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BRONZE-AGE FLASHBACK: Defenders 46 (April 1977)

May 25, 2002

For whatever reason (mainly, I suppose, my infatuation with the Marvel Universe circa 1960s thru early 1980s) I’ve begun collecting a title that had heretofore been of little interest to me: The Defenders. No, not the lame, “new” Defenders series that was launched not too long ago from the ”House of Ideas,” but the original series whose original roster consisted of Dr. Strange, Prince Namor--the Sub-Mariner, and the Incredible Hulk. The Silver Surfer was also featured quite frequently during the first dozen or so issues of the series, which may account for my interest in the title.

Back Story Theatre

While The Defenders series was launched in August 1972, one could convincingly argue that the notion of a “Defenders” team actually began in the Sub-Mariner monthly series. In issues 34 and 35 of that series, Subby teams up with the Surfer and the Hulk. This was, perhaps, a bit of a test-drive to determine fan reaction to this unusual pairing. Shortly thereafter, The Defenders made their official debut in Marvel Feature 1 and ran for three issues before their own series was launched several months later.

The Defenders were dubbed the original non-team (a title that arguably belongs to DC’s Doom Patrol, a unique non-team that debuted a decade earlier). The series ran for 152 issues (155 if you include the previously discussed Marvel Feature’s 1, 2, and 3) before being cancelled in February 1985. As I am only now beginning to explore this vast and expansive series, it is apparent to me from the issue I’ll be discussing in a bit that the writers were trying to avoid the stigma of the team being “just another group of costumed crime fighters.” Unlike their contemporaries—e.g., The Fantastic Four and The Avengers—there was no real “membership” in The Defenders. Their roster changed frequently and members were under no obligation to hang around. In fact, issue 46 deals with this aspect of the team in great detail.

Back Story Theatre II: Son of Back Story Theatre

In the late 1960s, Jim Steranko launched the Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. series by producing one of the most impressive first issues in comics history with a story entitled “Who Is Scorpio?” Scorpio returned in issue 5, which was, sadly for comics fans, Steranko’s final issue on the short-lived series. Comic characters are, by their very nature, open to interpretation by the various creative teams responsible for writing and illustrating their adventures. With the benchmark of Scorpio having been established by Steranko, it would be a challenge for even the finest creative team to produce a comparable tale featuring the character. Yet, Roy Thomas and Sal Buscema did it in The Avengers (issue 72) by not only bringing Scorpio back, but by introducing the entire Zodiac to the Marvel Universe. For a time, the Zodiac became frequent adversaries of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and the concept of a dozen super-villains based on the signs of the zodiac is quite inventive to say the least. I mention these facts in such detail only because they are entirely relevant to my comments about Defenders 46, which features, natch, Scorpio.

This tale begins in the sanctum sanctorum (or “home” for those of us who are not masters of the mystic arts) of Dr. Stephen Strange, who announces to his fellow Defenders (Red Guardian, Hellcat, Valkyrie, Hulk, Nighthawk, and Power-Man) that he is resigning from the team. Over the next several pages, Luke Cage (Power-Man [whom the Hulk refers to as “Fuzzy-Hair”!]) also bids farewell, as does the Red Guardian. Nighthawk has what can best be described as a spaz attack, but he eventually calms down (the alternative was to eat a Hulk McFist sandwich—I think he chose wisely). By page 10 the final goodbyes are said with four of the seven heroes remaining as Defenders. A confusing one-page interlude follows in which the aforementioned Nick Fury apparently shoots and kills Jack Norriss who, until being “Zraz[ed]!” (sound effects at their finest) had been skulking about the Reardon Oil Refineries in Hackensack, New Jersey. I imagine Jack’s obituary read something like, “Jack, who liked to frequent New Jersey-based oil refineries in the middle of the night, was killed for trespassing. An oil-fetishist, Norriss will best remembered as the oil-sniffing junkie from TV’s ‘Starsky and Hutch’ episode 203 ‘To Toil in Oil.’”

Meanwhile, the Defenders make their way across the Manhattan skyline. Hellcat and Valkyrie ride atop Val’s horse Aragorn (naturally). Nighthawk flies. Hulk leaps. Which leads me to wonder about the people, automobiles, roads, and infrastructure the Hulk uses to catapult himself skyward. The team soars onward from city to countryside, finally arriving at their old headquarters (which is about to become their new headquarters now that they’ve been kicked out of Dr. Strange’s swingin’ pad). Upon opening the door they find Scorpio, who is looking for Kyle Richmond (Nighthawk’s alter ego). A fight ensues as Scorpio demands to know the whereabouts of Kyle. He uses his Zodiac key to inflict minor pain and injuries upon Hellcat and Nighthawk. In panel 2 of page 17, he wields his key, um, between his legs, holding it in his hands and shooting it at Hellcat. Visually, this appears to be one of the dirtiest panels I’ve ever seen in a mainstream comic book page. I’m sure when the artist was illustrating it he didn’t realize how it would look once colored, but without the aid of the word balloon, one might assume Scorpio has a urinary infection in need of serious medical attention. But hey, I’m no doctor. Scorpio then uses his key against the Hulk, causing several machines to attack him (you figure it out). Eventually, Scorpio loses possession of his key, causing a great deal of concern and anguish. He’s pounced upon a bit by Nighthawk and then engages in a duel (though it’s more a duel of words than anything else) with Valkyrie. A moment later, he decides he “must revert to my basic element” and uses his mind to activate the Zodiac key, causing him to “become a being of—mere water.” In his watery form Scorpio “surges with a determined intent.” Why, he’s more slippery than a water slide at Six Flags Over Hoboken. He slips and slides his way around the room like a slippery slidey thing. This causes Hellcat to cry out (sensitive readers may want to gloss over the next few words as they are rather crude and vulgar and most unbecoming a lady) “Darn it anyway!” Eventually, Scorpio reforms into his human self, with the Zodiac key in hand. At this point, the Hulk breaks free of the machinery in which he’d been ensnared. Scorpio makes a fast exit, hoping next time to meet Kyle Richmond. He reminds the team that “the name is Scorpio.” I suppose that information would be useful so that when they are all hanging out at I.H.O.P. that evening they can remember whom to laugh at aloud at.

The story includes a one-page epilogue involving a newspaper carrier named “Greg,” his dog “Patch,” an old Defenders villain named the “Elf,” and a “Mac-Ray” moving van. It’s rather vague what transpires on this page, needless to say that readers who’d followed the series devoutly would no doubt have a better understanding of the scene than yours truly.

The Fear of All Sums

Although I would prefer to remember Scorpio as the ultra-cool, sophisticated adversary of Nick Fury, whose build was long, slender, and twisted not unlike the scorpion itself, other creators have left their mark on the character and have, unfortunately, dropped him down a notch or two. Steranko’s is an impossible benchmark to topple or to even come close to matching, and while the creative team on Defenders 46 (Roger Sifler, David Kraft, Keith Giffen, and Klaus Janson) spun an interesting tale, it pales by comparison to the mastery of Steranko. The pencils by Giffen were done early in his career, years before he would become a fan favorite on Legion of Super-Heroes and while some of his illustrations are crude at best, it is clear to see a talent in the making (though in this case, credit must also be attributed to the talented Janson to be sure). The title of this Defenders story is Who Remembers Scorpio? I certainly do, and when I think of Scorpio in years to come, it won’t be from his appearance in Defenders 46 rest assured.

Next: A new speculative fiction piece that addresses the notion of real-life "super-heroes" in a post 9-11 America.

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