Saturday, November 5, 2016
If there could be only one, I might choose Marvel Feature #1 as my all-time favorite comic book cover. This dynamic Neal Adams illustration features three of Marvel's most potent offbeat characters in a design which leaps off the stands at you. Great stuff! But it wouldn't have been possible I suspect if Doctor Strange had not been cancelled.
Doctor Strange #183 was the final issue of that run ending the Strange series as well as the venerable Strange Tales run which numbering the good Doctor inherited. In this issue Doctor Strange gets a new secret identity thanks to the cosmic changing powers of Eternity. He is now known to the world as Doctor Stephen Sanders allowing him to put some distance between himself as a magic warrior for Earth and the sometimes adoring public. An old friend sends him a telegram and he heads off to see what he can do. He finds his friend in poor health guarded by three men who turn out to be demons, servants of the The Undying Ones, ancient godlike beings who once ruled the Earth but who were sent into another dimension a millennia ago and now seem to want to return. He cannot save his friend but Doc does vow to save Earth.
But the cancellation of his own book meant that he had to do that saving in the pages of other heroes as a guest-star. He shows up in Sub-Mariner #22 and conscripts Namor to help him uncover the ancient idol of the Nameless Ones, the leader of the Undying Ones. This seems key to bringing those old gods back. After a furious battle against some shape changers they win the day but it seems Doc must stay behind and sacrifice himself to save Earth.
In Hulk #126 Jadejaws ends up captured by the cult of the Undying Ones and himself is catapulted into the Dark Dimension to battle the Night-Crawler an enemy of the Undying Ones who is able to block their path to Earth. Hulk finds Doctor Strange captive and a girl, regretting her role with the cult frees Doc by taking his place in a trap which blocks the Undying Ones from their goal. Doc and Hulk head back to Earth and Doc seems to give up magic and walk away, the threat ended for the time being.
A little later in Sub-Mariner #34 Namor discovers that a weather machine being built by the United Nations might be a threat to the planet and so he gathers together the Silver Surfer and the Hulk to help him investigate it and destroy it if necessary. First they battle a tinpot dictator and free his people.
Then in the next issue they turn their attention to the weather machine and must battle the Avengers (Thor, Iron Man, and Goliath). In the end they save the day, and their short-lived alliance is at an end.
All of this was written by Roy Thomas and he must've liked the idea of these heroes working together. They were all distinctly non-team members, so he decides to create a "Non-Team" and dubs it The Defenders. But first he has to bring Doctor Strange out of retirement.
That happens in a story called "The Return" by Don Heck in Marvel Feature #1 which shows Stephen Sanders wandering back to his Greenwich village house and finding it not locked as he expected. Inside he finds Wong and another Doctor Strange entirely garbed in his infamous blue mask. This turns out to Baron Mordo who has taken advantage of Strange's retirement. When Doc comes back it's for good and he ditches the skin-tight blue mask look.
And that brings us to the lead story in Marvel Feature #1 and "The Day of the Defenders". A threat from Doc's past, the "Scientist Supreme" Yandroth presents the Omegatron, a doomsday device which will destroy the Earth when Yandroth dies. When he does die Doc races to find allies to stop the machine which is disguised as a lighthouse on the northern Atlantic coast. It takes the combined might of Subby, Hulk and Strange to stop the post-mortem menace.
After that the "non-team" reassembles to battle Dormammu who seeks to once again enter the Earth dimension, this time by stealing and inhabiting Doctor Strange's body.
On Halloween in Rutland Vermont the battle rages as Clea and Wong recruit Namor and Bruce Banner to help. Dormammu is stopped once again, but barely.
And then it's "Hulk" versus "Hulk". At least that's the gag that inspired Roy to pluck Xemnu from the pages of Atlas monster comics.
He was called "Hulk" there and now dubbed Xemnu the Titan he possesses the body of an astronaut and along with is pal these two go on television and concoct a kiddie show to lure children to a rocket site so that Xemnu might repopulate his dead world. The Defenders get drawn into this and have to stop the forced migration.
When The Defenders left the cozy pages of Marvel Feature to venture off to their own title a lot of things changed. Roy Thomas and Ross Andru left and Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema came aboard. Englehart was just getting his motor revving when he took over the "Non-Team" and this first storyline showed off well the kinds of things he produced. Neat exciting stories rich in Marvel lore and crisp characterization.
In the debut issue Namor is literally thrown from the skies and it's up to Hulk and Doctor Strange to get to the bottom of it. They find a member of the Undying Ones cult named Necrodamus and it's a slugfest to the end. But surprisingly we learn that it was former ally the Silver Surfer who had beaten Namor and cast him out of the sky. The non-team vow to learn why.
Their quest takes them into the far reaches of the north where they find the Surfer, who is unwittingly the mind-controlled slave of a whole coven of Undying One worshippers. The fighting is fierce and we really get a chance to see each character shine as they battle one another and ultimately the evil they must confront.
This leads them to venture once again into the dimension of the Undying Ones where they find the young girl Barbara who had sacrificed herself before to stop the menace has gone mad and joined forces with the demons who want to take over the Earth. They stop the evil but at the cost of a young girl's sanity. The Silver Surfer is sick and tired and flies off in a huff. The three remaining heroes and the girl are left to wonder what comes next.
And that wraps up the earliest days of the proto-Defenders. We see that they grew out of the final gasps of Doctor Strange's final issue and final threat, and then with Doc as the organizing core a new team is founded, one made up of misfits and outsiders and not a team which will ever have a charter.
Next time as we meet again the Valkyrie. The Defenders will never be the same and the road to the epic Clash with the Avengers will inevitably begin.