Welcome to Opening Panel, a series where we tell you the best place to start with franchise comics. Netflix and Marvel’s The Defenders has been out for a few weeks now. We’ve got suggestions to read if you loved the show, but you might be thinking “That was great, but what if it was completely different?” Well, you’re in luck as the original Defenders comic is nothing like the show at all.
The Defenders were created out of necessity, or rather, the “Titans Three” were. Roy Thomas was writing a Doctor Strange story, but the series was abruptly canceled, leaving him to finish the story in the pages of Sub-Mariner and Hulk. He formed a sort of “non-team” out of the characters before they went their separate ways.
Later Namor and the Hulk banded together again, this time with the Silver Surfer in the Atlantean’s own series. Stan Lee didn’t want anyone else writing the Surfer at the time, so when they were given a try-out in Marvel Feature it was the original trio. That led to an ongoing series written by Steve Englehart and drawn by industry legend Sal Buscema. Silver Surfer joins the team properly after Lee had a change of heart. Englehart left after penning the Avengers-Defenders War crossover. Wolverine creator Len Wein came on for a few issues after that.
Luke Cage joins the team as does Valkyrie (soon to be in Thor: Ragnarok) and briefly Hawkeye. The rotating membership became a big part of the “non-team’s” appeal and the defining feature of the series.
Steve Gerber was the next ongoing writer on the series. Gerber, an absurdist, brought his way-out there thinking to his comics, producing what is considered as one of the best, as well as weirdest, Defenders runs.
Issues One to Forty-One, the Sub-Mariner stories, and Marvel Feature are collected in Defenders Masterworks available digitally. Volumes 3-5 contain all of Gerber’s work on the title as well as the team’s guest appearance in Howard the Duck (a Gerber creation).
There are about fifty issues uncollected after that. Issues 92-109 are collected and in the Defenders Epic Collection: The Six Fingered Hand by J.M. DeMatteis and various artists. I don’t know much about this collection other than it brings back some of Marvel’s old horror characters, so if you like superheroes fighting Dracula (and I certainly do), this might be worth checking out in digital or paperback. DeMatteis continued his run and issues 110-125 are collected in Defenders Epic Collection: Ashes, Ashes… Both in digital and print.
The team went through fluxes after that going from an Avengers-inspired organization to a secret mystic team, but the originals reunited in 2005 under the writing of a returned DeMatteis and Keith Giffen and the penciling of Kevin Maguire. The trio famous for their Bwa-ha-ha humor of DC’s Justice League International brought the sensibilities to Marvel’s reluctant superheroes. A more farcical take on the team, them fighting amongst themselves as much as they fought the threat of Dormammu and his sister Umar.
In 2011, Matt Fraction launched a new Defenders series out of the events of Fear Itself. An evil Hulk threatens the world. Banner calls together his old team to take down this threat. Banner can’t fight the evil doppelganger because magic yadda yadda, so he’s replaced by his ex-wife Betty Ross, the Red-She Hulk. Along for the ride is a really fun version of Danny Rand. You know? The Immortal Iron Fist. Protector of K’un-Lun. That guy.
The series revolves around the team fighting threats too big for reality including the original team reuniting. Black Cat, Nick Fury Sr., and Ant-Man join in through the course of the series. It has lots of fun time travel, really trippy visuals and some great callbacks to classic Nick Fury stories. Terry Dodson is the main artist on the series and superstar-in-the-making Jamie McKelvie takes over for three issues near the end. Check it out in digital and in two paperbacks.
This series has little to do with previous Defenders series of the past, outside of Valkyrie being co-leader. It’s worth mentioning as Misty Knight is that other co-leader and it’s a really good series. Written by Cullen Bunn with art by Will Sliney, Phil Jimenez, and Stephanie Hans, it follows the Valkyrior, the reformed warrior host. Consisting of Dani Moonstar, Clea, Elsa Bloodstone, Hippolyta (but not the Wonder Woman one) who fought against Morgan le Fay’s daughter and her plans for domination. It’s a solid book and has some really fun moments. Available digitally and in two paperbacks.