I bought this issue of DEFENDERS from out of the local drugstore’s Big Bin of Slightly Out-Of-Date Comics, one of my usual haunts for picking up books and the closest thing I had to a ready source of back issues in 1977. I can’t say what drew me to in in particular, apart from simply the opportunity to buy and read another comic book. It’s a somewhat-notorious issue in knowledgeable circles thanks to its bizarrely lackluster villain–but we’ll get to all of that soon enough.
As we’ve spoken about before, in the mid-1970s Marvel had a huge problem getting its titles to print on time. Much of that is due to the fact that it was still working under the same editorial system tat Stan Lee had used when the line was comprised of only about a dozen books. But as the title count soared to 40-50 titles a month, this system began to break down, not having been designed to handle such a workload. Unscheduled last-minute reprints began showing up in books, a hazard that no doubt turned more than one reader off from continuing to read a particular series. By 1975, Editor Marv Wolfman rolled out a plan to prevent the need for unscheduled reprints. He added a title to Marvel’s schedule called “MARVEL FILL-IN COMICS” although no such book would ever hit the stands. But each story commissioned for MFIC was designed as a stand-alone entry that could be hastily slotted into an ongoing title at the last minute should the regular creative team drop the ball. Marv assigned Bill Mantlo, then a young journeyman writer, to be the scripter of MFIC.
Sadly, while this plan helped, it never quite eliminated those last-second reprints entirely. But it did generate a stack of largely-forgettable stories along the way which appeared in various titles–stories like this one. At this time. DEFENDERS was being written regularly by Steve Gerber, who brought his own specific brand of idiosyncrasy to the series. It was one of those titles which was truly beloved by a certain stripe of long-time fan. But Gerber wasn’t always the best in being able to keep up with his deadlines, and so at some point it was decided to drop this fill-in story into the midst of his tenure. The artwork was by Sam Grainger, a fan artist who’d gone pro and who would transition into being a very nice inker after a while. He did very few penciling jobs for Marvel, though–this being one of them.
Mantlo tries his damnedest to channel the off-the-wall spirit of Steve Gerber here (a challenge he would again later face when he inherited HOWARD THE DUCK) but he just can’t convey the sincerity of what he’s serving up. So the whole thing reads rather like a pastiche of a Gerber story, one in which the characters themselves verge on silliness. There’s an undercurrent of disdain that comes across that I don’t think Mantlo intended. He’s just trying to play a composition that he’s got no business playing and which is beyond his skills at this point.
Te story opens with Doctor Strange being accosted by a gang of thugs on the street outside his Sanctum. They’ve come to him with a ransom demand for the safe return of Kyle Richmond, AKA Nighthawk, whom their Maggia leader Tapping Tommy has taken prisoner. Now, Doc should probably be able to handle this situation in about five seconds by snapping his fingers, but he proceeds to gather up the Defenders for a rescue, after first communicating telepathically with Richmond. (The fact that Kyle can’t extricate himself from this Batman TV show-style villain is difficult enough to parse, honestly.) In Tapping Tommy, Mantlo is trying to create a Gerber-style antagonist–a poor unfortunate who has become twisted tanks to the tragedy in his background and is love for show tunes and musicals. But the result is pretty lousy. He’s about the least plausible super-villain in Marvel history–and that’s saying something!
Tommy’s got a mad on for Kyle Richmond because the millionaire had bought the studio lot at which he had once worked and planned to turn it into a housing project, so he never intends to free Kyle at all. Amazingly, when the Defenders break in, the assembled goons and a few low-rent Maggia robots are able to take out the Sorcerer Supreme, the Incredible Hulk and a shield-maiden from Asgard in no time flat–to say nothing of Nighthawk himself, who takes the opportunity to slip into is costume before likewise getting pulverized. Tommy has te Defenders strapped up to a giant musical stage, where he intends to have his singing and dancing robots slowly beat them all to death. By this point in the story, I was hoping that somebody would come and beat me to death, honestly.
There’s an escape, of course, some more fighting, and ultimately Tommy is dispatched. But it’s all very much round-the-bases stuff, without any of the genuine heart and humanity with which Gerber infused his odd, off-beat stories. But it accomplished its mission: it filled up the issue just fine and prevented a reprint of some older Defenders tale from having to appear in its place. So that’s something. And Mantlo did go on to get better, especially wen he was writing in his own idiom and not attempting to fit into another person’s shoes. In particular, e did great things with a pair of toy tie-in titles, MICRONAUTS and ROM–so much so that people still long for them both to be returned to the Marvel Universe. All that aside, this issue of DEFENDERS was a stinker.