"Webbed Hands, Warm Heart!"

Published: March 1976, 25 cents

The Defenders: Hulk, Valkyrie, Doctor Strange, Nighthawk, Jack Norriss (well, his mind in Nighthawk's body)

Guest Appearances: none

Nemesis/Villain Appearances: Headmen, Ludberdites of Zaar, cameo: Nebulon (the Celestial Man)

Luscious brown eyes gaze into the orb of Agamotto, and flash with furious anger. Lips roll back, baring gritted, grating teeth. The fawn snarls. The Defenders have fallen victim to the macabre schemes of the Headmen. But all is not what it seems, and the baby deer knows it! In disgust, the animal turns away from the mystic crystal, desperation clutching at its tiny heart. The plot was conceived so perfectly, and yet...his allies have been duped. Livid, furrowed brow pulsing with the ache of savage loathing, the deer recalls the sequence of events which led to him to this state...

First, the capture of Nighthawk! After the deer himself provided the dream-illusion that sent the wing-caped Defender plummeting from the sky. Then, Nighthawk's awakening. On the operating table in the Westbury, Connecticut HQ of the Headmen: Dr. Jerry Morgan, the molecular biologist whose languidness of flesh matched that of his personality. Dr. Arthur Nagan, the transplant specialist whose human head sat atop the body of a great ape, where it belonged. And, perhaps the mightiest of them all (the fawn recalls with pride) Chondu the Mystic, whose head was gifted with the psychic power to probe beyond this mortal sphere and whose brain Nagan's scalpel deftly removed from its native skull and replaced beneath Nighthawk's cowl. Nighthawk's brain, then placed in a dish of life-preserving chemicals, effectively allowed Chondu to become Nighthawk! The transplanted Headman took to the skies to locate Nighthawk's more powerful whom the ingenuous Hulk helpfully led the way. Thence, it was a small step (or so the mystic believed) to their conquest by magic. Chondu however, had reckoned without the superior occult capabilities of Dr. Strange and so was stunned senseless when the sorcerer supreme retaliated.

With each deliberate yet tenuous step down the staircase of the mystic master's sanctum sanctorum, the fawn's fury increases, he can only speculate on what next occurred. Surely, the Defenders must have unmasked Nighthawk, assuming him to be an imposter. And, surely they would have been startled to learn otherwise! But, as Kyle had never evinced any aptitude for magic, surely they would have looked further and, by esoteric means, uncovered the truth. Else, the indignity he now faces could never have been perpetrated: the sorcerous switching of souls...the mind of Valkyrie's husband into Chondu's brain in Nighthawk's body...Chondu's mind into the body of the fawn, leaving Jack Norriss' body without a consciousness...trapping Chondu in a voiceless, handless form, unable to utter spells, unable to gesticulate enchantments. For the amulet-eye must have seen all that was reposited in Chondu's mind, including the whereabouts of Nighthawk's brain. The Defenders departed then, just as Chondu's mind returned to a waking state and became aware of its bizarre predicament. However, the left lacking one bit of information, one that Chondu himself did not possess. They knew when they arrived at the Headmen's refuge that the villains sought to gain control of their powers but, what they didn't know was how. Nor could even Dr. Strange intuit that the angelic figure who greeted them at the front door would subsequently blast them into unconsciousness by exploding her own head! (last issue...remember Ruby?).

In the crystal, Chondu beheld that scene with glee...he watched as the head reformed and the illusory garb disappeared to reveal Ruby Thursday, the newest Headperson, the woman Nagan mysteriously hinted would soon join their conclave, but whom Chondu had not glimpsed until now...the mystic was elated! But then, he suddenly realizes that Nagan will not be aware of the mind transfer and escape becomes imperative. Chondu the fawn attempts to open the front door with his small mouth but fails. Sitting at the locked door, seething, Chondu decides that if he cannot open the door, there must be some other means of egress, and he will find it and claim his revenge!

