Monday, May 28, 2012

Marvel Firsts: She Ain't Fat, and She Ain't Singing!

Defenders #4 (February 1973)
"The New Defender!"
Steve Englehart-Sal Buscema/Frank McLaughlin

Karen: As my partner has commented before, I'm not sure we can call this the first appearance of the Valkyrie. After all, we'd first seen the character in Avengers #83, and again in Hulk #142. But this book would establish a new persona for the character, who would wind up being a Defender longer than almost anyone.

Doug: Who do you think of when you think of the Defenders? For me, I guess my mind's eye goes toward Nighthawk and our girl here, Valkyrie. Those two, for me, are the mainstays of the team in its first several years.

Karen: I would say those two and the Hulk are the names that pop into my head when I think of 'Defenders'. With Val and Nighthawk, the title was the only place they appeared, so there seemed to be more of an investment with them, just as Vision seemed to be "the Avenger" back in the 70s. Our tale starts at the end of another. Suffice it to say, The Defenders -at this time, the Hulk, Dr. Strange, and the Sub-Mariner - have defeated Strange's foe, the Nameless One, in another dimension. They've returned to Earth, Britain specifically. A human girl who was with them, Barbara Norris, has been driven insane, really nearly mindless, by the ordeal. The Hulk, who is smitten with the girl, blames Strange. I like the way Sal Buscema draws the Hulk -much more bestial than many other artists of the day. Hulk leaps off with Barbara in his arms, and a tormented Strange questions his decisions, which led to the girl's condition. Namor -who is sporting a golden earring, by the way - dismisses Strange's self-doubt, and says they must pursue the Hulk, as he could accidentally harm the girl. They follow the behemoth into a near-by castle.

Doug: I really like Sal's art here, and although I can't really comment on the inks of Frank McLaughlin from the standpoint of notoriety of characteristics, he's obviously complimentary to Our Pal Sal. You make a good point about Buscema's Hulk -- he has a fierceness about him, whereas Trimpe's tended to be a bit more matter-of-fact facially. I also enjoy the way Sal makes Hulk appear puzzled (dense, really, like he's trying to figure something out and can't cut through the fog) in some of the crowd scenes later in this story. As to the castle -- is it any wonder children so often dwell on stereotypes? Hey -- this is a castle!

Karen: The castle is well-maintained and chock-a-block full of the typical trappings such as suits of armor and shields on the wall. Strange and Namor ponder where the Hulk, usually easy to find, could have gone. They journey down a flight of stone steps to a cellar. There, a brazier full of burning coals flares up and leaves the room shrouded in an odd mist, out of which emerges the Executioner and a gaggle of armored foes.

Doug: Would you have been at all surprised if Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi lived in those digs? And how about a shout-out to the Asgardian armed forces? The word "uniform" never crossed anyone's mind. These guys always wear something different from the guy to the left and to the right!
Karen: Strange blasts their foes and Namor dives right in, fists flailing. But a magician, looking very much like a stereotypical Merlin figure, even with pointy hat and robe covered with stars, appears and casts a spell on Strange that somehow prevents him from using magic. As a normal man, he is easily captured. The Sub-Mariner battles on, but deprived of moisture he begins to weaken. The Executioner pulls a new trick and blasts Namor with energy from his hands. The defeated Defenders are tossed in a prison cell.

Doug: Wasn't this issue a great example for a couple of posts we've run recently? The whole "Merlin" thing could have tested anyone's suspension of disbelief -- not the fact that he was a wizard, but how he was dressed, and Namor's ever-present need to be exposed to water. I don't know... do frogs dry out as quickly as the Avenging Son? Sal always draws a good fight, with bodies flying everywhere. I always get a charge out of the Executioner. You know he'll get it handed to him in the end, but he's just such a big, dumb goober that he has to be a hoot to write.
Karen: In their cell they are reunited with Hulk- well, with Bruce Banner anyway. Barbara is there too, but she just sits in a corner and stares. A voice suddenly comes from a cell across the hall and they discover that the Executioner has two other prisoners -the Black Knight and the Enchantress! The Black Knight relays the story about how they came to be prisoners. It appears that after the Executioner abandoned the Enchantress for another magic-wielding babe at the end of Avengers #83, the Enchantress was really ticked off, which is one of the reasons she conspired with Ares to invade Earth (Avengers #100). She managed to escape from Zeus, and found the Knight, and cast her spell of love (lust?) over him. Her plan: get the Executioner back from the woman who stole him. But when they came to this dimension (oh yeah, apparently when the brazier exploded, they were transported to another dimension!), the queen, Casiolena, easily defeated the Enchantress. The Knight was soon overwhelmed too.

