Defenders #3 (December, 1972)

As we discussed on the blog back in May, the first issue of The Defenders (which was actually the fourth outing for the titular super-team, following their three-issue tryout run in Marvel Feature) ended on a note of mystery, as the Sub-Mariner revealed to his allies, Doctor Strange and the Hulk, that prior to the events of that comic, he’d been attacked by none other than the Silver Surfer — who had at the time appeared to be himself allied with Necrodamus, the sorcerous acolyte of the Undying Ones whose attempt to summon those evil extradimensional entities our three heroes had just then thwarted, though only barely. 

Writer Steve Englehart and penciller Sal Buscema (aided by inker John Verpoorten) continued their story in Defenders #2 (Oct., 1972), which opens with a scene in the South Polar Seas.  There, we find Subby and Doc Strange (in astral form) continuing their search for the Silver Surfer, after (as their dialogue informs us) having already spent two fruitless months in the same pursuit (a fairly unusual instance of “comic-book” time and “real world” time proceeding at the same pace).  That search ends abruptly when the Surfer suddenly turns up on his own initiative, eager to tell his old buddy Namor (with whom he previously teamed in the “proto-Defenders” grouping known as “Titans Three”) about the success he’s recently achieved in his “quest to lead men away from the paths of violence”.  When the Sub-Mariner angrily accuses the sky-rider of trying to kill him a couple of months back, the Surfer denies the charge.  Unsurprisingly, the regal scion of Atlantis is disinclined to believe him, and proceeds to go on the attack — to which the Surfer responds in kind:

Reconvening at Dr. Strange’s Greenwich Village Sanctum Sanctorum (where the Doc slips back into his meat suit), the two Defenders review information from their previous encounters with the Undying Ones and their cultists (as chronicled in Dr. Strange #183, Sub-Mariner #22, and Incredible Hulk #126) which the Master of the Mystic Arts believes may lead them to the Surfer’s current location.  It seems that Stephen’s late friend Kenneth Ward (whose reaching out to Strange is what got our favorite sorcerer involved with this mess in the first place) had written something very interesting in his diary…

“Is it too much to assume, then,” asks Strange, “that these two valleys are actually one and the same?”  Namor readily agrees that it isn’t; and so, after picking up the Hulk (who was almost killed by Necrodamus in the previous issue, and thus deserves a chance to see this business through to the end, in Doc’s opinion) they head for the Himalayas.  Arriving at a village near the valley they seek, they disguise themselves as ordinary explorers via Strange’s magic, and then hire guides to lead them the rest of the way.  The idea is that they may be able to sneak up on the Surfer and/or whoever else may be lurking in the valley without the latter becoming aware of their true nature and intent.  But after a single night camped out on the mountain track, the Defenders awake to find their guides missing, and only a single clue as to where they might have gone…

The Hulk immediately begins to toss the “monkey-things” around; naturally, this draws the almost-as-immediate attention of the Silver Surfer, who arrives full of indignation over such rough treatment of creatures he calls “my friends, my children!”  As the Surfer tells it, following his team-up with the Fantastic Four against Galactus a few months back (a tale related in FF #121-123), he’d needed to cleanse his spirit of “the psychic stains left by battle” — and so he’d gone looking for something more constructive than his customary angsty brooding to do with his time and energy. And in this remote Himalayan valley, populated only by a “small group of nearly-human apes“, he thought he’d found it…

Yes, Calizuma and his “warrior wizards” are, like Necrodamus in the previous issue, acolytes of the Undying Ones.  Evidently, this whole months-long subterfuge has been put into place so that the Surfer could be compelled to help Nec capture Namor.  I have to say that that seems like a huge investment of time and effort just to accomplish that one thing, but what do I know from evil plans?

These warrior wizards seem rather more formidable than your typical robe-wearing demon-worshipers — I mean, just look at the muscles under that spandex!  A couple of the rank-and-file even manage to grapple (briefly) with Hulk and Subby, while their leader Calizuma might indeed be powerful enough to vanquish one or more of our heroes in battle — though, as it turns out, all four at once is a bit more than he can handle:

In the opinion of your humble blogger, Sal Buscema really shines in lighter moments like the one above.

Once their leader is down for the count, the rest of the gang fold pretty quickly…

And so we come to Defenders #3, whose cover lets us know that whatever else may be in store for the Silver Surfer in his quest to return home to Zenn-La, somewhere along the way he and his three comrades will once again come into conflict with the Undying Ones — and it’ll be face to face, this time.  (Gil Kane’s cover illustration is such an eye-catchingly lively piece of work that I think we can cut him some slack for shorting the Undying Ones’ leader, aka the Nameless One, one of his customary two heads.)

