I can remember debating with myself whether to purchase this book or not, standing in my local 7-11 on a weekly comic buying excursion. I wasn’t yet reading DEFENDERS, though I had sampled an issue or two prior to this. But they hadn’t hooked me especially. I think the thing that sealed the deal for me was the fact that this oversized Treasury Edition included the very first Defenders story from MARVEL FEATURE. I was always a sucker for the first story in any series, and so I believe that’s what did the trick in this instance. I committed my buck and a half and went on my way.
It’s interesting to me today just how relatively recent these stories were when they were reprinted. It was 1979 when I bought this Treasury Editions, and the earliest of the stories reprinted in it was published in 1971. In today’s terms, that’s like a reprint of a story from 2012, which seems like only yesterday to me. But at the time, these older stories felt old, or maybe I should say classic. There was an arbitrary divide in my mind between when I’d begun reading comics regularly in 1973 and everything before that–anything earlier felt like an old comic to me, whether it was a 25 cent oversided DC book or a 20 cent Marvel book with that more artsy price font.
Okay, the Defenders! Writer Roy Thomas had earlier teamed up the Hulk, the Sub-Mariner and the Silver Surfer in a group he called Titans Three (but which he had really wanted to call The Invaders before being shot down by Stan Lee due to the recent television program of that name.) In addition, with the demise of Doctor Strange’s solo series, Roy wound Doc’s last storyline through issues of SUB-MARINER and INCREDIBLE HULK to finish it up. So it was only natural to try to cement the group as a regular team–especially as Marvel was just beginning to expand its output wildly as it entered the 1970s. Proprietary towards the Surfer, Stan Lee forbade him from being a regular part of the combo, so Roy swapped in Strange and the line-up was set. The artwork for this first Defenders story is a bit oddly finished–apparently, inker Bill Everett was angered about the looseness of Ross Andru’s pencils, and in a huff decided to simply ink every line Andru had put down, right or wrong. I’m told there was a huge fight after Everett brought in this job. But with maybe a couple modifications, they still printed it. They had no choice–schedules were tight in those days, and if you didn’t use your press time, you still paid for it.
CORRECTION: Roy Thomas writes: That quote you quoted got it wrong. The person who originally came up with the name “The Invaders” at Marvel was Stan, who toyed briefly with the idea, after that full-issue Hulk/Sub-Mariner fight right near the end of TALES TO ASTONISH, with making them a permanent “team” called The Invaders. He soon changed his mind, though. “Titans Three” was never intended to be called anything else… although when he decided it might make the basis of a new series (with Dr. Strange in for Silver Surfer), Stan decided he wanted that new group/non-group called The Defenders. In 1974, when I suggested the WWII Torch/Cap/Namor group book, I gave it the name THE INVADERS because I knew Stan was predisposed toward that name, and he went for both concept and name
Defenders was something of an odd concept at the start, in that the group was positioned as a “non-team”, an alliance that had no headquarters, no regular gathering time, no charter. They were barely a team at all–and this meant that Roy and those who came after him, like Steve Englehart, would constantly need to contrive reasons to bring these three loner characters together. Taking over the series from Roy, Englehart begins to try to stabilize this concept a little bit, making it more like the Avengers, albeit an unofficial Avengers. The group begins to congregate with regularity at Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum. And in the second story reprinted in this Treasury, they gain a new regular member in the person of Valkyrie.
Valkyrie had started out as just a fake identity assumed by the Enchantress in a Roy Thomas AVENGERS issue, but Roy brought the character back in a later HULK tale–and then, Englehart made her a regular part of DEFENDERS, breaking up the boy’s club atmosphere a little bit. That all said, I never really clicked with Valkyrie. She never seemed to have any personality apart from the standard Thor/Asgardian speech pattern. So, in essence, she was all the parts I liked least about Thor without the stuff I enjoyed. The story here, too, was only of marginal interest to me, a conflict with the Executioner and the Enchantress that also involved the Black Knight, who is turned to stone in this story so that Valkyrie can adopt his winged horse. But Sal Buscema draws it all very nicely, channeling some of the spirit of his brother John.
The back half of the issue is devoted to a two-part story (here combined into a single entry through some judicious editing) that brings Nighthawk into the ranks of the Defenders. While he would immediately after this gain a new costume, here Nighthawk is still attired in his original garb, with a headpiece that can only be described as ridiculous. Nighthawk had been introduced as a member of the villainous Squadron Sinister in AVENGERS some years before, and had turned up in DAREDEVIL playing a bad guy role as well. But here, when the Squadron throws in with the alien Nebulon to terraform the Earth, Nighthawk realizes that he can’t go along with the plan, and he seeks out help from the Defenders to stave off calamity.
Writer Len Wein did a little bit of everything in the 1970s, and his work was always solid and reliable. He was, if you’ll forgive the analogy, a meat-and-potatoes super hero writer. He wasn’t always the most lauded–praise in that era seemed to go to the more flowery and stylish scribes such as Gerber, McGregor or Englehart. But every Len story was a rock solid affair–he always brought craft to the table. He also had the best track record of anybody in the 1970s era for coming up with characters that would expand into other media–characters such as Swamp Thing, the Human Target and of course the All-New X-Men. He’s one of those writers whom I think I took for granted–the writer equivalent of somebody like the earlier-mentioned Sal Buscema, a guy who was always there and whose work was always entertaining if no the hot flavor of the day. Looking back, Len was responsible for a lot of comics that I enjoyed early on.
Len is also aware, of course, that the Squadron Sinister were derived from DC’s Justice League of America, but he plays things here absolutely straight, never once making even a veiled reference to the criminals’ counterparts. As such, he begins to make them characters in and of themselves regardless of their origins, and this helps to give them a lifespan beyond just that one joke. In particular, Nighthawk goes from being just a poor man’s Batman (60s variety) to a distinct character as time goes on. Here, he’s the hero, destroying the Squadron’s laser weapon and sustaining life-threatening injuries. Dr Strange is able to heal Nighthawk with a transfusion of life force from the other Defenders–and it’s this as much as anything else that invites him into the club and makes him a regular in the series.
All in all, it was a really enjoyable Treasury Edition, and I felt that my dollar-fifty had been well-spent. Additionally, it made me more open to the Defenders as a concept, and so I’d soon wind up giving their title another try, and sticking with it for years. But by 1979, DEFENDERS’ best days were already behind it. There’s an enormous run of competent to awful stories to come, with precious few bright spots. DEFENDERS would be my pick for the title that ran for the longest time with the fewest good stories.