Doug: I didn 't think Englehart had Banner's voice at all. He was flip and spoke with pop culture references that co uld not have made his interaction with Namor easy at all. And Englehart crafted an almost-Claremontian tale to get his new heroine introduced, didn't he? Can I get something straight? At the beginning of this story, our heroes didn't enter Garrett Castle in search of the Hulk, did they? It was a different castle... or not?
Karen: That confused me as well. I had to look a the previous issue, which was no help. I guess it could have been Garrett Castle. Who knows! The Enchantress spots Barbara and hatches a scheme. She will re-create the Valkyrie! She says this Valkyrie will be in complete control -her human host will be wiped out. The Defenders object strenuously, but the Enchantress couldn't care less. She says her powers are at their peak in this realm, and sends a magical blast into Barbara, who transforms into the Valkyrie in a fabulous sequence by Sal. But a lot of this story doesn't make sense to me. Enchantress can cast this spell but the Queen's power keeps her from escaping her cell? It's implied that somehow, as the Enchantress and the Queen are evenly matched, Valkyrie will tip the scales, but that doesn't make much sense to me. What did I miss?

Doug: Do we know who originally designed the Valkyrie? Was it John Buscema in her first appearance, or Johnny Romita? I don't think you missed anything along the way. Although the overall story is good, there are many missteps along the way. Truly, the sum is greater than the parts. And Sal's full-body shot of Val is fantastic, isn't it? Beauty and power, all in one. By the way, I've never cared for characters whose powers are magic-based, simply for the question you asked above -- their entire schtick is a deus ex machina waiting to happen.
Karen: I'm not sure who designed the costume -I'm leaning towards Big John -but I've always thought it looked great. It's so different -it seems right. And the color scheme is perfect. The new-born Valkyrie takes her spear and shatters the wooden door to the cell, and then frees the Enchantress and Knight. Then it's on. The Defenders burst out and tackle their enemies, with Strange and the Enchantress taking out the wizard, Valkyrie wiping out the armored men, and Namor, Hulk, and Black Knight going after Executioner, and failing to beat him. But then Valkyrie gives him a solid right to the chopper, sending him right into the path of Hulk and Namor, who both punch the Asgardian. Finally, the Knight gets in a last whack "with the flat of my ebony blade"! Every sword wielding hero of the time had to use the flat of their blade, except for Conan of course!

Doug: Is Val too powerful here early on? Her intro. is certainly a grabber, but shoot -- Superman wouldn't have given more assistance than this gal!

Karen: She did seem awfully powerful here, but later on, she was at best a middleweight. With her pawns beaten, Casiolena herself shows up and prepares to unleash a super-destructive bolt, but Valkyrie grabs her and stops her, and then the Enchantress blasts her. Enchantress then retrieves the Executioner and makes to leave, but the Knight protests. "I love you!" he cries, the poor sot. The wretched woman then kisses him, turning him to stone. She transports herself and the Executioner away before the Defenders can grab her. Valkyrie thinks that since she was imbued with Enchantress's power, she might be able to reverse the spell, and kisses the statue-like Knight, but nothing happens. Dr. Strange says he will bring the Knight's stony body with him, in hopes of one day releasing him from the spell. He makes to transport them back to Earth, and Valkyrie comes too, riding the Knight's winged horse, Aragorn. When they arrive on Earth, she proclaims that she will join the defenders. This tweaks off Namor, who says the Defenders aren't a real team. Dr. Strange uncharacteristically responds, "With all due modesty, we are three of the most powerful people in the world. What could we possibly need you for?" Well!! And we are left with that, wondering why she would even want to hang around with these guys!

