BHOC: DEFENDERS #53

This issue of DEFENDERS was another book that I got out of a 3-Bag at either one of my local department stores or toy stores. It had a nice George Perez cover, but it wasn’t an especially memorable issue. This was another book that had run into deadline troubles, and so the main story this time out was cut short and an inventory back-up tale was inserted to fill it out. This was preferable to an unannounced reprint, but not by all that much. This stretch if issues in the 50s started off strong but fell apart along the way, and in a lot of respects, the series never entirely recovered. For a book that lasted for 152 issues, the vast majority of them once you get past this point were forgettable if not out-and-out lousy. It’s been a curse that DEFENDERS has never been able to quite break in all of its many revivals since.

Even the shortened portion of the issue that saw print was a jam effort between regular penciler Keith Giffen, Dave Cockrum and Michael Golden, which indicates that something had gone really wrong here. John Romita used to tell a story about Keith Giffen having messed up a deadline and coming into the office all bloodied, saying that he’d been mugged in Penn Station and the pages had been stolen–it came out that Keith, not having been able to finish the work, had smashed himself in the head with a brick before entering the offices to produce the effect. I have no other evidence to connect that anecdote with this issue, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Along those same lines, writer David Anthony Kraft pens a note that leads off the letters page thanking Don McGregor, Ed Hannigan and John Warner for helping him to dialogue this issue, so it sounds like what little there is was an all-hands-on-deck emergency situation. Given that, it’s remarkable that the story holds together at all. And in fact, while many of the pages are choked with enormous numbers of panels, the art on it is uniformly pretty good.

Plotwise, it picks up where issue #52 left off, with the Defenders accompanying the Sub-Mariner to Atlantis to help out with the problem of radiation that’s been seeping into the ocean from a Russian testing facility, threatening that undersea kingdom. This is the work of Codename: Sergei, a Russian scientist-cum-poet who is experimenting with human nuclear transmogrification. The Red Guardian had been sent into Sergei’s dangerously irradiated compound by the government in order to determine if he represented a threat, but her mind was swiftly dominated by Sergei’s, and so she too would be undergoing this procedure with him.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Valkyrie continues in her quest to attend college and also has a run-in with the mysterious super-villain/vigilante Lunatik. Back at the ranch, The Defenders are making their way to Sergei’s base when the scientist sets off his nuclear device, the shockwaves from which cause a massive earthquake and rupture the walls of the Sub-Mariner’s undersea vehicle. So the Defenders are all about to drown (except for Namor, of course.) But the process has worked, and the story ends with our first glimpse of Sergei in in his new radiation-empowered form as The Presence. To Be Continued! We never quite get to the cover image, though, not until next month.

The back-up story, as I mentioned earlier, was one of those evergreen shorts that had been commissioned for just such an emergency. The artist on it was Sandy Plunkett, who would go on to do some beautiful work in the next decade. it was written by Naomi Basner, who has only a couple Marvel credits (for articles in FOOM among other things.) I don’t know who she is or what became of her, but my guess is that she was somebody that was tried out on a story or two but who didn’t get any traction. It was exceedingly difficult for any female writer back in the 1970s to get regular work. Anyway, it was a Clea solo story, which just barely fit into DEFENDERS–Clea was briefly in the lead tale as well, fortuitously.

ADDITION: Scott Edelman reveals that Naomi Basner was a Marvel high school intern who attempted to sell stories but who got nowhere. He also reveals that this story was plotted by Jim Shooter–so most of the difficulties with the story can really be laid at Jim’s feet. Edelman expands on all of this isn a Comics Journal column that is reprinted here:

It’s not a great story, and it really doesn’t do anything to improve Clea’s standing. While walking in Central Park, Clea is attacked by the sorcerer Nicodemus, who is intent on becoming the Sorcerer King by stealing the powers of other mages. He proceeds to do just that, leeching the mystic energies she possesses right out of Clea. (I don’t quite understand how this works, as magic is meant to be the learned ability to tap into ambient energies and use them to effect. But whatever.) With Clea now powerless, Nicodemus allows her to get too close to him in his hubris, and she clobbers him with a handy statuette–then calls up Doctor Strange to come running and repair the situation. The end! Clea comes across as barely competent in this short tale, unfortunately.

11 thoughts on “BHOC: DEFENDERS #53

  1. Despite the deadline troubles, someone had the time to slip in some gags in the text of the newspapers seen on pages 11 (“Cary Bates writes again”) and 14 (“[Julius] Schwartz beer”, “[Jack] Abel lawyer expects acquittal in Chaykin murder trial”).

    According to Scott Edelman (in a column published in Comics Journal #107), Naomi Basner was “one of a series of high-school students who worked at Marvel in an intern program courtesy of the New York City school system”. She submitted more stories for Marvel, but they were usually rejected (Edelman attributes this to sexism at Marvel). This Clea backup story was (according to Edelman) plotted by Jim Shooter.

