THE DEFENDERS 31
Published: January 1976, 25 cents
Writer: Steve Gerber
Artists: Sal Buscema and Jim Mooney
Letterer: Ray Holloway
Colourist: Petra Goldberg
Editor: Marv Wolfman
The Defenders: Hulk, Valkyrie, Doctor Strange, Nighthawk
Guest Appearances: Jack Norriss, Trish Starr (Nighthawk dream sequence)
Nemesis/Villain Appearances: Headmen, Elf (2nd appearance)
It is everywhere cold and black, and the chill pervades not merely the air, but the skin, bones and souls of those who breathe it. Nighthawk cries to his fellow Defenders for aid but Dr. Strange, seeker of cosmic truth, doesn't want to know. The Hulk, mightiest of Earthborn mortals, casts his emerald eyes away. Valkyrie, Woman warrior evinces only scorn. And the frigid fingers of a woman's icy hand on a disembodied arm tighten their grip, until Nighthawk feels his ribs about to crack. But, just as the pain becomes unbearable, the hand drops him liked a winged hot potato. Never a believer in the bottomless pit, he activates his jet-pack, heading up in an effort to find a way out! But his search is rudely interrupted by the bellow of explosives and a barrage of red-hot metal. The explosion becomes a vortex of light and sound, obliterating the nothingness. Sucking him in, the eye of the vortex draws his toward a beckoning figure. A grim resignation seizes his spirit as he has no choice but to see this through. He surrenders and plunges head-long into the maelstrom. The din of the explosion becomes the crash of thunder and the pounding of waves. Nighthawk finds himself on beach beneath a bleak grey sky laced with lightning...and before him stands the lissome form of Trish Starr, silent, aloof and implacable. He calls out to her but she seems not to hear him. Rushing towards her, he is not certain he actually spoke at all. The wind catches her gossamer cape and lifts it to reveal the left arm she no longer possesses (ASIDE: oops, Sal actually drew a right arm and hand holding Nighthawk in the earlier frames...but who's keeping track?). At last she speaks in a murmur carried on a violent gale...she asks him why did he let it happen? She turns and wades into the surf before he can reply. When he attempts to follow, her left arm rises from the sand and her hand clutches his ankle causing him to stumble and fall. Struggling, clawing at the white grains he tries valiantly to yank his leg free but the hand won't let go. He calls out her name again and again, louder each time. But, she will not respond and he cannot reach her. As he watches, she disappears into the churning waters leaving Nighthawk alone, wracked with guilt and helpless in the path of an immense onrushing wave...
The wave was not a wave at all, but the branches of a swaying tree and the lonely beach was only Central Park. Nighthawk whacks his head on the limb of a tree branch and falls to the ground scaring the wits out of a pair of teenagers. As Kyle slowly gets to his feet rubbing his head, he realizes he must have fallen asleep while flying! However, it did not feel like sleep, it felt more like an attack on his mind. Suddenly from behind him a voice calls his name. He turns in time to see a strange looking man hiding behind a tree. Nighthawk notices the man's furry blue hand pointing a gun at him...the gun fires...and he is hit in the right shoulder by some tranquilizing dart. As he falls to the ground, he realizes who it is that shot him but it is too late. Once again, blackness engulfs him. Once again, his body goes cold. But, this time, perhaps thankfully, his slumber is dreamless.
Miles away, Valkyrie (who is dressed in her woman-warrior attire) and her estranged husband, Jack Norriss are at Coney Island amid the gnashing of gears, the clunk of miniature car collisions and the whistle of pre-recorded calliope music. As a Carney and Val look on, Jack lines up a metal duck in the sites of the rifle at the midway game. He easily shoots the duck off the ledge and wins Val a stuffed bunny. Valkyrie is puzzled by the casual use of weaponry for such frivolity which only frustrates Jack. She has no use for a "cloth representation of a rabbit". They walk on in silence until Jack is conned into using a sledgehammer to ring the bell. He succeeds in winning his date a stuffed teddy bear, but again she misses the point of the exercise. Apparently, she does not want the prize if she has not one it herself. So, she takes hold of the sledge and *KRAAK!*, she destroys the entire booth with her swing! She turns to the stunned Carney and asks for her furry animal. But the games' owner just stands there with his mouth agape in awe. Jack, on the other hand grabs Val by the wrist and makes a run for it. But Val pulls her hand free demanding to be unhanded. Jack's frustration boils over as he explains again to her that he is her husband. Val disagrees as she explains that although she inhabits his wife's body, she is a wholly different persona, created to lay bare man's foolish notion of his superiority to woman. However, she also explains that of late, she has found that he has displayed character which she finds attractive. However, he interrupts her lecture and says that he has tried to accept her for what she is, and ask if she can do the same for him.