“Four Against the Gods” finds Englehart and Buscema still on the job, now joined by Jim Mooney on inks.  It opens with a symbolic full-page splash (or maybe we should call it a preview, since the scene depicted turns up later in the issue) — and an epigraph from the great American-British poet T. S. Eliot:

Sal Buscema scores again in the first panel of page 2, with his depiction of the Hulk’s intent examination of one of the mysterious demon-statues.  I’m not sure if this is supposed to refer back to Englehart’s caption on the last page of issue #2 describing the sculptures’ “slight, hostile movements”, or if it’s something Buscema came up with on his own, but it’s a nice bit, either way.

So it’s settled.  Namor is down for accompanying Dr. Strange and the Surfer on their sure-to-be-amazing journey, but the Hulk says nothin’ doin’ — he’s tired of being ordered around by “dumb magician“.  But then, the Silver Surfer asks his fellow former leg of the “Titans Three” tripod to reconsider:

Awww…

Re-reading this story in 2022, I’m struck by Englehart’s use of the word “multiverse” in the third from last panel above.  Believe it or not, kids, back in the early 1970s, you didn’t see that word in your superhero comics every month — maybe not even every year.

As indicated by the footnote by “R.” (i.e., Marvel editor-in-chief Roy Thomas — or, mayhap, Steve Englehart writing in his boss’ name), readers had met the unfortunate Barbara in Hulk #126, the conclusion of the original Undying Ones crossover trilogy produced by Thomas with various artists back in 1969-70.  Barbara and her husband, Jack, were just a couple of ordinary mortals who’d somehow gotten mixed up in the Undying Ones’ cult; when a conscience-stricken Barbara had attempted to defy her and Jack’s cult leader to help the Hulk, she’d been pulled out of our own mundane dimension, eventually landing in the realm of the Undying Ones themselves.  One thing had led to another, and eventually, in the story’s climax, she’d taken Dr. Strange’s place in the nether-gods’ prison of “ethereal force“, allowing both him and the Hulk to escape back to Earth… after which, the Doc had suddenly decided to retire from the magic biz, shutting up the Sanctum Sanctorum and strolling off into the Greenwich Village sunset.  That had probably struck at least some readers of Hulk #126 as rather cavalier on Strange’s part — and in regards to the fate of the unfortunate Barbara, maybe even somewhat callous.  Sure, the young woman may have been a member of demon-worshiping cult, but we hadn’t actually seen her do anything evil, y’know?  (UPDATE 9/29/22:  As has recently been pointed out by Blake Stone on the Masterworks Message Board, the closing pages of Hulk #126 actually imply pretty strongly that Strange was facing imminent death in the Undying Ones’ prison, and that by taking his place, Barbara was essentially sacrificing her life, not just her freedom.  So maybe the good Doctor wasn’t being so cavalier after all.)

Might Steve Englehart have been one of those less-than-fully satisfied readers?  I think it’s fairly likely, given how he handles that particular loose end here…

The only thing that appears to be unaffected by the mystical maelstrom is the Silver Surfer’s board, which Namor theorizes may therefore be able to pull them all free of its grip.  Unfortunately, it won’t respond to the Surfer’s commands — leaving nothing for it but for the Sub-Mariner to attempt to swim through “the thickened ether” to reach it…

Hulk can hold, and he does… and so, as Strange, the Surfer, and Barbara each in their turn also reach the maelstrom’s center, they’re able to grab onto the big green guy and thus save themselves from being swept away through the hole — at least for now.  Meanwhile…

Once he has a firm grip on the board, Subby allows the maelstrom to carry him back down to where the others await.  Then…

The Lady Dorma had indeed perished “many tides” ago, in Sub-Mariner #37 (May, 1971) — but as there had been no significant new romantic interest introduced into Namor’s life since that time, it’s not hard to believe she was still more on his mind than any other woman.

Did I say earlier that Gil Kane’s cover had shorted the Nameless On by one head?  Guess we better make that two.

I can still recall how shocking this full-page splash was to me when I first saw it as a fifteen-year old reader, back in September, 1972; fifty years later, it’s still a disturbing image.

The Surfer blasts the flaming rock to smithereens, but the Nameless One (Ones?) retaliates by swatting him out of the sky.  Next, the Sub-Mariner flies to the attack…

While Subby and the Hulk continue to throw down with the conjoined couple (or should that be trio?), Strange and the Surfer realize that they can take advantage of the now-empty ethereal-forces cage, and by combining the energies of the one’s spells and the other’s “Power Cosmic”…

Nobody would have been talking about “Stockholm syndrome” in 1972 — mainly because the incident which gave rise to that term didn’t occur until 1973 — but the sort of psychological phenomenon the phrase refers to was obviously around well before the label itself came into vogue.

Like the two issues that preceded it, Defenders #3 ends with a scene that neatly sets up the next installment.  But although this is doubtlessly the grimmest such denouement the fledgling series has yet seen, in hindsight, it can also be seen as the most promising. Defenders #4 would significantly alter the tone and direction of the title going forward, with the arrival of the “new Defender” promised by the next-issue blurb not only mitigating the “boys’ club” atmosphere that had thus far characterized the team, but also setting up the tension that would largely define the series for much of the rest of its run — a tension that might best be expressed by the question, “What exactly is a superhero team, anyway?”  That particular question was one that the creators, as well as the readers, of Defenders would enjoy thoroughly exploring in the years to come.

