Back in July of last year, we covered the advent of the Marvel Comics superhero team the Defenders in Marvel Feature #1. This new team’s debut had come following a tryout of sorts in two late-1970 issues of Sub-Mariner; although in those comics, the grouping went by the unofficial moniker of “Titans Three”, and their number included the Silver Surfer, rather than the guy who ended up actually being the de facto leader of the team (whose other members were Sub-Mariner and the Hulk, by the way) — Doctor Strange — for the simple reason that Marvel editor-in-chief Stan Lee had a proprietary interest in the Surfer, and wouldn’t let associate editor/writer Roy Thomas use him as a permanent member of the new super-team, now formally christened “the Defenders”, when it became the basis for an ongoing feature.
The Defenders’ premiere outing was followed by two more in the quarterly Marvel Feature; and the three issues — all of which featured the artwork of Ross Andru as well as scripts by Thomas — evidently sold well enough for Marvel to grant the series a regular, continuing title of its very own. But the first issue of The Defenders would bring more significant changes to the feature than those reflected in the masthead and indicia. Ross Andru was to be replaced by Sal Buscema — the artist of those two “Titans Three” issues of Sub-Mariner — who’d go on to draw the series for the next four years. Meanwhile, Roy Thomas — who’d written every episode of the team’s adventures to date, in whatever iteration — was turning the writing assignment over to Steve Englehart: a relatively new arrival to the Marvel Bullpen whose only other regular scripting gig at this point was the “Beast” feature in Amazing Adventures, which he’d inherited from Gerry Conway with its second installment. And while Englehart wouldn’t hang around Defenders for nearly as long as Buscema, he’d be every bit as important as the artist in setting the unique tone for what fans would soon come to see as Marvel’s premiere “non-team”.
None of which my fourteen-year-old self could anticipate when I first sat down to read “I Slay By the Stars!”, of course. But that really didn’t matter. I’d enjoyed all three adventures of the Defenders to date, and was predisposed to give their new title a shot, regardless of who was at the creative helm…
Three years later, in 1975, while nearing the end of his stint on Defenders, Sal Buscema would begin an even more impressive ten-year run on Incredible Hulk; together, those tenures would add up to a full thirteen years spent drawing Marvel’s mightiest monster. I’d argue that the artist’s indisputable affinity for the Jade Giant — whom Buscema described as his “all-time favorite character” in Back Issue #70 (Feb., 2014) — is clear from the very first page of his first Defenders story; more specifically, from the third panel shown above, in which the Hulk’s face, even with his eyes mostly in shadow, expresses a thoroughly human mixture of wonder and puzzlement. (Obviously, credit should also be given to Frank Giacoia for his very effective inking of Buscema’s pencilled art, both here and elsewhere throughout the issue.*)
“Wake up, Namor! Hulk is here!” Fifty years after reading that panel for the first time, I can still remember how unexpectedly funny it was; thankfully, it proved to be the first of many genuinely amusing moments in Defenders involving the Hulk. In my opinion, the ability of Englehart (and the writers who followed him on the book) to consistently find humor in the Hulk’s childlike personality, while still maintaining his credibility as “the strongest there is”, was a large part of what made the character work in a team-book context.
Roy Thomas had established in the very first Defenders story that the alliance between these three very disparate figures was an uneasy one. But the conclusion of Marvel Feature #3 had taken matters to another level, as, in the wake of an incident in which Strange had used his magic to masquerade as the Hulk, both Hulk and Subby had vowed that they wouldn’t answer Doc Strange the next time he came calling for help. But now, the Hulk finds that his newfound friendly feelings for Namor outweigh his antipathy towards his other “teammate”, making for what’s simultaneously both a rather touching moment, and — thanks to that great “Hulk will save day!” line — an amusing one.
Doctor Strange rushes outside to see what all the ruckus is about; it’s the Hulk, of course, who isn’t behaving in a belligerent fashion, but is terrifying the Doc’s neighborhood all the same just by being there…
This is the first of several points in the story where Strange addresses his big green ally as “monster”, “brute”, or something similar; it’s kind of rude, if you ask me.
In 1972, knowledgeable readers would recognize “the Undying Ones” as the appellation given to the evil extradimensional entities fought by Doc Strange in the last issue of his titular series, #183 — and then by the team of Strange and Namor in Sub-Mariner #22, and then by the team of Strange and the Hulk in Hulk #126. This was a storyline in which the three characters never appeared together on the same page, but in retrospect, can be seen as a sort of “pre-origin” for the Defenders.
