Wednesday, May 17, 2017

1st Marvels: J.M. DeMatteis, Eternity, Defenders #92 (1980)

Defenders 92 “Eternity...Humanity...Oblivion!”

So, Defenders #92 becomes the first regular superhero series assignment for John Marc DeMatteis, who had taken over Conan The Barbarian for a few issues. J.M. went on to write ‘Kraven’s Last Hunt,’ script the wildly-popular and hilarious Justice League series starting in ‘87, and pen many original, thoughtful tales, from his novice Marvel Team-Up efforts to this year’s Augusta Wind: The Last Story series for IDW Publishing (where novice me joins the ranks of pro comics writers with Hero Duty). He’s written cartoons like Justice League Unlimited, Teen Titans Go!, and somber comics like Mercy, one of the first Vertigo Comics, and Savior 28. And I do believe I saw his son Cody’s name in the credits for Rick and Morty last night, a William St. Production Manager.

J.M. took over for Ed Hannigan, whose last story in #91 was probably my favorite from his run, along with the intriguing ‘Inquest’ from #87. Ed’s tale involved nuclear power hazard- topical stuff in 1980 after Three Mile Island. Here we go in a genuinely fantastic direction that borrows a great Steve Ditko/ Stan Lee creation, Eternity, introduced in Strange Tales #138. J.M. ties into his story in Marvel Team-Up #101, which recalls Gerber tying his MTIO run to his new book, Defenders #20. J.M. began his career writing for the anthology House of Mystery over at DC, with some success with his ongoing series of his creation I, Vampire. He’d been both a rock musician and rock journalist before- and what I think was his second published Marvel letter resides in the letters pages of the Guardians guest-appearance I chronicled, from Defenders #26-29!

He’d been both a rock musician and rock journalist before- and what I think was his second published Marvel letter resides in the letters pages of the Guardians guest-appearance I chronicled, from Defenders #26-29!

J.M., thought it took him a while to get down the art of comics writing, but the story itself here is pretty great! I suspect if he had any problems with it, they reside with the pacing, which I’ll comment about further down, translating the story paced as a more modern two-issue tale. It may’ve been editorial fiat that made his first two issues “one and done,” or those may have been his pitches for the series. J.M. makes his mark from the start, though, embedding favorite topics throughout this debut. Like Gerber with #20, from the first page, you get iconic language and images that foretell his concerns as a writer.

First page impressions: loneliness, gentle side of the heroes, what makes Defenders unique. It’s even funny: the Hulk is playing with dolls that resemble Dormammu (“fire head”) and someone he calls “big wizard”: “Want to come to my house to play some songs?” Hulk and other heroes together was always the most endearing and memorable part of this incarnation, the Savage Hulk with child-like mentality and caveman speech. Clea and Dr. Strange look on, observing his docile sweetness, yet his hair-trigger potential for devastation. From this start, we get a hint of Strange’s avuncular role, as Gerber developed him. The caption describes how Hulk (instead of turning to Banner?) comes to Dr. Strange’s house as an anchor in a life of drifting ephemera. Perhaps it’s the loneliness that also makes him too angry to change back? I’m never sure with these Hulk downtime scenes, but writers couldn’t resist them as they play against his superheroic type. Compassion and figures of pity are a constant in DeMatteis’ series work at Marvel, so yes, from page one, we’re getting a capsule of not only what makes The Defenders unique among team books, but also, trademarks of the writer’s approach to the series and in general.

With magical awareness, Dr. Strange anticipates Nighthawk’s arrival, with more low-key humor. Kyle Richmond, aka the high-flyin’ Nighthawk, is in a very low-key mood. We get, in his spew of confession about the soft spots in his psyche hit by encountering his old girlfriend Mindy (in MTU #101, natch) the set-up for his arc, the defining one of this tale. We also get a taste of what people don’t like about Kyle’s self-pity, which, paired with his less-than-outstanding super powers, made him a largely-ignored or reviled character, with a few diehard fans that tuned in to this book for him. Granted, J.M. has just thrown him a blast-from-the-past, 1980 comics style, with robots re-creating his college days, where he seriously screwed up: he thought he killed Mindy in a drunk driving accident, as chronicled by Gerber in #32. What bugged me about Kyle is how he didn’t seem to learn from his out of body experience after all- but that’s Life. (I like him a bit better under Kraft’s pen, where he acquires a bit of temper, charm, even at least one good story unveiling his philosophical side in #51.)

His existential crisis segues into the more dire universal one; Existential angst and more callbacks to Gerber’s influence are implied. As in the next issue, for single-issue stories, we get sudden high stakes- not much space to build suspense. It’s a pretty unique one, though: existence will be finished if humanized pieces of the embodiment of conceptual being Eternity, sent forth to experience life at a smaller scale across the cosmos, are not reunited with Eternity himself in eight hours. Directly on the heels of Kyle unburdening himself, Eternity’s desperate call reaches the Sorcerer Supreme.

