Essential Defenders Vol. 7

First Published: May 2013

Contents: The Defenders #126 (December 1983) to #139 (January 1985); Beauty and the Beast #1 (December 1984) to #4 (June 1985); and Iceman #1 (December 1984) to #4 (June 1985)

Key Creator Credits: J.M. Dematteis, Peter Gillis, Ann Nocenti, Alan Kupperberg, Sal Buscema, Don Perlin, Mike Zeck, and others

Key First Appearances: Manslaughter, Oblivion, Dragon of the Moon

Story Continues From: Essential Defenders Vol. 6

Overview: The Defenders are dead! Long live the New Defenders! As we saw at the end of the last collection, With the core line-up (Doctor Strange, Hulk, Namor, & Silver Surfer) no longer able to work together for fear of destroying the Earth, a new team steps from the ashes to become the New Defenders. From the last run, Valkyrie, Gargoyle and Beast stick around, recruiting Angel, Iceman and Moondragon to join them in this journey.

With the new team, the dynamics between the various members make for an interesting story, sometimes more interesting than the villain of the month that they would battle each month. Who will lead the team? Is it the Beast, who has trained and studied under both Charles Xavier and Captain America? Is it the Angel, whose bank account is funding most of the team’s activities? Or is it Moondragon, who believes that everyone should bow down to the goddess that she believes herself to be?

Regardless who leads the team, we see the story moving forward with hints of things to come. We are introduced to the Dragon of the Moon, who will (SPOILER WARNING SINCE THERE IS NO ESSENTIAL DEFENDERS VOL. 8!) will become a negative influence in Moondragon’s life and lead to the eventual demise of this team (and this title).

But before then, we get lots of adventures of the new Defenders. We even get some solo mini-series involving members of the team. First up is an Iceman miniseries, which ran concurrently with Beauty and the Beast, teaming up the Beast with Dazzler (before she joined the X-Men).

What makes this Essential?: This is the most transformative era of the title that we have seen. For all of the talk about the Defenders not have a set roster, it was always some combination of the core line-up. Now just Valkyrie remains with half of the original X-Men, plus Moondragon and Gargoyle. So, for a change of pace with the characters, this is an interesting read. But it still doesn’t make this Essential. I personally would have rather seen the two mini-series dropped in favor of finding a way to get all of the remaining issues (it ran until #152) into this collection. I think J.M. DeMatteis and Peter Gillis have fun creating new adventures with these characters, with stellar art from the likes of Don Perlin and Alan Kubberberg, but these are not A-list characters to carry a book.

Footnotes: During this run of Defenders issues, the covers reflected the title The New Defenders. However, the indicia in the original issues indicated that the official title still was The Defenders. It wasn’t until issue #140 that the official name listed in the indicia was The New Defenders. Since this collection ends with issue #139, you could make the argument that Marvel collected all of the original issues in the Defenders series in this line of Essentials

Beauty and the Beast #1 to #4 are also reprinted in Essential Dazzler Vol. 2.

If you like this volume, try: hunting down a copy of The Gargoyle mini-series from 1985. This entire series has never been reprinted, so you will need to hit the back-issue bins to find this. Gargoyle co-creator and writer J.M. DeMatteis, along with artist Mark Badger, finally had the chance to do a solo series featuring Isaac Christians. He returns to his hometown, Christiansboro, Virginia, where Chambers is tricked into returning to his original body. Unfortunately, that allows the one of the demons to return to the Gargoyle shell and begin an attack to destroy the town. With the help of a druid, Christians’ soul is returned to the Gargoyle shell, and the Gargoyle destroys Isaac Chambers’ body so that he can’t be used like that again. This mini-series should have been collected in this volume, perhaps in place of the Beauty and the Beast series since that had been included in the Essential Dazzler Vol. 2 collection four years earlier.

Essential Web of Spider-Man Vol. 2

wosm2First Published: July 2012

Contents: Web of Spider-Man #19 (October 1986) to #32 (November 1987); Web of Spider-Man Annual #3 (1987); Amazing Spider-Man #293 (October 1987) and #294 (November 1987); and Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #131 (October 1987) and #132 (November 1987)

Key Creator Credits: David Michelinie, Larry Lieber, Len Kaminski, J.M. Dematteis, James Owsley, Mike Zeck, Marc Silvestri, Steve Geiger, and others

Key First Appearances: Humbug, Solo

Story Continues From: Essential Web of Spider-Man Vol. 1

Overview: Swinging across the city and across the pond, Spider-Man is back in action with amazing adventures and spectacular scenes. This is Essential Web of Spider-Man Vol. 2!

