Jesus, how long have I been promising this one? It's been at least five months . . .
Anyways, here at last is a book I have been champing at the bit to write up, but never quite had time, and also, I was a little trepidatious about writing it up, as it may, in fact defy description. After all, how does one coherently weld into a coherent analysis thirty issues including (but not limited to) people with funny heads trying top conquer the world and somehow getting one of their own's brain stuck in a deer, a cult of Bozos, and elf with a gun, Dr. Strange getting out of his gourd and quoting Rush's 2112 album, Nick Fury's crazy brother cloning people so he can drink beer with them, a refugee from the recently imploded Atlas Comics battling a group of Blue Oyster Cult-quoting . . .er, cult and . . .damn, I can't cover it all, I just can't. You'll just have to Ask The Defenders themselves.
Of course, if you know your Defenders history (and how many of us would admit to that?) you know some of this has got to be from the fevered brain of Steve Gerber, and you would be right--Essential Defenders #3 is the end of his run, which, this being a Steve Gerber joint, means things get tied up if not some actual closure.
Let's begin at the beginning--Essential Defenders (never has a title been more chancy as a declaration) #2 ended with the beginnings of Gerber's Headmen arc, in which a couple of characters from pre-Marvel horror comics band together to take over the world in the most baffling way possible. This leads initially to Nighthawk being kidnapped with an eye towards being bodyjacked by one of the headmen, Chondu. Chondu will then go fight the Defenders, because he has a hard-on for kicking Dr. Strange's ass.
It doesn't quite go according to plan, as soon enough, the Defenders twig out that something's wrong (as Chondu-Nighthawk is far too competent to be Nighthawk) and a little bit of magical chicanery (with Daimon Hellstrom, who will come to dominate this book a little while later) and we get an extended flashback into Nighthawk's life in the usual elliptical Gerber manner. I should also add here that currently, Nighthawk's brain is in a dish.
One thing leads to another and Chondu's brain gets moved into a baby deer who spends the rest of his time looks really pissed off (hilariously so) and team pain in the ass Jack Norriss gets his mind put in Nighthawk's body as the Defenders try to work out just what the hell is going on.
Meanwhile, in a wholly unrelated, pointless vignette, an elf with a gun shoots people. This is Gerber's commentary on random pointless violence (or so 'tis said) and will pop up a few more times in more and more wiseass ways during these issues.
Oh, and the Headmen get a new member. She has a marble for a head. I don't get it either.
Now, one may assume that this would lead to a straightforward punch-up with the Headmen, but Gerber doesn't really work like that, because no sooner does the fight with the Headmen begin when the only man the Sub-Mariner ever kissed like he meant it shows up. Yes, longtime Defenders foe (and vague pisstake on cosmic characters) Nebulon the Celestial Man returns with a new plan for big happy success.
And we . . .kinda follow that thread for a bit. You may be asking "Oh wait, hang on, what about the Headmen?" but that's Gerber for you. Nebulon and the Headmen will play tug of war with the plot for a bit.
I don't really mind the digression so much in this case, because this bit is fucking hilarious. Nebulon has dreamed up this cult where he says the way to true happiness is "to embrace your inner Bozo"--admit what a mess you've made of things and . . .well, put on a clown mask and chant "bozo," a lot.
Did Joey D'Auria (or, given the time it was first published, I guess it would be Bob Bell) get royalties from this? I wonder.
Anyways, this is utterly ridiculous satire and Gerber, bless him, revels in it, but never in a Warren Ellis-y "I'm so much better than this shit I have to do to make money" kind of way, but more in a gentle, affectionate satirical sort of way. That all of this is happening while being juggled with the Valkyrie in her own women in prison flick, the Headmen . . .doing something . . .and the Elf with a Gun shooting people and none of it feels all that forced is actually pretty great.
This all comes to a head in that year's Defenders Annual (Back when Annuals were used for things other than dumping grounds or the High Evolutionary fucking bothering everyone) which ties up the Headmen and Nebulon in one fell (and somewhat mind-boggling, but hey--Gerber) swoop and Gerber follows up on a loose thread with a recurring character and he's gone.
Enter Gerry Conway (apparently riding high on a bit of hubris after being made e-i-c, if interviews can be believed) for a couple issues which are pretty stock stuff (see also: everything Gerry Conway has ever written ever) which seem even more glaring when compared to the run of issues that preceded it. Fortunately, he doesn't stick around very long before we get to . . .yes, the Rush issue.
