THE DEFENDERS 22
"Fangs of Fire and Blood"
Published: April 1975, 25 cents
Writer: Steve Gerber
Layouts: Sal Buscema
Finished Art: Mike Esposito
Letterer: C. Jetter
Colourist: Stan G.
Editor: Len Wein
The Defenders: Hulk, Valkyrie, Doctor Strange, Nighthawk
Guest Appearances: Clea, Wong, Elena
Nemesis/Villain Appearances: The Sons of the Serpent
Her name is Valkyrie...or perhaps Barbara. She is a warrior-woman. a sword wielding furie...or perhaps a young newlywed, a college drop-out inclined to dabble in mysticism. Which...she does not know. If she heard her husband's voice, saw his face, even felt his touch, she would not recognize him. For though her birth certificate reads "Barbara Denton", though the archives of Cobbler's Roost, Vermont, confirm she was wed to one Jackson F. Norriss...the Asgardian magic of the Enchantress has robbed her of all Barbara's memories. Small wonder then, that she wanders the streets of lower Manhattan this chill January night lost in thought, oblivious to her seamy surroundings...until...
The sound of her boot striking an empty whiskey bottle interrupts her brooding, and yet reinforces her sense of aloneness and despair. For, all at once she becomes aware of the squalor looming over her, dwarfing her, engulfing her in its cold grimy maw. But, the essence of a slum is not to be found merely with the eye. Such a place has its own distinctive repertoire of aural stimuli. Val turns to the sound of grunting, hissing and the clash of metal against metal to discover to men facing each other in fightning stance. Even on so bitter a night as this, tempers may flare, passions may burn...men may die!
At first, Val does not understand. Neither of the combatants seem at all anxious to talk, to settle their argument calmly...rationally. And as she watches a fighter swing a blade at the other, it dawns on her...How much have they truly to lose by killing or dying? The rents may be dear, but Life is cheap down these dark streets. Still, that is hardly a justification for such brutality. And so, as one assailant swings his blade down towards the other, Val grabs the man's arm, her steely grip arrests the knife's plunge, preventing the strike. Furious, the would-be-attacker pulls his arm free from Val and angrily tells her to leave or else face the same fate he had planned for his victim. Val tells the attacker that she cannot allow him to kill another man and to hand over the knife else she would take it from him. Incredulous, the man exclaims that he does not take orders from a woman. Before Val can reply, the second combatant regains his feet and with his own dagger poised, he lunges at his opponents unwary back. However, Val, in a single fluid motion shoves the first man out of harms way. In the same motion, she reaches for her own blade which hangs invisibly at her hip. And, as Drangonfang is withdrawn from its scabbard to meet the falling steel of the attacker, Valkyrie's garb of battle appears from beneath its spell of concealment. The attacker's blade fractures against Dragonfang as she cries out that there will be no killing. In frustration, she grabs one assailant and tosses him at the other explaining that a man's character is measured by the boldness in his heart, not by the fatuous posturing with which they shore up their frail egos. By his courage and the ability to dream not by empty bravado delivered at knife point to a helpless victim.
The fighters, shocked by this display of force, run in fear from Valkyrie, a woman they truly underestimated. They disappear around a corner and the Valkyrie breathes a sigh of relief then draws in an abrupt startled gasp as she hears a woman's scream! Val's deep blue eyes scan the row of tenement houses, but the buildings' cold stone faces tell no tales. Her contempt for the two knife-wielding toughs rapidly dissapates as the scream rings out again. This time she locates the source and enters a nearby building. Val then rapidly ascends a flight of stairs where she finds a woman in the hallway, outside an apartment, with her hands held to her face in abject horror. The young woman, in a high hysterical voice exclaims that her baby was about to be killed! Val rushes into the apartment and from there, follows the baby's cries and into the bedroom where she stops short, her face frozen with horror and disbelief. The baby had a cribmate, a rat which was fully the size of a cat, spewing hot white froth at the mouth. The Valkyrie, speed and stealth unmatched, runs into the room and in one motion grabs the oversized rodent by the scruff of its mangy neck and throws the vermin against the far wall. The frantic mother clutches the infant to her breast as she watches the sword of the warrior woman pierce the heart of the rabid rodent.
