Clave challenged Jaws to guess a comic book story just by looking at the cover. What, if anything, can Jaws get correct about the content inside without ever actually reading the comic!?!
The comic book in question: Defenders #33 from 1976.
Jaws: There is no doubt that the Defenders of this era are some of the most bonkers comics ever. The hodgepodge of heroes who make up the Defenders is nutty enough. Just check the cover: Your three heroes in distress are Doctor Strange, Valkyrie and the Incredible Hulk. (Stop the presses, I think we may have found the source material for an upcoming Marvel MCU movie!)
Now, this next piece is something that I guess I’m sort of proud to know: I actually recognize 2 of these villains.
- Nagan is speaking and goes by the Gorilla-Man. (Naming of things was very, very hard in the 1970s.) His backstory is odd: he was a scientist who used to put gorilla heads on people but they rebelled and put his head on a gorilla. I mainly know him because he later had beef with Luke Cage in the Heroes for Hire era and they would routine fight. But, he is also a scientist, so there are other experiments going on.
- I know for sure the droopy faced guy in the back is Gorilla-Man’s sometimes partner, Shrunken Bones, who was trying to be like Ant-Man but somehow messed up only his skeleton.
So what exactly is going on?
Clave: Let’s pause and talk about the cover artist, which is Gil Kane.
I had to dig to learn that Kane did the cover art. It’s a bit surprising that Kane on cover art wouldn’t be shouted from the rooftops, being that Kane is the Will Eisner Hall of Fame co-creator of Green Lantern for DC and Iron Fist and Adam Warlock for Marvel.
But Defenders 33 was little more than gig work for Kane. Then the interior was drawn by Sal Buscema, younger brother of the legendary John Buscema, with the story by Steve Gerber, who was also doing Man-Thing and Howard the Duck around this time, which might explain the bonkers storyline.
My point is that there was a wonderful pedigree of creators on this storyline but yet they treated it like it was a bit of a goof. But perhaps that’s not too surprising, considering this was the era at Marvel where the Editor-in-Chief role was a revolving door before Jim Shooter finally took the job in 1978 and injected more accountability and professionalism.
Jaws: It was definitely a style on the cover that I felt like I knew but could not quite put my finger on. Gil Kane is an amazing artist and like you said, that should have been more heralded. It is odd to see how some of the greats were treated in their own time.
Alright, here goes my guess on the story…
“The notorious group the Headmen (See what I said about 1970s and naming things) want to make a name for themselves. But they are smart enough to know that they cannot take down Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, the Avengers, so they aim a couple tiers down and go after the Defenders! Nagan concocts a diabolical machine that will change the Defenders into various other things.”
Clave: Go on…
Jaws: “And the hope is mainly this: Nagan, Shrunken Bones and their new ally Senora Lollipop Head will each get some or all of the powers of the Defenders. In each case they use the heroes’ weakness against them. First, Hulk is lulled into a theater where a sad, sad song is played on piano and he is slowly brought to sleep. Doctor Strange is ambushed when a surgeon “friend” asks him to help out on a new plastic surgery case and the Valkyrie is captured when they make fake reports of lots of winged horses in the New York metroplex, maybe somewhere like Connecticut.
I am fairly sure there is a fourth Defender not pictured that somehow will lead to their escape and together they will defeat the Headmen but that may not happen until Defenders #34!”
Clave: Oh, man, what you came up with is bonkers! Sadly, it is not nearly bonkers enough!
Here is the actual story from Defenders #33, supported by actual panels from the interior of the comic:
Why does the comic open on a fawn, you might ask? Well, that’s Bambi, Hulk’s pet deer.
What is interesting about Bambi is it is the host for Chondu the Mystic’s mind. You see, the Headmen kidnapped Nighthawk, the 4th member of the Defenders whose real name is Kyle Richmond. The Headmen removed Nighthawk’s brain and just left it sitting in a bowl.
With Nighthawk’s literal brain sitting in a bowl, the Headmen then inserted Chondu the Mystic into Nighthawk’s body because…honestly, I don’t know.
But Doctor Strange is a wily wizard, and he trapped Chondu the Mystic in Bambi instead! That meant the race to retrieve Nighthawk’s brain was on. Sadly, the remaining Defenders were captured, as you saw on the cover. But what you didn’t see is the Defenders placed the consciousness of Valkyrie’s ex-husband into Nighthawk’s body so he could act as a double agent to retrieve the real Nighthawk’s brain. Which is in a bowl.
Let’s pause here and take it straight to the comic, so you can see this nonsense in full color.
The cover clued you in that the Headmen have a new ally, but her name is not “Senora Lollipop Head,” as you suggested. That would be Ruby Thursday, a character so weird and dumb that it made Nerds on Earth’s list of 7 Characters Marvel wishes they could forget.
Comic lovers will see Ruby Thursday again in She-Hulk comics where she runs for President of the United States as the candidate of the “Global Head” political party under the slogan “New Heads for Old,” because, c’mon, that’s something.
So, Nighthawk, who is not Nighthawk, but is instead Valkyrie’s ex-husband pretending to be Chondu the Mystic stalls. That allows the captured Defenders to break free!
Will the Defenders flee?! Nope, not without Nighthawk’s brain! Which is in a bowl.
Let’s go to the comic:
But will this allow Nighthawk’s brain to be re-inserted into his body? Nope, because Nebulon comes out of nowhere to trap him in a tractor beam because a storyline this bonkers needs a MacGuffin character to be introduced to make it more weird.
Jaws: I mean, I thought I had a pretty whacky sense of a storyline in there but wow. I mean, Hulk had a pet deer? But it wasn’t like a clone or embodiment of Rick Jones? And, seriously, I get you are a villain and all but you are telling me that they just do surgery and leave brains sitting around in bowls? Did they clean the Honeycomb cereal bits out of it before they used it?
I do think you got to admire the wise-cracking jokes of Valkyrie’s ex-husband in Nighthawk’s body. This is pre-Bruce Willis in Die Hard. Cutting edge comedy.
But that ending. Holy cow. It is just so much fun to see a comic that is clearly bonkers compared to the tighter plots and stories that we see today. I genuinely may need to get a read through of the Defenders.
Clave: I don’t know that I can fully recommend you reading through Defenders. It might send your bonk-o-meter off the charts. How about I read them to save you the headache?
Jaws: So that’s the story from Defenders 33 with a cover by Gil Kane. What do you have for me next, Clave?