This was another issue that I got in a 3-Bag–possibly even the same 3-Bag as yesterday’s issue of AVENGERS. I had sampled DEFENDERS a little bit before this but still wasn’t picking it up regularly. In part this was because DEFENDERS was weird. The best analogy I can give you is that to me it was the equivalent of the Bob Haney-written books over at DC: a title that looked like a regular Marvel comic but which didn’t adhere to what I understood as the “rules” of a Marvel comic. This had mostly been the work of iconoclastic writer Steve Gerber. Gerber was gone by this point, but he had set the flavor, and most of the creators who came after him for a number of years attempted to walk in similar footsteps, emphasizing the weird. DEFENDERS looked on the surface like an AVENGERS or a FANTASTIC FOUR, but it was a very different reading experience.
This was actually a pretty good issue of DEFENDERS, and one of the first comics in my experience to try to may hay out of the fact that it had reached issue #50. Prior to this, there might be some sense of celebration when a given title hit a centennial issue, but that was about it (and even there, the era of the oversized celebratory centennial issue was yet to come.) But DEFENDERS tried to make it a party on issue #50, a strategy that began to spread to other books. Eventually, things would reach a point of absurdity, with issue #25s and then even issue #12s being called out and celebrated as being noteworthy. Either way, it was enough to get me to pay a bit more attention to DEFENDERS as a title moving forward–attention that, for the most part, wasn’t really warranted. For long stretches beginning just after this, DEFENDERS was a bit of a snooze.
It’s also a really nice showing from artist Keith Giffen. Giffen was a newcomer to the industry then, and he experiences some speed-wobbling in his career as he sometimes had difficulty making his deadlines. But here, he utilized a heavily Jack Kirby-derived style that worked really well. It’s not the sort of look you might expect to find in DEFENDERS, but it worked well. Like George Perez, Giffen was both detail-oriented and also capable of fitting a lot of activity on a single page without it becoming postage stamps. The writing was by David Anthony Kraft, who was a bit of a disciple of Steve Gerber’s and who definitely followed in his wake. This was the concluding chapter to a longer story featuring the return of Scorpio, the mystery villain created by Jim Steranko in the first issue of NICK FURY, AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. Steranko didn’t intend for Scorpio to turn out to be Nick Fury’s younger brother Jake Fury (the smart money has it that he intended for Jimmy Woo to be Scorpio) but after his departure, Roy Thomas had established Jake as Scorpio in an AVENGERS story intended to tie up loose ends from the cancelled NICK FURY title.
It was Kraft who spent a bunch of time and effort investing in Scorpio as a character. His story was all about toxic masculinity, and how Jake Fury considered himself a self-loathing failure because he could never live up to his older brother’s manliness. Reportedly, this was as close as Kraft could come to being able to depict Scorpio as being homosexual, and enough readers got the gist of what he was laying down between the panels that it seems as though he was effective in his efforts. All of that went right over my head as a kid who had no particular awareness of homosexuality (despite the fact that my uncle, my father’s brother, was a closeted gay man. ) Anyway, much of this issue is a huge fight scene after some issues of set-up; Scorpio had created a new Zodiac for himself, and had taken both Kyle Richmond (Nighthawk) and Jack Norriss (the ex-husband of Valkyrie’s host body–not an easy thing to explain quickly) captive, leading the remaining Defenders to mount an assault on his base.
So the opening half of the issue is a huge battle, one leavened with a good bit of humor and some idiosyncratic banter. The assorted Zodiac members all reflect aspects of their astrological signs in terms of their personalities as well as their powers, and so they’re a very trippy 70s bunch. They were the creations of Scorpio, but it turns out that three of his creations failed to launch after the Defenders forced him to activate them too soon. This includes Virgo, whom Scorpio had designed to be the perfect female companion for himself. But with her dead, his last chance to be “normal” is now gone.
Everything else is a crazy melee in which the Zodiac members participate according to their own whims. The Defenders come across as really put together compared to these guys, who are a full collection of neuroses and emotional extremism. But it all makes for a fun and fast-paced battle royal. In the meantime, Scorpio has quit the field without anybody noticing. He retreats deep into his complex, totally demoralized by the death of Virgo and the impending destruction of his plans. He’s met by the Life-Model Decoy of his brother Nick Fury, who he’d been using as a sounding board and Greek chorus all throughout this arc.
Depressed and despondent, Scorpio puts on his Judy Garland records while he contemplates his future and his failings, and ultimately decides to kill himself. This is a brutally shocking ending, but again, one that didn’t impact on me as a young reader in the manner that it strikes me today. Kraft and Giffen handle this wrap-up pretty nicely–it’s appropriately sad and disturbing and a little bit more realistic than the typical fare that you’d find in super hero comic books of this vintage. In other words, it has a strong Steve Gerber vibe to it. (That final panel looks to my eye like all of the copy has been rewritten by other hands–possibly there was either some observation there that somebody felt was inappropriate, or a feeling that a particular point wasn’t being hit right.) A dark ending to an otherwise very fun and even poppy comic book.