Behind an attention-grabbing cover pencilled by John Buscema from a rough layout by Jim Starlin (and inked by Frank Giacoia), the Defenders creative team of writer Steve Englehart, penciller Sal Buscema, and inker Frank McLaughlin began this latest installment of the super-team’s continuing adventures right where the previous one had left off.
It wasn’t exactly what you’d call a happy scene…
Although he doesn’t believe he could have acted in any way other than he did, Doctor Strange still feels remorse for how things went down in Defenders #3, and so he defers to the Sub-Mariner to decide what the two of them should do next. Observing that the unfortunate Barbara might well come to further harm at the hands of the unpredictable Hulk, regardless of the latter’s intentions, Namor states that they really have no choice but to follow — and so they do.
But although the castle’s unlocked doors open readily to the two heroes, upon entering the structure, they find it apparently empty…
Namor and Strange might not recognize the big, bearded guy standing in the center of that last panel, but longtime Marvel readers would be able to peg him as the Executioner (later to receive the proper name of Skurge, though not for some years yet), an Asgardian enemy of the mighty Thor and a one-time member of the original Masters of Evil.
While confident that his strength will prove greater than that of the two Defenders’ foes, Namor opines that armor would be useful, as even his “mutant skin” could “be rent by those flashing swords!” Hmm… I’d have expected the Sub-Mariner’s hide to be a bit tougher than that, but OK.
Overcome, our heroes are tossed into the castle dungeon, where they quickly find they’re not alone…
Dr. Strange certainly should recognize the Black Knight, having teamed up with him in a memorable two-part crossover that ran through Doctor Strange #178 and Avengers #61, back in December, 1968.
“Bird”? Such British slang sounds a little odd coming from Dane Whitman, a born-and-bred American who only emigrated to the U.K. back in Marvel Super-Heroes #17 (Nov., 1968) after inheriting a castle there. Maybe writer Englehart is trying to show the extent to which Dane has “gone native” since his move — or maybe he’s just not that knowledgeable about the character. I’m inclined to believe the latter, simply based on how he’s portrayed in the next couple of panels:
The Black Knight was previously used and abused by the Enchantress (who, like her former beau the Executioner, is an Asgardian and a former Master of Evil — and who, also like him, will have to wait several more years yet to get an actual name [Amora, in her case]) back in Avengers #84; just a year and a half later, he was on hand for an attempt by her and the Greco-Roman God of War, Ares, to overthrow Olympus, Asgard, and Earth, in Avengers #100. So he knows very well, from firsthand experience, that she’s not only incredibly powerful, but also thoroughly evil. And yet he’s such an irresponsible horndog that he disregards all that just for the sake of her “yielding lips“? Yeah, right. One can hardly help but conclude that, however much Englehart might or might not have known about the Black Knight in late 1972, he wasn’t much of a fan.
The first appearance of the Valkyrie — as a visual and a concept, at least — had been in Avengers #83 (Dec., 1970). In that issue, written by Roy Thomas and drawn by John Buscema, she’d ultimately been outed as nothing more than a faux-feminist disguise of the Enchantress, a device the Asgardian had utilized as part of the same crusade for revenge against the faithless Executioner and his new lover that she’s resumed in our present tale. The Valkyrie wasn’t real, in other words — a factor that would seem to limit the potential for her to make any sort of comeback. But Thomas appears to have felt the character was too good to just throw away, and so, in Hulk #142 (Aug., 1971), he and artist Herb Trimpe had contrived to have the Valkyrie “return”. As before, the stridently anti-male warrior was a creation of the Enchantress; this time, however, she wasn’t a mere subterfuge, but rather a separate persona (as well as a discrete power set) which the devious goddess superimposed over the mind and body of an ordinary young woman, Samantha Parrington. Even so, this iteration of Valkyrie didn’t last any longer than the first one had, as the magic spell that had created her wore off by the story’s end, thus restoring Ms. Parrington to her normal self.
Still, it seemed obvious; if the Enchantress could turn a human woman into the Valkyrie once, there wasn’t anything to prevent her from doing it again. And, hey, maybe she could even make it stick this time around…
As many of you out there will already know, there’s a good bit more going on in this scene than meets the eye. Because the “false personality” that takes over the body of Barbara in this scene (and who previously possessed Samantha Parrington) isn’t actually a wholesale magical creation of the Enchantress, but, rather, the living essence of a bona fide Asgardian Valkyrie — and not just any old Norse chooser-of-the-slain, but the Valkyrie: Brunnhilde, the legendary heroine of the Volsunga Saga and the Nibelungenlied, as well as the titular character in Die Walküre (1870), the third opera in Richard Wagner’s famous Ring cycle. Yeah, that Valkyrie.