Meanwhile, in Connecticut, even as the fawn commences its search, the Headmen have hooked up the Hulk, Val and Dr. Strange with helmets called encephalotransmorgrifiers. The headpieces are designed to perform a subtle alteration on the subjects thought patterns...when the process is completed, the Defenders will effectively see things the Headmen way. Unaware that Nighthawk is really Jack Norriss (they still think he is Chondu), he remains free to observe the preparations. Jack learns that once the process is complete, the Defenders are to be released into his custody, forming an evil-Defenders. Jack grows increasingly anxious because he is at a loss as to what to do. He cannot let the Headmen have their way and yet, how can he stop them without them discovering his secret? Panic begins to set in...

Trepidation, it seems, is afoot everywhere tonight...even in Central Park. Mitchell and Cissy, a young couple prepare to launch their canoe into the lake for a midnight paddle. However, he is somewhat nervous about this nighttime boat ride whereas she is daring and excited about it. Pushing off from the shore, Cissy chastises him for being so distressed about their activity. Suddenly, scaly reddish hands reach up from the murky water, behind Cissy. Mitchell sees them and tries to warm his date but passes out! The rough hands grab Mitchell and Cissy as she screams in terror...they are pulled into the dark water...several scaly red creatures surface. One creature comments that the specimens are intact. Another remarks that they are just what their "young pupil" will require. In moments, Cissy, Mitchell and their canoe vanish into the murky waters and for a time, all is calm. Then with a whine of accelerating engines, the surface of the lagoon erupts and atop the steaming upsurge arises a massive, gleaming space ship!

Meanwhile, Nighthawk (Jack) asks seemingly harmless questions about the process his friends are about to endure. Nagan indicates that the process will take some time so they should adjourn to the conference room because they have much to discuss. Moreover, there is someone there that "Chondu" should meet. Ruby Thursday both sickens and fascinates Jack. He can barely hide his revulsion as her head transforms into a pair of huge red lips and kisses him on the cheek in greeting. Nagan breaks up the introductions by asking Nighthawk what he knows of their captives and how best they can put them to use. Jack tries to think quickly; he minimizes the Defenders powers, explaining that they may be "fun at parties". Nagan is not amused and neither is Morgan. But, Ruby is thrilled with "Chondu's" apparent new found humour. Suddenly, Nighthawk launches into a tantrum to protect his ignorance of their plans. He pretends that each of them has a different goal and he wants to know where everyone stands. This touches a nerve with the group and unexpectedly, both Ruby and Morgan want clarification because Nagan has been so secretive lately. Inwardly, Jack breathes a sigh of relief. Finally, Nagan agrees to a review of the similarities, not their differences. Firstly, he asks the group if they agree that they should be running the world by virtue of their visions and greater intellects. He explains that he put together this group because the world has scorned them all. He plans on seizing and controlling the planet by eliminating the "accidental factor" by developing a society which functions like a precision instrument. Morgan understands what Nagan wants. He can sympathize with his antipathy toward the unforeseen. His own work has blown up in his face. Namely, his cellular compression gas (which predated Henry Pym's for years!). His facial bones shrank but his skin did not (hence is slack faced appearance). Ruby then adds that no one listened to Morgan because they were repulsed by the sight of him, however for her, it was quite different. She has always sought more than mere appreciation of her work. Head red ruby head was, after all, her own creation. She relates that her head is far better than any of theirs. Featureless and beautiful in its simplicity...a mass of malleable organic circuitry...all brain and computer quick. And, she wants every human being to have one just like it. Finally, they turn to "Chondu" and ask what it is that he wants. They do not see the sweat collecting under Jack's mask, but he tells them his own one true desire...freedom...there are too many mysteries yet to be explored and he no longer wishes to be restrained. 

Meanwhile, the fawn frees itself from Strange's home by jumping out a ground floor window. Making his way into a back alley, the fawn runs into the same misfortune as Cissy and is captured by a scaly red amphibious creature (this 'aint Chondu's day). 

On a distant unknown island, the group of people who were "collected" by the red creatures marvel at the architecture of the building which houses them. Inside the building is a strange machine with some unknown function...suddenly, the fawn materializes out of thin air to join the confused humans.

