This is another comic book that I bought back in the day whose cover is largely unfamiliar to me. And that’s because this was another book that I got in one of those clear plastic-wrapped bundles of coverless comics that were by this point being sold by my local drugstore in lieu of their earlier bin of older comics with covers. I know that I bought two or three of those bundles all told–though it was a bit of a crapshoot. You could only really seen the front of the cover on either end of the stack, and trying to sneak a glimpse at what books were in-between was a frustrating process, mainly because, since you were looking at splash pages that didn’t bleed to the edge of the page, most books looked the same–just newsprint. But I was hot enough to read these missed masterworks that I forked out good money on a few occasions and took my chances.
DEFENDERS was one of the weirder Marvel titles of the era, despite the fact that one the surface it looked much like any other Marvel super hero title. And it was, pretty much, until the writing reins fell into the hands of Steve Gerber. The Defenders as a group had a sort of bizarre doesn’t-really-quite-work ethos to it all throughout its run, but Gerber decided to steer into that in a big way, with stories that were both more personal and more outre than just about anything else Marvel was serving up. It became a favorite series in particular of older readers. But suddenly, Gerber was gone, replaced by the more straight-ahead Gerry Conway at first, and DEFENDERS suffered. Conway’s tenure proved to be brief, and after a few musical chairs issues, we get o the point where David Anthony Kraft too over (though it seems that this particular issue had been plotted earlier by Roger Slifer.) Kraft, or DAK, was a big fan of Gerber’s work, and heavily influenced by his approach. While he was never quite able to match the master, it was his intent to move DEFENDERS back in a Gerberesque direction.
As such, this was a bit of a transition issue, with the composition of the group immediately thrown into flux by Dr. Strange’s announcement that he needs to leave the group to rededicate himself to his mystic studies. Also on the way out are Luke Cage, who isn’t earning a paycheck hanging around with these weirdos, and the female Red Guardian, who had been something of a hanger on the past couple of months. Additionally, Doc’s departure means that the Defenders need a new place to hang out while waiting for trouble to turn up, and so Nighthawk offers up his Richmond Riding Academy. So those members (as much as a non-team could have “members”0 who were sticking around decided to head out to Nighthawk’s place and reconvene there.
The art combo on this issue was comprised of contributors just beginning their professional journeys, who would both go on to make a sizeable contribution. The book was penciled by a young Keith Giffen, who was often employing a style derived in large part from that of Jack Kirby. His Hulk in particular owed a lot to Jack’s. Inking and finishing the pages was left to Klaus Janson, also on the young end of the spectrum but already possessed of a powerful if heavy ink line. Klaus had made a name for himself inking Gil Kane on a few things–and while it doesn’t seem like what be brought to the table would mesh well with Giffen’s Kirby-style, the end result was very appealing. It served to underscore the essential weirdness of the book as a whole. It was a good combo.
In any case, the Defenders make it out to Nighthawk’s digs and prepare themselves for an evening of relaxation–only to be shockingly confronted by a super-villain out of nowhere. This is Scorpio, a character first conceived by Jim Steranko in the pages of NICK FURY, AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. He’s looking for Kyle Richmond for some reason, and doesn’t realize that Kyle is Nighthawk. But that doesn’t stop a big ol’ fight from breaking out, with Scorpio using the Zodiac Key, a powerful dimensional weapon, to even the odds.
And that’s literally all the plot that’s left in this comic book, as the back half is nothing more than cool visual combat. So it’s fun to read, but not incredibly substantive. Eventually, having worked out that whatever he wanted from Kyle Richmond, he’s not going to get it today, Scorpio decides instead to bug out of this unscheduled battle with a super-team to regroup. Bang–the end! The Marvel books of this period were sometimes tarred as being nothing but extended fights without much of a plot to speak of, and in the instance of his adventure, it’s hard to argue that. At the same time, all of the heroes got some sort of distinctive moment to show off, so a reader got a good sense as to who these guys all were. A steady diet of this sort of comic book wouldn’t be very satisfying, but as an occasional romp, it works.
There was one more page in this issue after the main storyline had concluded–and it’s perhaps the most Gerberesque pages that DAK was ever involved with. See, in Gerber’s last few issues, he’d been featuring vignettes where ordinary people from different walks of life were ambushed and killed by a guy in an elf costume with a gun. What this had to do with the Defenders or where Gerber had been going was anybody’s guess–Gerber definitely had a destination, but it wasn’t something he was much in a mood to share with folks after being taken off the assignment. So, feeling the need to wrap things up and having no particular interest in trying to make sense of what Gerber had done, DAK (and Slifer, presumably) did one last vignette, in which the Elf is run over by a truck. The end! It’s a completely absurdist and non-sequitur ending–but given the sorts of structures Gerber preferred, it is just about the best possible ending this boondoggle could have received!