Saturday, May 13, 2017

Defenders: One Bad Mother of an Origin

Hope your Mother’s Day is happier than most superheroes. I’m sure you can think up someone with a good relationship with their mom, but in the four color fictional worlds there’s usually missing parents, if not downright antagonism! It’s true of their cinematic variations as well, as per witness Iron Man/ Tony Stark in Captain America: Civil War. I’ll skip the Stark ending pun.

But sure, Batman, Spider-Man- maybe it’s the removal of the single most comforting relationship of more childhoods than not, or removing authority figures from the story, but Mother’s Day’s twisted in some way for most super heroes. Our mother, after all, is part of everyone’s origin story, you know. And speaking of both mothers and origins, let me pick up with the Defenders, and their run by writer Steve Gerber, as mentioned in my Gawdy Yarns of the Galaxy Original Volume Two post.

First, I’m not sure Stephen Strange’s mom’s been in a story-when a character’s kicked around this long, there’s little way to avoid that story-well- but the Defenders in their classic incarnation collectively have very tough mother stories, besides being tough mothers. (Pop culture aficionados may realize the Defenders, conceptually, are in for a remake on the order of the Guardians, as you’ll see in Netflix and in Marvel Comics. In fact, it relates to some other heroes I’m featuring!) Hulk’s never-mentioned Mom eventually gets a tragic part in his story that sets up the origin of alter ego Bruce Banner’s repressed rage. Prince Namor’s mother loved a surface worlder; that star-crossed union led to their hybrid issue who grew to become the savage Submariner. Nighthawk’s personal origin as Kyle Richmond becomes a tone-changing tale that sets the existential guide post for Gerber’s second year on the book, in #32; his anger issues and callow maturity also date back to a mother who dies during his childhood.

Rebirth of the Valkyrie, Defenders #3, 1973.
But Valkyrie’s mom’s story, either way you slice it, takes the cake. Things start out mythologically swimmingly for the Viking chooser of the slain, but in the character’s comic book debut, Avengers #83 I think, it’s the Norse schemer Amora The Enchantress who “creates” her as a guise to destroy the Avengers (and lead the first all-female heroic team- I wish it had been as cool as that sounds!). In Steve Gerber’s debut on the Defenders, however, we learn the story of the mother of Barbara Norriss, the woman to whose body the Valkyrie’s powers and spirit and persona are magically grafted. It’s not pretty.
Also in the bargain, we get the very subtle origin of The Defenders group itself!

As I mentioned in the Integr8d Fix post about the Guardians before, this story grows out of Gerber’s Marvel-Two-In-One #’s 6 &7, with Defenders Dr. Strange and the Valkyrie teamed with The Thing from the Fantastic Four. AS recapped in Defenders #20, a harmonica emblazoned with the word ‘Celestia’ holds the potential to destroy the world, and we meet five beings tied to its fate. One of them is Alvin Denton; in the course of the story, we discover he’s Barbara Denton Norriss’ father! He dies trying to use the harmonica’s powers to save her. Meanwhile, Valkyrie’s alarmed to begin discovering the origins of her human body, who had, before, parents, a life-and shockingly, an estranged husband!

But as Defenders #20, Steve’s debut on the title, opens, she’s only briefly met Alvin, who lies dead before her and Ben Grimm, the Thing. Steve opens with a dismal caption about winos dying unheralded on the streets of ‘70s New York City, leaving, in retrospect, no doubt to a fan of the period who’s telling the story. Continuing in very Gerber fashion, he sets the scene on the splash page, with the grieving depicted by Sal Buscema’s layouts and Vince Colleta’s finishes- which play to his strength for pretty feminine faces in this issue. Quoth Steve: “The Answer to that most basic question of all---’who am I?’-for the Valkyrie was created full-grown, by the Enchantress’ magic, without a past---and inhabits the body of Barbara Denton- a person she never knew.” His interest in Existentialist philosophy shines gloomily through, then, from page one.