8 comments

  1. frednotfaith2 · September 24

    Another beautiful write-up, Alan. I already made some comments on Defenders #3 in the Marvel Masterworks site, but can add more here. I had gotten Defenders #2, but subsequently lost it; missed 3, then got 4, missed 5, then got 6-9 but missed 10, and so on. Anyhow, at least Dr. Strange finally went about trying to rescue poor Barbara, even if he didn’t initially set out to do so. Shame on the Doctor for neglecting her for so long, even retiring for a spell. The two-headed monster must have really unnerved him, even more than Dormammu! And Englehart’s taking things to the very edge of what I presume the CCA would have allowed in 1972, what with the Nameless One swallowing Namor whole and references to it mating with Barbara, and her going bonkers when separated from the monster. This issue is more of a horror story than standard superhero fare.
    It came to my mind while reading this entry that within the next year, while writing The Incredible Hulk, Englehart would introduce yet another two-headed creature, the Bi-Beast, as well as another human eating monster, the Wendigo — perhaps the ideas for those were inspired while in the process of writing this story. Then there was also that horrific story of the airplane crash landing in the Andes and some of the survivors having to resort to cannibalism to keep themselves alive, and which happened in October 1972. Well, at least Namor proved indigestible and got out in one piece! Barbara, on the other hand — body intact but mind not so much and as far as I know she never really recovered before being killed off, but all that was several years away. Of course, with the very next issue we’d find out what would become of her body and who the “new Defender” is.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. DontheArtistformerlyknownasfrodo628 · September 24

    The Defenders was one of my favorite Marvel books back in the day. Despite the pressure I got from friends to buy this Marvel title or that, I was always a DC guy at heart and except for Spider-man, Daredevil and the FF, very few books in the MCU appealed to me. Then came the Defenders, featuring four characters I actually had never cared for in their own books, Dr. Strange, Namor, Hulk and the SIlver Surfer and suddenly, I’m hooked. Why did I even buy my first copy of Defenders given my lack of appreciation on any of the members of the group? Not sure, but I think it was because the make-up of the group was just so unsustainable. I mean, Namor and Hulk are posters boys for “Can not Play Well with Others” and the Surfer is a loner if ever there was one, while Strange is, and has always been a self-righteous dick. Even Englehart had trouble finding an excuse for this bunch to keep coming together, gradually removing the Surfer and Namor and replacing them with Valkyrie, Nighthawk and Hellcat.

    Anyway, I distinctly remember the great Gil Kane cover from this issue, so I know I was buying this series, if not from the very beginning, at least close to the beginning, and never noticed how he had beheaded the Nameless One. Huh. Go figure. As to Buscema’s portrayal of the actual three-headed beast in the interior pages, my only complaint is that Barbara seems to be a floating head and not actually connected to the rest of the creature. I did like Englehart’s use of the Stockholm Syndrome and I’m glad Strange felt obligated to free Barbara, even though he’d obviously never thought of her again after she’d saved his life. Like I said, dude’s a dick.

    Great run-down as always, Alan. Looking forward to the arrival of Valkyrie and reacquainting myself with this old favorite comic.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Sean · September 28

    A book having Our Pal Sal drawing it used to be a reason for my buddies and me to skip buying that book. After looking at the first few pages at the top of the post I was wondering if we made a mistake, but after reaching the end I think my 12 year old friends and I were absolutely right. Dr. Strange and Silver Surfer were kind of interesting, but Hulk and Sub-Mariner were pretty bad in those days. Still not into Sub-Mariner but there have been a lot of really good Hulk stories since then.
    As always, a fine post and a great trip down memory lane.
    Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Chris A. · September 30

    Even though I wasn’t into this particular title, I always enjoy reading your reviews of these comics, Alan (and I actually owned the Yandroth issue, which I believe was the one you are alluding to next).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alan Stewart · September 30

      I *think* that Yandroth doesn’t make his full return until issue #5… which may or may not get a whole post of its own (still planning the January schedule 😉 ).

      Like

  5. Steve McBeezlebub · October 2

    God I loved Englehart and Gerber on this book. I know there was someone else in between and did good stuff but nowhere near the Steve Squad’s amazing output.

    This issue also ended the Surfer’s first run as guest member and as he was an infrequent guest in volume one I will argue unceasingly he’s not a founding or essential member of the team. The core team to me will always be Hulk, Doctor Strange, Valkyrie, Nighthawk, and Hellcat since Namor would soon quit as well. I’d even suggest classic Defenders revivals are hurt by Namor and the Surfer’s inclusion and lack of Hellcat, Nighthawk, and Valkyrie.

    Like

  6. Pingback: Vampirella #21 (December, 1972) | Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books
  7. Pingback: Defenders #4 (February, 1973) | Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books

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