This issue of DEFENDERS was another book that came to me in a plastic 3-Bag of comics purchased either from a department store’s toy area or else a proper Toy Store. For about a year, I availed myself of the fruits of this recent bounty, until the point where the books being released in bags had caught up to when I had started reading Marvel titles, and so everything they contained I either already owned or had decided to skip. I had taken to begin following DEFENDERS, but it was never especially a favorite book of mine. For one thing, the team was chaotic, mostly made up of characters who had no business being in a team situation. On top of which, I didn’t really click with any of them as characters. They were all right, but nobody that was going to motivate me to drop my loose change issue after issue.
DEFENDERS at this point existed very much within the shadow of Steve Gerber, the brilliant and iconoclastic writer who’d had a remarkable stint on the series some months earlier. After many months of it being just another comic book, Gerber forged a unique identity for DEFENDERS–one centered in his own personal sense of the strange and unsettling and bizarre. Unfortunately, it was a specific flavor that only Gerber could produce naturally. His successor as writer, David A. Kraft, was clearly heavily influenced by Gerber and attempted to follow Gerber’s approach–but he somehow just didn’t possess the specific madness that allowed Gerber to make those connections. So DEFENDERS was still a weird book under Kraft, but it was perhaps a bit more of a labored strangeness–it was trying too hard to convince you that it was as off-the-wall and unique as it had been under Gerber–and the very fact that it came across that way meant that it wasn’t.
This issue was penciled by a very young Keith Giffen, then just having broken into the business. Giffen was a talented guy with a ton of potential, but he apparently wasn’t all that reliable in his earliest days. I once heard a crazy story (from John Romita, I believe) about Giffen being late on a deadline and showing up at the offices bleeding and all messed up. He claimed that he had been mugged exiting Penn Station, and that the assailant had made off with his portfolio containing the pages. As it turns out, what had actually happened was that Giffen didn’t get the work done, and he had battered himself with a brick in order that he could come in and convincingly deliver his alibi. This clearly didn’t work, though. I don’t know whether this is an absolutely true story, but having met Giffen, I can believe it. He was a bit of a chameleon, absorbing the work of different artists and having his own style change to mimic theirs. In this early period, he was drawing heavily on the work of Jack Kirby, and that Kirby-influenced approach is all over this issue of DEFENDERS. For all that Giffen didn’t possess Kirby’s mastery of the form, his style was tighter and more fine-lined than what Kirby was doing contemporaneously, and so Giffen’s work caught on with any number of admirers, in the same way that Rich Buckler’s had a while earlier.
There was a rap in the 1970s among certain fan circles that the Marvel releases of the period were often plotless–little more than an extended fight scene with some subplot pages tossed in, not truly a story at all. And while that condemnation wouldn’t apply to everything the company was putting out, it is a pretty apt description of this issue of DEFENDERS. The whole thing is largely an excuse to have the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner, who have been allies as Defenders for some time now, to have a massive throw-down. How is this accomplished? Well, Namor is in town on a personal mission that he chooses not to disclose. Crowds come out to see him parade up Park Avenue, concerned and remembering the many times that Atlantis has attacked the city, but not daring to approach him. Seeing this from a rooftop, the Hulk assumes that his friend Namor is in danger, and he leaps down to try to help him. But Namor neither needs nor wants the Hulk’s help, and he brushes the Green Goliath aside. Bad move–this sets off the prerequisite brawl between the pair, a fight that eats up the greater part of this issue.
There are also the prerequisite subplot pages, mainly dealing with a Russian scientist named Sergei (occasionally styled The Presence) who is conducting nuclear experiments and the female Red Guardian, who had recently been a Defender, being sent in to investigate his actions. But she winds up mind controlled as Sergei begins to reveal his objectives, which will form the basis of a threat in later issues. Back in the States, Patsy Walker and Kyle Richmond hear about the brawl on the news and head out to attempt to bring it to a halt as Nighthawk and Hellcat. Giffen stirred up some controversy by having Namor zap the Hulk with electricity like an eel–a power that he briefly was given in his earliest Silver Age appearances when Lee and Kirby and friends were still deciding how to deal with him, but which hadn’t been seen since. Even this electrical jolt, though, isn’t enough to stop the Hulk. (There’s a bunch of evidence of extensive lettering corrections and changes throughout this issue, evidence that large portions of it were rewritten after the fact, likely at the direction if not in the hand of Associate Editor Jim Shooter, who had been charged with proofreading the books and making them make sense. He may have found Kraft’s approach too loose and improvisational.)
There’s also a two-page interlude with Valkyrie setting up future plotlines, and it appears to be a scene that Kraft was perhaps more invested in. If nothing else, it is absolutely littered with copy. Valkyrie had gone back to attending college as her Barbara Norriss host form had done. Here, she meets snooty old Drama Professor Turk during a theater outing, and he drops hints so broad that they might as well be descriptive captions indicating that he is secretly the chaotic character Lunatik whom Valkyrie had just had a run-in with. The sequence also further establishes filmmaker Dollar Bill, a kind of quasi- stand-in for Kraft himself, who wants to make a movie about Valkyrie and her fellow Defenders. This would become a long running plotline in the series.
Anyway, after a lot more punching and hitting, Hellcat and Nighthawk succeed in getting in-between the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner long enough to get them to stop fighting. Namor reveals that he had come to New York to seek the assistance of the Fantastic Four–but since the Defenders are here, maybe they’ll do just as well. There’s a growing area of radioactivity under the sea that threatens to engulf Atlantis (and pretty clearly linked to the Presence’s experiments.) The radiation is so bad that Namor can’t even go into the area to investigate. But the Hulk soaks up rads like a sponge, so perhaps he can go into the blighted area and get to the bottom of what is causing it. And that’s where this issue is To Be Continued, with at least a sense of the story direction. If you were looking for action for its own sake, then this may have been a satisfying comic for you–but it largely left me cold. It was entertaining enough in its way, but not something I was going to come back to again.