February 1, 2012

Classic Comics Cavalcade: The Essential Defenders vol. 3

This Column Originally Ran on Comics Bulletin

As promised (or threatened) last time, Daniel and Jason are back to talk about Steve Gerber's mad genius work on the classic Defenders comic, this time including angry deer, a Soviet super-heroine, inexplicable villain plans, and of course Bozos!

Jason Sacks: So . . . Steve Gerber. Genius or madman? Or both?

Daniel Elkin: I'm thinking, after going through Essential Defenders #3, that he was a mad genius. I've read my share of strange comics, but this collection rates way up there in terms of weirdness.

Sacks: Perfect choice of words, because that's how he referred to himself in '76. The Howard the Duck for President campaign in '76 was sponsored by "Mad Genius Associates"

Elkin: I forgot that Howard the Duck ran for president in '76. Hmmmm . . . after watching the debates tonight, I'm wondering if he would be a viable candidate this year. People might confuse him with Ron Paul, though.

Sacks: Wauuugh!

Elkin: So, where to start? The Headmen? Bambi? Nighthawk's brain in a saucer?

Sacks: I told you yesterday that these comics literally left me on a high after reading them. Nearly every line, every comment and every scene was just so perfectly realized for me. A creator truly at the top of his game throwing all kinds of crazy ass shit at the comic reader, one after another, until you really had no choice but to just float along with the insane rhythm of the work.

Elkin: As I was reading through this collection, I had to keep stopping and smacking my head. I kept saying to my son, "Read this, you have to read this." He started to get a little freaked out by the 7th or 8th time.

Sacks: LOL seriously?

Elkin: This was one wild ride of a comic reading experience, Sacks. Thanks so much for pointing me in this direction.

Sacks: Great as the Sons of the Serpent and Guardians of the Galaxy stories were, this is a whole different level of amazing.

Elkin: Absolutely. I'm still trying to figure out when the Hulk sat down to watch Bambi???? The movie, I mean. How else would he know about it?

Sacks: "Hunters killed Bambi's mom"!

Elkin: I know, right!

Sacks: One of the scariest scenes ever with the Hulk. He actually attacks a hunter, skips him across the water like a rock, and breaks the poor guy's neck!

Elkin: Hulk would have made quite the PETA organizer. I kept trying to imagine Buscema's face as he was drawing these issues. When Bambi is trying to open the door, or when he's getting all upset or shooting beams out of his eyes. Can you imagine what he was thinking as he was drawing this stuff?

Sacks: Sal Buscema is the one that really makes these comics so subversive. His style is so "classic '70s Marvel" that it kind of masks everything in a veneer of boring calm, but he's continually drawing this crazy and subversive stuff!

Elkin: Like the Bozo Cheerleaders? Or the epic battle between Dr. Strange; Nebulon, The Celestial Man; and Gerald Ford? Or Jack Norriss, Secret Agent? Or Chondu's new body as designed by Ray Harryhausen? This is incredible stuff!

Sacks: Riot in a women's prison! The homicidal deer! The beautiful alien creature who looks like a nebbish and beats the Hulk! The plan to solve the population explosion in India by shrinking everyone! It just goes on and on and on.

Elkin: Don't forget the Elf with the Gun!

Sacks: And yet, to me, this whole run never loses its insane kinetic thrust and power. It all basically hangs together with just a few odd loose ends.

Elkin: One scene that really kinda stood out for me is when Val's horse, Aragorn, is injured on the roof and the owner of the building wants to shoot him because the ceiling is caving in and he doesn't want to pay for the repairs. What does he think is going to happen after he shoots the horse? It will suddenly become lighter? That was one weird bit of business and such a throwaway kind of thing. But it really stuck with me for some reason.  Also, the image of Hulk in the Bozo mask. I want a poster of that. A huge poster. To put in my classroom.

Sacks: Holy crap, I loved that!

Elkin: Just to remind the students that "You're all Bozos!"

Sacks: Perfect. OK, seriously, where do we start?

Elkin: Let's start with The Headmen. And Ruby Thursday.

Sacks: And Headwoman. I know you loved their first appearance in Essential Defenders 2.

Elkin: What the hell was up with Ruby Thursday? Please explain to me how that character worked (I loved her, by the way--with a deep and abiding love that I save for women with computerized organic balls on their heads) Where did she come from, and did she ever make an appearance again anywhere?

Sacks: No, it makes no sense, does it? Especially later when she actually runs for President. Umm, wtf?

Elkin: Hmmmm . . . in this political climate, she might be mistaken for Michele Bachmann.

Sacks: This was her first appearance, in Defenders 32-33. She also murders fellow Gerber creation Omega the Unknown at the end of his run.

Elkin: Thanks for spoiling that for me . . .

Sacks: LOL I actually ran that page in a Top 10 not too long ago. C'mon, I expect you to read every single word I write for the site!

I'm very tempted to psychoanalyze Gerber based on Ruby.

Elkin: How so?