Doug: Yeah, as I said above, the Valkyrie is one powerful lady who just saved a lot of bacon -- sort of makes Strange's comment really, really dumb. I did think it was good on Englehart's part to establish that although Val was created from Asgardian magic she possesses none of those advantages herself.
Karen: I love the art on this issue. It totally transported me back to childhood. Now, I was using the Marvel Masterworks Defenders volume 1 to do this review (and I apologize for some burring around some of the edges), and the colors are far brighter than a real comic, but the clean lines and great story-telling by Sal were just a pleasure to look at. The story, like so many we've gone back to read from this era, seems to be a bit weak at points, but the characters (with the exception of Strange's little jab at the end) were right on. It makes me want to read the next issue, that's for sure!

Doug: I read this from volume 1 of the Essential Defenders. I know many of you don't like the B&W rendition of our four-color favorites, but as an enthusiast of original art, I don't mind them. And all of the love we've heaped on Buscema and McLaughlin is certainly well-deserved. And in regard to reading some more Defenders, I'll suggest right here and now that I peeked ahead and saw the 2-parter that introduces Nighthawk (the Defenders, the Squadron Sinister, and Nebulon? Are you kidding me??). Sounds like it could be in our next visit to Marvel Firsts.


david_b said...

Having FINALLY purchased the Defenders Masterworks Vol.1, this was an excellent story to read..

Personally, I liked how Englehart cleaned up on the previous outing with the Lady Liberators and took a concept like Valkyrie and provided a more proper origin; there's not many characters you can do that with, but once again Steve E. delivers the goods and provides her not only a layered origin, but creates a need at least on one potential member's eyes 'to belong'. And belong she does.

I liked how she affirmed the more primative rough&tumble attitude in the Defenders early line-up, no high-tech Starkisms, no trick arrows (..yet..), just pure power, slap-dabbed with a dose of mysticism, even though Steve's clearly admitted on several occasions that he 'didn't really get' Strange's occultism until years later, and it shows.

All you really got out of Strange's corner were all these weird monsters, forcefields, and a few spells. If only Steve had spent more time in early Ditko-land, would he have pushed Defenders into an even cooler level, but luckily both he and Sal could rest on being at their peak of story-telling, so we didn't have to miss it as much. Excellent story and a very exciting Bronze Age start to a favorite team book.

Fred W. Hill said...

I loved this comic! I missed the earlier Defenders issues, including the Marvel Feature preliminaries, but despite not knowing all the backstories and this being my introduction to the Black Knight, Executioner, and Enchantress, as well as Valkyrie, I totally got into it. And, yeah, the inconsistencies went over my head or just didn't bother me. I also thought Dr. Strange's comment at the end was arrogant, but of course it was just Englehart using the mage as an ironic set up for whatever came up next to show how wrong the Master of the Mystic Arts could be.
My favorite era of the Defenders was when their core consisted of Dr. Strange, Hulk, Val & Nighthawk, but I also liked this first era when Namor was part of the core and the Silver Surfer an occasional guest star. Still, I think both Namor & Norrin work best as temporary stars in a team mag, as their very temperaments don't make them suitable for permanent status, even in a "non-team". Sure, if there's a specific goal, such as finding a means to reverse the Enchantress' spell on Dane Whitman (or beating the Nazis and Imperialist Japanese for Namor when he was with the Invaders), it works, but it gets monotonous when writers have to come up with contrived means to get 3 or more powerful beings to unite on a monthly basis when it appears they don't particularly like one another and have no desire to form an official team. Valkyrie provided a bonding agent for the Defenders as for all her power, she was essentially an orphan with nowhere to go, the Defenders themselves becoming essentially her family just as the Avengers provided that role for the Vision.

Doug said...

In regard to Englehart, there was one big "ouch" moment in his dialogue that I meant to address and in my middle-aged befuddlement simply forgot. In one panel nearing the big battle at the end of the story, Dane refers to Amora as "Chantsy". Wow. That. Is. Bad.


Edo Bosnar said...

