Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Defenders #20-25

Marvel Comics, 1974 and 1975, 18 pages each, $ 0.25 each

Writer: Steve Gerber
Penciler or layout artist: Sal Buscema
Inkers or finishing artists: Vince Colletta, Sal Trapani, Mike Esposito, Bob McLeod, Jack Abel
Colorists: Petra Goldberg, George Roussos, Stan Goldberg, Don Warfield, Phil Rachelson
Letterers: John Costanza, Charlotte Jetter, June Braverman, Tom Orzechowski, Ray Holloway
Cover artists: Gil Kane, Klaus Janson (issue #23)

Compared with Steve Gerber’s two final issues of Sub-Mariner, which are a vehicle for strictly conventional early-1970s superhero material with occasional outbursts of poetic melodrama and social awareness, the first half-year’s worth of stories of the writer’s subsequent run on The Defenders marks a departure: Here, Mr. Gerber is constructing his superhero narratives more deliberately to transport and deliver the kinds of themes and issues he wants to address.

His very first issue, The Defenders #20, begins with a vintage Steve Gerber caption:

“It happens daily on the streets of New York: An old drunk stumbles, clutches at his chest… emits a hoarse, wheezing, almost inaudible cry… and just dies right there on the sidewalk. He’s lucky if anyone notices, let alone cares.”

We do get back to that sidewalk eventually—but the story that follows in issue #20, for the time being, is little more than a hurried deck-clearing exercise that ties up several plot threads left dangling by previous writers. It involves a two-headed demon called the Nameless Ones and deals with the fairly confusing origin of one of the group’s members, Valkyrie—a Norse warrior woman with superhuman strength and a big sword. I take it the character initially appeared in an issue of Avengers, where the Enchantress used her as a pawn against the titular heroes. Subsequent stories established that Valkyrie inhabits the body of a “mortal woman,” but retains none of that woman’s memories, evidently.

It doesn’t seem like Mr. Gerber is very interested in the subject matter, at any rate—the story reads like it was meant to take another issue, but then the creators lost interest and decided to cram the rest of the plot into the last four pages instead.

By issue #21, though, the series is very much Steve Gerber’s. As the title of the story, “Enter: The Headmen!,” suggests, this is the introduction of the infamous trio of mad-scientist types whose gimmick is that their heads don’t match their bodies—there’s Dr. Arthur Nagan, whose head was transplanted to the body of a gorilla; Dr. Jeremy Morgan, who experimented with “cellular compression” and accidently “decompressed” his head; and Chondu the Mystic, who doesn’t get to swap his body until a later story. However, with the help of an icky-looking injection into his head administered by Morgan, Chondu is able to exercise some kind of telepathic sway over the population of Manhattan, turning them into violent, self-destructive maniacs.

The most memorable scene in issue #21 has nothing to do with the Headmen, however. In a brief but remarkable interlude, the creators establish one of the core themes of the stories that are to follow: an unfettered exploration of the consequences of the kind of unreflected prejudice and violence that are a convention in superhero comics.

It’s a very deliberately paced and choreographed sequence. The Hulk, travelling by gigantic leaps on his way to New York, has landed in the suburban idyll of Westbury, Connecticut. Possessing the mental maturity of a four-year-old himself, the super-strong giant watches a bunch of kids play in the front yard. “Their laughter soothes his spirit, makes him smile…”—much to the alarm of their parents, of course.

When the Hulk starts to pet one little girl, her horrified father runs towards them. Hulk, anticipating an attack, tosses him aside and throws one of his “Hulk smash!” fits. In his anger, he strikes the ground with both fists. The resulting shockwave destroys the family’s house, which in turn causes the little girl to cry and scream at the Hulk. Now the Hulk’s anger dissipates—crying and sobbing over the mess he inadvertently caused, he leaps away.