One of the winning qualities of DeMatteis’ rookie tale is the use of classic Ditko design and imagery. The initial description Ego gives Peter Quill of his star-spanning spawning in Guardians 2 remarkably resembles Eternity’s plan in this tale! We also get the Star Eyes effect on both Quill there and here, in Stephen Strange. I love Metaphysical description of closeness of vast multiversal passages; it’s one thing I’ve discovered in Yogic practice personally, its appeal to the imagination to envision contact with the vastness of existence while gaining presence in your body, here.

So, without a nefarious subterfuge on Eternity’s part, he states he wanted an experience outside the loneliness of his totality, so he embodied himself as many beings throughout the universe. But darn that stubborn, individualist place called Earth, three of his fragments there have not returned, and the veil by which they experience individuality also keeps him from finding them.
Seems like a failsafe should’ve been in place before risking all existence- I’m looking at you, Eternity! (With Star Eyes!)

In classic non-team fashion, Dr. Strange sends his astral self to gather Defenders for the mission. Yes, a group has come to hang together regularly for personal reasons- mostly Kyle, and here, we see Val and Patsy, aka Valkyrie and Hellcat, having a cuppa tea while probably commiserating over Patsy’s recent loss of her Mom. (Yep, writers picked up the stories before and kept going- that was what helped make Marvel, Marvel!) While assembling those two, and picking out Son of Satan, who anticipates his call, I feel he let Surfer off the hook too easily! Nice tie-back to the tapestry w/ Hulk #250- where trying to cure Hulk leaves Surfer again doomed behind Galactus’ earthbound barrier but...Reality! Reality is in jeopardy, man! Give it a rest, stop moping! But, this does allow the writer to keep his “non-team” idea in place: it’s strictly a volunteer group each time, and a reluctant one, traditionally. Strange now vows to contact his magician friends- his Psychic Network?- so they might help hold Eternity’s fragile fabric together while he sends six Defenders in pairs, JLA-style, to seek the three missing “little E-ter-ni-tys” (as Hulk calls them). If this were paced as two issues, I would’ve definitely included a scene of two of that effort.

This issue brings back Daimon Hellstrom, aka the Son of Satan; his pairing with Hellcat underlines just how long it’s been since he appeared in The Defenders. This guest appearance actually portends an ongoing stint throughout DeMatteis’ run on the title. He analyzes Strange’s teleportation spell aloud, part of our introduction to his powers and background. Patsy’s not interested. We see a compassionate side to him as he puts a hand on her shoulder while she apologizes for her un-Hellcat-like brusqueness. What he senses is her personal angst over her mother’s recent death- the grief at their lifelong lack of reconciliation over Mom’s push to make Patsy a celeb. He’s explaining that he understands “conflicting feelings towards a parent” when he’s humorously interrupted.
“As Strange may have told you,” he says, “my father is the –

“ Devil! Devil!” shouts the temple acolyte. Heh.
Let’s pause here to mention the three settings; our first one here is a Hindi temple, adequately drawn to include its deity statues, but also here begins the tiny figures and long shots of action necessary to squeezing in this sprawling tale. We’re introduced to DeMatteis’ personal interests in Hindu myth and Eastern mysticism. The second, with the child Ivan in the village of Rodinsk, is probably a callback to Russian lit too; its Hulk-friendly villagers present more Cold War glasnost, which is reminiscent of Nighthawk and Hulk’s last visit battling the Presence in #56, Kraft’s story. That one also carried concerns about nuclear devastation and radiation poisoning- with Banner, often the victim of Hulk’s black-out-drunk-like travels, able to save the day. The Greek setting of Patras Isle is, at least, a chance to bring in Greek mythological images for the monstrous antagonists.

As it stands, there’s enough illustrated to evoke one’s imagination, to fill out the scene. Patsy gets Daimon to cool it with the scary bit, as she might say; the innocence of her eyes, as noted by the frightened female acolyte, causes her to relax, trust, divulge the apparent intervention of Hanuman, the perfect servant of the gods, as he spirits away their guru- the disguised aspect of Eternity.

These days, a good first installment might’ve included this battle- which displays Hellstrom’s fearsome hellfire powers, as run through his trident- and a couple of pages afterwards where Daimon goes from scary Darksoul-influenced inquisitor to opening up to Patsy- then the first strike from Hanuman, the gigantic psychic construct. The episode with Nighthawk and Hulk could’ve filled out the rest of the issue, along with an expansion of material beforehand. The trip through the ice-protected palace could’ve concluded their portion- then the next issue could pick up with Namor and Valkyrie, conclude Hellcat and Hellstrom’s takedown of the antagonistic avatar, depict the Psychic Network’s efforts to recap, and everyone could meet about halfway through!

