Friday Among the Missing
I was asked this week if there was something that we used to have in comics that’s gone now, something I still missed.
Of course, it’s absurdly easy to snark off at a question like that. So let’s say for purposes of discussion that someone already said “good stories” and “the real DC” and “books that ship on time” and all of that stuff, so there’s no need to jump into the comments section with any of those. Take a minute to really think about it.
Because, if I’m honest with myself, there’s so much available to us today that there’s no reason to miss anything. It’s all back in print, for the most part, somewhere. Even the oddball, short-run stuff.
And the rare series or character that has somehow missed getting a book collection of some kind can be easily had digitally, or through online back issue dealers.
Nevertheless, there are things we used to have that we don’t have today, and sometimes I wish we could have gotten a little more. Mostly they’re the ones that are impossible… like more John Buscema Tarzan comics, or a Lone Ranger series from Doug Wildey and Joe Kubert, or other similar daydreams.
But missing departed creators is too easy, too. Who wouldn’t love to have more from Mike Wieringo or Jim Aparo or John Severin? Everyone misses those guys.
Honestly, though? There’s a Marvel comic that went away back in September of 1976, and I miss it to this day. It frustrates me because it would be so easy to bring back; I can think of all sorts of comics talent who could really do justice to a revival.
I’m talking about The Defenders.
Now, when I say that, I mean the real Defenders. Not the New, not the Secret, not the Last, none of the revivals. Some of those have been good… but they’re not the Defenders. No, no, no.
When I say the “real” Defenders, I mean the group that consisted of Dr. Strange, Nighthawk, Valkyrie, and the Hulk… and whoever else happened to drop by that day.
Now, again, you could accuse me of pining for the work of a creator that’s no longer with us. And it’s certainly true that I am sad that we won’t be getting any more Steve Gerber comics. (Especially his Dr. Fate revival, which was really turning into something cool.) But I do think it’s possible to still do Defenders comics in that style. No, really.
Because everyone who talks about how great that run of stories was misses the point.
Sure, it was weird and subversive and satirical. Seriously weird.
But that wasn’t the great thing about it.
The great thing, which was actually kickstarted by Gerber’s predecessor on the book, Len Wein, was that these were essentially friendless people who were learning how to be friends.
That’s the hook you hang it on. Not the ‘non-team,’ not the weirdness, none of the rest of that crap. The reason that version of the Defenders was so great was because we got to see the friendships form and build and deepen. More often than not, the story’s launching pad was simple– one of the others would show up at Dr. Strange’s house with a problem. Often finding the others there, just hanging out.
That’s why Gerber could get away with the other craziness. Because we absolutely believed in these people. They acted like… well, real people. Real people, that is, who were weird and nerdy and hung out together all the time because they were too damaged to hang out with anyone else.
That was what I loved about the Defenders. They were a distorted superheroic reflection of my own nerd posse in high school back then. Strange was the smart kid that knew a lot of weird stuff, Val was the tomboy that the guys kind of crushed on but also thought maybe was a lesbian, Nighthawk was the emotionally-crippled rich kid, and Hulk was the big dumb kid with anger-management problems. But they were all outcasts. And Wein, and later Gerber, made them all so wonderfully awkward, and yet still endearing.
The Hulk, as portrayed in The Defenders, was especially delightful. Banner was smart and competent and not at all whiny…
…and the Hulk was a big dumb short-tempered kid that didn’t know his own strength.
Nevertheless, as obviously screwed-up as all of them were, they learned to be friends. And as new characters came into the book like Luke Cage or the Red Guardian, they gradually got adopted into this family of weirdos too, and often would show up just to be supportive.
It was a great ride, from around #14 to #41, and it carried me through a big chunk of junior high and high school.
But it wasn’t to last. Suddenly, in #42, Gerry Conway showed up and systematically destroyed everything that was working on the title, infusing a bunch of plain old superhero fight crap.
There were good stories that came after– I’m sure someone’s going to mention David Kraft and Keith Giffen’s “Who Remembers Scorpio?”– but from #42 on, everyone pretty much abandoned the idea that had been the running theme, the idea of outcasts finding friendship, and no one’s tried it with a Defenders book since.
Now, I think you could revive that concept and make it work. In fact, other books have done it– Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol springs to mind. Hell, other super-team books at Marvel have been doing it. Avengers Academy, particularly, but you also could sort of see that idea in Dan Slott’s Mighty Avengers and even in the first run of Bendis’s New Avengers.
But I’d love to see someone try that approach again with the actual Defenders. Doc and Hulk and Val at least, with a couple of more modern players to be named later. Outcast heroes hanging around with Dr. Strange in Greenwich Village, occasionally going off to fight supercrime because it’s better than another night at home alone. In fact, given what he did on Avengers Academy, I think Christos Gage would write the hell out of a book like that.
Anyway, that’s what I miss.
See you next week.