the third member of the team would be Doctor Strange. In retrospect, Thomas felt that this change worked out well, as Strange provided the glue that held the other two together. Recognizing the anti-hero nature of both Hulk and Sub-Mariner, and the unlikelihood of them forming any real team, Thomas defined the Defenders as “the non-team” – essentially, a group of guys who keep getting thrown together to face a common threat. Unlike the Avengers, the Defenders had no interest in staying together, but fate (and comic sales) kept them coming back.

Karen: Let’s take a look at Marvel Feature 1. The first thing one notices is the incredibly sketchy artwork! I always thought this was a terrible art job, and didn’t know why until recently, when I read the Marvel Masterworks Defenders Volume 1. In the foreword, Thomas explains that artist Ross Andru often drew multiple lines in his work, as if he couldn‘t decide where to stop. Inker Everett was apparently annoyed by this, and decided to just ink everything, giving the book a very rough appearance. It’s particularly painful with the facial expressions of the figures.

Doug: I read this for the first time for this discussion. I used the Essential Defenders, Volume 1 which is of course in black and white. While I am certain Marvel never intended to publish this story in one of their magazines, one almost has to wonder. As Karen says, it is such a departure from the usual linework. I’d also add that, if held to a visual pop quiz as to who the artist was for this story, I never would have come up with Ross Andru. While I’m a fan of his Amazing Spider-Man work from this same era, here none of the distinctive figures or faces are present. Bill Everett must have exerted quite a bit of influence on Andru’s pencils – perhaps Andru provided only lay-outs?

Karen: It seems from what Roy says, that it was typical for Andru to keep noodling around with his drawings, leaving multiple lines, and the inker had to pick which lines to ink! Apparently, Everett decided, “Screw it, I’ll ink ‘em all” as some sort of statement. But that didn’t go over very well when the inked work was returned!

Doug: No, it didn’t look good at all. You and I have complained on other forums that the modern-day John Byrne is scratchy – nothing like this mass of lines however.

Karen: I found the story to be rather pedestrian – the trio has to stop a foe of Strange named Yandroth who has built a device (‘the Omegatron’!) that will destroy the world. What kept me reading were the interactions between the three non-team-mates. Namor and Hulk both bridle at being given orders by Strange, who has a job more difficult than herding cats. At the end, they all agree that they never want to get together again – which of course they do in the next issue.

Doug: Call me a heretic, but sometimes Roy Thomas just isn’t the guy for the job. I don’t care for him on Spider-Man, and his Fantastic Four was only OK. I just thought he really had a tough time finding the different voices. I’m not a Dr. Strange fan by any stretch (never have been), but I found the dichotomy between having to save the world and intentionally and deceitfully pitting Namor and the Hulk against one another an interesting moral dilemma.

Karen: Doc’s treatment of the Hulk in particular was pretty arrogant. I do think I prefer the way Steve Englehart handled their relationship.

Karen: Marvel Feature #2 has a much more polished look, with Sal Buscema’s inking. The trio re-unites to defeat Dormammu and his minions. This issue also features Tom Fagan and the Rutland, Vermont Halloween parade, seen in a number of other Marvel books of that era, as well as a cameo by Roy Thomas himself. It’s funny, back in those days I got a kick out of comic creators putting themselves in books, but if anyone did it today I’d probably think they were an egotistical jerk! Oh well, different times.

Doug: I think that’s because some of them are egotistical jerks; why else would they think they have such free reign to cook in Stan’s and Jack’s kitchen the way they do? But I digress. I liked the Rutland Halloween stories that were in Avengers #119 and in Batman. Fun stuff – added some “real world” feel to the stories.

Doug: By this time, having read the pre-Defenders stories that had taken place in Doctor Strange, Incredible Hulk, and Sub-Mariner, I was getting a little perturbed that Dr. Strange’s baddies always seemed to be the villain du jour. How come he could give ‘em a beatdown by himself in his own book, but in Marvel Feature he needed help?

Karen: I found this issue much more enjoyable than the previous one. A large part of the reason for that must be the artwork. But I also thought this story was better constructed.

Doug: Agreed. Of the three issues we’re discussing, this was the “funnest”.

Karen: The team’s third go-round, in Marvel Feature #3, once again features Everett on inks, and again, I feel the art suffers. It’s not horrendous like the first issue was, but it lacks the smoothness that Buscema brought to Andru’s pencils.

Doug: I thought the Hulk looked dorky in all three issues. It seemed like his arms were too long, like he was drawn almost ape-like.

