January 8, 2012

Classic Comics Cavalcade: THE ESSENTIAL DEFENDERS vol. 2


In this episode of Classic Comics Cavalcade, Daniel and Jason follow up their previous chat about Steve Gerber's amazing comics with a look at some of Jason's favorite Gerber comics – his amazing run on Defenders.

Elkin: So. Gerber. The Defenders. Tell me about your first experience with this.

Sacks: Oh holy crap. So I was a mere tyke barely out of diapers when I first read this stuff, in 1975 or '76 when I was in elementary school. I'm pretty sure I was attracted by the fact that the Hulk was one of the featured Defenders and like a lot of kids I loved how he would get giant and green and strong as hell when he was mad. I always wish I could do that when I was mad at my friends or my parents.

So I picked up my first issue of this series when I was about 9 or 10 and it was Defenders #24.

Elkin: The one with Sons of the Serpent?

Sacks: I remember it distinctly because the secret hideout with the Sons of the Serpent stuck in my head for years. I thought it was so cool how the Serpents trapped our heroes in giant serpent-shaped shackles, which is of course completely absurd to me now as an adult in a whole bunch of ways.

I had no idea what all that stuff was about racism, but as I got older and started rereading them, I realized how smart and insightful and unique all that stuff was. Of course #24 has a great cliffhanger too, so I was dying to read the next chapter, which of course has the amazing revelation about the head of the Sons of the Serpent that totally blew me away.

Elkin: I was going to ask you what a 9 or 10 year old though about a group of bad guys in a comic book claiming to be the "Catalysts of the Great White Revolution". Were you familiar with Charles Manson at the time? Helter Skelter?

Sacks: Yeah right, Elkin. :-) I was a pretty sheltered kid really.

Elkin: When reading it, I was amazed that Gerber was going with this whole White Power thing - echoing Manson's Helter Skelter - in the midst of a mainstream Marvel Comic. And then to have the leader of the group pulling a Clarence Thomas (obviously before we knew who Clarence Thomas was) was absolutely a brain twist. Then to have Luke Cage say, "It's between me an' the Oreo, here!" was completely off the hook. I don't know what I would have done at the age of 10 if I had read that.

Sacks: It's a fascinating work. On one level it reads like a fairly typical Marvel comic of its era. On another there's a whole lot of sophisticated references and realistic reactions that totally gives the comic a fascinating period relevance.

Elkin: Hanging Valkyrie on an upside-down cross to burn her, pretty intense.

Sacks: And then having the literal son of Satan save her from burning.

Elkin: I know, right...

I do have to ask you. In issue #25, Gerber introduces an Elf with a gun. As far as I could tell, this is never referenced again. What the hell was that all about?

Sacks: Ah, the Gerber elf.

Elkin: Not to be confused with the Gerber baby...Wait.. I made that joke before.

Sacks: He pops up three or four more times in Defenders, always as one-page cutaway non-sequiturs from the main story. And then... nothing.

Elkin: It was so freaking random that it totally unnerved me. Was this a way to keep readers on their toes?

Sacks: According to Wikipedia the elf showed up 4 times, then David Anthony Kraft, who came after Gerber, had the elf run over by a car in Defenders #46.

Elkin: That is hysterical.

Sacks: Why did Gerber do it? Good question. I think he was trying for exactly what you felt - just a random bit of chaos in the midst of other chaos that is the stuff and bother of his life. If you follow my theory about Gerber's work being subconsciously autobiographical, maybe it represents his ambivalence about working in fantasy literature while living in crime-ridden New York City during the era it went bankrupt.

Elkin: Interesting theory, to say the least. Perhaps something for a longer article or doctoral dissertation. Do you know what sort of reaction Gerber got from either the public or, more interestingly, from Marvel itself about the whole Sons of the Serpent storyline?

Sacks: I don't remember, honestly, but I remember the letters pages being happy with him.

What was your reaction to it?

Elkin: It was pretty intense stuff, to say the least, especially given the fact that it was presented in a book like the Defenders -- which really was the last place I was expecting to find political polemics, especially about race relations in America.