Meanwhile, in the Ozarks of southern Missouri, there remains genuine forestland. Great expanses of unspoiled greenery...of grass and trees...and of other, less natural green things. Green hands part the foliage and green eyes smile. The man-monster called the Hulk maintains an uncharacteristic silence. For even this gamma-ray born creature may be touched by simple beauty. The jade giant watches as a doe and her fawn graze on the sweet grass growing in the protected game reserve. Suddenly, a shot rings out in the quiet morning air and a bullet brings the doe down. The Hulk's quiet pleasure quickly moves to rage by the senseless brutality he just witnessed. The doe lies unmoving and her fawn is likewise still...but because of fear. Two drunken hunters break their cover and make their way towards their fallen prey, congratulating themselves on their prize. Suddenly, the Hulk breaks his own cover and moves to confront the killers "men killed Bambi's mother!" The hunters whirl to face the green growling menace and both quickly get off a gunshot. However, this is the Hulk after all. The green behemoth quickly snatches the rifle from one man and wraps the barrel around his neck. He then turns to the second hunter who kneels in prayer. The Hulk grabs the man by the front of his jacket and throws him across the pond. Powerless against the sheer savage force of the mighty man-monster, the hunter's body skims across the surface of the pond like a smooth stone tossed from a child's hand. He reaches the far shore bruised, battered, broken and fortunately for him, unconscious. Thus, when he crashes head first into a tree, his landing though violent, is mercifully painless. Weeping for the fallen doe, the Hulk then moves to collect the terrified fawn. He knows that the small deer needs friends and he knows he is not capable of caring for "Bambi" by himself...but he knows smart people that can. He bounds away in a mighty leap with the fawn in his arms. And, the forest is once again quiet except for the choking sounds of the strangled hunter whose rifle rings his throat. (ASIDE: umm...did the Hulk just murder two poachers? Can we accept that as justifiable? That is a little disturbing).
Elsewhere, Nighthawk wakes from his drug induced sleep to find that he has been strapped to a table by the Headmen! Apparently, they need Nighthawk to lead them to the rest of Defenders because they need the heroes' powers to achieve some unknown objective. Nighthawk finds it difficult to talk because of the effects of the tranquilizer. Instead he listens as the Headmen describe their plan. They are going to transplant Chondu's brain into Nighthawks body! (seriously!) When Nighthawk manages to find his voice, he asks what they plan to do with his brain. Nagan explains that they may simply toss it away!
Strange interlude: "The Strip" in Las Vegas, a garish monument to obdurate middle age, where Sammy Davis Jr. is still considered "with-it", where "with-it" is still considered current slang, where bald men with beer-guts from Oklahoma vacation for a taste of the swingin' life. One such Oklahoman is Charles "Whizzo" Lester accompanied by his wife. They are arguing over Charles' current run of bad luck which has nearly cleaned them out. Charles calls a taxi while complaining that he was on the verge of a winning streak. They get into the cab, tell the driver to take them back to their motel on highway 66 and are about to resume their argument when they notice the cabbie has taken a wrong turn. The cab pulls up into an alley way and stops. Charles reaches over and taps the driver's shoulder to enquire as to why they have stopped in an alley. Suddenly, the driver's head falls off! At first they think the driver is dead but then they realize that the driver is simply a dummy-cover. Crawling out from the disguise, the Lester's are shocked to see a small pointy-eared man in a green outfit. The Elf pulls out a gun and fires...
Back in Manhattan, several hours later, the Hulk is found leaping over the city with the fragile fawn tucked under his massive left arm. His destination is the home of his magician-friend, Dr. Strange, who he feels will know what to do with the animal. Suddenly, the Hulk sees Nighthawk flying over the city and calls out to "Bird-Nose". However, although he appears to be Kyle Richmond's secret identity, Nighthawk is really Chondu (or, at least it is Kyle's body with Chondu's brain). The Hulk asks Nighthawk to follow him to Strange's home and he complies. All along, Chondu thinks about how Nagan was correct in his knowledge that the Hulk was an ally of Nighthawk's as he had read about them in the newspaper fighting together to defeat the Sons of the Serpent (back in Defenders #22-25). And, now it seems a magician is an ally as well! Apparently, Nighthawk and the magician, as well as the unnamed woman warrior, have no wish to garner publicity. Had Nagan not fought Nighthawk before (see Defenders #21) the Headmen might be as ignorant as the public of this mysterious group.
