The Defenders (#31 – 35) – Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes

5 out of 5

Howard the Duck; Man-Thing – Steve Gerber had already broken a lot of “rules” for Marvel comic books by this point, establishing himself as a resident weirdo whose weirdness could be imitated but not exactly repeated. But there was one trick still eluding him, which he finally managed to pull off in a streak of great Defenders issues: writing a spandex book that combined his rule-breaking with his weirdness that still managed to be a totally legitimate spandex book. Like, The Defenders has all the goofy fisticuffs and hoary Dr. Strange chanting you could want, but it also features a deep-dive psychoanalysis of one of its characters – Nighthawk – and an odd relationship study via semi-estranged couple Jack and Valkyrie… and then it also has brain-swaps with a baby deer and a space alien masquerading as a self-help guru who dresses people up with clowns. And the Head-Men.

While most of Steve’s remaining Defenders issues somewhat bleed, plot-wise, into one another, these issues can mostly be said to deal with those Head-Men – a gaggle of scientists with different afflictions associated with their heads – and the brain-swapped Nighthawk, in a stream of completely ridiculous but also internally logical and exciting escalations. Steve had figured out how to write Dr. Strange’s powers and personality; Jack Norriss becomes a more well-rounded character, as does Val; and even Hulk, through his obsession with the baby deer, becomes a solid source of comedy and calamity – a welcomed addition to the “team” and not just stumbling accidentally into frame. To top it off, once Klaus Janson starts to ink Buscema’s art, the whole thing starts to look just amazing, straddling both comic book splashiness and grounded grit.