I think he handled it pretty well, though, considering the limitations under which the form compels. I think he raised some interesting questions in it.

Sacks: This series under Gerber has a really realistic feel to it for a super-hero book. The events that occur really seem to touch the characters in ways that the events in, say, Avengers or Fantastic Four do.

Elkin: And, like I said before, Luke Cage's reaction to the fact that the Sons of the Serpent were being led by Pennysworth, an African-American himself, was really amazingly poignant.

Sacks: I love the way Gerber writes Cage.

Elkin: You said that it had a really realistic feel to it, but then the next story arc that Gerber writes is all about the Guardians of the Galaxy, which is about as unrealistic as can be.

Sacks: Yeah it's pretty much the opposite of the Serpents story, but it still has its intense elements - the future history where we destroy the planet due to ozone gasses is really kind of prescient.

Elkin: "We decided we valued dry armpits and the 3 billion dollar aerosol industry over our flowers, our food, and ultimately our health."

Sacks: That sent small chills down my spine.

Elkin: The whole timeline of planetary destruction that he outlines in issue #26 is pretty amazing, and reading it today, with these things in our "past" (Gerber's future) added a whole different layer to its impact.

Sacks: But I liked how Gerber was optimistic despite the ecological horrors - we got bionics and went to colonize all the planets.

Elkin: Then... the Badoon.

Sacks: And their strange problems with gender.

Elkin: Yea. I wanted to talk a little about that as well. It seems that Gerber, at least from reading this bit, had some interesting thoughts about gender relations.

Sacks: Hmm, tell me more of what you're thinking.

Elkin: The way he set up the Badoon female society as being this City on a Hill kind of place and how they still, it seems to me, were forced to take a subservient role to the male Badoon.

But the society could only flourish if the men and women of the species were kept apart.

Sacks: The women were very happy being separated from the men, in fact that's the only way that they felt they could survive as a viable unit.

The men were kind to their pets but not to their women.

Elkin: Gerber writes, "You've remained slaves to the males' system. It's nice and safe as long as you stay confined to this world and no questions are asked." They were also complacent in the destruction that the males would wreck through this process.

The whole "the only way the species can continue is through separation of the genders" is kind of a big statement.

Sacks: The Badoon had hardly ever appeared before in comics, so Gerber had free reign to create that world.

Elkin: And inject his politics into it as well....

Sacks: I'm not sure if this is a philosophical insight for Gerber or a fictional construct, to be honest. He generally writes good female characters. Valkyrie is definitely an interesting woman with some complex issues in her life.

Elkin: Absolutely. I am by no means implying that I think Gerber was misogynistic in any way. Valkyrie's existential crisis is pretty intense for a comic book coming out in the '70s.

Sacks: But your insight is intriguing.

A lot of what I was talking about with characters feeling the intensity of the event of this book is about Valkyrie's real existential crisis. It's almost impossible to imagine a more intense and true existential crisis than Barbara Norriss/Valkyrie.

Elkin: Especially during the scenes with her husband and when she goes back to her childhood home.

Sacks: She went from being a married woman who was a servant of a cult - and driven insane by that experience - into a strong and intense warrior woman whose past life was literally another world for her.

I was amazed when I reread these stories how much the scenes of Val looking thru her photo album hit me.

Elkin: I agree. Gerber really hit the emotional beats on that scene. I don't know enough about the Valkyrie character -- does this issue ever get resolved for her?

Sacks: Well this is what I probably like the best about Gerber... she basically resolved it by accepting who she is now and exploring who she was as literally a new person. As she grows Jack Norriss also grows and learns to accept the new chaos in his life. You can see hints of that in the end of the Guardians saga.

He's a bit of a Mary Sue, reacting and trying to deal with the new chaos in his life. Gerber loved his Mary Sues. There's several in his work. Paul Same in Howard the Duck, Richard Rory in Man-Thing.

Elkin: Do we ever find out what happens to Jack Norriss?