The shell-shocked father’s resumé to his wife in the scene’s final panel is devastating:

“D-Do you realize… that unless we’re insured for destruction by big green monsters… we now hold a 30-year mortgage… on a pile of rubble? I’ll be 64 years old… when we own… our own nothing!

Superhero readers aren’t unfamiliar with the kind of “collateral damage” on display in the sequence, of course—it’s something that occurs so frequently at this point that it’s a genre convention people hardly ever think about anymore.

Here, however, Mr. Gerber and Mr. Buscema deconstruct what’s usually a background detail and illustrate some of the consequences of the kind of insane, mindless behavior and violence that their audience has come to take for granted. Within three pages, the creators escalate an idyllic setting to an utterly violent one, with an outcome of sadness and hopelessness, and the characters seem credible and authentic every step of the way.

And in the end, even more remarkably, there is no moral. Nobody’s to blame for what happens, plainly: not the Hulk, because he’s got the simple mind of a child and defending himself against attacks is all that he knows; not his teammates, for letting him roam free, because it’s impossible to stop him without harming him or his alter ego, Bruce Banner; not Banner, because his transformation is the result of an accident and happens against his will; and not the father, because he has every reason to be concerned about his daughter, and everyone else would have acted the same.

The creators confront their readers with the uncomfortable truth that sometimes there is no solution, and violence only serves to exacerbate the problem. What’s left for the characters—and the audience—to do with the situation is to live with the consequences and, hopefully, learn from it so it won’t happen again. It took decades for this kind of self-reflection to become more common in a genre that’s still largely based on men in tights trying to resolve conflicts by beating each other up at sight—and even when this reflective aspect is present, even today, it’s rarely as well-executed.

Not all is gloom and doom in the story, though. In one of the book’s funnier—if still not exactly “lighthearted”—moments, Doctor Strange and Valkyrie try to locate the husband of the woman whose body Valkyrie inhabits, but only find his feisty old landlady—and she’s not amused to see her. “Security! That’s all you’re after—for when ya ain’t pretty no more,” she yells at the two shocked superheroes, shaking her fist, “an’ ya can’t find no fancy-pants New York artist like this one to take care o’ ya!” She’s referring to Doctor Strange, of course, who is wearing the full ceremonial garb of a Master of the Mystic Arts.

Overall, the narrative is uncharacteristically anti-climactic. Not only do the Defenders—which mainly means Doctor Strange, the Hulk, Valkyrie and Nighthawk—fail to stop the Headmen’s attack—they never even get around to saving anyone, let alone to finding out what caused the madness. While Strange and Valkyrie are busy handling the Hulk, who is also affected, Nighthawk barely manages to prevent an old flame from throwing herself off his balcony, and he only finally holds her back by hitting her in the face, which leaves her unconscious.

Subsequently investigating the chaos in the streets, Nighthawk spots Nagan, who uses the distraction to “loot diamond row,” in order to fund the Headmen’s forthcoming “transplant experiments.” But Nighthawk proves unable to stop Nagan—instead, he’s knocked out cold by the villain. The attack ends when Chondu passes out due to exhaustion, and the villains escape without further complications. The final panel leaves the heroes standing around dumbfounded and without much of a clue. “[H]as all this been but a prelude,” Doctor Strange wonders aloud, “to the weirdest menace we’ve ever faced?” Already, the Defenders are probably the most ineffectual superheroes that ever joined forces in a comic.

While most of the book’s readers may have expected a more satisfying rematch with the Headmen in the next issue, the four-parter that follows completely ignores them, increasing the sense that everything can’t always be neatly tied up to everybody’s satisfaction, even—or especially—by spandex-clad superhumans. Instead, Mr. Gerber pitches his heroes against the Sons of the Serpent, a group of snake-themed white supremacists.

Most of the action takes place in and around a run-down tenement building in Lower Manhattan, housing “the old… the infirm… the blind… the black, brown, yellow and red of skin.” The story opens with Valkyrie, who is wandering around and aimlessly pondering her confused identity, coming across a knife fight between two residents. “How much have they truly to lose by killing… or dying? The rents may be dear, but life is cheap down these dark streets,” the narration comments.

