Posted on 26 July 2017 by Mike Dell

The classic non-team comic book that inspired the Netflix series!

The Defenders #35 (1976)

Review by Michael Paul Dell.

Writer: Steve Gerber
Penciler: Sal Buscema
Inker: Klaus Janson
Colorist: Petra Goldberg
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Marv Wolfman

The world is eagerly awaiting Netflix’s “The Defenders,” which will no doubt he another critical success for Marvel. Who isn’t excited about seeing Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage teaming up to deliver some street-level justice? That show is going to be awesome. Guaranteed hit. There’s nothing that could possibly go wrong… oh wait Iron Fist is in it too? Son of a bitch.

The idea of combining a bunch of established heroes to create a super team is nothing new. All-Star Comics rolled out the Justice Society of America back in 1940, DC unveiled the Justice League in 1960, and Marvel achieved great success with the Avengers in 1963. Then, in Marvel Features #1 (1971), the Defenders made their debut with a three-man roster of Doctor Strange, Namor, and the Hulk. The team’s popularity led to its own series, and the Silver Surfer soon joined as a fourth member. While usually seen as a cheap Avengers knockoff, that original Defenders roster was pretty loaded. Four legit powerhouses. And you know the best part? The refreshing lack of Iron Fist.

By Defenders #35, the roster had undergone an overhaul, and Valkyrie and Nighthawk had replaced Namor and the Silver Surfer. Valkyrie is, of course, the Asgardian warrior goddess, and Nighthawk is, well, I have no idea. But hey, at least he’s not Iron Fist.

Issue #35 opens in the mean streets of Russia, where the Red Guardian, a daring female vigilante, is preventing an assault. She makes short work of the mugger but then splits because the Russian police are hot on her tail. For some reason, the Red Guardian is an enemy of the state. I blame the tabloid journalism of J. Jonah Jamesonovich.

In real life, the Red Guardian is Dr. Tania Belinsky, a smoking-hot neurosurgeon who received her superpowers due to cobalt radiation. She arrives home just in time to receive a phone call from Doctor Strange, who invites her to America to help with a particularly tricky operation. And this is where things get weird.

See, apparently there’s this villain group called the Headmen that consists of Dr. Arthur Nagan, a surgeon whose head was placed on the body of a gorilla; Dr. Jerry Morgan, a genius biochemist whose attempts at discovering an Antman-like shrinking power resulted in reducing his own bones just enough to leave his skin saggy; Chondu the Mystic, a former sideshow magician; and Ruby Thursday, a scientist who replaced her own head with a malleable plastic ball that can shoot tentacles, projectiles, and energy blasts. That’s right. Two doctors, a magician, and a lady with a bowling ball for a head. It’s like a team full of Iron Fists.

Dr. Nagan had this real wizard idea to transplant Chondu’s brain into Nighthawk’s body so the Headman could destroy the Defenders from within. But Doctor Strange was hip to the scheme and mystically transferred Chondu’s consciousness into a fawn. Yep. A baby deer. No jive.

Anyway, Strange took the consciousness of Jack Norriss, the husband of the mortal woman who became Valkyrie, and transferred it into the Nighthawk body with Chondu’s brain so Jack could infiltrate the Headman and retrieve Nighthawk’s brain. The plan works, and Strange transfers Jack’s consciousness back into his normal body and then calls Dr. Belinsky to help him put Nighthawk’s brain, which he’s keeping in a soup bowl, back inside Nighthawk’s skull. I think I speak for everyone when I say, “Huh?”

But wait! It gets weirder.

The fawn with Chondu’s consciousness escapes and makes its way back to the Headmen. The Hulk seems to be the only one who cares that his beloved little deer buddy, who he calls Bambi, is missing, so he storms off to find his four-legged friend. Valkyrie and Jack give pursuit to keep Hulk out of trouble.

Meanwhile, back at Headmen headquarters, Dr. Nagan, Dr. Morgan, and Ruby Thursday transfer Chondu’s consciousness into a hideous new body that has bat wings, chicken legs, a snake tongue, a unicorn horn, and lamprey eels for arms. Chondu is not amused and ventures into the city to find a new body, eventually settling on a construction worker (Chondu was way into the Village People). Valkyrie and Jack intervene, and after a brief struggle inside a crowded restaurant, Valkyrie subdues Chondu with a vicious Muy Thai knee to the face. The issue ends with the police arresting Valkyrie for either assaulting a demonic creature or for wearing a metal-coned bra in public. Not sure. But in the end, all I could think was… what the hell did I just read?!