Sacks: Yeah, you'll love how he changes in Essential Defenders vol. 3.

Did you notice how nicely Gerber wrote Ben Grimm in the Two-In-One issues? Gerber's Ben Grimm has also come to terms with his new life and chosen to embrace his life.

Elkin: I like how he is a real Yancy Street Grimm. I also love his incredulous nature saying things like: "I gotta be dreamin'! Ya can't wreck the world with a harmonica!" Gerber seems to use the Thing to sort of ground us in this totally off the wall bit about the Harmonica of Destiny. I did really like that.

Sacks: I liked Stephen Strange and Kyle Richmond and the rest of the characters in this book, but the one I'd most like to hang out with is Gerber's version of the Thing.

Elkin: Certainly he would be the most fun to have a beer with.

Going back to the gender issues in the Defenders, for a moment – there is that bit in issue #29 when the Hulk and this lady are sent to die in some arctic place as part of the Super-Death Sweepstakes. The lady has made some pretty serious sacrifices for the Hulk. She just disappears though once they get out of that situation and is never mentioned again. Kind of a throwaway character. Kind of a cop-out too in terms of plot development. Is she like the Elf?

Sacks: I never noticed that. She's never spoken of again.

Elkin: And it seemed like there were some interesting possibilities with her character as well. Her rejection of the Dionysian lifestyle of her planet, her romantic interest in the Hulk, the sacrifice she makes.... I would have like to have seen where that character could have gone.

Sacks: She's another case of the people in charge literally discarding a female character. Emperor Goozot say, "A former wife of mine, Mon-tee. From what I overheard in the dungeon, she'd prefer Mr. Green as her mate."

Elkin: I think that was sort of a lost opportunity. Gerber really didn't think too much of the Hulk as a character, other than being a simple minded destruction machine who was loyal to his friends.

Sacks: You're right there. The Hulk is the one character with no depth. Though he hates racism from the Serpents.

Elkin: Not sure if it is the racism he hates, or the fact that his friends are getting hurt.

Sacks: True.

Elkin: Still, he does provide some comic relief and the convenient Banner brain when needed.

Sacks: The book needed at least one star to anchor it. Guest appearances from Yellowjacket wouldn't sell copies.

Elkin: Heh. That's true. Even when he is shaking his fist silently at the sky in anger.

So, Sacks, you are slowly turning me into a true Gerber gonzo. After Destroyer Duck and these Defenders, where do I go next?

Sacks: I think we need to go to Essential Defenders vol. 3 next and the Headmen saga.
Those characters from Defenders #21 show up again, with Ruby Thursday and some other friends.

Elkin: Do you mean Dr. Nagan? The man whose head has been grafted on the body of a gorilla, BY GORILLAS?

Sacks: Isn't that just fucking awesome?

Elkin: Oh yea it is.

Sacks: Nagan, Morgan and Chondu were all chosen from a contemporary issue of the reprint comic Weird Wonder Tales. They come from post-code monster stories

Elkin: I love Morgan's melt face.

You have sold me just by telling me that these guys make reappearance.

Sacks: I can give you more teasers if you want, but I don't want to spoil anything.

Elkin: Morgan's melt face is enough of a teaser for me, believe me. I'll go hunt down Essential Defenders #3 sometime this week!

Sacks: You will absolutely love it, my glib friend.

Elkin: Sweet. I think I refrained entirely from any glibness in this whole piece. I am rather
proud of myself for that and believe that I deserve some sort of awesome medal or trophy or something. Oh no, that may have been glib.

Sacks: Damn, I was going to give you a medal then you blew it.

Elkin: Shit. Story of my life. Going... going.... going... then boom, glib.
Gerber brings out the glibness, I guess.

Sacks: The Guardians move into their own series after their guest appearance in Defenders and Starhawk joins the group. He then becomes comics' first transgendered character of a sort as he shares his body with Aleta and switches back and forth between genders.
Another great Gerber comic series.

Elkin: Let's get through the Defenders first before you blow my mind even further with that stuff.

Sacks: Deal!

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