Each Marvel decade of history has a super hero or super team that helps define its era. For the 1970’s, DEFENDERS—a team that considered itself a “non-team”—typifies the quirky times the series debuted during as reflecting the distinctive voices of inimitable writers like Steve Gerber and David Anthony Kraft.
Originally, Doctor Strange, Namor the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk banded together to thwart the evil plans of the Nameless One and his minions, the Undying Ones. They established themselves as distinct from other teams because they did not always necessarily want to work together; instead events conspired to make them join forces. A case in point: DEFENDERS #10, when team founder Hulk said: “Hulk was Avenger once…didn’t like it! Hulk doesn’t like Defenders, either.” The green behemoth’s assessment of his plight doesn’t exactly serve up a rallying battle cry on par with “Avengers Assemble!”
The arrival of writer Steve Gerber on DEFENDERS with issue #20 came after he laid the groundwork for a larger story in MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE #6 and #7, where Ben Grimm first teamed with Dr. Strange, then Valkyrie, who joined the team in DEFENDERS #4. Gerber capitalized upon Val’s quest to find out who she possessed as a human host—Barbara Norriss—to reveal a connection to the Harmonica of Destiny and a return of classic Defenders villain the Mindless One.
That’s right: Gerber introduced a harmonica of destiny into the Marvel Universe. That just scratches the zaniness that the writer imbued into DEFENDERS.
Gerber wasted no time setting his tone with issue #21 by immediately introducing a villainous team, the Headmen. Partially a revival of Marvel 1950’s horror characters—which the company reprinted at the time in an example of 1970’s-style corporate synergy—the group included Jerry Morgan—who would later become known as Shrunken Bones—and Arthur Nagan—who would opt for the moniker Gorilla-Man—aligning themselves with Chondu the Mystic. An excerpt from issue #21’s narration reveals a glimpse of Gerber’s ambitious scripts in 1975:
“Employing a strange diamond-tipped hypodermic drill, Nagan injects the Morgan serum directly into Chondu’s skull. Almost at once, the mystic’s brain cells react. Impulses race from neuron to neuron at shorter and shorter intervals...and he enters a trance that is more than a trance. And, according to plan, he probes further than he ever dared beyond our universe…for a weapon! The fingers of his consciousness reach out…clutch… pull…drawing a nightmare into our world…a sinister dream that dissolves into black rain and seeps into sleeping minds throughout the city.”
All of that happened in only four Sal Buscema-drawn panels. As with most Gerber scripts, a great deal of action took place in only one issue.
Later Gerber would bring Chondu back to transfer his brain into the body of a deer that the Hulk had saved and nicknamed Bambi. Also the Headman added a new member, a woman called Ruby Thursday—with a ruby for a head—who would later go on to run for President of the United States. But that did not occur until later. A lot of brain switching went on in this period, as the mind of Jack Norriss—the husband of Valkyrie’s human host—ended up in the body of another Defender stalwart, Nighthawk. This swap occurred while the team battled Nebulon and his horde of Bozo forces. All of this provides just the tip of the fun that ran through the series during Gerber’s run, which ended in issue #41.
When Gerber left, sadly so did any chance for closure on the writer’s plan for the elf packing a gun who appeared throughout his run, starting with issue #25. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, I guess it best to say in this instance: sometimes an elf with a gun is nothing more than an elf with a gun. With his departure, the offbeat nature of the series did not go away however.
If anything, the wackiness factor to DEFENDERS got bolstered by the arrival of writer David Kraft with issue #46. Kraft’s start marked the end of the elf with a gun as he got run over by a truck in that very issue. Given all the other plots and subplots being juggled in an average DEFENDERS issue, no one had much time to question scenes like that. Before long the heroes and readers focus centered on the Scorpio saga, which opened with a prelude in DEFENDERS #46 and ran through to the series’ milestone 50th issue.
In this classic arc, Jake Fury, Nick’s younger brother, turned 52 and tried to make something of his life by wielding the power of the Zodiac Key. Holding Jack Norriss hostage for a ransom, he hoped to build a new Zodiac team. Kraft has Scorpio explain his machinations while he and Norriss drink beers. Despite being a villain, Jake would not be so as rude as to not offer his captive a refreshing beverage.
While a non-team with a heavy rotating level of guest stars, DEFENDERS eventually settled upon an additional core membership of Hellcat—who became a member in DEFENDERS #46—Valkyrie—who joined the team in DEFENDERS #4—and Nighthawk, aka Kyle Richmond. Thanks to Richmond, the heroes set up their own base of operations at the Richmond Riding Center, the perfect spot for Valkyrie’s winged horse Aragon, if nothing else.
Kraft’s run also shows off the writer’s knack to give interesting names to supporting characters. A prime example would be Dollar Bill, who joined the cast along with his pal, Ledge, when Valkyrie enrolled at Empire State University in DEFENDERS #51. Dollar Bill proved critical as the catalyst for the legendary “Defenders for a Day” saga, fancying himself a documentary maker and producing one about the group. Up until this point in the series, the existence of the non-team had been kept secret.
That all ended at the close of the documentary when Dollar Bill took it upon himself to invite anyone to join the Defenders. Before team leader Nighthawk could explain the finer points of what “secret” meant to Dollar Bill, the Defenders were met by an onslaught of heroes wishing to join in DEFENDERS #62. The list represents an impressive roll call of Marvel’s then second-tier 1970’s characters, including Black Goliath, Captain Ultra, Falcon, Hercules, Iron Fist, Jack of Hearts, Paladin, Prowler, Tagak, Torpedo and White Tiger. Dollar Bill’s actions opened up a can of worms for the Defenders, as throughout issues #63 and #64, the cavalcade of new members have to take on villains posing as other additions and committing crimes. The slew of faux evil Defenders ranged from Pecos Bill to Batroc the Leaper. Many of the new Defenders departed immediately after this less than positive experience and the non-team returned to the relative status quo by DEFENDERS #65.
No matter who wrote DEFENDERS, it seemed that every writer relished the chance to seize on the opportunity to write the Hulk’s dialogue, given the character’s penchant for saddling his fellow heroes with nicknames. Hulk would rechristen Dr. Strange as “Dumb Magician,” Sub-Mariner as “Fish-Man,” Nighthawk as “Bird-Nose,” Yellowjacket as “Bug-Man,” the Guardians of the Galaxy’s Yondu as “Flag-Head,” Hellcat as “Cat-Girl,” and Valkyrie as “Sword-Girl.”
Looking over DEFENDERS adventures in the 1970’s, the heroes reflected the era in myriad ways and serves as a great time capsule for this period in Marvel history.
For more on the 75th anniversary of Marvel, visit marvel.com/75 and join the conversation on Twitter with the hash tag #Marvel75