We covered that storyline in some depth in our Sub-Mariner #22 post, back in November, 2019 — but seeing as how that was a while ago, your humble blogger thinks that rather than relying on all of you faithful readers remembering that post’s myriad details, or making you click on its link to review them, we’ll simply avail ourselves of the helpful recap that’s about to be provided in the very comic we’re currently looking at…
Back in 1972, my teenage self readily accepted the outré figure of Necrodamus as a genre-conventional comic-book supervillain, and never looked back. A half century later, however, the jaded geezer that is my current self can’t help asking a few questions. Like, did Necrodamus’ momma give him that name? What does he do with his time when he’s not conducting dark Lovecraftian rituals? And does he wear that getup when he needs to go hit his local ShopRite for groceries?
But as no answers to those questions are likely to be forthcoming in 2022, any more than they were in 1972, we’ll resume our narrative…
Dr. Strange tries to free Namor from his mystical prison with a spell which fails. The Hulk then tries to smash it open with his fists, which also fails. Doc subsequently decides that, at least for now, their best course of action is to buy themselves a few extra hours with “a spell of time-stoppage –”
The preceding sequence, along with being a callback to the conclusion of Marvel Feature #1’s “The Day of the Defenders!”, also serves to set up a future storyline. But hey, you already knew that, right?
Since his plan didn’t work, Dr. Strange now opts to put himself into a meditative state, so he can replenish his magical strength before Necrodamus returns. And the Hulk? He figures if he keeps whaling on the mystical barrier around Namor long enough, eventually it’ll have to break. And since he never gets tired, why not?
As irritated with Strange as the Hulk is (and you can hardly blame him), he ultimately does follow the sorcerer into the underground caverns — where, in short order, the two are attacked by a large, scaly creature that introduces itself as “the Demon of the Dark“:
And press on they do, until at last they pass through an opening into a larger, lighted space, where they find…
The Hulk is actually pretty stoked to see Nec grow up all big and strong, as it makes him, in Jade-jaws’ own words, a “better enemy for Hulk to crush!”
Dr. Strange hopes that while his magic may be ineffectual against the powered-up Necrodamus, his physical strength might yet turn the tide; still, despite his best efforts, the villain’s blade inexorably draws ever nearer to the Sub-Mariner’s throat. Only seven seconds remain until the stars will be perfectly aligned…
The Silver Surfer? But hadn’t Stan Lee said there was absolutely no way the Surfer could be a part of the Defenders series? Wasn’t that how Dr. Strange ended up on the team in the first place?
In his 2008 afterword to Marvel Masterworks — The Defenders, Vol. 1, Steve Englehart relates how Roy Thomas, in bringing the novice writer on as his own replacement on the new feature, had given him the freedom to do pretty much whatever he wanted with Defenders, so long as he could make his deadlines (and, of course, make the book sell in respectable numbers):
My first command decision had been to ask Stan if I could use the Surfer. We all knew Stan had put a hold on the guy, but it had been a while since he’d forestalled Roy’s plans. The worst that could happen was, he’d say no (well, the worst would be him saying “Who are you again?”), but what the hell, what good’s freedom if you don’t use it? And he said yes, I could have the Surfer as an occasional guest star, so finally Roy’s concept was complete.
And so, Englehart’s first Defenders story (or, to be a bit more accurate, the opening chapter of his first story) was allowed to end with an unexpected twist which neatly wove one strand of the new team’s prehistory (the original “Undying Ones” trilogy in Doctor Strange, Sub-Mariner, and Hulk) together with the other (the two “Titans Three” issues of Sub-Mariner) — and provided a great hook to bring readers back for the next issue, to boot.
And my fourteen-year-old self was definitely hooked. Fifty years after consuming this comic book for the first time, I can still remember how fun that original reading experience was. Not that the previous three Defenders stories by Thomas and Andru hadn’t been enjoyable enough in their way; but with the first issue of the team’s own title, things had definitely been kicked things up a notch.
Looking back from the perspective of half a century later, it’s clear that the issue’s success boded very well not just for Defenders as a series — or even for Steve Englehart’s career as a comics writer — but for the whole “Phase Two” era that was just then beginning at Marvel Comics. Um, what’s “Phase Two”, you ask? Why, I’ll be happy to tell you all about it… in just three weeks.
*For the record, Buscema’s pencils for the book’s cover were inked by Jim Mooney.