The stories in this collection fall at either end of the scale – these are either really good or really bad. Focusing on the good tales, Peter and Joy Mercado travel to the United Kingdom, where Spider-Man must rescue Margaret Thatcher from an assassination attempt. We don’t get many political or real-world scenario stories with Spidey (generally), so these issues stand out as a change of pace.

We also get the typical New York mob story as we get the origin story of the Rose, who is the estranged son of the Kingpin. In addition, we get a wrap-up to the Ned Leeds/Hobgoblin arc that had been building for years across the various Spider-Man titles.

The volume concludes with one of the most powerful Spider-Man stories of all time, Kraven’s Last Hunt, which ran across the three monthly books for two months. Kraven takes out Spider-Man and dons his costume to replace him. Kraven buries Peter in a shallow grave. Meanwhile, Vermin is back, kidnapping people into the sewers to feast on them, and his most recent victim is Mary Jane. The storylines all converge together, and Peter must reclaim his title as Spider-Man, leaving Kraven a shattered shell of his former self. This magnificent story from J. M. Dematteis and Mike Zeck remains as one of the greatest arcs of all time.

What makes this Essential?: First, my apologies for spoiling this review. I promoted the Kraven’s Last Hunt storyline with my review of Essential Daredevil Vol. 5, not fully realizing that this storyline would be included in this collection. In all fairness, I wanted to make sure I pointed people to this story, one way or another! his is a title that I read sporadically as it came out. I just didn’t have much interest in Spider-Man at this time. The problem I have with this book, and I think Marvel has realized it at different times along the way, is that there is nothing unique to this book that distinguishes it

So, yes, the reason to own this collection is for Kraven’s Last Hunt. This is one of the most powerful Spider-Man stories of all time. This still stands up nearly 25 years later, and it should be part of any collection.

The fact that we get other Spider-Man stories is an added bonus – sort of! The stories from David Michelinie and James Owsley (Christopher Priest) are solid stories. The fill-in issues that round up this volume feel so out of place when lined up against these other tales. This might be a volume where you check the issue credits before reading the issue.

If you like this volume, try: finding two books that were never reprinted in the Essential format, but would be helpful to have read when reading this volume.

The first is Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21 (1987), which features the wedding of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. This was a landmark issue years in the making, as the two lovebirds finally tied the knot. The issue featured two different covers – the first had MJ and Peter, with their friends and family in the background, while the second had MJ and Spider-Man, with his enemies in the background. MJ’s dress was actually designed by real-life wedding dress designer Willie Smith. Marvel actually made it into a real event, hosting a ceremony at Shea Stadium. This has been reprinted in multiple trades including the Marvel Weddings TPB.

The second is Spider-Man vs. Wolverine #1 (February 1987). This was a stand-alone special edition book that gave us the identity of Hobgoblin, a mystery that had been building for four years in the various Spider-books. Turns out that it was [SPOLIER ALERT FROM 30 YEARS AGO!] mild-mannered reporter Ned Leeds who had been tormenting Spider-Man and trying to take over the crime rackets in New York City. We get a follow-up issue of Web of Spider-Man to this special edition – too bad it wasn’t included in this collection.

Essential Ghost Rider Vol. 4

ghostrider4First Published: October 2010

Contents: Ghost Rider #66 (March 1982) to #81 (June 1983); Amazing Spider-Man #274 (March 1986); and New Defenders #145 (July 1985) and #146 (August 1985)

Key Creator Credits: J.M. Dematteis, Roger Stern, Michael Fleisher, Don Perlin, Bob Budiansky, Tom Sutton, Ron Frenz, and others

Key First Appearances: Asmodeus, Hamilton Slade/Phantom Rider, Red Fowler

Story Continues From: Essential Ghost Rider Vol. 3

Overview: Get your motor runnin’ as Ghost Rider races to the finish line of his first series. This Essential collection brings the 1970s series to an end, perhaps with some of the best issues of the entire run.

This is an interesting take on the character, as I think the book finally gets the right creative team and directions for the comic. Rather than treating the book as a reluctant hero, it becomes more of a horror title, focusing on a title character struggling to keep a demon in check. It’s too bad that the direction came so late because there was no way to avoid the dreaded cancellation ax by this point. I almost wish Dematteis & Budiansky had more issues to play with this concept.