Conway had left everyone chasing after this red jewel that apparently turns you into the evil Red Rajah (which is different from the Evil Green Ranger, obviously) and it looked like it would be your stock mind-control plot: Dr. Strange gets possessed, the Defenders have to free him, on to the next thing.
Only David Kraft and Roger Slifer turn up and throw the wheel hard to left and all of a sudden the Rajah is quoting "Twilight Zone"
and setting up one of those "one world under one mind" ruling bodies that nearly every Rush album from 1975-1981 railed against in some form or another, unusually in mighty, full-bodied 20 minute plus songs best appreciated in a room peppered with the full aroma of many powerful bong hits.
I kid because I love. One day I will write a huge discourse on recurring themes in the music of Rush, and the day after that happens, my readership will drop from 16 to something like negative googleplex, because I cannot imagine something anyone who is not me would want to read less than that.
Anyways, we go from there to a fondly-remembered post-Gerber bit: The Scorpio arc. Colin Smith over at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics had a quite wonderful examination of this arc, and is better qualified to speak about its philosophical content than I . . .I much prefer to make jokes about how fucking hilarious it is that the whole thing becomes this gonzo Kirby homage wherein Scorpio is creating a new all-robot Zodiac . . .to hang out, drink beer, and shoot the shit with. And maybe take over the world, too. Scorpio's not really all that bothered about that part. No, really--it's like a Schlitz commercial dropped acid and crashed into a James Bond movie while James Bond was watching the Adam West Batman TV show.
Great thing about this book: Keith Giffen can do an amazing Kirby pastiche. Also, this book explicitly says a can of beer can save your life if a super-villain dumps you in an airtight deathtrap. Yes, of course it was approved by the Comics Code Authority, silly rabbit.
It also wraps up the Elf with a Gun stuff in the only way it really should have been--with the Elf (who represents random pointless violence, remember?) being run over by a truck. I like to think that's the end of it, really, but of course it isn't, because no one in comics was apparently every told that if you don't stop picking at it it'll never heal.
Things marginally approach coherence for a bit after that--some effort is made to set up a new status quo. This is kinda strange when you consider that the Defenders' big gimmick was they had no set membership. Trying to do a book about this is a lot like how Hungary was governed in the interwar years, wherein a country with no coastline was ruled by an admiral without a navy who was a regent to an nonexistent king.
Yeah, you don't see that kind of reference in a comics blog often, do you?
So a few subplots tick over and it's time for the Hulk to fight the Sub-Mariner, because Nebulon's been gone from the book for ten issues, and there's no likelihood of any "awkwardness." Meanwhile, the second Red Guardian has met up with The Presence, who wants her to undergo "nuclear transmogrification," which sounds like science, but really isn't. This is, of course, just a prelude to the Presence trying to take over the world with radioactivity, which is all he really ever does anyway.
The art during this arc features some early Mike Golden stuff. It's rather neat, even if compared to the stuff from the previous arcs it's all a bit standard super-heroics, which is a bit of a shame, as the Defenders as a standard superhero book . . .just isn't that good and there's nothing you couldn't get in Champions or Avengers or what have you.
Fortunately, we close strong, because Devil-Slayer shows up. Devil-Slayer, I should add, is, in no way shape or form Rick Buckler's Devil-Hunter from the recently folded Atlas Comics. No, he is pretty much exactly, Devil-Hunter in every way, shape, and form. He's also not . . .particularly interesting, really, but then that is not the point of this arc. No, the point of this arc is to play the Blue Oyster Cult (sorry, I can't figure out how to do the umlauts on here, guys) drinking game, wherein you take a shot every time you see a BOC reference. I can guarantee that if you follow this (I suggest the Macallan be your co-pilot here) you will be good and plowed by the time you get through the first 3 pages. By the end of the first issue you will probably need your stomach pumped, and you will probably be dead by the end of the whole arc.
Should I mention that the whole thing is trippy as hell and doesn't make a lot of sense? Nahh, I think that speaks for itself at this point.
In any event, these are some good comics. I have often suspected that the Defenders were a way of getting stuff in under the radar that you wouldn't really have a chance to do in a typical superhero comic, and most of the issues here prove that out as there is a wonderful madness that is drizzled over it like chocolate fudge over ice cream. There's a real glimpse into the possibilities of superhero comics when you're interested in telling somewhat personal stories that aren't slavishly replicating that which has gone before and trying to slip in some idiosyncratic stuff where they feel like it won't bog down anything much.
So of course, 30+ years later, the Defenders will get re-launched here soon and I'm eagerly looking forward to it looking and sounding like every other superhero comic circa 2011. Because that's what the Defenders were missing.