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 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.