4 out of 5
Steve Gerber moves into his endgame for Head-Men / Nebulon and gets out some last-minute nonsense – magic ape attacks in issue #38 – and some great character work for Valkyrie and Red Guardian, while juggling all of his various plotlines with Val in prison, and Doc’s weakening powers, and Bozo cults.
And then in issue #40 he seems to realize he’s running out of time and starts talking about stuff that’s apparently been going on in the background (completely unbeknownst to us readers…) and is super important; it’s a weaker issue because of this, surely, but Steve’s become very accustomed to his series’ characters’ voices and his unique pacing by this point, so it still reads well.
#38 and 39 are truly fantastic, though, creating pure calamity in the former when Nebulon traps most of our heroes in some parallel dimension, informing their reaction to the experience with their various current internal tribulations. This is the special sauce – besides Gerb’s general weirdness – that really made his Defenders stick out: it’s not the usual superhero dramaturgy, but a lot of interestingly nuanced turmoil, balanced with a humorous and cynical sneer towards the exterior world’s insanity, which is expressed both by our wacky villains, but also by our everyday humans, bumbling through the strip. The latter issue of these two – Val in a women’s prison – has Steve really turning a corner on how he represents women in his strips: always erring toward trying to make them in to full characters and not just damsels, earlier efforts still had a tang of indirect Men Serious, Women Silly syndrome. But perhaps as a result of his more recent collaborations with Mary Skrenes (who knows, just guessing), there’s not even a need for Steve to do any gender comparison commentaries: he just writes the female roles as, like, real people. (Y’know, for a comic where the female lead has a sword named Dragonfang and is magically enchanted to not be able to harm other women.)
Klaus Janson’s inking continues to be a perfect, jagged addition to Buscema’s art.