Valkyrie’s attempts to resolve the situation without violence fail, leading her to draw her sword when she’s attacked by the two fighters. “A man’s strength and character are not measured by the length of his blade,” she proceeds to lecture them once they are disarmed, “but by the boldness of his heart.” By virtue of carrying the biggest stick, Valkyrie is able to dissolve the fight, for the time being. (A blonde and blue-eyed Norsewoman comparing knife-lengths with two dark-skinned men—Fredric Wertham would have had a field day with this one.)

But the heroine doesn’t get a chance to catch her breath, because a scream alerts her to another emergency. Hurrying inside the building, she finds a horrified mother whose child is threatened by a rat the size of a cat inside their crummy, freezing apartment. Valkyrie kills the rat, but learns that the single mother has bigger problems to deal with.

“How can I live under any other conditions? My rent is $ 150 a month… that is what your ‘welfare’ says my baby and I can live on! I eat dog food—so she can have milk! Your inflation… Your welfare…!”

—not the kind of dialogue readers of superhero comics were used to, back in the day.

Valkyrie takes mother and child to the posh Greenwich Village place of Doctor Strange, whose assessment is bleakly realistic. “It is not within even our power to solve the problem, Val… but we may take certain steps in this particular instance. The conditions in Elena’s building are intolerable… and illegal.” As the story progresses, however, the tenement building and its surroundings become a battleground, first between the angry tenants and their greedy “fat-cat” landlord, and soon between the Defenders and the Sons of the Serpent.

Like in the previous issue, Mr. Gerber’s prose in #22 doesn’t pull many punches when it comes to depicting the consequences of violence. This time, a single page suffices to illustrate the horror of a nightly attack by the Sons of the Serpent that sets the building alight.

“Amos Ferret cannot see the flames… but he can hear them. His aged limbs are too stiff to allow him to run from the inferno that a moment ago was his home… but his lungs will still let him shout. So he cries out for help… once, twice, a third time… help!! Then the roar of the fire drowns out his voice. The heat of the blaze drives him back against a wall… coarse grey smoke fills his chest… he cries out one last time… as the tongues of flame lick at his clothing and his body! And then he can cry no more…! The Sons of the Serpent race away as the smell of burnt flesh fills the air.”

Again, the scene suggested by the creators—the slow, agonizing process of an old, black man helplessly burning to death—is not the kind of thing his readers are used to seeing in the Marvel Universe. For that matter, unlike the Hulk’s intermezzo in suburbia, this time the source of death and destruction is not some unstoppable, superhuman force of nature, but plain old human prejudice and hatred.

The Defenders arrive on the scene shortly after, but they are too late to save old Amos. All they can manage is to prevent the outraged tenants from harming their rich, white landlord, who in turn accuses the tenants of having set the fire. At this point, the Sons of the Serpent attack once more, and though they are defeated by the Defenders, the issue ends, for the second time in a row, with the villains escaping and the heroes not having achieved a great deal of anything.

The three remaining chapters deal with the same issues, but much of the human drama is traded in for costumed brawls, as the Defenders are joined by Yellowjacket, Daredevil, Luke Cage and the Son of Satan. The tenants and their concerns, on the other hand, disappear from the story altogether.

Still, things remain several steps removed from being conventional. For instance, the creators keep throwing in the odd storytelling experiment. In issue #23, the Sons of the Serpent hijack the country’s TV frequencies to address their “fellow Americans.” The speech is communicated on a single page that swaps white for black as the background color. The upper half of the page is filled with a panel in the shape of a television screen, showing the group’s leader, the Serpent Supreme, behind a podium. The lower half has the address itself, in a white type font. The speech is written in a style reminiscent of your vintage State-of-the-Union address.

