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CSBG Archive

Foggy Ruins of Time – The Defenders and the Refuseniks

This is the latest in a series giving you the cultural context behind certain comic book characters/behaviors. You know, the sort of then-topical references that have faded into the “foggy ruins of time.” To wit, twenty years from now, a college senior watching episodes of Seinfeld will likely miss a lot of the then-topical pop culture humor (like the very specific references in “The Understudy” to the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding scandal). Here is an archive of all the Foggy Ruins of Time installments so far.

Today, based on a suggestion by Omar Karindu, we’ll take a look at Steve Gerber’s depiction of the refusenik movement in the pages of the Defenders.

Really, it’s quite remarkable how Steve Gerber worked these politically charged topics into the pages of his comics. As Omar Karindu noted to me in his suggestion, one of the ways that it seemed as though Gerber did it was to take really hot political topics and feature them a few years after they were REALLY hot, so that it wasn’t so obvious as to what he was talking about.

That’s pretty much what he did in Defenders #40. Gerber had recently introduced a new female Red Guardian and she moved to the United States and joined the Defenders.

In 1976′s Defenders #40, the Defenders get some threats over her joining the team…

And then later she is accosted by a group…

Notice how sly Gerber is – if you didn’t know what he was talking about, you really wouldn’t miss anything, but if you know, then it is a nice topical reference.

The reference is to an issue that is luckily no longer an issue. This was the “Refusenik” movement. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the USSR severely curtailed the rights of its citizens to leave the country. Perhaps the most vocal in their opposition to this were Jews within the Soviet Union who wanted to emigrate due to what they found to be rampant antisemitism in the USSR during the Cold War. They found it extremely difficult to leave, though, as the Soviets continued to refuse their attempts to emigrate (hence “Refuseniks”). The Soviet Jewish community protested like crazy. In 1970, a small group even tried to sort of kind of hijack a plane to get out of the country (their plan was to book a small plane for a fake wedding and then kick the pilot out right before take off). When they were all arrested, the Soviet government planned to kill the two ringleaders. The rest of the world freaked out and the Soviets eventually backed off. As the 1970s went on, more and more Jews were allowed to leave the country. By the time Gorbachev became the head of the government in the 1980s, it was becoming much and much less of an issue. And obviously when the USSR collapsed it became an official non-issue, which is why it is has fell to the foggy ruins of time.

redguardian8

Thanks to Omar Karindu for the suggestion! If YOU have a suggestion for a future edition of Foggy Ruins of Time, let me know at bcronin@comicbookresources.com

18 Comments

Gerber’s run on the Defenders may have defined the team (more or less), but the political themes of it have aged REALLY HORRIBLY to the point that they somewhat drag down what is otherwise a mostly flawless run.

interesting for forgot about the red gurdian and how gerber had a habbit of sneaking his view on hot button issues like the refusniks scandal of russia into his comic work including the defenders who did really well

Colour Gerber Defenders trades. NOW.

What Philip said. Or an omnibus.
This version of the Red Guardian has always been my favorite – I also liked the friendship she struck up with Luke Cage and the interesting conversations that had, comparing Western (U.S.) and Soviet society. Sounds like it would be pretty mundane fare for superhero comics, yet Gerber seamlessly worked it into his stories.
Otherwise, I have to say that in 1976 when this issue appeared, the Refusenik issue, although not red hot, was still quite topical (in fact it remained so until the early 1980s as I recall).

Oh yeah, it was topical until roughly when Gorbachev took over, but I’d say that 1970-1973 would be when it was at its peak in the U.S. in terms of exposure as an issue.

Gerber was writing the Defenders when, seemingly, there was no one really watching what he was doing. That’s one of the reasons the book was so…wild and crazy (is that “foggy ruins of time”?)

Meanwhile, Valkyrie looks incredible in that new costume – I had completely forgotten about it!

One of the things I hated about Gerber’s run was that he made Val as useless as possible, first making up a weakness (she can’t hit women without suffering pain) then throwing as many women at her as possible. As someone who liked Val, that annoyed me.
But yes, the costume is memorable.

From what I recall Val’s inability to fight other women was introduced by Steve Englehart (and maybe editor/creator Roy Thomas). And I always loved that gold lamé costume too.

And finally, the light-touch editorial system of the time had a lot wrong with it but the freedom produced a lot of great stories too.

No, Englehart showed that Valkyrie wouldn’t hit a woman, which fit with her feminist orientation. The idea she suffered physical pain if she hit a woman came out of Gerber, supposedly a failsafe built-in by the Enchantress when she created her.

Loved that issue when it came out. The Defenders was a all time favorite, with ups and downs, but that era of the run, late 70s, was just outstanding, ramping up into the Who Is Scorpio epic.