Dr. Strange, in his sanctum, enjoys a private moment of recreation as he creates embracing figures from the fire which burns in a magical urn. However, the dancing flame figures collapse when he is interrupted by his man-servant Wong who announces that they have guests. Annoyed, but ever the gracious host, Dr. Strange adjourns to the parlour where he greets the Hulk (who remains holding the foundling) and Nighthawk. Chondu (as Nighthawk) eyes an interesting sculpture and interrupts the greetings by inquiring from Strange as to the origin of the sculpture (which he identifies as a genuine pre-cataclysmic artifact...the demon Mantok). Dr. Strange raises an eyebrow and explains that he is correct, and that it was a gift. Dr. Strange then asks "Kyle" how he has come to be familiar with esoteric art. But, Nighthawk brushes off the question citing that he had once read a National Geographic article on the demon. Dr. Strange appears thoughtful but the Hulk interrupts by telling Strange, Kyle, Val and Jack Norriss (who have just entered, having returned from the amusement park) that "men killed Bambi's mother". The group gathers to see the fawn that the Hulk hold's, but Nighthawk backs off when he realizes that his suspicions were correct in identifying Dr. Strange. Suddenly, Nighthawk raises his arms above his head in a dramatic gesture, and blasts the huddled and unsuspecting Defenders with mystic energy, enclosing them in an ectoplasmic barrier! Astonished, Strange asks Kyle what madness he is doing. Chondu explains that it is hardly madness. Rather, it is the meticulously conceived strategy of the three most brilliant minds on Earth! He then departs, explaining that he will soon return to collect his valuable catch. And, when he is gone, Dr. Strange steps effortlessly out from the energy field. He scoffs at the barrier and with a small gesture of his left hand, the force-field falls and the remaining members of the team are freed. Hulk asks why Bird-Nose did a magic trick but Val explains that it was unlikely that the assailant was in fact Nighthawk. Norriss asks who then? And, it is Dr. Strange who relates that it was a third rate sorcerer. However, a sorcerer who may have already proved dangerous to one Defender. Leaving the fawn in the study, the Defenders set out to find out who the mysterious man was, and where the real Nighthawk is.
Flying over New York, Chondu gloats over his easy victory but is suddenly cut off by green fire, which he recognizes as the Flames of the Faltine. He turns to see he is pursued by Dr. Strange, closely followed a leaping Hulk, and Val and Jack riding Aragorn. However, Chondu has no intention of surrendering and he turns to blast the group in the name of Kuubar the Devourer of Demons. His energy bolts strike Aragorn and the Hulk, which forces the group to seek ground as their energy is sapped. Thus, Strange is left alone to face the imposter. The master of the mystic arts whirls in mid-air and uttering a spell, calling on the Eyes of Oshtur, he whisks the villain dressed as Nighthawk, and then himself, into another dimension to do battle. Dr. Strange wishes to wage the battle in a place where their energies do not put the Earth itself in peril. Chondu realizes that he is out of his league with Dr. Strange so he reaches into his belt and quickly ingests the mind-amplifying drug created by Jerry Morgan (originally seen in Defenders #21, the drug had to be injected then, but the Headmen have since made improvements). The drug causes Chondu great pain but his power grows and he casts a spell on Dr. Strange. The imposter calls forth the images of Strange's Defender friends, causing them to crystallize and embrace the master mage, gripping him tightly around the spine. However, Dr. Stephen Strange is a far superior magician. He realizes that the crushing belt is simply a clever camouflage for the Crystal Rings of Caa-Fu. He breaks the spell easily and then manipulates the crystal rings, sending them back at Chondu in a powerful blow. Still, Chondu does not concede, he calls upon the dread Nilrac and prepares to launch an assault. However, Strange has reached a breaking point, he unleashes an immensely powerful magic blast that causes Chondu incredible pain, like daggers in his mind...and which ends the battle. Despite appearances, this has not been an easy victory for the mystic master. His foe's costume was both a constant distraction (how can he fight his friend Nighthawk after all?) and an ever present reminder that his friend was perhaps in peril. It's the latter that weighs on Dr. Strange's mind as he crosses the gulf of dimensions back to Earth, with Nighthawk's unconscious body in his arms.
Here, barely a moment has passed since the pair vanished into the unseen world. Valkyrie is shocked and rushes to help Strange lower Nighthawk to the ground. An exhausted Dr. Strange recounts the battle and then asks Val to unmask Nighthawk. She does and the team is shocked to see that the imposter is Kyle Richmond (they appear not to notice the stitches across his forehead) when they assumed it would be some stranger in his costume. Dr. Strange is shattered. he loosed the full potency of his spells on him...and fears that he may have murdered Nighthawk!
NEXT: Nighthawk's exorcism, Kyle Richmond's life story, the fourth Headperson and the mystery deepens even further as the Defenders play that popular parlour game "Musical Minds" in The Defenders #32
Front Cover: The Defenders Issue 31