Sunday, 29 July 2012

On Steve Gerber's Defenders: Why Buy? (No 1)

In which the blogger begins a series of posts - to run every Sunday in August - discussing the considerable virtues of Steve Gerber's work on the Defenders;

From The Defenders #24, by Gerber, Buscema and McCleod
1. On How Steve Gerber's Scripts Seemed To Bring The Best Out Of His Collaborators

Steve Gerber's stint as the writer on The Defenders resulted in one of the most remarkable superhero team books that there's even been. Yet the success of that radical, thrilling run of just 26 precious comicbooks was the consequence of Gerber's collaboration with a series of artists who even in the day were all-too-often regarded as, at best, journeymen and, at worst, hacks. Only once was Gerber partnered on either the title or its extra-sized spin-offs with an artist who was either one of the industry's elite storytellers or an obviously gifted penciller from the coming generation, and that was when he worked with Jim Starlin on Giant-Sized Defenders #3. But the irony is that was in many ways a cursed project, thrown together by necessity at the very last moment, with Starlin able to do nothing but offer layouts which were then finished off by a team of three very different inkers.(*1)

*1:- Gerber did have Gene Colan and Tom Palmer on his team for the covers when the Defenders appeared in the Howard The Duck Treasury, but that's far, far more of a Howard tale in comedic tone and broad satirical purpose.

From The Defenders #38, by Gerberm Buscema & Janson
Yet there was something about Gerber's work which seems to have inspired the less-renown and acclaimed artists that he worked with. The comics fandom of the time may have often expressed frustration with and even disdain for the work of Sal Buscema, George Tuska and Don Heck, and yet Gerber was having nothing of that. He always expressed, for example, the most sincere of regards for the younger Buscema's capacity to tell his out-there stories in a way which meant that they were both effective and accessible. Similarly, when Harlan Ellison and Gary Groth managed to define Heck as the worst artist in comics, Gerber gently yet determinedly expressed his respect for the contributions the artist had made to several issues of Giant-Sized Defenders.

From The Defenders #33, by Gerber, Buscema & Moody, in which a superhero's body inhabited by a colleague's spirit attempts to steal back Nighthawk's brain, which has been lying around in a dish!
It would be both unfair and inaccurate to say that Gerber's stories on the title succeeded despite the quality of his co-creator's efforts. It's undeniably true that artists from the front rank of the industry, such as Neal Adams, or young Turks such as Walt Simonson, would have helped transform Gerber's plots into crowd-pleasing, cognoscenti-inspiring masterpieces. But Buscema, as Gerber's main collaborator, Heck and Tuska helped ground Gerber's often experimental and always daring tales in ways which made his work approachable for a mass audience. When, for example, Gerber produced a tale in which Nighthawk's quite literally mindless body is accidentally possessed by his acquaintance Jack Norris and then used to steal back its original brain, the clarity and energy of Buscema's layouts ensured that no-one was either confused or disinterested in the deliberately farcical events.

From The Defenders #24, by Gerber, Buscema and McCleod. The black and white reprints from the Marvel Essentials series are often far clearer than the pages of the original comics, which I've why I've often used them here. (Note how the loss of the publisher's info from the reprint seriously unbalances the composition, which was previously claustrophobically topped and tailed by blocks of text.)
An artist treasured by Marvel's then-editorial staff for his ability to produce four and even more complete books of layouts a month, Sal Buscema's only-partially-completed pencils obviously relied heavily on the quality of his colleagues. In the opening splash for The Defenders #24, for example, his work was finished off by inker Bob McCleod. (The colour version of it is at the head of this page, the black and white straight above.) The quality of both composition and finished work is immediately evident. The sense of the situation is wordlessly precise and fiercely charged with jeopardy; the Defenders have been trapped by their enemies and no good at all is likely to come from the situation. At a glance, protagonists, antagonists, set and conflict have all been instantly spelled out, with an extra level of claustrophobia and menace supplied by the way in which the faces of the bound heroes are shown pinned between two threatening, metallic serpent heads.

Buscema's design here is a storyteller's delight. The first figure that the eye encounters after taking in the meaning of the shot as a whole is that of Dr Strange, whose prone figure instantly informs the in-the-know reader that there's going to be no easy teleport away from the crisis. From the off, therefore, the matter of when-will-the-magician-wake-up is fixed in the audience's mind. Even the mood of the crowd of super-villain cannon-fodder is emphasised through the simple and yet elegant choice to show us the teeth-grimacing minion at the front of the picture plane in profile. Added to this is the meticulous, fine-lined inking of McCleod, who ensures that Buscema's guidelines are transformed into work that's distinct, recognisable and compelling. With the inker's well-judged use of screentone on the Serpent's helmets, for example, a degree of flash and perspective is added to the solid, first-wave Marvel virtues of Buscema's art. 
    From Giant-Size Defenders #4, by Gerber, Heck & Colletta

    The veteran artist Don Heck joined Gerber for the final two Giant-Size issues of The Defenders. (*2) I've written about Heck's collaboration with inker Colletta on Too Cold A Night For Dying before - find it here - so I'll not repeat myself. But it remains a fine example of two craftsmen whose styles were reaching the point of commercial obsolesce rallying and achieving a great deal. Given that Gerber's story is a wrenchingly sad tale of a disordered super-villain and the niece that he ends up mutilating, the understatement of Heck and Colletta's work succeeds in establishing pathos while avoiding the tritest of melodramatic excess.

