Defenders #1 (August, 1972)

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.

25 comments

  1. DontheArtistformerlyknownasfrodo628 · May 21

    I loved the Defenders…which is odd when you think about it, because I really didn’t care for Strange, Namor or Hulk on their own at all. I guess it really is all about the sum being greater than the parts, or whatever. It may also be because the iteration of the group that was my real favorite was the one that included Valkyrie and Nighthawk and Hellcat. Still, I remember starting with the Defenders from the very beginning in Marvel Feature and stayed with this book almost as long as any Marvel book I ever read, behind Spidey and Daredevil.

    Especially for being a new writer, Englehart does a great job here, showing us hints of not only his great writing talent, but also the great sense of humor that would infect many of his other books, like Howard the Duck. i have a little trouble with how rushed things are in the beginning in an effort to get our three heroes on the same page as quickly as possible (especially since Namor was out cold for three quarters of the book) and like many writers, he didn’t seem to have the hang of ol’ Greenskin’s thought processes and speech patterns yet, but just the sheer incongruity of this gathering of heroes more than made up for whatever short-comings the book might have had at this point.

    As for Sal, he was never as dynamic a penciller as brother John, but he was perfect for this book, and he truly is the definitive penciller for Banner and the Hulk. Sal really enjoyed drawing this book from what I hear, and you can tell by the care he takes, not only with Hulk, but with Strange and Namor as well.

    Somewhere in the multiverse, the MCU includes a Defenders TV show that includes this line-up rather than the one we got from Netflix and I, for one, would be first in line to see it.

    Liked by 3 people

    • crustymud · May 21

      Lol, I am actively offended by the fact that they threw together DD, Power Man, and Iron Fist (plus what’s her face) for a show and called it the Defenders. If it ain’t got Strange and/or the Hulk, gtfo!

      I agree with everything you said, but for the record: Howard belongs to that other Steve– Gerber.

      Liked by 3 people

      • DontheArtistformerlyknownasfrodo628 · May 21

        Crap! I mix them up every time! I did love Englehart’s work on Detective with Marshall Rogers, though.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. frednotfaith2 · May 21

    I’m fairly sure I got this, as well as Defenders #2, brand new off the racks but they somehow got lost so my main Defenders collection began with #4. Anyhow, I was quickly sold on the series and it became one of my favorites. It is interesting to see how Englehart depicted Strange as rather arrogant and haughty, particularly in how he related to the Hulk, which naturally didn’t particularly endear him to ol’ Greenskin.
    On one point, my recall is a bit fuzzy. I know Namor encountered Bruce Banner in Hulk 118, but under circumstances in which they didn’t exactly have an opportunity to exchange any pleasantries, such as, “oh, hi, I’m Bruce Banner, and when I get stressed out I transform into the Hulk”. However, I don’t recall Banner and Dr. Strange ever meeting, but maybe it was in issues 2 or 3 of Marvel Premiere, which I’ve never yet read.
    Anyhow, I think it was for the best that Thomas couldn’t use the Silver Surfer right away in the Defenders, as the trio of Norrin, Namor and Hulk seems to pose even greater difficulties in generating compelling stories in an ongoing series than Doc, Namor & Hulk. For one thing, Hulk would have a far harder time finding the Surfer, if need be, than finding Doc, as Norrin was never shown to have made himself at home in any particular place on Earth. And although Namor did have a home, in Atlantis, the Hulk would have had a rather difficult time getting there on his own. And Doc had the sort of foes who could provide sufficient threat, mystical as well as physical, to provide interesting protagonists for the main trio, as well as the Surfer in a semi-recurring role. After all, it was Dormammu himself whose actions, with some interference from Loki, instigated the Defenders-Avengers clash. Of course, with the Surfer, very likely Mephisto would have been brought in as a main nemesis, but I can only take Mephisto in small dosages. IMO, Mephisto just doesn’t have a very compelling personality — just evil for the sake of being evil. Lucifer, as written by Neil Gaiman and Mike Carey, was far more fascinating. As it was, the Defenders founding trio, while it outlasted the original Avengers quintet, still didn’t make it over two years, although Dr. Strange hung around for nearly four years and Hulk remained the mainstay for several more years.
    Looking forward to your discussion of “Phase Two”, Alan. At this point can only guess what you’re specifically referring to, as related to Englehart’s career. Over all at Marvel, does strike me, from a 50 years later perspective, that the company was undergoing a significant change with several new titles that would last at least 6 years (and many others that wouldn’t even get to a 6th issue), but more significantly with many new writers who would significantly add to Marvel’s mythos, with Englehart being among the most prominent of them.

    Liked by 3 people

    • crustymud · May 21

      I’m guessing “Phase Two” could also be described as the “Era of the Two Steves”— Englehart and Gerber.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Marcus · May 21

      Banner met Dr. Strange in Hulk #126. After beating back the Undying Ones in their own realm, Strange transported himself and the Hulk back to Earth. The Hulk reverted into Banner and spent some time with Doc in his Sanctum Sanctorum.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Marcus · May 21

        Sorry, my comment was for frednotfaith2

        Liked by 1 person

      • frednotfaith2 · May 21

        Ah, I should have remembered that! I read the Marvel Super-Heroes reprint much later, and to be honest the story left me with a bad taste, feeling it was horribly out of character for Dr. Strange to just leave Barbara Norris in such a horrid situation and go, essentially, “ok, I’m done with sorcery and being a good guy, just gonna put away all those childish things and retire.” It might have made more sense if it was made clear that Strange’s experiences of being trapped in that realm had seriously unnerved him, psychologically crippling him for a period. Here, Englehart was gearing up to get back to Barbara’s horrid situation and Gerber would fill in more of her backstory in the coming years.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Marcus · May 21

          Yes, that was an odd story. Leaving Barbara behind and then just retiring just didn’t seem right. It’s not like the Undying Ones were the only mystical threat out there. Definitely could have used a little more fleshing out.