Karen: The Hulk definitely had a more monsterish appearance. Although Herb Trimpe was the artist on Incredible Hulk when I was a kid, I always liked Sal Buscema’s Hulk better. His Hulk seemed more capable of conveying a variety of emotions, yet he still felt big and powerful.

Doug: Yeah, I saw Trimpe’s stuff – I was never a regular reader of the Hulk. I agree with you in that when I think of the Hulk in the 1970’s, I see Sal’s work, or perhaps John Romita’s promo stuff.

Karen: This time the Defenders face Xemnu, a big furry weirdo who wants to kidnap Earth’s children and take them back to repopulate his own world. Xemnu had first appeared in Journey into Mystery #62, where he was known as The Hulk! Obviously, Thomas was having a little fun, digging this old monster out of the mothballs. It’s a quirky tale but pretty interesting.

Doug: Interesting that Stan cites Monsters on the Prowl #’s 11 and 14 for his footnote on Xemnu’s previous appearances. Marvel always was good at keeping older characters on the shelves in the pages of their various reprint mags. As for the story itself, I actually found it sort of annoying – I didn’t care for the astronauts or for Xemnu, and I just didn’t think Xemnu’s angle was ever really explained nor particularly rational (yeah, yeah, I know it’s a comic book…).

Karen: The Defenders would go on to their own title, and Thomas would hand the reins over to Steve Englehart. Sal Buscema would be the regular penciller, and the two of them would have quite a run on the book.

Doug: Both creators were at the height of their powers in this era. Good stuff couldn’t help but happen when they teamed up!

Karen: The Defenders was always a group that left me wanting more. There just seemed to be something missing. Considering the great characters that went in and out of the team – Dr. Strange, Hulk, Namor, the Surfer – there was the opportunity to leave a legacy of some classic stories. And yet, when I think about the Defenders as a whole, I can’t really come up with any truly great stories. You look at the FF, there’s the Galactus Trilogy and a bunch of great Lee/Kirby stories. The Avengers have the Kree-Skrull War, Under Siege. The X-Men have the Phoenix saga. But the Defenders? The Avengers/Defenders War was entertaining, but at least half of that was due to the presence of the Avengers. Yet I bought the book religiously as a kid, and enjoyed it. Steve Gerber’s run produced some stories that are memorable if for nothing else than their sheer weirdness. But classic Defenders stories? Outside of the aforementioned Avengers/Defenders War, I’m not sure there are any.

Doug: Just having read the Guardians of the Galaxy hardcover “Earth Shall Overcome”, which reprints (among other things) the arc that ran through Defenders 26-29, I can speak to those issues as a fun read. I bought those same issues off the spinner racks when I was a kid, and that’s about the closest thing to a “classic” story as far as I’m concerned. The book was always such a mish-mash of characters; it sometimes seemed like a “Marvel Seven-In-One” book. However, it was generally fun, and I liked getting my dosage of Dr. Strange and the Hulk, since I never followed them in their solo adventures. But time does tarnish those fond memories, doesn’t it?

14 comments:

pete doree said...

Hey guys, just came across your blog and love it. Agree with pretty much everything you say about The Defenders early issues, especially the Rutland one. Particularly love that scene where Hulk & Subby are beating each other up in a dark alley, then the lights go on and they both go: " You!"
Have to disagree about no classic Defenders stories though, just about all of Gerber's run, particularly Nebulon/The Bozo's/Val in jail is one of the great run's of any comic.

Karen said...

Hi Pete, glad you found us and thanks for your comment.

We'll be checking out some more Defenders issues soon. Like I said, I used to love getting this book, especially during the Englehart and Gerber runs. It was quirky and entertaining. I guess a comparable book for me today might be Agents of Atlas.

cerebus660 said...

The Defenders certainly had their ups and downs, didn't they? I have to agree with Pete about Steve Gerber's excellent run on the title, and I also kinda liked the Dave Kraft/Keith Giffen "Who Remembers Scorpio?" storyline: a minor classic.
BTW Love your blog! Keep up the good work!

Doug said...

Thanks, Pete and cerebus660, for the kind words of encouragement!

I'll admit to not knowing much about the Defenders for very many issues after Val changed her outfit. I was out of comics from 1980-85, and when I got back into the hobby the Defenders didn't look all that interesting to me. So I'll take your word, cerebus660, on the Kraft/Giffen era.

Like Karen said, the book was always quirky (Headmen, anyone??) and for the most part entertaining. I just preferred some of the other group books I mentioned in the post.