Issue #25, notably, marks the first appearance of the infamous “Elf with a Gun,” who proceeds to show up sporadically in the series, in a string of bizarre interludes. Who is the elf? What does the elf want? Don’t know, doesn’t matter. The plot thread never goes anywhere during Mr. Gerber’s tenure, and, given that it so perfectly demonstrates the kind of random, absurd violence that superhero stories trade in, it’s doubtful whether it was ever meant to: The “elf” just randomly shows up at people’s doorsteps, pulls a gun, makes some kind of nasty remark and shoots them. In this case, the victims are a cheerful, musically minded couple living in a remote trailer park. “Linda—you’re gonna think I’m crackers, but—there’s an elf at the door. An elf—with a gun!” Those are, evidently, the last words spoken by Tom Pritchett. “BLAM,” ends the interlude. 

In the main storyline, the Defenders ultimately defeat the Sons of the Serpent in a big fight. But, once again, the creators don’t seem very interested in the fisticuffs as a means of resolving things: A single, quick double-page splash is all the room they have to spare for this part of the proceedings. The real climax of the story, meanwhile, is found in a string of revelations and confrontations that—similar to the Hulk scene from issue #21—emphatically refuses to draw a clear line separating the “heroes” from the “villains.”

As the Defenders learn, the funding for the Sons of the Serpent comes from the fortune of none other than Kyle Richmond—a.k.a. Defenders member Nighthawk. Through a coincidence, Nighthawk learns that the Serpent Supreme is secretly Richmond’s trustee, a man named Pennysworth.

And that’s not all: When Pennysworth is first seen without his mask shortly after, it turns out that the white supremacists’ leader is a wealthy black man.

“Forget me! I don’t even matter!” an enraged Nighthawk confronts Pennysworth. “But how could you do what you did—to your own people?!?” Pennysworth is less than impressed:

“The cold, unadorned truth is… I spent most of my life trying to escape ‘my own people.’ Do you think me despicable, sir—for turning on my ‘brothers’ and my ‘sisters’? Before you answer, ask yourself—is every white man your ‘brother’? Do you feel kinship with him—because your skins are the same color? Of course you don’t! Why should you? Why should I?

As the conversation goes on, we learn that Pennysworth doesn’t even believe he was deceiving his employer—rather, he regards funding and running the Sons of the Serpents as a legitimate investment that Richmond would eventually have profited from.

“Ah. But you hold stock in companies which gouge the public of millions each year—and in firms that pollute the air and water—and in—but need I go on, sir? You never objected to those investments. Never even asked where the money was.”

The leader of the Sons of the Serpent, this time around, is not some kind of racist, nationalist ideologue—he’s a hardcore capitalist. Nighthawk’s initial response is denial: “There has to be more to it than that… but it’ll have to wait—” He then introduces Pennysworth to his teammates, among them Luke Cage, one of Marvel’s earliest black characters. Cage’s immediate response is violent rage—he punches Pennysworth across the room and says he wants to kill him, before he’s stopped by his teammates; the way the scene plays out, you believe that he means it.

So, in summary, the big villain of this four-parter is the wealthy black trustee of a vast fortune, who takes charge of a white-supremacist group because he believes it’s a good long-term investment for himself and for his white employer, who doesn’t much ask or care where his money comes from, or where it goes. And among the heroes are not just the negligent white owner of the fortune, but also a stereotypical “angry black man” who responds to the villain with abuse and violence.

Obviously, the aforementioned two-page splash of the Defenders taking down the Sons of the Serpent, which immediately follows these developments, resolves none of the issues raised in the storyline whatsoever—and it’s safe to say that this is intentional. The superheroes win the physical fight by beating up the guys in the funny costumes. But beyond that, when it comes to the root of the actual problems they’ve been confronted with throughout the story, they are, once again, thoroughly ill-equipped and ineffectual.

