“Read a Damn Book – 163: The Defenders – Marvel Masterworks Volume 4”
I mentioned in my first Defenders review (read all of my Defenders reviews at the following links: Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3) that I discovered the series at a flea market during a 4th of July celebration back when I was a youngster, but it doesn’t look like I’ve ever mentioned that The Defenders ended up being one of my absolute favorite comics series (up there with New Mutants, The Sandman, The Badger, Boris the Bear, The Doom Patrol… I could keep naming titles for a LOOONG time…,) and I spent many an hour searching through boxes of back issues at various shops and convention booths looking for missing issues to complete my Defenders collection. I never did. And then we moved a bunch of times and I lost almost all of my comics. (HA!) Since suffering this loss, however, Marvel has started putting out their Marvel Masterworks collections in digital editions, which collect entire storylines (even issues that were in different series but part of the continuing story,) which I’ve been buying and reading on my Kindle using the Comixology app. And I’ve been buying the individual volumes of this great old series (according to the Wiki it ran from 1972 until 1986!), and I’m making my way through the ENTIRE Defenders timeline---little chunks at a time. It’s pretty cool, being able to go back and look at this series, which meant so much to me when I was FIFTEEN years old. With all this nostalgia in mind---how does THIS PARTICULAR volume hold up? Let’s find out…
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual digital book that I read. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Steve Gerber, Sal Buscema, and various others – The Defenders – Marvel Masterworks Volume 4 (2016)
Most of this collection was written by Steve Gerber, who contributed some great stories in the previous volume, with pencils provided mostly by Sal Buscema, and overall the artwork is pretty good. It’s not INCREDIBLE, but it’s completely fine for the stories that are being told here. Speaking of the stories, this book is broken up into TWO primary story-arcs, with a tack-on story at the end (issue #30) which is ridiculous and stupid and almost awesomely bad, written by Bill Mantlo. The first big storyline in the book revolves around a horrible, violent, neo-Nazi, racist group, the Brotherhood of the Serpent, who are burning down ghetto apartment buildings in New York, murdering people who they deem “inferior,” and calling for white folks to take back their country, and The Defenders, who describe the Brotherhood’s rhetoric as “insane,” work to try to keep citizens safe while they attempt to discover the whereabouts of the leader of the Serpents and bring him to justice. It’s a dark, brutal story (which, disturbingly, echoes today’s headlines just a bit too closely.) The story also ends with a twist, which I think is a hallmark of Gerber’s storytelling technique. He not only tells tales that are grounded in real issues (poverty, racism, and the accountability of those with the means to help), but he plots his stories in such a way that the final act USUALLY has a jab or twist, which impacts his characters in serious and often permanent ways---which is refreshing in a medium that, too often, likes to resolve storylines with everything being brought back to square one. Not with Gerber in charge. His characters are DEEPLY affected by the adventures they participate in.
The second storyline in this book is a science fiction adventure and a crossover with The Guardians of the Galaxy...although NOT the Guardians as most folks would know them today from the Marvel films. For this tale, the only character from the movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, that anyone might recognize is Yondu---although in this story he is the sole survivor of a species of “primitive” “noble savages” (cringe…) from a planet that was colonized by Earth somewhere around the year 3000. (This is meant to be a Native American commentary, but even though I think it was meant to be a positive portrayal in the ‘70s, it comes across as horrifyingly racist today.) For fans of the modern films, Yondu does still has his Yaka arrow, though, which he controls by whistling, so there’s something that people might find familiar.
The OTHER Guardians in this story, though, are probably going to seem strange. First, we have Vance Astro, a 1,000 year old astronaut from Earth who wears a suit that protects his ancient body from aging and who developed psychic powers on a millenium long journey he spent in suspended animation. Then there’s Charlie-27, a genetically modified human who was born on the planet, Jupiter, and has the strength and endurance needed to live under such harsh gravitational conditions. And, last, is Martinex, another genetically modified human, this time given a crystal body so that he can live on the frozen “planet” (it was a planet back then), Pluto. These four “sole survivors” of their various planets have banded together to fight against the Badoon, a war-loving, alien race who have conquered the entire solar system and either murdered or enslaved all of the descendants of humanity. This is some straight-up, sci-fi stuff, and not particularly funny, as the Guardians of the Galaxy Marvel movies tend to be.
In this collection, the Guardians come back in time looking for a device that they believe will help them with their fight against the Badoon, although their arrival causes some unexpected side effects, including mutating a sea creature, which then attacks New York, and causing a hole in space-time, which threatens to destroy the world. The Defenders (Dr. Strange, The Hulk, Night Hawk, and Valkyrie) investigate and end up teaming up with The Guardians to fix the space-time issue, and then (of course) they travel to the future to help with the battle against the Badoon…
In all, the stories here are solid, well plotted, actually make sense (in a comic-book-logic universe---though they are complete NONSENSE in our world), and they’re entertaining. The first arc is gritty, socially conscious stuff, and the second storyline is fast-paced, action adventure. The stories are good…although…(Personal opinion mode: ON!) It’s not really what I think of when I think of The Defenders. The issues that I like the most are more of the horror / magic / psychedelic stuff. Gerber was a great storyteller, and I can easily image reading these issues when I was fourteen or fifteen years old and being enthralled, but I miss the dark, cult-horror stories that Englehart told in the early issues of the series---and I KNOW that the book gets weirder and darker later on, as the big characters, like The Hulk and Dr. Strange drop out, and stranger characters, like Moondragon, Gargoyle, Hellcat, and Son of Satan become more of the focus.
But, for fans of solid seventies storytelling, this collection is going to be a real treat. Buscema is a capable artist---I have no complaints with his art, it just doesn’t grab me in the way that Mike Allred or Jack Kirby or Mike Mignola or Bill Sienkiewicz’s art does---and Gerber’s ability to build compelling stories that culminate in a solid conclusion, often with a nice twist, is evident in both of the major arcs he writes here. This collection is not as weird or horror-leaning as some of the other Defenders tales have been, but Gerber DOES tackle real concerns in his stories, sometimes subtly and sometimes HEAD-ON, as he does in the horrible, racist, Brotherhood of the Serpent issues. Again, this wasn’t my favorite Defenders collection, but I’m glad I read it, and I’m looking forward to being able to buy and read volume five! I’ll keep buying and reading them until I run out of volumes! (They make me feel, just a little bit, like a kid again!)
Now go read a damn book! (And, when you’re done, let me know if it’s worth looking at! We’ll work together on this and make sure we don’t let a good story go to waste!)
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
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