Despite the cancellation of the title, we do get two epilogs of sorts to Johnny Blaze and to the demon Zarathos. Johnny Blaze gets to bid farewell to many of his former Champions teammates over in the pages of New Defenders, while Zarathos is used as a pawn by the Beyonder to test the limits of Peter Parker in Amazing Spider-Man.

What makes this Essential?: The good news is that this is the final Essential volume for this character. I’m running out of ways to be diplomatic with my comments. Nonetheless, I like the way that writer J.M. Dematteis and artist Bob Budiansky brought the whole series to a conclusion, picking up many of the plot threads and characters introduced years earlier. Given the way so many other titles abruptly ended in this era (I’m looking at you, Spider-Woman!), this was a nice way to say so long (for now) to Johnny Blaze. 

If you like this volume, try: the Ghost Rider by Jason Aaron omnibus from Marvel. Released in 2010, this collects writer Jason Aaron’s run with the Ghost Riders (Johnny Blaze and Danny Ketch), with art by the likes of Tony Moore and Tan Eng Huat. My issues with Ghost Rider is not that I don’t like the character. The 80+ issues that I have read over the four Essential volumes are just not that great. Whether the stories do not hold up over the years or that the stories are just really bad can be debated. There have been some writers on this run who I really like, but I don’t know that their Ghost Rider work is the best example of their abilities.

So, with all of that said, I truly believe that Jason Aaron is one of the best writers at Marvel today. His volume of work stands out across multiple titles and genres. I think you could find the most obscure Marvel character, and Aaron could find a take on the character that will blow everyone away. Please check out his current work (Mighty Thor, Doctor Strange) and track down the Ghost Rider omnibus.

Essential Defenders Vol. 6

defenders6

First Published: October 2011

Contents: The Defenders #107 (May 1982) to #125 (November 1983); Avengers Annual #11 (1982); and Marvel Team-Up #119 (July 1982)

Key Creator Credits: J.M. Dematteis, Don Perlin, Mark Gruenwald, and others

Key First Appearances: Mistress Love, Arcanna, Nuke, Power Princess, Sassafras, Cloud, Mad-Dog

Story Continues From: Essential Defenders Vol. 5

Story Continues In: Essential Defenders Vol. 7

Overview: Welcome back to yet another volume of Essential Defenders. For a book with no official line-up, headquarters, and/or uniforms, it still amazes me that this title ran for 152 issues. It was a title that for 15 years could do almost any type of story, as everything was fair game with magicians, mutants, Asgardians, and more hanging out each and every month.

This volume kicks off with the death of Valkyrie, or so it seems. See back in Defenders #66 to #68, Valkyrie’s spirit was put into the body of Barbara Norris, and Norris’ spirit was placed into Valkyrie’s body, who was left in the Asgardian realm of Niffleheim. While Norris’ body is killed, the Defenders are able to save Valkyrie’s spirit, and reunite it with her body. So, long live Valkyrie, and so long Barbara Norris.

Next up is Avengers Annual #11, which won’t be found in the Essential Avengers run. Long-time Defenders adversary Nebulon finds himself sentenced to Earth. He encounters Thor, who brings Nebulon to the Avengers to aid the alien in returning to his home. At this same time, another member of Nebulon’s race, Nalia, arrives and seeks out the Defenders. She claims that Nebulon has plans to take over the Earth, and asks the Defenders to stop him. In typical comic book fashion, the two teams square off in the Himalayas, only to eventually realize that both teams were being manipulated by the aliens.

The Squadron Supreme, Marvel’s version of the Justice League, shows up for a multi-issue story, and the rest of the team is finally introduced in this story, with Arcanna (Zatanna), Nuke (Firestorm), and Power Princess (Wonder Woman). It’s a battle royale between the Defenders, the Squadron Supreme, and the Overmind

As this volume winds down, we see the transition start with the line-up that leads to the creation of the New Defenders. The Beast becomes more of the de facto leader of the non-team. Two of the Beast’s former teammates, Iceman and the Angel, show up and stick around. Valkyrie brings along a guest in Moondragon, who is under the warrior’s supervision following her latest power grab move with the Avengers. And of course, there is the Gargoyle, who really has no place else to go, so of course, he will stick around. Patsy Walker and Daimon Hellstorm finally take their leave of the team following their wedding. And the four heroes most closely associated with the concept of the Defenders – Doctor Strange, Hulk, Sub-Mariner, and Silver Surfer – turn over the reigns to the new team, knowing that there is a new set of Defenders to help protect the world.