          Liked by 2 people

  3. crustymud · May 21

    Okay, now we’re cookin’ with gas! I find it most appropriate that you emphasized the word “fun” here, Alan, as that’s the word that leaps to my own mind whenever I think about the Bronze Age Defenders. From the concept’s beginning with the “Titan’s Three,” through its continued development in Doc, Subby, Hulk, and Marvel Feature, through about fifty-something issues of its own title (plus the giant-size quarterlies and ’76 annual), the next five years of Defender stories are an absolute joy to experience. (Well, with the exception of that one Bill Mantlo fill in– we all know the one I’m talking about.) I look forward to reliving them via your posts.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. frednotfaith2 · May 21

    It occurred to me, that as Dr. Strange’s new solo series started this month too, this is the first time since 1965, since the the big line-up change in the Avengers that year, that one of Marvel’s team books starred characters who all had their own ongoing contemporaneous series. Of course, that would only last until Valkyrie became a regular member but then back in his brief career as an Avenger, the Hulk was the only one who didn’t have a current ongoing series and Captain America’s ongoing series started a few months after he replaced the Hulk.

    Liked by 2 people

    • crustymud · May 21

      Your invocation of the Avengers here almost got me waxing poetic on the upcoming Avengers-Defenders conflict, but as that’s a year into the future, I figure I’ll shut my yap and allow Alan to get to it in due time.

      Liked by 4 people

  5. Bill B · May 21

    This is when I started regularly buying comics, at nine years old. I had some comics by then and had seen ads for Marvel Feature #1 and thought it was the greatest cover I’d ever seen, but never saw it on the rack. For years after, I thought IT was Defenders #1 and I’d missed it. But this, actual #1, was my first Defenders comic and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I never worried about getting every issue in those days, even when they had a great cliff-hanger like this one. If I saw it, I got it. If not, no big deal. I didn’t buy another Defenders until #9, as it turned out, and for that, I made sure to get all the crossover issues with The Avengers. It’s great to enjoy these posts on another level of having my own 50 year-old memories.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Steve McBeezlebub · May 21

    The Defenders were my first Marvel comic and I later got the try out trilogy and as much as I love Ross andru and Bill Everett, Sal Buscaema was made for this book. To be honest, he’s alwsy been my favorite Buscema brother but taste is taste. When I think of these early issues, his depiction of the hopelessly insane Barbara Norris still haunts me!

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Matt Fiveash · May 23

    afternoon alan, hope you’re well

    just come across your 50 years blog (probably a recommendation from brian cronin) and i’m up to detective comics #354 which you posted back in june 2016

    loving the ride so far, mate

    but given i won’t read stuff on-screen and have everything printed out i’ll probably get to defenders #1 – via several devastated forests – around 2025

    best, m

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alan Stewart · May 23

      Wow, that’s going to be a lot of printing! Especially since I started writing longer posts as time went on. But it’s great to have you reading, Matt, however you choose to do it (and however long it takes 🙂 ). Also, if you’re so inclined, feel free to comment on any post, no matter how old — I read ’em all.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. frasersherman · May 24

    I didn’t get into Defenders until the debut of Valkyrie, but this is a fun issue alright—particularly “Hulk will save the day!”

    Liked by 1 person

    • frasersherman · May 24

      As a friend of mine said, the definitive Defenders line up for me is Hulk, Dumb Magician, Bird Nose, Sword Girl and Fish Man.

      Liked by 2 people

      • crustymud · May 24

        You can swap out Namor for Luke Cage and I’d be just as happy. Bonus points for including Red Guardian and Val’s hubby, Jack Norriss. (The Gerber era Defenders, basically.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • frasersherman · May 24

          I could never get into the Gerber Defenders for various reasons, including that he constantly sidelined Val with the “she gets weak if she hits a woman” thing.
          I really like that Marvel has extended the Red Guardian’s history back to WW II. It makes the Gerber incarnation much more subversive if she’s adopting the identity of a Russian patriotic legend.

          Liked by 2 people

          • frednotfaith2 · May 30

            Valkyrie’s weakness regarding other women was brought up by none other than Englehart in the very issue in which Barbara Norris was transformed into the third incarnation of the character, Defenders #4 — she had grabbed the wicked sorceress of the tale and was about to punch but couldn’t bring herself to do it, due to part of the spell by which the Enchantress transformed her. Otherwise, didn’t come up much during the remainder of Englehart’s run as the Defenders didn’t come up against too many female opponents, but Gerber played with that characteristic more often during his run, which I loved as an adolescent in the ’70s and still enjoy.

            Like

          • frasersherman · May 30

            I disagree. When Val says “I can’t hit a woman,” the implication i took was that fighting other women went against her principles of fighting FOR women — the equivalent of older school guys’ “I can’t hit a girl!” There’s no suggestion it’s magical until Gerber brings it up.
            And it doesn’t make sense that Amora would bespell Val not to be able to punch any woman — her reluctance to punch Casiolena almost cost the Defenders victory. A simple “you can’t hit me” would make more sense.

            Like

  9. Stu Fischer · May 30

    I somewhat remember reading this issue (the last I would read for awhile thanks to the Agnes flood in June 1972), especially about the stars aligning plot. I always liked the idea of the original Defenders (although like the original Avengers, the B team took over relatively quickly). Only one thing to add here from me: this was the first Defenders story in which all three “Defenders” had action things to do, which is a big plus (even though you had to wait for the last half of the issue to get it).

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Pingback: Thor #203 (September, 1972) | Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books
  11. Pingback: Marvel Premiere #4 (September, 1972) | Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books

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