The Defenders: Their History (so far...)

Dr. Strange, Namor, Hulk, Silver Surfer, Valkyrie, Nighthawk and Hellcat...when did the Defenders begin?

Well, most people know that Namor, the Sub-Mariner made his first Silver Age appearance in Fantastic Four #4 "The Coming of the Sub-Mariner" (05/62), and that Dr. Strange first made his presence known in Strange Tales #110 "Dr. Strange, Master of Black Magic" (07/63). You may remember that Bruce Banner was first transformed into the green behemoth in Incredible Hulk #1 "The Hulk" (05/62), and that the Silver Surfer first arrived on Earth in Fantastic Four #48 "The Coming of Galactus" (03/66), but what about the rest of the Defenders? And, just how did the Defenders come into being anyway?

When Marvel Comics decided to re-introduce the Defenders back in March 2001, they issued a comic titled "Day of the Defenders". This book was to reprint the comic book stories which "gave rise to Marvel's classic non-team". Namely, Sub-Mariner #22 "The Monarch and the Mystic" (02/70), Incredible Hulk #126 "Where Stalks the Night-Crawler!" (04/70) and Marvel Feature #1 "Day of the Defenders!" (12/71). However, there is evidence to suggest that the origin of the Defenders might go back a little farther than those three books. According to Stan Lee, the Defenders' beginning ranks as the most inconspicuous origin of all the Marvel super-heroes. It is suggested in the Defenders Dialogue (letters to the editor) of the Defenders #23 that the Undying Ones (and in particular, the Nameless One) were directly responsible for the formation of the Defenders. Therefore, in terms of storyline and publish date, Doctor Strange #183 "They Walk by Night" (11/69), may mark the Defenders' earliest beginnings. 

In this issue, Kenneth Ward, an explorer and old friend of Dr. Strange discovers the idol of the Undying Ones in the Himalayas. After translating an inscription on the base of the idol, he learns that the idol is itself a gateway between the world of men and demons. Fearing for humanity, he hides the idol and then calls Strange for advice. But unfortunately, Ward dies before they can meet. Strange searches for the idol tirelessly, defeating several of the Undying Ones during the journey until finally learning the idol was hidden somewhere in the area of Ward's home (it should be noted here that this issue was the last of Doctor Strange first series). This story was then picked up in Sub-Mariner #22 four months later. In this issue, Dr. Strange recruits (but a better word is "possesses") Namor, and uses him to uncover the whereabouts of the idol. Although they are successful in finding the idol, they fail to stop the dimensional gateway from opening. Still, Strange and Namor are able to force the Nameless One back into the realm of the Undying Ones. However, to defeat these demons, Dr. Strange sacrifices his own freedom and remains behind to seal the gateway, while Namor returns to our dimension.

So there is, perhaps, a better representation as to the earliest roots of the Defenders. Namor and Dr. Strange working together as a team to defeat a foe that they would surely lose to on their own. Still, the most important issue regarding the Defenders' origin is Incredible Hulk #126 because it unites the Hulk and Dr. Strange and introduces a future Defender. In this issue, Bruce Banner is captured by a cult who worship the Undying Ones and who have also learned the Hulk's identity. Their leader, Van Nyborg, plans on pitting the Hulk against the Undying Ones' greatest foe, Night-Crawler whose dark dimension provides an alternate pathway to Earth's reality. The Hulk and a cult-member named Barbara Denton-Norriss defeat the Night-Crawler by destroying his entire domain. Eventually, they find themselves in the dimension of the Undying Ones and discover Dr. Strange has been captured within poles of ethereal force. Barbara sacrifices herself by switching places with Strange which allows the magician and the Hulk to return to their own reality (remember this for later!). At the end of the story, Dr. Strange abandons his craft to lead the life of an ordinary man. 

There is good reason to suggest that despite the above storyline, the idea of the Defenders as a viable team actually started in Sub-Mariner #34 "Titans Three!" (02/71) and Sub-Mariner #35 "Confrontation" (03/71). In these issues we find three unlikely heroes (Namor, the Hulk and the Silver Surfer) enjoined in battle against a common foe (this time united by the Sub-Mariner). What is more relevant though, is that in these issues, these heroes bicker and they fight amongst themselves just as much as they do the enemy. This is to become a repeating theme seen in future Defenders' issues, almost the hallmark of the team. Marvel Comics was surprised that these issues sold so well that it was only logical that they use them again. 