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  2. I think the wheels always eventually come off of classic Defenders’ series because the “non-team” concept falls short. It should be an alliance. That mid-70’s line-up was like “Earth’s Other Mightiest Heroes”. JLA-level all-stars. But on the fringe. No government sacntion to operate. No charter. Unofficial. Off the books. These are mostly powerful, autonomous heroes, guided by their own codes, senses of justice, & who back each other up when needed.

    The old series isn’t beloved b/c of the approach taken then. It was that cast of characters. And the “search for the reason” to stay associated seemed to miss the mark(s). Let them be who they are. And it explains (to me) why other rosters of Defenders don’t catch on widely..

    A team that would have world gov’ts expect the Avengers & others to keep the Defenders “in-line”. I loved that 90’s Hulk issue where he rescued a political prisoners from a SHIELD prison. A group that makes some others nervous b/c they can’t be controlled. Villains should worry, too, b/c the Defenders’ limits are unknown, which makes them unpredictable.

    Ideally, Avengers & Defenders would be on the same side. But the Defenders have fewer official constraints. I’m speaking historically, b/c in recent years, Jason Aaron (& you) have steered the Avengers more in that independent direction.

    Speaking of, you have Namor back on the Avengers, along with Jane’s Valkyrie, & the current Nighthawk. After this Mephisto mess, or because of it, when Black Panther returns, let’s see a Defenders spin-off with those 3 (Nighthawk can take a longer break from the Squadron, which could be a friction point later, a call back to the long running tensions between the Defenders & both Squadrons, Sinister & Supreme).

    Bring in Hulk, Silver Urfer, & Dr. Strange. Maybe Pasty Walker, or someone else, a new Asian woman, in that dark blue version of the Hellcat costume. Jason “liked” the idea on Twitter…

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  3. I have always believed Defenders revivals failbecause of an over-reliance on short term member Namor and infrequent guest star. Hulk and Strange were of course almost series long stars but the core cast was rounded out by Hellcat,Nighthawk, and Valkyrie. Even when the latter three were used they were second fiddle to the others.

    Oh and i still galls me that during the worst revival, they needed a rich hero and defying logic they went to total stranger Iron Fist when Strange had a years long friendship with Kyle Richmond. Of course that’s the book that treated Strange like a sex creep because he was in a relationship with a disciple when he and Clea were already a serious couple years before he began teaching Clea Earth dimension magic.

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  4. The Steve Gerber era is what got me into Defenders, and the DAK stories that came after it feel to me like a less impressive echo of the great themes and storylines of the Gerber comics. I still find them readable, though, unlike some of the stuff that came afterwards but before DeMatteis came aboard!

    I do think there’s room in the world for a Defenders-style non-team comic, but I can’t see it ever getting approved by the powers that be. It’s great to see this blog celebrating the series, anyway!

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    1. A new Defenders book would need an anchoring character or two with real draw and an A list writer. Hickman would be a treat since he could bring sales even if the book starred Howard The Duck and Copycat!

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      1. Any attempt to launch a new series like Defenders nowadays is always hobbled by the requirement to include a popular character to make people buy it. “Wolverine and a bunch of other guys” is never going to catch on, whoever writes it. The original Defenders had that situation with Hulk, but in those days the less popular comics weren’t cancelled after six issues, and they had time to develop a system of shoving the Hulk to the sidelines and writing stories about the title’s own characters…

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  5. I’ve always found Kraft unreadable, with stilted dialogue.
    My core Defender team is (as a friend of mine put it), Bird Nose, Dumb Magician, Sword Girl and Hulk. But I wouldn’t hold that up as “the” magic combo that makes the book work.

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  6. I agree entirely that the classic run of DEFENDERS ran out of steam after around issue #55. It’s why I’ve kept none of that run from that point. Which is just as well since the four Epic Collections published to date are all from the later period, which is bizarre. I’d have thought it made sense to give new readers at least a taste of the good stuff. Instead anyone discovering that era through those collections would get a very poor first impression of it.

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  7. Wanted to also pay my respects to Sandy Plunkett. One of the “fine art” school of comics artists like Al Williamson, Michael W. Kaluta, Charles Vess, P. Craig Russell, John Bolton, Tom Yeates, Bo and Scott Hampton, & others. I’d only see his work sparingly, but really admired it. When I 1st started seeing art by JH Williams III in the 90’s, Sandy was one of the artists it reminded me of.

    Tony Salmons was another 80’s gem. Again, only saw his work rarely, maybe due to his slow process. “Dakota North”. Different entries in the MU Handbook, DC’s “Who’s Who”, the original Golden Age “Vigilante” miniseries w/ writer James Robinson. I read he moved into animation.

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