Aside from Defenders, Steve Gerber had memorable runs on Man-Thing and Omega the Unknown; however, he’s best known for creating Howard the Duck. His work here is heavy on narration, particularly over the second half of the book. And the narration is needed to help readers get through this bizarre, convoluted plot. If you’re reading something by Gerber, buckle up. Weirdness ahead. While I don’t particularly like such absurdity, there’s no denying Gerber had a distinctive style, and that’s all I can ask of a creator: give me something uniquely you. For more, please check out the Bronze Age of Blogs’ Steve Gerber profile.

While Gil Kane drew the issue’s cover, Sal Buscema handled the interior pencils. Sal is often seen as the Lesser Buscema, but that’s due more to the legendary status of his older brother John, who literally created the book for “How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way,” than to any lack of skill on his part. Sal only ever wanted to be an inker,yet he developed into an extraordinary visual storyteller, and he helped define the Bronze Age with his work of the Defenders, the Avengers, and Captain America. I’m a huge mark for either Buscema’s work, and Sal is in fine form here. The great Klaus Janson handles the inks, and his style is the perfect complement to Sal’s crisp, angular lines.


“Now, now … let’s not waste words arguing. Tell me how smart I am instead.” – Dr. Nagan

“This baby deer looks like Hulk’s friend … but how can Hulk be sure?” – Hulk

“Hulk … doesn’t want to hit girl … girl is friend!” – Hulk

“Why are you interposing your arm between my back and the chimney?” – Valkyrie

“You’re going to die, woman — I’m going to pick you apart for the entertainment of the lunch crowd!” – Chondu

“Look at you, Valkyrie – bleeding, soiled, unkempt.” – Chondu

This is Red Guardian’s first appearance, and she would later join the Defenders as a full-time member and change her name to Starlight.

Valkyrie vs. Chondu is the only scrap, and it’s pretty one-sided. Val slices Chondu’s wing, kicks him in the gut, and eventually scores the KO with a brutal knee strike. Chondu’s entire offense consists of throwing some coffee on Valkyrie. Gonna be tough reaching Red Skull and Doctor Doom levels of villainy if decaf is your weapon of choice.

In this issue’s edition of “Defenders Dialogue,” Chuck Ulrich, from 2160 Bryant Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301, pens a nine-paragraph love letter to Gerber. Chuck praises Gerber’s subtle character development and his ability to spin engaging stories rooted in internal struggle rather than external conflicts. The letter earned the following response from Gerber:

“There are moments – and sometimes they last for months – in a writer’s career when he looks back on all he’s done, reflects on the meaning of it, the quality of it, the originality of it, and asks himself what he and his art are worth. Too often, the answer comes back a flashing red neon goose egg set against an interminable stretch of black sky.

Put less pretentiously, we all go through periods of doubt, frustration, self-evaluation, self-criticism, hopelessness. I’d been deep into one of those periods when your letter arrived and told me in no uncertain terms that I was accomplishing with my writing all the things I was afraid I wasn’t.

It felt good. Thanks.”

Gerber wrote those words when he was just 29, and they’ve become even more poignant since his death in 2008.

Inside the back cover was a full-page ad for the Locksmithing Institute, your “Key to Security.” In six months, “You can be the boss of your own locksmith shop!” The ad promises you can “Earn while learning” and “Learn by doing,” all to “Cash in on the growing need for locksmiths.” Richard Kennedy from Philadelphia provides a personal endorsement, professing that locksmithing earns him an extra $70 a week in his spare time. Looking back 40 years later, I can see that this ad is what sparked the great Locksmithing Revolution that now has us serving our locksmith overlords. All hail the great and mighty locksmiths.

This story is ridiculous, and not necessarily in a good way. That said, I guarantee you’ll never read anything else quite like it. Suffering through the absurdity is worth it to experience Buscema and Janson’s art. And let’s not forget the best part: no Iron Fist.




    As a 14 year old kid reading Steve Gerber’s stories in the Defenders and other Marvel mags, I loved his absurdist style as well as the social commentary in his writing. Over 40 years later, I still regard the Nebulon/Headmen story in the Defenders as one of the great all-time classics of superhero comics. Maybe it’s not to everyone’s tastes, but I’ve never pretended to be quite like everybody else.

    • Michael Poirier

      I find Steve Gerber’s 1970s work to be among the best of the whole decade! And yes, they still hold up today.