Who Are “The Defenders?”
Yeah, really -- who the hell are they?? Is “The Defenders” a name for begrudgingly assembled Netflix darlings Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist? Well, yes and no -- the “yes” meaning, ‘Yes, they are The Defenders, ‘and the “no” meaning, ‘But they aren’t the first group to use the name, considering it’s been used – with equal disdain – by varying assemblages of heroes chronicled in the pages of Marvel Comics.’
So, who are The Defenders? That’s a good question, but not the right question. Who were The Defenders? There you go – that’s the right question, considering we can divine the present incarnation by plumbing the depths of its comic book beginnings.
The Defenders was (were) a team of usually disparate Marvel heroes who fought the good fight alone, keeping very busy following their own agendas. They came together mostly out of necessity, but decided – quite uncharacteristically – to give the whole “team” thing a go.
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Digging a little deeper...
It all began in the pages of several Marvel Comics series in the late 1960s and early 70s. Writer Roy Thomas was in the center of a creative tempest—he had a Doctor Strange story to finish, but the actual book was cancelled. The solution? Continue his riveting tale through other, very much uncancelled Marvel series. So, the first crossover featuring mostly friendless Marvel Heroes -- who would later concede to a regular “team-up” effort -- occurred over 2 arcs:
Arc #1 occurred during Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970). Written soon after Doctor Strange was cancelled, this story featured the combined might of Hulk, Sub-Mariner, and D-Strange as they battled Lovecraftian beings calling themselves “The Undying Ones.” Their leader? Why, he/she/it preferred the moniker “The Nameless One.” Barbara Norriss, who would later host the Asgardian spirit Brunnhilde and become The Valkyrie, debuted during this very arc.
Arc #2 occurred during Sub-Mariner #34–35 (February–March 1971). Apparently, someone thought it reasonable to run a potentially catastrophic weather control experiment. After assessing the threat-level, Sub-Mariner enlisted the aid of Hulk and The Silver Surfer. Their successful mitigation of this mostly unofficial experiment inadvertently freed a small island nation from an especially aggressive dictator. Apparently, some international laws were broken and the incredibly powerful triumvirate faced off against The Avengers. To effectively step up their already lofty intimidation game, the trio confronted The Avengers as the “Titans Three.”
The Defenders Made their official debut in the pages of Marvel Feature #1 (1975). Marvel Feature was a “showcase” series, meaning it “showcased” different Marvel heroes in standalone stories accompanying one hero’s story featuring prominently throughout multiple issues.
In Marvel Feature #1, Doctor Strange teamed with Hulk and The Sub-Mariner to battle the aforementioned Techno-Wizard. They defeated Yandroth so handily, readers demanded these ridiculously powerful super-beings continue their adventures. And so, The Defenders, and their regularly occurring comic book entitled The Defenders, were born!
The New Defenders!
Because writer J.M. DeMatteis was suffering from severe creative burnout, he felt a change was in order -- as of issue #125, The Defenders title evolved into The New Defenders. Why “new?” Well, there was a very condemning alien prophecy that marked the combination of Silver Surfer, Hulk, Strange, and Namor as something incredibly dangerous – world-ending, even. Because of this, the four left the team and went their separate ways.
The Beast, not content to accept such an abrupt dissolution, reformed the team. After adding several new teammates, he made it official, registering for and attaining government clearance.
This era of The Defenders ended in issue #152, where most of the team died – sort of – at the hands of a possessed Moon Dragon. Any surviving Mutant team-members joined X-Factor, and a few formerly “dead” characters showed up later in future Marvel series. Hmmmm.
The original “power trio” returned in 1990 during issue #’s #370-371 of The Incredible Hulk. Within these 2 issues, D-Strange, Sub-Mariner, and Hulk discovered the alien prophecy was, in fact, a hoax. The three later rejoined with The Silver Surfer in a story entitled “The Return of The Defenders” running through The Incredible Hulk Annual #18, Namor the Sub-Mariner Annual #2, Silver Surfer Annual #5, and Dr. Strange, Sorcerer Supreme Annual #2.