Even Ben sheds a tear at Alvin’s passing, though The Enchantress’ super-strong bully lackey The Executioner provides an Asgardian-powered rumble in keeping with the comics of the era. His mistress sees no further point in battle with the mystic harmonica’s power spent, however, so she teleports them away to fight another day. Ben’s compassionate attempt to take Alvin’s body for interment is rebuffed by Val, but he understands. It’s during his snooze we get the recap of how things came to this impasse. Humorously, he believes it’s FF boss and best friend Reed Richards awakening him later, but he’s being roped in further to help Valkyrie by the de facto leader of the non-team, Doctor Strange, who soon returns with Kyle Richmond, Nighthawk. Ben correctly surmises Kyle’s more than “ a mutual friend”- which carries a couple of meanings, as Kyle’s presently also crushing hard on Val- and then hears Kyle bemoan the team/ non-team status of a group with a name, headquarters, “and six or seven members who never want to get together!” Always poking fun at the apparent absurdities without a filter, Ben observes “if the FF worked like that, the world woulda been blown up ten times over!” But in typical Defenders fashion, Doc senses sinister forces, and personal appeals hold together a crew of heroes to investigate.

Now we continue with the part Steve Gerber obviously really cared about: Val/ Barbara hefting Alvin’s body solemnly into town. Observers’ thoughts allow us to pick apart the mystery of Val’s human guise- a situation, in regards to Tom the Sheriff, that makes Val very uncomfortable. Subterfuge is not her typical tact, yet she must quietly play up the ruse of being who she appears to be. IN point of fact, Gerber even declares, in a caption, that the theme of the story, if there is one, is “things not as they seem.”

There’s a couple of other carefully-included points written in that distinguish his writing here, in this medium that was not contemporaneously known for subtlety. Still in character, The Thing observes the apparent logic of the story’s plot til now- “Enchantress must’a figgered the Harmonica’s power wuz all used up..after Alvin blew it and the world fell apart. Yeah...that sounds stupid enuff ta be right. (Alvin died of a heart attack during the cataclysmic climax of MTIO #7.)” He concludes that thought in a very Gerberian fashion: “Sure, who said life hadda make sense...that there hadda be a reason for lvin’ and dyin’?” It’s an essential Existential question, and a nice observation of how we form stories and then expect in them to find those sorts of answers.

There’s one tiny detail I also want to include, after a man soon revealed to be part of “Nyborg”’s cult has spotted her displaying the atypical strength to carry a grown man at an unimpeded pace: “The little man races away, as Val halts, gazing at a word on a shingle.” The word is Sheriff, and the sheriff will soon lead the woman he perceives to be Barbara to her family home. “A word on a shingle” is such an non-intrusive way to make the detail seem almost pitiable in its fragility, like her fragile hopes of uncovering her identity while feeling a grief that should be personal, but is felt at a certain remove.

We get into the contents of the house more in the next issue. But just as Val feels Barbara’s presence gently moving within her psyche in this place of stirred memories, she’s zapped, as Ben might say, by Nyborg’s cultists. Over the course of more action hijinks, Strange and Val become mystic hostages; only the unique set of mind of the Thing, we’re told, as opposed to usual Defenders partner The Hulk, provides the game-saver that foils the sacrifice for the materializing Nameless Ones.

But on the way into the house, Dr. Strange discovers a lovely portrait of the woman he discerns to be Barbara’s mother: Celestia! The name on the harmonica is a solved mystery. But the hideous figure who appears in the basement with the cultists stands unveiled as the cultists reveal how the Hulk, Submariner, and Dr. Strange “two years before” had rescued the body of Barabara Norriss, in their first adventure together. Barbara, a member of their cult, had been bartered away by her mother to become a mate to the Nameless Ones, who would then restore her beauty and youth. Her forced uncoupling in Defenders #3- the origin point for the present incarnation of The Valkyrie- drove Barbara Norriss mad! Her psyche shattered, the Valkyrie was chosen to fill the now-vacated vessel of her mind.

As narrated by Steve over the somewhat-hasty action conclusion: Consider: Barbara’s husband happened to be a member of the cult and induced Barbara to join. The cult then “happens” to be responsible for bringing the girl, The Hulk and Dr. Strange together for the first time (Hulk #126). Years later, the same mage and same monster free the same girl..and “happen” to encounter the Enchantress.

She changes Barbara- and the girl in whom no magic had dwelt, who was therefore useless to the nether-god’s objective of earthly domination..becomes a living vessel of Asgardian sorcery! Chance? Coincidence? Or the designs of a being who knew that Dr Strange would meet again...who knew of the Enchantress’ plight?”

So there’s the secret origin of the Defenders!

Ben destroys the harmonica, rather than fight the demons, as Hulk might have. The plan comes undone. Celestia Denton’s life force, bound to the harmonica, dissipates; her body disintegrates to ashes.

Happy Mother’s Day!


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