Contents: The Defenders #92 (February 1981) to #106 (April 1982); Marvel Team-Up #101 (January 1981), #111 (November 1981), and #116 (April 1982); and Captain America # 268 (April 1982)
Key Creator Credits: J.M. Dematteis, Don Perlin, Joe Sinnott, Herb Trimpe, Mike Zeck, and others
Key First Appearances: Isaac Christians/Gargoyle, Luann Bloom
Story Continues From: Essential Defenders Vol. 4
Story Continues In: Essential Defenders Vol. 6
Overview: Welcome back to the Defenders, everyone’s favorite non-team in the Marvel Universe. No matching uniforms like the FF or New Mutants. No ID cards like the Avengers or Alpha Flight. No charter or official group headquarters for these heroes. Just a willingness to help out when called, or if you happen to have nothing else to do on a Tuesday night.
This is an interesting collection of stories, as writer J.M DeMatteis uses the opportunity to have his stories here cross over into other books that he was writing at the time, such as Marvel Team-Up and Captain America. We also get the introduction of two new characters to the Defenders unofficial line-up. The first is a brand new character in Gargoyle, who was once Isaac Christians, a man in his late 80s. In an effort to save his declining Virginia town, Christians makes a deal with Avarrish to serve him. His first assignment is to slay Hellcat. Gargoyle eventually turns on Avarrish and sides with the Defenders in their battle against the Six-Fingered Hand. Unfortunately, Christians finds he is trapped permanently inside the body of the Gargoyle. With no place else to go, the Gargoyle joins the Defenders.
Another familiar face makes his first appearance with this would-be team. Hank McCoy, a.k.a. the Beast finds himself working alongside our heroes. As a founding member of the X-Men and a one-time card-carrying member of the Avengers, the Beast is very much into the team dynamics, something this group of heroes is sorely lacking. But that story takes a little longer to develop, so stick around for Essential Defenders Vol. 6.
Not that this book has any one star above the others, but it seems like for this set of issues the focus falls on Nighthawk. As the Batman-analog on this team, Nighthawk always seems to be right in the middle of things, whether it is in his costumed identity or his wealthy playboy life as Kyle Richmond. Following that battle with the Six-Fingered Hand, Nighthawk finds himself confined to a wheelchair during the day but is at full strength at night. He quits the team for awhile but returns again in time for the title’s 100th issue, which brought back every former member in a battle against Satan. Soon after, Nighthawk finds himself at odds with his ex-girlfriend, Mindy Williams, who is a telepath leading an attack against the Soviet Union. With the help of the Defenders and Captain America, Nighthawk is able to stop the telepaths, but the cost appears to be Kyle sacrificing his life. (Do not fear — he gets better! Keep reading!)
What makes this Essential?: I really want to rate this higher. I think this title became more interesting in this era, as it featured less of the four core “non-members” (Doctor Strange, Hulk, Namor, and/or Silver Surfer) and more of the extended members (Valkyrie, Nighthawk, Hellcat, Gargoyle, and Beast). However, despite the change of focus, I didn’t find much about this collection that remained memorable. I read this a few years ago, but I honestly have no recollection of many of these stories. If that’s the case, I can’t honestly believe that this is essential. For the Defenders completist, I can justify having this in your collection – provided you didn’t already have the issues. But I just can’t give this a “go-out-and-buy” this book recommendation.
If you like this volume, try: the Nighthawk mini-series from 1998. While it appears that Nighthawk perished in the explosion at the end of Defenders #106. Turns out he actually did survive, but he’s been in a hospital in a coma for many months. Nighthawk’s soul makes a deal to perform various tasks in order to fully return to the living. Unfortunately, the tasks come with ulterior motives, and Nighthawk must overcome his saviors in order to return to normal, thanks in part to the timely assist by Daredevil. This is just a three issue mini-series, written by Jim Krueger with art by Richard Case. It has never been reprinted, so you will need to dive into the back issue bins to track this one down.