The drama is ended, brief seconds...or perhaps an eternity...after it began. Such crises of life and death come and go in rapid succession here, with barely time to breathe in between them. Val moves to the mother's side and asks how the child is. Despite the rescue, the mother is unmoved explaining that one rat is not the real problem for there is always something else. She turns on Valkyrie, venting her anger at the system which has left her apartment without heat, which has lead her to eat dog food so her baby can have milk. Val is shocked at the comments, and when the mother says perhaps it may have been better to let her child die instead of live in this squalor, Val sheathes her sword and resolves to find the woman a warm place to sleep, a good dinner to eat and, perhaps a solution to her problems. (ASIDE Steve Gerber, it seems, wants to end Val's self-pitying behaviour of the past few issues (remember how self-absorbed the Silver Surfer was in the first few issues?) by having her face the realities of human life. By juxtaposing her problems against those experienced by others, she learns what most of us already know, that is, to count themselves lucky in the situation we find ourselves in daily END OF ASIDE).
But, Manhattan is an island of contrasts. While some of its denizens struggle to survive in the byways of its dark, brooding underbelly, others party on the fashionable upper east side...among them, wealthy Kyle Richmond, alter ego of the Defender known as Nighthawk. The caped Defender watches the city below from the penthouse balcony, his face downcast and grim. His host, Ginny, comes onto the balcony to invite him back inside out of the cold but Kyle is in no frame of mind to party. His thoughts are elsewhere, with Trish who recently lost an arm (see GIANT-SIZE Defenders #3). Ginny convinces him to return to the party, hoping to get him alone to talk but suddenly, Kyle is whisked away by Harold Holliman, real estate developer. However, Kyle is in no mood to discuss business and brushes the man off, telling him to call Pennyworth in the morning. He finds Ginny and then explains that he must leave. She understands and they promise to meet later in the week for dinner. Moments later, Kyle is in a cab and heading to the home of Dr. Strange, hoping to find someone to talk to.
In the home of Dr. Stephen Strange, the Hulk, Val, Strange and Clea watch on as Wong pours Elena (the woman Val rescued from the dilapitated tenement) a cup of tea. Val and Strange marvel at Elena as she experiences her very first luxuries. The Hulk and Clea, meanwhile, appear enamoured with the infant who hours earlier faced certain death. Valkyrie then turns to Strange and asks him if he thinks she did the right thing in bringing Elena and her child here. The mage, sensing Val's frustration with the continued existance of poverty in the world, reminds her that it is not within their power to solve the problem but, they can take certain steps to ensure the intolerable and illegal housing is investigated. He suggests they call the landlord and the Board of Health in the morning. Val comments that like Elena, she has little faith in these responsible parties.
Meanwhile, as the warrior-woman and the magician talk further about plans for rectifying Elena's plight, a shadowy figure looks in the ground floor window at the gathering and appears shocked at a certain individual he sees within. Just then, Kyle pulls up in the taxi and as he gets out, he yells at the figure to explain what he is doing looking in the window. The startled man stammers out incoherently but then turns and runs away. Kyle contemplates following the peeping tom, but decides that it was probably just a neighbourhood screwball. He goes inside to find the group in high spirits. After pleasantries are exchanged, Val pulls Kyle aside and begins to explain what she experienced today in the slums...
The tale, however, is far from over as at that exact moment in the slums from which Elena was just rescued, four green garbed men stand in the street below and prepare to launch a weapon at the old building. With a whoosh, a ball of fire erupts from the cannon and smashes an upper floor window into the apartment of Amos Ferret, an old blind man. Although he cannot see the flames, he can hear them. His aged limbs are too stiff to allow him to run from the inferno that a moment ago, was his home. But, his lungs will still let him shout and so he cries out for help three times...then, the roar of the fire drowns out his voice. The heat of the blaze drives him back against the wall...coarse grey smoke fills his chest...he cries out one last time as the tongues of flame lick at his bed-clothing and his body...and then, he can cry no more. The green figures on the street cry out "As the first serpent drove Adam and Eve from Eden, so shall we drive from this land the unfit, the foreign born and the inferior!". The Sons of the Serpent race away as the smell of burnt flesh fills the night air...