Doctor Strange organized specific groups of heroes for specific missions beginning in the pages of Secret Defenders #1 (1993). Who did Stephen Strange lead on exotic, mostly unmentionable missions? That would be Wolverine, Darkhawk, Nomad, Spider-Woman, Spider-Man, Hulk, Ghost Rider, and several others I simply can’t recall right now.
Defenders Vol. 2: The Order
Created by writer Kurt Busiek and artist/writer Erik Larson, The Defenders Vol. 2 reunited the original Defenders in 2001 and lasted 12 issues.
Immediately following this run came The Order, a six-issue mini-series spinning quite an extravagant yarn involving mind control and a new penchant for world domination. You see, Yardoth – the besmirched Techno-Wizard who inadvertently created The Defenders – convinced Gaea, the Earth goddess, to curse the four thusly: Surfer, D-Strange, Hulk and Namor would be pulled/summoned/transported – involuntary – to any and all major crises.
Successfully mind-controlled by Yardoth, the four became a world-dominating force known as The Order. Former Defenders teammates helped break Yondu’s mental manacles, and the four immediately disbanded.
In 2005, writers Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis, along with artist Kevin Maguire – all creators of a beloved, hilarious Justice League run in the 1980s – worked on a five-issue mini-series entitled Defenders: Indefensible. The conceit? Doctor Strange attempted to reunite the Defenders to repel Dormammu and Umar. Did he, and did they?? Well, yes and yes, but not without a healthy dose of BWAH-HAH-HAH-inducing hilarity.
The superhero Civil War was a drag. The U.S. government, with the help of Tony Stark, finally put an end to rampant costumed vigilantism by forcing superheroes to register their identities and work as trained peacekeepers. After receiving proper training, newly registered super-human agents were assigned to specific states (“The Fifty State Initiative”). Nighthawk wanted a team of Defenders regulars like Hellcat and Devil Slayer, but Stark decided on the roster, teaming Nighthawk with Colossus, Atomic Skull, and She-Hulk.
They were assigned to New Jersey, and eventually disbanded due to negligence.
In 2009, during issues 10-12 of the regular Hulk comic series, Red hulk assembled a team of supervillains called “The Offenders.” Their ranks? Baron Mordo, Terrax the Tamer, and Tiger Shark. Yup.
The Deep (Fear Itself)
In the 2011 Marvel Comic crossover event Fear Itself, Doctor Strange assembled another Defenders variation with Hulk’s daughter Lyra, Namor, Loa, and the Silver Surfer. Their mission? To take on Attuma who transformed into Nerkkod, Breaker of Oceans. Many former Defenders ended up joining the undersea assault.
The Defenders Vol. 3
In December of 2011, Marvel launched a new Defenders series written by Matt Fraction with art by Terry Dodson. The line-up? Doctor Strange, Red She-Hulk, Iron Fist, Namor, and Silver Surfer. The book ran 12 issues and included an epic battle with a contingent of Celestials called “The Death Celestials.” After the battle, Ant-Man, Nick Fury, and Back Cat joined the team.
A narrative running throughout the short-lived series warned that a reunion of the original four Defenders might set off an event chain leading to the destruction of the universe. Sure, the initial curse was gone, but this seemed infinitely worse. Of course, Strange changed the past so the reunion never happened, thus negating the universe-destroying event chain, and the entire 12-issue run. Ugh.
Written by Cullen Bunn with art by Will Sliney, The Fearless Defenders was as all-female team based on the Valkyrior led by Valkyrie and Misty Knight. Although the book received critical acclaim, it was cancelled after 13 issues due to struggling sales.
Written by Brian Michael Bendis with art by David Marquez, this new series focuses on the following four characters assuming the Defenders name in the latest Marvel Netflix series: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage.
So, there you have it. Didn’t think a simple team name assumed by Marvel’s Netflix stars was a blatant (and appreciated) appropriation of comic book history, did you?? Clever, clever Marvel.