There was one small problem, Stan Lee had other plans for the Silver Surfer (Lee wanted the Silver Surfer in his own series and did not want the headache associated with continuity problems), what to do? Why not replace him with that recently retired and little used character by the name of Dr. Strange? And, it was so. To showcase this gathering of heroes (Hulk, Namor and Dr. Strange), the think-tank that is the House of Ideas premiered a comic called "Marvel Feature" in December 1971 (Note: Dr. Strange later returns to sorcery after a one-and-a-half year hiatus in the Marvel Feature #1 "Day of the Defenders!" (12/71) back-up story called "The Return"). Its first three issues introduced the team as a recurring entity (Marvel avoided the problem of calling upon the Silver Surfer to participate as a Defender by revealing that he was injured at the time of the team's first adventure). These first issues sold well enough to warrant the "non-team", or so they were billed, their own magazine "The Defenders" which first appeared in August 1972 and quarterly thereafter (until around 1974 when it went monthly). For those with a penchant for trivia, it was Namor who first called their grouping "Defenders" at the end of Marvel Feature #1. A name which Dr. Strange quickly embraced as their team's official title.

So, when does the Valkyrie make her first appearance? Her origin is much more complex. According to Kurt Busiek, the Valkyrie first appeared as a mystic guise of the Enchantress in Avengers #83 "Come On In, the Revolution's Fine!" (12/70). However, the Enchantress became Valkyrie in appearance only. The Enchantress disguises herself as "Valkyrie" complete with fake origin (former scientist turned super-activist). She then bewitches Medusa, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch and Wasp, convincing them to join her in her pursuit to bring about the "downfall of male supremacy." Calling themselves the Liberators, they attack the male members of the Avengers. It seems pretty clear that there wasn't supposed to be a "real" Valkyrie that the Enchantress based herself on. "You shall learn at last that there IS no Valkyrie...but only...THE ENCHANTRESS!" It was all part of some strange-but-fun plot to get her hands on a machine to return her to Asgard. 

Although there were some other "Valkyries" seen in Journey into Mystery #91, the Defenders' Valkyrie (her visual design) was original to John Buscema and Avengers #83. Now, here is where it may get confusing. The idea of Valkyrie as a separate persona didn't exist until Incredible Hulk #142 "They Shoot Hulks, Don't They?" (08/71). In this issue, Valkyrie first becomes "aware". This was the first time she truly lived as the Valkyrie on Earth. As a result of the Enchantress' sorcery, in an effort to bedevil the sorceress' enemies (namely the Hulk), the Valkyrie came to inhabit the body of Samantha Parrington. However, this Valkyrie ceased to exist at that time because the spell wore off. 

Similar to this earlier incarnation from Incredible Hulk #142, but different from the Enchantress' disguise in Avengers #83, the Defenders' Valkyrie is really two entities. Her physical body belongs to Barbara Denton-Norriss but her mind is that of Brunnhilde, an Asgardian Valkyrie, escort of the war-fallen to Valhalla.

It is not until Defenders #3 "Four Against the Gods" (12/72), more than two-and-a-half years after he left, that Strange returns to the Undying Ones' dimension (quite accidentally it seems). He and the Defenders (who now include the Silver Surfer in their ranks after all!) happen upon Barbara Denton-Norriss still trapped in the ethereal force field. They free her but she has con-joined with the Nameless One. Barbara explains that her loneliness was so great that she became her captor's mate out of need for companionship. However, after Dr. Strange severs her physical bond to the monster-god, the Defenders discover that Barbara has gone quite insane. In Defenders #4 "The New Defender: Valkyrie Rides Again!" (02/73), the Valkyrie is once more called to Earth by the Enchantress. But, this time it is to take over the body of the mad Barbara Norriss. In the story, the Defenders and the Enchantress are imprisoned in opposite cells and to gain freedom, the Enchantress proposes that she create a warrior women out of Barbara through enchantment. Although the Defenders need the warrior woman's strength to escape the prison cell, they protest her possession because she is unable to consent (being insane has that disadvantage). However, the Enchantress did not care, a flash of magicks, Barbara's body became inhabited by the Valkyrie personae while the insane Barbara personae was buried down deep. Thus is created the Defenders' Valkyrie (Note: for the purist, her body and spirit were eventually united in Defenders #109).

Coming soon....Nighthawk and Hellcat.

May 27, 2001