While back at the sanctum of the Sorceror Supreme, Elena is invited to stay with the Defenders for the night which she accepts but indicates that there are some things she needs for the baby at home. The team decides they should all go along with her to see the conditions of the building and the apartment inwhich she dwelled. Thus, shortly afterward, the full complement of the Defenders, including Kyle in the Nighthawk costume, takes to the sky, Elena riding with Valkyrie astride Aragorn. But, when they reach their destination, they are shocked to discover the devastation. All that remains of the building is a burned out shell of brick and soot. The fireman called to extinguish the flames are too little too late. Elena rushes to comfort a neighbour, Mrs. Washington, who has lost everything to the fire. Weeping, she explains to Elena that Mr. Ferret was killed in the blaze. Suddenly, a car pulls up to the building and screeches to a halt, narrowly missing several stranded tenants. Harold Holliman, the real estate developer that Kyle met earlier at the party, races out in a rage, demanding to know who was responsible for the fire which destroyed his property. Holliman makes the mistake of accusing one of the tenants of starting the fire. The man he yells at is a huge black man who is sick of the landlords ranting. He grabs Holliman by the collar and screams in his face his displeasure with the conditions they have been living in. Holliman, indignent at being manhandled calls the man a "big black ape" and then spits in his face. The black man removes his hands as Holliman requested but his eyes bulge, his brow furrows and he grits his teeth. The muscles and veins of his neck stand out in bold pulsing relief as the wad of spittle trickles down his cheek. And, when he can contain his rage no longer he explodes and plows his left fist into the soft belly of Holliman. The crowd closes in on the brawl as tensions escalate.
Nighthawk calls out to Strange that they must stop this before death results. No sooner said then Dr. Strange uses his power of levitation to rescue the blithering biggot that is Holliman. Nighthawk and the Hulk then rush in to calm the gathered tenants when suddenly, a second blast of fire rocks the street just behind Nighthawk. The Sons of the Serpent have returned, in greater numbers, and surround the people in the street, covering them with their weapons drawn. The leader of this hate filled group, carrying a staff adorned with the head of a cobra, exclaims that the time of judgement is here and that the white man (referring to Holliman) is innocent and that Nighthawk is guilty of treason against his race. The Sepent's demand the release of Holliman and proclaim that tonight, the great white race begins its march to dominance once again. And, all who oppose the return of the white majority to rule, will face death.
Dr. Strange, hearing this speech, drops Holliman to the ground with a thud. The Hulk, enraged with the Sons of the Serpent and their comments that only white is beautiful, replies that he will smash the snake-men. He pounds his mighty fists into the ground sending shockwaves which chew up the asphalt and sends one contingent of Serpent spawn hurtling. The irate tenants take advantage of the confusion to retaliate and they attack the Sons of the Serpent. The Hulk, Val and Nighthawk take on several of the snake men each, handing out punishment with sword and fist. In moments, a full-scale riot rages in the street!
Meanwhile, Dr. Strange begs his Defenders to cease their fighting because as the level of violence escalates, so does the danger of loss of life. But, the sorceror's allies cannot even hear his pretty speech above the din and so, the mage embarks on his own course of action. Invoking the name of the eternal Vishanti, he animates the heavy fire-hoses which moments ago had extinguished the blaze. Strange sends them through the hate-maddened mob felling friend and foe alike, without regard to race, creed or national origin. Soon, only Strange, the Hulk and the Serpent Squadron leader (who chose to supervise the battle from a distance) are left standing. The leader cries to his troops that their work is down here and that they are to disperse and meet later at the regular meeting place. Strange exclaims that departing is the a wise decision. The leader calls back over his shoulder that they will return in force and that he considers the group of heroes "white traitors". They will regret their choice to stand beside vermin.
The Sons of the Serpent disappear as quickly as they arrived. The Defenders, meanwhile, turn their attention to helping the fallen.
NEXT: Yellow Jacket and the "peeping tom" return, as do the Sons of the Serpent (this time with a master plan) in ...And the Snakes Shall Inherit the Earth!
Front Cover: The Defenders Issue 22