Back at the Headmen's HQ, Nagan removes the helmets off the Defenders' heads and waits as the heroes slowly recover from their ordeal. Ruby asks if they will now be docile but Nagan explains that no, this will not be the case...suddenly, the Hulk, jumps to his feet and prepares to attack the ape-man but he is stopped by Dr. Strange who magically shackles him with massive fist-cuffs. This enrages the Hulk but Dr. Strange calms him by explaining that they came here for a reason: they need to find out why there were attacked in the first place. However, Nagan simply remarks that they were unharmed and are free to go. However, Strange explains that they are going no where without Nighthawk's brain! No sooner have those words left the sorcerer's lips when two steely red cables leap from Ruby's spheroid head and twine themselves around Dr. Strange's throat. She realizes that the Defenders know the truth about Chondu's mind transfer and used Chondu to find the Headmen. Val then turns her attention on Ruby and prepares to do battle but realizes too late that she cannot attack another female and her sword is deftly taken by a winding red tentacle. The Valkyrie is then thumped to the ground with a body slam from the gorilla-man Nagan. Seeing this happen to Val enrages the Hulk further. He lifts his shackled hands high and smashes them on the ground with a deafening *KRAM!*, mere inches from where Nagan just crouched. Suddenly, the foundation of the house gives way and the roof of the Headmen's HQ begins to collapse on its occupants. Ruby releases Dr. Strange as she ducks for cover. Outside the collapsing home, a neighbouring man and his family watch as the house falls in on itself. He giggles hysterically (which his wife admonishes him for). However, he is just grateful because, this time, it was not his house! (you might remember that the Hulk wrecked this man's home back in Defenders #21!). 

His wife rushes to the nearest neighbour to call the police but, even as she runs, the dust settles revealing the combatants alive and unharmed beneath a dome of mystic force created by Dr. Strange. The magician once more explains that the team did not wish to resort to brawling. Val adds that their bizarre antagonists have not been reasonable but Strange asks her for restraint until Nighthawk's brain is secured. He then sees it on the table in the nutrient bath and orders Jack to get it. Despite being mildly repulsed, Jack grabs the bowl and flies up and off as Dr. Strange lifts the force field. Nagan smiles inwardly because he thinks that it is Chondu who has grabbed the brain and that Strange has forgotten. As the body of Nighthawk with the brain of Chondu and the soul of Jack Norriss soars away with Kyle Richmond's grey matter as oddly satisfied smile lifts the edges of Nagan's lips...but, before it can even reach full bloom, the thrill is gone. Val, Hulk and Strange advance on the Headmen (even Dr. Strange makes an exception and permits himself to exact some measure of revenge!). Morgan cringes in fear of the charging Defenders but suddenly, a thick, pink goop is shot from Ruby's head which completely sticks to, and then immobilizes, the team. Ruby explains that one of the first problems she confronted upon the installation of her new head was protecting herself from the fools who were so appalled by its aspect that they felt driven to destroy it. The goop is nothing vicious, just highly undignified. With the Defenders held fast, the Headmen make good their escape.

Over Manhattan, meanwhile, the crazy-quilt composite of Jack, Chondu and Kyle flies homewards and manages a sigh of relief. But, suddenly, from above, a beam of light stabs down from the smog shrouded sky rendering Nighthawk completely immobile...hauling him upward into the belly of the ship which earlier left the cover of the lagoon in Central Park. Inside, Jack's mind reels as Kyle's eyes gape at one of the universe's most stunning figures...the gold skinned, white haired Nebulon, the Celestial Man and cringing behind him, the red skinned creatures now identified as the Ludberdites of Zaar!

Jack feels Kyle's stomach...fall away!

NEXT:  The fawn unleashed...the little bald man in the meteorite...the menace of celestial mind control...the Bozo Syndrome...and more, in the weird tale we call " A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Get Wasted!" in The Defenders #34.

Front Cover: The Defenders Issue 33

Cover Defenders 33