But, we will be diving back into the non-team again soon, and I'd lie if I said I wasn't looking forward to it -- the Bronze Age is just too much fun!

Thanks again,

Doug

Booksteve said...

Hey, I found your blog through Pete! Lotta that going around today i guess. Good stuff. Glad to see you discussed and kind of explained the inks on that first story. Everett's inks as far back as the late 1930's were so smooth that I could never figure out what was happening here! His SUB-MARINER work in the seventies was also smooth. Now I know why he just went wild with this. It really doesn't work, though! I'll be back.

Karen said...

Hey Booksteve, welcome to the blog!

Yup, it's hard to believe that Everett inked the book that way because he was annoyed, but if Rascally Roy says so, it must be true! I love finding out the real scoop on stuff like that.

Doug said...

Ha! The Rascally One must have given that Everett information a long time ago, because any of us who have dealt with Roy in recent years, even interviews he's given recently -- the guy can't (or won't) remember anything! He's as bad as Stan!!

And glad you found us, too, Steve!

Best,

Doug

Spider-Man Reviewed said...

Hello. Just found your site.

As regards the Ross Andru/Bill Everett thing with the scratchy lines. I read an interview with Neal Adams where Adams said Andru had an eye defect that meant he couldn't always properly see the pages he was drawing. This was especially a problem on the first Superman/Spider-Man clash where Andru was faced with having to draw 100 pages of art on a ridiculously tight schedule, prompting Adams to polish up Andru's pencils before giving them to Dick Giordano to ink. I'm assuming this eye problem was the reason for Andru's somewhat untidy linework. If so, I think Everett was being a bit harsh on him, although perhaps he didn't know why Andru's pencils were so indecisive.

Karen said...

Thanks for the information regarding Andru's eyesight - I had never heard that before. That's really enlightening. I wonder if even Roy Thomas was aware of that, as he made no mention of it in his comments.

Karen

old postage stamps said...

I am thinking about getting my old comics out and seeing what I have. I am sure that I have an Avengers in there.

Anonymous said...

Hi Guys,
Doug, you make a really good here: "Call me a heretic, but sometimes Roy Thomas just isn’t the guy for the job"
One thing that has always struck me about Roy Thomas is that, considering he wrote just about EVERY Marvel title, when you remember THE classic era of any title, it's never his.
Great run on Avengers, but Englehart was better.
Created the Defenders, but Englehart and Gerber were both better.
Superb on X men, but eclipsed by you-know-who
Iron Man – gotta be the Michelinie/Layton years
Iron Fist, well, Claremont again,
Doc Strange, hmmm, I know he loved the Doc dearly, but let’s face it, he wrote the Stephen Sanders stuff, which hardly compares to the stuff Ditko originated, despite superb art from C&P.
His FF’s were good, but I preferred Lee and Byrne, each in their season, and didn’t Marv Wolfman have a good run on FF too?
So I guess if the Roy Thomas years are the definitive years on anything it’s probably Conan or Spider Man, but I’ve never been a big enough fan of either to discern.

Fred W. Hill said...

The last comment on this was about 4 years ago but here I go adding my own 2 cents. Regarding Roy Thomas, his brief run on Spider-Man while entertaining can't really be regarded as classic but certainly his long run on Conan qualifies. His first run on the X-Men was rather blah, but his 2nd run, with Neil Adams is certainly classic, as are several Avengers' stories and I enjoyed his run on Sub-Mariner with either John Buscema or Marie Severin on art.
Back on the Defenders, the first 50 issues are some of my favorite Bronze Age comics, with the clash with the Avengers, and pretty much the entire Gerber run all qualifying as classics in my regard. I also liked the Zodiac story that concluded with issue 50, but after that the series went into a decline it never really came out of as far I'm concerned, even tho' I kept collecting it until a bit past the 100th issue. I didn't much care for Don Perlin's art during much of that period.

Prof. Roy Richardson said...

Ross Andru was a great penciller and storyteller, but he was dyslexic, and had to really work at getting his drawing and storytelling like he wanted it. The art on the comic in question is the way he always drew, and most of his other inkers didn't have a problem with it.
Bill Everett, on the other hand, was an alcoholic; who do you think was responsible for the "bad art job" the authors of this article are complaining about?

Prof. Roy Richardson said...

Or on the other hand, Everett may have been on the wagon, but only given a week to ink the whole comic, and did the best he could under the circumstances, you just never know. Fans tend to assume comics are always produced under optimal circumstances, when just the opposite is usually the case.

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