Monday, May 9, 2011

31 Days of Comics #9

The Defenders #39
By Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema

For some reason, I hated the Defenders as a kid. I just didn’t get them, probably because every other team had their own purpose. The Fantastic Four were the family, the X-Men were the outcasts and the Avengers were the premiere team. Things like the Defenders or the Campions looked like they were just there to keep the copyrights going.

Now I go back and read what Steve Gerber was doing in 1976 and it’s just brilliantly mental. Most of the Defenders comics I had read in the past came from the last year or two of the title, when it was the most mediocre Marvel comic in the world, so it’s nice to see why it was so good, and see the title at its best.

Like many seventies Marvel books, Defenders #39 is packed with incident that carries the idiosyncratic wink of its writer. Steve Gerber comics always feel like they’re written for just one guy – Steve Gerber – and it’s always nice to see the usual Marvel teeth-gritting action through the perspective of such a unique personality.

So while there is no sign of that notorious murderous elf in this issue (although there is plenty of discussion of it in the letters page), there is still plenty of other stuff happening - Valkyrie spends the issue in a womens’ prison as a riot brews, Luke Cage teaches a street punk a lesson in manners and there is some earnest musing on prison reform in between the super-punching, all capably rendered by Sal Buscema and Klaus Janson.

There is so much happening, that it’s weird that it comes with one of those covers that takes a tiny moment out of the script and makes it seem really important. On the third last page of the comic Clea puts up a cosmic flare to distract those pesky police guarding the prison, and the cover interprets this as a moment when the team wars amongst itself:

“Back my fellow Defenders!” bellows Doc Strange “Clea must NOT be stopped!”

“Beans, Strange!” sez Luke Cage. “She’s turning the sun into a FIREBALL!”

It’s one of the most blatantly dishonest covers I’ve ever seen on a superhero comic, but it ensured that I grabbed the comic when I saw it in a local second hand bookshop, buried between issues of Elementals and Brigade. And it’s still better than the endless posed covers of many modern comics, like the Ultimate books that all look the same.

They really don’t make ‘em like this any more.

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