What makes this Essential?: There are parts of this book that are good to read, such as the Avengers Annual, the Squadron Supreme crossover, and the formation of the “New Defenders”. However, I don’t know that the sum of these parts justifies the full Essential volume. These are decent stories, but so much of this run just feels like a monthly placeholder, just to ensure that the book met its monthly deadline.

If you like this volume, try: The Vision and Scarlet Witch mini-series from 1982. Following yet another roster shuffle in Avengers #211, the Vision and the Scarlet Witch opted to become reserve members and move out to a home in New Jersey. Despite some occasional appearances in The Defenders and the team-up books, the Vision and Scarlet Witch were out of the spotlight for awhile before earning their first mini-series, created by Bill Mantlo and Rick Leonardi. These two characters have such a complex family history, which all comes into play in this series. The Vision is visited by the Grim Reaper, who is the step-brother to Wonder Man, who shares his brain patterns with the aforementioned Vision. We get a visit by the Golden-Age hero, the Whizzer, who was once thought to be the father to the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, but that was finally proven not to be true in this series. But the significant news that came out of this mini-series was the true heritage of Wanda and Pietro – as the children of Magneto. (It had long been assumed, finally confirmed, and recently overturned in order to support the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) This series was reprinted in a 2005 trade paperback, but I believe the actual issues can still be tracked down in the back issue bins.

Essential Defenders Vol. 5

defenders5First Published: August 2010

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.

Essential Rampaging Hulk Vol. 2

rampaginghulk2First Published: March 2010

Contents: Hulk! #16 (August 1979) to #27 (June 1981)

Key Creator Credits: Doug Moench, Ron Wilson, Gene Colan, J.M. DeMatteis, and others

Story Continues From: Essential Rampaging Hulk Vol. 1

Overview: This may be a short review this week, so my apologies in advance. But I’m finding it a challenge to create an overview for this collection. As we saw in the second half of the previous volume, the Hulk! magazine featured longer length stories that were not necessarily tied into continuity with the monthly comic.

Perhaps borrowing an approach from the 1970s TV series, a lot of the stories feature Banner coming into a random town, getting caught up in some evil plot, and then letting the Hulk take over and smash everything to pieces. We get a few stories that are inspired by real events. For example, in Hulk! #20, the Hulk is needed to stop a nuclear meltdown a la Three Mile Island. A lot of the stories deal with issues of that time (drug use, land rights, which still remain relevant 35 years later.

For me, the highlight of this book was the final story in the collection, and not because it was the last. Written by J.M. DeMatteis with art by Gene Colan, we have the Hulk wandering into Las Vegas. The down-on-his-luck Banner is befriended by a chorus dancer and a past-his-prime lounge singer, but they all end up getting on the bad side of the casino bosses. That very well could have been a story made for the television show, but it was better produced in comic book form.

What makes this Essential?: I hate it when I come to this conclusion, but I can’t say that this book is essential. The stories are average – nothing that stands out or gets revisited later. There is some great art from Gene Colan and Ron Wilson, but I don’t know that it’s enough to warrant buying the book. Outside of one or two mentions to Betty Ross or General Thunderbolt, you really don’t know that this is part of the Marvel Universe. These stories could be told with any character that transforms into a monster of some kind. For the Hulk completist, I could justify picking this up versus undergoing the hunt to track down the original magazines. For the average fan, I don’t know that the return would justify the investment (time and money).

If you like this volume, try: the Peter David run on The Incredible Hulk. David has been linked with the Hulk since 1987, when he started a 11-year run on the title. Over that time, he told stories featuring the various versions of the Hulk – mindless brute or Banner-controlled, as well as green or gray. David was one of the first writers to turn Rick Jones into a Hulk, hinting at the role he would one day play as A-Bomb. For me, my favorite Hulk run came in the late 1980s with Mr. Fixit. At this time, Hulk was in his gray form with moderate intelligence. He could only come out at night, harkening back to the original story elements of the Hulk from Lee & Kirby. Mr. Fixit set himself up as a heavyweight enforcer in Las Vegas, a city known for living large in every way possible. David’s run has been collected in a series of Hulk Visionaries volumes. If you want to read the Mr. Fixit story, you are going to need to pick up Volumes 2-4 of that line.