(To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that Steve Englehart was holding vital information back from readers in this scene; the “continuity implant” that would retroactively make Marvel’s comic-book Valkyrie into the famous character of myth, literature, and music drama wouldn’t be dreamed up for another six years or so.)
Naturally, word comes quickly to the Executioner and his mysterious Queen that the prisoners have escaped, and he marshals his troops against them…
Namor, meanwhile, is doing quite well against the common soldiery (sharp blades notwithstanding), until a force-blast from the Executioner’s battle-ax knocks him off his feet. But then…
The Hulk has in fact fought the Executioner twice before now; their first fracas, in Tales to Astonish #77, had ended inconclusively, but I think it’s fair to say that in their second bout in Hulk #102, ol’ Jade-Jaws whupped the Asgardian baddie’s butt pretty dang good. (And despite what Hulk says above, the Executioner did have his magic ax on hand in their last encounter… not that it really mattered.)
That latter adventure, incidentally, is the same exploit that got both the Executioner and the Enchantress exiled from Asgard by All-Father Odin, as first revealed in Avengers #83 and recapped by the Black Knight in our current tale. So many callbacks to past stories scattered throughout this one, and most of them interconnected… honestly, it’s nearly enough to make a continuity-minded fan (such as your humble blogger) giddy.
But the Executioner’s apparent mastery of the scene of battle is shattered when one of his warriors’ lances comes hurtling his way, and knocks his own weapon from his hand. Guess who tossed that sucker?
“I can’t hurt a woman!” Sigh. For whatever reason (and, OK, “deeply ingrained sexism” is probably a pretty good bet here), a number of the male writers of comic books in the early 1970s had a real problem dealing with what was then called the Women’s Liberation Movement — even when it seemed that they were trying to deal with it in a positive manner. So, here, Steve Englehart feels compelled to twist the Valkyrie’s strong feminist orientation into a standard superheroic “weakness”: i.e., as strong and tough as she is, you can stop her simply by putting a female in her path.
By point of comparison, over in Fantastic Four, Roy Thomas had just introduced another avowedly feminist superwoman, Thundra. Like Valkyrie, Thundra makes a distinction between the genders when she’s fighting; however, she takes practically the opposite tack to her sister warrior, as she’s willing to kill a female opponent if necessary, while at the same time eschewing fatal violence towards males, who are, after all, “the weaker sex”.
From the vantage point of half a century later, it’s easy to shake one’s head at the evident difficulty these guys had getting their heads around the simple concept of equality. But in all due honesty, I can remember the person I was at age fifteen, which is when I first read this material; and I can hardly claim to have been more enlightened than either Englehart or Thomas were then. Certainly, neither the “Valkyrie can’t hit girls” idea nor the “Thundra will only kill girls” bit fazed me in the slightest, back in the fall of 1972.
Jeez, Dane, get a grip, willya? Sheesh, what a loser.
In case you were wondering, this scene is the last we’ll see of Casiolena, Queen of… wherever… for quite a long time. Though she survives the Enchantress’ blast, she won’t emerge again for about six years (at which time it will finally be revealed that she’s essentially Asgardian in nature, her nebulous domain being somehow adjacent to the Golden Realm… again, just in case you were wondering).
Dr. Strange whips up a dimensional-transport spell, and our little band of adventurers begin to make the “nether-voyage” back to good ol’ Earth. Valkyrie attempts to ride Aragorn as they go, but finds it something of a struggle, since (as Dr. Strange points out), the winged horse has never been ridden by anyone other than Dane Whitman…
Yeah, Doc, remember the Omegatron? That sentient doomsday device created by your old enemy Yandroth, that you only managed to prevent from blowing up the whole Earth back in Marvel Feature #1 by slapping a Band-Aid on it? Well, ever since Defenders #1, that Band-Aid has been slowly peeling off, and… ah, the hell with it, let’s just go on ahead and see how this whole mess gets resolved in the next issue. It’s not like we won’t have other fifty-year-old comic books to discuss come January, after all…
Behind a cover by Sal Buscema and John Verpoorten, Defenders #5 is brought to us by the same ongoing team of Englehart, S. Buscema, and McLaughlin. Our story begins with (and is mostly told from the vantage point of) Valkyrie, who has indeed followed the Defenders back to America, and is currently residing with Dr. Strange in his Sanctum Sanctorum in New York. (It’s the least the guy could do, if you ask me — especially after his obnoxious “What could we possibly need you for?” crack at the end of issue #4.) Although that situation is becoming at least a little awkward, as Val explains below…
Got that, ladies? If you dare to assert yourselves — excuse me, to demonstrate “aggressiveness” — other women won’t like you. Thanks for explaining that, Mr. Englehart.