With his Netharanium trident leading the vibrationally-attuned way, Patsy bonds over Daimon’s travails with him, as glimpsed for a couple of panels. They battle the Hanuman construct, and find the first of what will be portals to the extradimensional plane in which they’ll encounter the Eternity personas. Each of them- guru, special needs peasant, and lovingly married island dweller- represents very different experiences.

Hulk / Kyle is a classic Defenders pair; since his de facto leadership turn, Kyle’s normally unable to persuade the Hulk to do anything constructive. Their snow monster battle turns this on its head; DeMatteis clearly thinks it’s played its course. Reading along, after they encounter the Eternity-child’s adopted parents, you don’t know this is single-parter, so you might not anticipate where they’re going after they avoid a frozen fate.

Namor/ Valkyrie: similar personalitiesm subtle differences; more mythology-based foes. Namor is recognized by the Eternity-man’s wife, from her days in England during World War II- a topical reference that still worked at this time and provided a cool layer of Submariner’s history in a single panel. Valkyrie pokes at Namor’s very vocal reluctance: perhaps, since he rarely turns Strange’s pleas down, he likes things this way? Namor’s anti-social manners continue where, with cold logic, he discards the kind of hesitation Nighthawk showed replying to the concern for the missing person, and flatly tells Lady Elizabeth: I’m sorry, but your husband’s dead. Perlin and Marcos also have him extend the hand to the shoulder as Hellstrom did before, but while that was the beginning of a long-standing relationship between the two Hellions, Submariner doesn’t bother with further interest or emotional cushioning, as he knows these beings must be returned to Eternity or Non-Existence follows.

Again, we have an interesting-sounding setting, ancient Greek ruins on an uninhabited island after a too-tiny battle with a suggested conclusion between panels. We buzz through it; like the outposts before, this leads to the otherworldly encounter with the ones behind the abductions:
the fugitive pieces of Eternity themselves!

How do you describe the weird final battle place? I ask because I tried something a bit similar in my Defenders pastiche, one of the earliest Integr8d Fix multi-post epics. Not a conventional team, everyone attacks without coordination, falling one-at-a-time. Each goes down due to an illusion, direct attack, or misdirection. Questions of individual experience plague the remnants, who curiously would choose the End OF All That Is over surrendering their unique experiences. But where would those experiences GO if there’s no Eternity to exist?
Strange reaches through to Kyle, the most conscious one remaining, as time runs out. “Speak from your heart,” he encourages Nighthawk. That’s a very DeMatteis sort of climatic battle detail!

After the action, the ending revolves around a non-violent resolution, based on Kyle’s character. His insight questions the selfishness of individual experience, for how can it have value without context of loved ones? Here, the remnants, moved by his words, rejoin Eternity- facing their greatest fear, in a spiritual sort of conjecture resonant of the artist’s view of life after death.

“Three human forms dissolve, and streak through the dimensional sky.”
As Eternity knew, the moment of reunion is not one of intransigent (?) horror---but ineffable bliss...of beatific and boundless joy. For in their sacrifice, these three have found HOME.”

Strange congratulates Kyle, as all eight heroes resume their exhausted forms in his Sanctum Sanctorum. But Kyle, moved deeply by problems aside from his own now, admits he wasn’t listening. “I was just thinking,” he says, in melancholy, “about two sweet old people in Russia...who are going to feel very alone, tonight.” We’re back to the theme introduced symmetrically and sustained throughout. There’s always strange leaps of logic in any myth-making, but for any flaws, it’s a nicely Humanistic piece, combining old-fashioned team epic with thoughtful pathos. Well done, team!

Very entertaining! Defenders #92 is a milestone in the beginning of a lifelong dream to write for Marvel Comics Group, and a big step for one young writer, taking the opportunity to put his work out there, chance the vicissitudes of the creative process. Always hardest on himself, J.M. worked with veteran craftspeople in the form of Perlin and Marcos, display the handiwork of colorist George Roussos (who does vivid, creative work here) and letterer Diana Albers, who keeps our rambling bard neat and clear, with guidance from a veteran of cosmic fare, editor Al Milgrom.

The end result became a fun experience for over a hundred thousand people, and many more of us in the years to follow, since it’s part of a larger tapestry, of which the creative team makes skilled use. Some readers passed through for an issue; some found dull aspects; others found it in a discount box somewhere. For many: thrills, discovery! Some came away influenced by its thoughtful creative language: a fine achievement for a piece of disposable, commercial pop culture. When the battle of creativity against deadlines was finally won, a comics creator, by 1980, realized, in hope and anxiety and joyous satisfaction, they just might have made a little corner of memory- a tiny piece of Eternity? A tale of humanity? A speck of Oblivion? Some may be penning their fan letters, decades later!

For J.M. quotes on his Defenders run, and on aspects of his entire career since
- read his interview with me, May 20th! For more of his ongoing work, check out Scooby Doo: Apocalypse with Keith Giffen and Howard Porter, and updates from the man himself at his Creation Point blog. Read On, C Lue

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