Two parts into the Sons of the Serpent story, the woman and her baby and the other tenants from chapter one seem like a distant memory—the Defenders weren’t able to accomplish a thing for them and, in the end, may have simply forgotten to even try, because they were too busy punching things.

In fact, through Nighthawk’s negligence alone, the group arguably did more harm than good throughout the story. It certainly seems like Nighthawk could be infinitely more effective as a businessman than he is as a superhero, if he only paid more attention to his own resources, instead of spending his nights looking for people to beat up wearing fake wings and a rubber nose—an unfortunate truth that he evidently recognizes himself on the last page of the story.

Those are not the messages people were used to taking away from Marvel comics in 1975, as the fairly apologetic letter column of The Defenders #25 is on hand to testify:

“Incidentally, this issue winds up our four-part Sons of the Serpent tale with what we think may be one of the most unexpected ‘messages’ of all. We’re very interested to know what you people think of this sort of adventure. No, we don’t plan to lay the social consciousness on you this heavily every month, but we’re curious—did you find it as intriguing a change-of-pace as we did? Let us know, huh?”

In terms of the artwork, the best and the worst thing you can say about Sal Buscema’s pencils (or, sometimes, layouts) is that he’s a very competent superhero artist. Mr. Buscema’s storytelling gets the action across, keeps scenes dynamic and never lacks clarity.

On the other hand, the way the pages are composed is purely functional, and the range of facial expressions and body language limited. There’s anger and sadness and surprise and grim determination, and these are all very clear, but then again, there’s not much else Mr. Buscema does with people’s emotions, and nothing in-between—there are few faces or poses that don’t look like stock expressions.

The fact that each story of this six-issue run is inked (or “finished”), colored and lettered by different people with completely different styles—something that’s entirely unthinkable in our present age of paperback and hardcover collections—doesn’t make for a very consistent look, not surprisingly. The best-looking package among the bunch is issue #24, inked by Bob McLeod, colored by Phil Rachelson and lettered by Tom Orzechowski. The artwork looks crisp and bright, with smooth, clear lines not unlike those of later collaborations between John Byrne and Terry Austin, and the text is inviting and easy to read.

It’s worth pointing out that the writing, for all Mr. Gerber does so much better than his contemporaries, has its share of flaws, as well, even if many of them are owed to the fact that these are 1970s Marvel comics. The storytelling relies too much on the text and not enough on the art; the prose is much too obvious for its own good a lot of the time, making it crystal clear that Marvel didn’t trust its readers as far as it could throw them (actual text from issue #25: “But as you view this spectacular panoramic battle scene, keep in mind its most massive irony:”); and, ideally, there would have been a more organic, less jarring way of imbuing the silly costumes and fights with “messages” and “social awareness.”

Then again, genre conventions were very much on Steve Gerber’s mind as he wrote the story, plainly, so perhaps it’s fitting that not just his heroes had to struggle with them and fail, but also the writer himself.

If these comics aren’t in print right now, they should be. Much of the storytelling is bogged down, inevitably, by the conventions of the mid-1970s. But overall, the stories hold up remarkably well—that three-page Hulk sequence in issue #21 can give any recent comic a run for its money, in terms of authenticity and empathy, but also as a piece of economic comics storytelling. And the themes and issues Mr. Gerber addresses in these stories are as timely and relevant today as they were thirty years ago.

Grade: B-

3 comments:

Scratchie said...

Great review. These comics are in print in Essential Defenders V2.

cease ill said...

I got all but #25 for Christmas. There's even more good here than reviewed, but this review made me very eager to seek the issues out and consider what they hold for me in writing and even making or reading comics. I was compelled to do my own take on the Defenders as a pastiche together with my novel's plot and ...ah, it's at integr8dfix.blogspot, Nov. 2009, complete with some illos...if only I had TIME to draw a whole adventure with someone else's licensed characters, but alas...

cease ill said...

...but I WILL be adapting that work back into all original characters and a different take...so we'll see...bravo here, Marc Oliver, I've read this multiple times.