Sacks: I dunno . . . she's just so bizarre in every way that I wonder if she comes from a nightmare or some deep concern or stress. She's a woman with a beautiful body and a head of a jewel, who can transform her head into anything she wants and kill people. She's seductive and repulsive and terrifying all at the same time.

Elkin: Yes she is. What do you think this says about Gerber, then? Do you think he had some underlying issues with women? Or his mother? Or his feminine side?

Sacks: Of course, she may just be a pun based on that Rolling Stones song that Gerber decided to use in a comic. I really don't know what he thought, because juxtaposed with Ruby is Valkyrie, who becomes much more realized and emotionally stronger as these issues go along. She really becomes herself, and in the prison scenes almost seems to come to terms with how she needs to live in her modern times.

Elkin: And don't forget the portrayal of The Red Guardian. She is also a strong, intelligent, accomplished female character. Speaking of her, not to get off topic too much, but there seemed to me that Gerber had some pro-communist leanings based on how he presented her.

Sacks: Typical '70s Liberal in some ways. Huh, he treats President Ford as an idiot but obviously loved the Red Guardian.

Elkin: Then again, Gerber really didn't seem to think much of Clea.

Wait... Ford wasn't an idiot?

Sacks: You know, come to think of it, there's plenty of scenes that Gerber wrote that pass the Bechdel Test. I think Ruby is just an oddball character that represents Gerber's strange sense of adventure and heroism.

Elkin: I just had to look up what the Bechdel test was.

Sacks: Our very own Kyrax is the one who explained it to me.

Elkin: I think it is probably something all men should know about.

Sacks: It really opened my eyes when we discussed it.

This time when I read these stories, for like the 5th or 6th time since I bought them off the newsstands, I was struck by how satirical the whole series is. Gerber is really throwing darts at the tropes of the '70s. And in that way, the ridiculous Headmen and bizarre Ruby Thursday are just examples of that.

Elkin: Go on . . . Are you telling me that I should see Nagan, Chondu, Jerry Morgan, and Ruby Thursday as actual threats? You know, now that I think about it, I'm still not sure I understand exactly what they wanted--sure, world domination in the abstract--but why? Was it because it was "messy" and "unordered"?

By the way, Footloose passes the Bechdel Test.

Sacks: As Nagan says, "The Dynamic Defenders reduced to unwilling guinea pigs in the world's most advanced psychological laboratory."

Elkin: Yeah. What the hell does that even mean?

Sacks: It's all about exerting power over free will. They're all about the control.

Elkin: To what end, though?

Sacks: To study mankind?

Elkin: I see you are as lost as I am . . .

Sacks: "How could they suspect we'll be recording their every action for the rest of their lives--analyzing their behavior and the structure of the society which must eventually evolve in our "ant farm here?" says Ruby.

Elkin: Hmmmm . . . Kung Fu Panda does NOT pass the Bechdel test.

Sacks: LOL!

Elkin: It does not seem that The Headmen had an actual goal in mind other than research. Gerber seemed to have this whole thing about free will versus control.

Sacks: Twice in these issues the story plays host to an actual metaphysical debate about free will versus control. It's strikingly odd and interesting. In Defenders #38 when Strange, Cage and Red Guardian find themselves trapped in an odd mystic dimension and again in the Annual when the Headmen kidnap them.

Elkin: I know. He uses The Red Guardian to talk about the benefits of a socialist state, while lamenting the restrictions to freedoms inherit in the Soviet system. It's a didactic power punch when he got on that trip.

Sacks: You think Gerber's espousing his views or just characterizing Tanya as being really committed to her beliefs?

Elkin: What? Hot Tub Time Machine failed the Bechdel Test?

Sacks: NO WAY.

Elkin: Gerber does it with such passion that I was convinced he honestly felt what he was saying was true. It is probably all part of that 70's liberal "Dune People's Commune" thing you mentioned before.

He does have a penchant for liberal issues. Prisoners' rights . . . Brains in a saucer . . . Elves with guns . . .

Sacks: That's one of my pet Liberal causes.

Elkin: Which one?

Sacks: I think we should all be able to have our brains in a saucer if we want to!

Elkin: I agree. Especially if it can still narrate our backstories like Kyle Richmond's did. We should form a Super PAC.

Who do you think Gerber sympathized with the most out of all the Defenders?

Sacks: Hmm, good question.

Elkin: I want to say it is Nighthawk. But, now that I think about it, maybe Jack Norriss was his mouthpiece.

Sacks: There's not a real Gerber analogue in these stories like there is in so many other Gerber stories where there are literal Gerber analogues - Paul Same in Howard the Duck, Richard Rory in Man-Thing, in some ways James-Michel Starling in Omega.

I almost think he empathized the most with Valkyrie.

Elkin: Why do you say that?

Sacks: To me she comes across as the most realized character and the one that—oddly-seems to go both the longest and the shortest in her journey. She seems to come to terms with all of who she is in these stories. She gains more emotional depth, more panache and power, a real sense of humor and gratitude for her friends. She becomes much more multi-dimensional than she was in the previous set of issues.