As for Val’s sudden, inexplicable crush on the Black Knight, Englehart seems to have felt that his new Defender needed a love interest right off the bat (her being a girl and all) — although I’m happy to report that he appears to have had second thoughts about it pretty quickly, and following a few glancing references in future issues, this bit thankfully goes away forever.
Val proceeds to do as Doc Strange suggests. The first crystal leads her (and Aragorn) a surprisingly short distance, as Namor is presently visiting the NYC apartment of his old human friend Betty Dean Prentiss, who (as we covered in our Sub-Mariner #57 post a month or so back) is currently serving as an informal guardian to the Sub-Mariner’s young cousin Namorita (aka Nita). But this offbeat foursome has barely gotten past the state of introductions when a strange phenomenon occurs:
Namor disappears completely, leaving no visible trace; but Valkyrie’s magic crystal shows he’s still alive, and somewhere to the north. So, accompanied by Nita, she flies in that direction, encountering the Hulk along the way. (No, she doesn’t use her second crystal to locate him; he just happens to be directly in her flight path. Convenient, eh?) But, as you might expect, before the two women have much of a chance to try to explain the situation to the Emerald Behemoth, he pulls the same disappearing act:
Both magic crystals are now pointing towards the same northerly destination, and Val and Nita swiftly wing their way there, ultimately arriving at a location that may seem familiar to readers of the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1 (or our blog post on same):
The magical power of the Ebony Blade allows Valkyrie to shatter the unseen barrier, an act which also does away with the lighthouse illusion that has disguised the complex housing the Omegatron. And so, the duo at last come face-to-face with the villainous computer — which, naturally, feels compelled to explain its evil plan, beginning with a recap of MF #1 before going on to detail what went wrong with Dr. Strange’s Band-Aid (i.e., his slow-time-to-a-crawl spell):
“Though each hundredth of a second on my chronometer is the equivalent of two ordinary minutes,” the Omegatron gloats, “there are but three of those periods left!” Doing the math, Val and Nita figure that six minutes should be long enough for the two of them to shut the machine down. And maybe it would be, if the Big O. hadn’t subverted both the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk to his will; but he has, and now he sends them against our heroines. As powerful as they both are, Valkyrie and Namorita simply aren’t able to take down their opponents in the time allowed — especially since, as the Omegatron reveals, the vibrations from their combat have fed his circuits, giving the countdown one last bit of extra juice. The final hundredth-second counter rolls over…
Namor’s comment about Yandroth’s vanity might also explain why the Omegatron kidnapped him and the Hulk in the first place, since there’s no indication that their “vibrations” were actually needed to put the counter over the top. I think we have to assume that, at least subconsciously, it wanted an audience. (The way I see it, it’s either go with that, or conclude that Steve Englehart simply didn’t think some aspects of his plot through very well; so, take your pick.)
“A beginning!”, indeed — though it can also be taken as, not only the conclusion of the Valkyrie’s first full adventure as a “member” of the Defenders (whatever that might mean), but also of Steve Englehart’s first full story arc as the feature’s scripter. And despite the undeniable bobbles to be found in these first five issues of Defenders, I’d call them quite successful as a whole, and highly promising — both for the future of Englehart as a writer, and for the Defenders as a team and ongoing feature.
One indicator of that promise on both fronts is Englehart’s decision to downplay the in-your-face, “up against the wall, make chauvinist pig!” caricature of “Women’s Lib” that Roy Thomas had originally used to define the character. Aside from the couple of missteps we’ve already noted — the silly imposition of the “can’t hurt a woman” weakness, the condescending warning about female “aggressiveness” — Englehart largely steers clear of having Valkyrie speak or act in ways liable to induce winces among contemporary readers. Thankfully, this will continue to be the case; Valkyrie’s feminism will remain an inherent, and important, part of her character (as it should), but that doesn’t mean she has to talk about it all the time.
As Englehart told writer Jonathan Miller in 2012 for an article about Valkyrie (published in Back Issue #54):
She was a feminist creation, but if I stuck that character with two macho guys (Hulk and Subby), that would be her only topic of conversation… Plus, I was forming a non-team team, so continued arguments didn’t work for my purposes. I was all in favor of Women’s Lib, but I chose her because she was a woman who wasn’t obviously part of any group and could become part of this one, and was tough enough at heart to stand up to the guys.
That she was indeed that tough would become ever more evident in the months and years to come — though, thankfully, “toughness” wouldn’t become her defining feature, any more than “aggressiveness” would. But rather than just take my word for it, I hope you’ll return for future installments of this blog, as we continue to follow the rising and advancing of the Valkyrie’s spirit (to borrow a phrase associated with another Steve Englehart-scripted character).