Val is a core Defender for me as well, so I can't help but like this issue. And I agree with Karen about the outfit, it is awesome: the color scheme and the overall design (even those weird chest-cups, which somehow manage to not look comical) are just so striking - it's much better than than that silver and gold armor she wore later.
And Doug, re: Chantsy. Don't be so hard on Englehart. Maybe he had just read "Being There" and put that one in there as a clever, extremely oblique reference to the main character... ;)

Lemnoc said...

Speaking of dialogue, Doc Strange's comments in that last balloon seem a bit... off... to me.

"What possible use can you be?" It doesn't quite fit with the washed-up surgeon's humbling tutelage under the Ancient One.

Bringing in Valkyrie was a good way to introduce all the goodies associated with Thor into the Defenders. Inspired.

david_b said...

Lemnoc (et all)..

Great comments, nice analysis on points I had missed.

Lemnoc, you bring up a good point about Valkyrie.. She added a cherished sense of nobility to the group. You'd think Namor would have brought this to the team, but he was too busy being, well 'too busy' to have a regular role. But like Fred chimed in, both he and Surfer were better used as occasional muscle.

Also, loved Valky's original costume as well, didn't think much of the later one.. The original one displayed pride, determination, and oddly enough in the time frame it appeared in, didn't come across as sexist. It served what she brought to the team (and reflected her personality) astonishingly well.

Crowdaddy said...

I love the Defenders, and this issue is great. I always liked Val, and agree her original costume is very cool. Ive been completing my Defenders collection this past year, and I finally read all of Steve Gerber's run. In my opinion, these are some of the best examples of Marvel in the Bronze age there are. Great blog, by the way.

William Preston said...

Doc Strange's line isn't great, but I think you're misreading it as being more insulting than is intending. "What could we possibly need you for?" is not the same as "What could we possibly need you for?" It's less that he's questioning her value in some objective way than saying, "Look, as a team, we're set."

William Preston said...



humanbelly said...

Not sure if this was mentioned anywhere, but the pre-curser to this story was Incredible Hulk #126-- which was the "wrap-up" of Dr.Strange's recently cancelled book at that time. Barbara Norris sacrificed herself (well, took Strange's place as a captive) in that dark dimension in a final moment of nobility. If I remember right, the young woman was pretty seriously around the bend with Nameless One worship, and all that. A friend of mine considered this a truly necessary issue for a Defenders completist-- but as a devoted Hulk collector, there was no (ridiculously high) trade offer he could make that would convince me to part with it. . .


Anonymous said...

Valkerie was a great character. Really not sure why they bothered creating Ms. Marvel as their alpha-female-Wonder Woman-type-in-her-own-book when they had a better heroine in Val.

Chuck Wells said...

I agree that Nighthawk and Valkyrie spring to mind as representatives of the team, more than the core group of Strange, Namor, Hulk and the Surfer.

Probably because they filled a similar niche as "Cap's Kooky Quartet" over at the Avengers camp, after the founders bailed. This pair helped flesh out the non-team in ways that their established predecessors couldn't.

Too many other "guest stars" in the early years of The Defenders seemed tacked on from the Avengers of other teams (Hawkeye, Black Knight, Thing, Yellowjacket, etc.).

As for potential Defenders back in the day, I would really like to have seen Doc Samson, Adam Warlock, Black Goliath, Falcon, Captain Mar-Vell, Iron Fist and Power Man officially join the team.

Inkstained Wretch said...

I think this story compares to Avengers #4 in that it was the moment when a team comic got a new member that helped a thus-far wobbly concept snap into focus. From this point forward the Defenders really does begin to become a team, even if it was an a "non-team" ...

The Valkyrie was to the Defenders what the Thing was the Fantastic Four, the Vision was to Avengers and Wolverine to the Claremont-era X-Men: The heart & soul of the team and the one who makes the concept work.

As for her costume, I always thought they were going for an opera singer look, to make her seem as Nordic as possible. I liked it. Like Thor's outfit. I dug that it confounded our idea of what a superhero costume should look like.

Anonymous said...

Ednote you are so right. Valkyrie would have been great in her own magazine, even better than Wonder Woman possibly. Ms. Marvel was pretty uninspired and insipid. Val had the pegasus, the magic sword, a really great costume that wasn't a cheesecake factory...whatever happened to her?


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