Elkin: True--but couldn't you make the same case for Nighthawk? He goes from rich spoiled brat, to super villain, to rich spoiled super hero, to having a real existential crisis, to discovering empathy, to becoming a leader.

Sacks: Yeah, true. He goes through a literally metaphysical crisis and does come out the other side.

Elkin: Brain in a saucer.

Sacks: My pet Liberal cause.

Elkin: That saucer gets seriously sloshed around during the course of its journey back to Nighthawk's head.

Sacks: God, I loved so many of those scenes. The angry deer is one of my favorite images ever.

Elkin: Talk about an existential crisis, by the way. It's Kyle Richmond, acting as Nighthawk, with Chondu's brain in his skull, but Jack Norriss' spirit in command? That's all fucked up.

That is one angry deer. Buscema must have shat himself after drawing that.

Sacks: Truly one of the greatest existential crises one can ever have - and then this whole crazy amalgam of spirits ends up on stage with Nebulon for his "BOZOS" show that you loved so much.

Elkin: We're all Bozos.

Sacks: Well, we are!

Elkin: And it's time we admit it.

Sacks: But that journey that Kyle goes through--and btw, those scenes of young Kyle in the playground in his Nighhawk costume seriously fucked up young Jason--is one of the strangest and most terrifying any hero could ever go through. I mean, they stole his goddamn brain! And though we've seen that trope on a million sci-fi comics and TV shows from the Avengers TV show to the Avengers comic, somehow it just seems more real and intense here.

Elkin: I love the way Gerber has Kyle's brain narrating that story in such a surrealistic way. It's almost as if Salvador Dali and Sal Buscema melded minds for a few pages. The whole thing was raw and powerful and wonderful and weird.

What? Frost/Nixon didn't pass the Bechdel Test either.

Sacks: Don't forget the amazing inking by Jim Mooney. Mooney's inking in the first half of these stories has this kind of raw dark intensity that Klaus Janson's issues don't have.

Mooney's use of blacks is gorgeous, especially in that sequence.

Elkin: I agree. I love that these Essential volumes are available. I do wish they were in color, though.

Sacks: This stuff will be in a Masterwork soon enough.

Wow, umm, we've been chatting for an hour and I don't think we did more than scratch the surface of these issues.

Elkin: Ummm . . . We haven't talked about Plantman, The Eel and The Porcupine, or Shazanna even. Or the guy whose house the Hulk keeps wrecking. There's so much going on in these issues. It's amazing.

Sacks: Seriously, I think there's a Master's thesis in these comics.

Elkin: Hmmm . . . Will Comics Bulletin foot the bill if I go attempt this? I've always wanted to quit my job and go back to school. Why not Gerber school?

Sacks: I'm right there with you.

Elkin: We should start our own program at Gerber U.

Sacks: Every time I read these comics I'm overwhelmed by their density. Even the embrace of the clichés that Gerber does in these books has its edge, its barb. There really is this mad genius energy at work in these 12 issues, producing something so complex, quirky and idiosyncratic that it could only come from that man in that time.

Elkin: You are preaching to the choir here, Sacks. I'm a full on Gerber Baby now. So we've done Destroyer Duck and his run on the Defenders. Where do we go next?

Sacks: You want to stay with Gerber or would you like to pick a book for our next chat?

Elkin: Don't de-Gerber on me now. I want more!

Sacks: Hmm, ok, if you loved this book we should go to his Man-Thing.

Elkin: Sweet. I love Man-Thing.

Sacks: Most unfortunately named comic ever. Essential Man-Thing vol. 1?

Elkin: Are you kidding me -- what else would you name it? Whatever knows fear burns at the touch of Sam Smithers?

Sacks: With Jennifer Kale and F.A. Schist and poor Wundarr and all those other schlubs and losers.

Elkin: Will it be as weirdly wonderful as his run on the Defenders?

Sacks: We can do a full chat just on the original Fool-Killer.

Elkin: Ack! Don't mention Fool-Killer. I'm still having flashback nightmare twitches.

Sacks: That's the scariest comic Gerber ever wrote. Shall we reconvene in a few weeks to talk about The Most Startling Slime Creature of All?

Elkin: Man-Thing--it's not a euphemism for your Johnson. I'm ready.

Sacks: Cool. I'm gonna go off and read some Steve Ditko now. Because Gerber's not strange enough of an creator, I have to go to an even stranger creator.

Elkin: And I've got my latest random pull for my Cheap Thrills column. This one seems so so much better than last week's.

Oh, and Sex and the City -- totally passed the Bechdel Test.

Sacks: LOL I'm sure

Elkin: Talk to you later. And make mine Gerber!

Sacks: Later Daniel!

Elkin: Thanks Jason. That was a lot of fun. I think we covered some great ground on this one. Seriously, Man-Thing! I love Man-Thing. I can't wait to see how Gerber wraps his brain around that one.

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