Emily Litella: What’s all this FUSS I hear… about saving Soviet jewelry? Now… what makes Soviet jewelry so special? Will it be worth more in a few years? Why… prices what they are today… ALL jewelry will be worth more! now, if I recall correctly, Mrs. Kruschev didn’t wear very much jewelry… and her husband, the Premier, didn’t even wear a watch! Not the mickey mouse watch, anyway. Why, they wouldn’t even let him into Disney Land! And now he’s DEAD!! Well, I’m infuriated! Save Soviet jewelry?! Where are we going to put it? I say keep it over THERE, with all their ballet dancers! Let them keep their own jewelry AND their own ballet dancers! As a matter of fact, why don’t get the ballet dancers to save the jewelry?! Americans have more important things to save! And electricity! And what about our fuel? Now, THAT’S important! Not jewelry!

Chevy Chase: Miss Litella. Miss Litella.

Emily Litella: What?!

Chevy Chase: It’s Jewry. Jewry. Not jewelry.

Emily Litella: It’s what?

Chevy Chase: Soviet Jewry. The editorial was about Jewry, not jewelry.

Emily Litella: Oh! Well, that’s very important.

Chevy Chase: Yes.

Emily Litella: …Never mind!

I don’t think the political stuff was well-handled. It sounds forced and repeats clichés. Also, have some historical inadequacies, like the Comintern line. The Comintern was extinguished back in 1943, more than thirty years before the story. And was never a organ of the Soviet state (it was a federation of communist parties from all over the world), so it sounds a little idiotic that the group’s plan was to blackmail a no longer existent organization to change a policy of one of its former members…

Why were the costumes so much COOLER back then? Explain!!!

Gerber’s run on the Defenders, which I read as a 12 to 14 year old when they came out, remains one of my all time favorites, and while the issue of the Refuseniks may have faded away, many other issues he touched on still remain, although certainly details have changed. And I actually like that Gerber touched on issues of day so that his comics serve as a sort of time capsule reflecting the madness of that particular era. Of course, I find those writers that can not only tell a good story but also express a certain point of view that resonates with me far more interesting to reread decades later than those that were pretty much mindless action fests.

Hey Ivan, yes, you’re right, the Comintern (and the Cominform for that matter) had been dissolved long before the 1970s, but cut Gerber some slack. He was still writing superhero stories set in a world where organizations like Hydra and AIM existed.

A couple quick notes from someone who grew up on late ’60s-1970s Marvels …

[1] The piece notes that Omar K. observed that, “it seemed as though Gerber did it was to take really hot political topics and feature them a few years after they were REALLY hot …” That’s pretty much how mainstream comics worked back then. Political/social topics were latched onto after they were hottest. It was that was not just in the ’70s, but for several years afterward, as well. Dazzler debuted after disco had peaked, to cite one example of how this phenomenon persisted …

[2] The fact that Gerber was being topical at all was something of a triumph, and he did it with arguably more finesse than his contemporaries. To cite one other instance, Roy Thomas’s 1970 attempt at tackling the race issue in a “Sons of the Serpent” story from AVENGERS # 73/74 was such a mixed bag, the letters page devoted to it was taken up by a single missive that did a page-by-page analysis castigating its perceived failures. (And have you read the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams “topical” GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW stories lately? Hoo-boy …) That Gerber was tying his politics so intimately into his characters was, at that time, a significant step forward for the mainstream industry.

The risk of doing material that’s grounded in the issues of the moment is that those issues have a way of being resolved, and our collective memory — not only of the events but of the creative environment of the time in which those topical stories appeared — fades. Those born after the period in question have every right to decide whether or not the material in question works or does not work for them based on their individual perspectives, but they’d do well to remember the frames of reference of those who were there at the time must, by definition, have differed from their own.

Anyway, for me this piece and the accompanying was a pleasant trip down Nostalgia Lane; thanks for producing it, and for making me look forward to the day (in 2015, I hope!) Cory Sedlmeier packages this run (which I think of as the “Nebulon/Headmen/Bozo” cycle) in a shiny new MARVEL MASTERWORKS hardcover!

[1] The piece notes that Omar K. observed that, “it seemed as though Gerber did it was to take really hot political topics and feature them a few years after they were REALLY hot …” That’s pretty much how mainstream comics worked back then. Political/social topics were latched onto after they were hottest. It was that was not just in the ’70s, but for several years afterward, as well. Dazzler debuted after disco had peaked, to cite one example of how this phenomenon persisted …

I don’t know if that’s entirely true; Steve Engelhart was writing to contemporary issues on Captain America at the same time, to the point that his most famous arc there started as a parody of advertising and quickly got rewritten on the fly to match current political events. In general Engelhart, Don McGregor, and the other “relevant” writers of the period were much more contemporary than Gerber, who seemed to hold onto stuff from 1968-70 well into the latter half of the 1970s.

Anything else aside, how great is the art in those pages? Sal Buscema was and is an absolute master of storytelling, fantastic inks too (by Klaus Jansen?)

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