    *2:- The Giant-Size issues were an experiment which lasted barely 18 months. They were essentially annual-sized extra comics which appeared once a quarter in addition to the regularly-scheduled title they were associated with. This meant that a title like the Defenders, for example, would actually have 16 rather than 12 issues over the course of a year, with each Giant-Size issue containing roughly 30 pages of original material plus reprints.    

    From Marvel Two-In-One #6, by Gerber, Tuska and Esposito

    Gerber also worked with George Tuska on the two issues of Marvel-Two-In-One which crossed over with The Defenders  #20, his debut script for the title.. By the mid-Seventies, Tuska work had long since been characterised by a series of stock shots which still succeeded in expressing an impressive if not innovative sense of vigour and power. Indeed, Marvel's Roy Thomas has more than once noted that Tuska's presence on a title was guaranteed to raise its sales well considerably, which suggests that his work was far from out of step with the readers of the time, if not the critics. In the above page from MTI0 #6, there are aspects of the penciller's work which seem more than just over-familiar. The figure in the first panel who's shown falling back behind Stephen Strange is one likely to be encountered in any Tuska story of the period. Yet Tuska's work here has three not-to-be under-estimated qualities. The first is a palpable, genial sense of wonder. The entirely unexpected explosion of the woman threatened with being crushed beneath the subway train showers the page's panel with a gently magical spectacle. The second is the impressive degree of competency shown in the scene of the train pulling into the station. Tuska had there been handed a complex and difficult task which might challenge a less able and experienced artist. Not only does he have to show the train and, within it, its drivers, but he also has to deliver the occult pyrotechnics and - and! - show each of the travellers on the platform reacting to the situation. Lastly, his work projects a undeniable charm, with the tramp in the third panel and the curious woman in the fourth standing as curiously sympathetic figures.

    Despite the presence of some desperately workmanlike inking during Gerber's Defender's run, Buscema's art was blessed by some particularly impressive interpretations too. We've already mentioned Bob McCleod and, despite the common prejudice, Vince Colletta, and in the panels above can be seen two striking images from Jim Moody's short run on the title. Known far more now for the romantic amiability of his work on features such as DC's Supergirl in the Sixties, Moody was a gifted inker capable of producing work which belied his own apparently favoured style. (*3) Both panels above, for example, are impressively threatening, with Moody's use of chiaroscuro accentuating the dangers facing Dr Strange and his allies. In the first panel, Strange is shown emerging from a self-induced magical trance. Buscema has ensured that the moment of returned self-awareness exists without a need for exposition, but it's Moody who captures the sense of disturbing dislocation on Strange's face. In the second, Moody's brave use of such a prominent, unbroken block of shadow lends his subject an impressive authority as well as insisting that fearsome dangers lie before the Defenders. It's a choice which accentuates the gravity of the situation, which gives Gerber the freedom to add dialogue speculating upon the theft of Nighthawk's brain, a touch which a less foreboding panel might have rendered more ridiculous than unsettling.

    *3:- Of course, the beautifully moody inking which Moody contributed to The Amazing Spider-Man, over John Romita in particular, is often unjustly ignored when it comes to noting the best artists who've worked on the character.

    From the first Defenders Annual, by Gerber, Buscema and Janson
    Finally, an example from the partnership between Klaus Janson and Sal Buscema which saw out Gerber's tenure on The Defenders. Once again, Buscema's design is wonderfully clear and informing despite the immensely complex challenge that Gerber had set him. In the foreground we see a huge magnifying glass suspended over the "ant farm" into which both The Defenders and their foe Nebulon have been imprisoned. Beyond that are the full-sized figures of the Headmen, those purposefully absurd and yet fascinatingly repellent villains created from one-off characters found by Gerber in a 1974 Marvel horror reprint title. There's even considerable space left in the design for each of the supervillians to have their say. To Buscema's clarity has been add the richness of Janson's original style, marked by lushness, a great mass of detail and a commitment to making every character and event as distinct and significant as possible. Compared to the beautifully conscientious and strangely still quality of Bob McCleod's inking, to which it has a great many similarities, Janson's collaborations with Buscema created a more dramatic flavour to events. In fact, Janson's inks can seem at times to be trying to reframe Buscema's work in a more intense way than the original layouts will allow for. It's a choice which accentuated the difference between the two men's styles, which is something which McCleod's finishes never did.Yet it's a tension which seems entirely appropriate where Gerber's distinctly weird and yet recognisably 70's Marvel-style work is concerned. For it's a contradictory and energetic quality which reflects Gerber's achievement on the Defenders as a whole. He was, after all, smartly creating tales which were both distinctly of their time and yet invigorating strange too.

    Coming next Sunday on "Why Buy?"; The Red Guardian, the most feminist superhero of them all, and Steve Gerber's consistently expressed loathing of racism.



    1. I have been a long-time fan of the much-missed Don Heck.
      I adored his early Batgirl run on Detective Comics in the late Sixties, his Black Widow in Amazing Adventures and of course his seminal 16-year on/off runs on Wonder Woman, from her Mod days thru to her final ish before Crisis.
      And everyone remembers his classic Avengers run; absolutely gorgeous.
      He drew the most beautiful women in comics. I only wish he were still here amongst us.
      Didnt get George Tuska. His art seemed more suited to westerns or non-super books to me. And the less said about Vinnie Colletta the better, dreadful man. Read his biography last year - all that colluding with the Mob and even hiring a hooker to blackmail Roy Thomas over a disagreement they had at Marvel...!
      [breathe] back on topic... I liked the Defenders back in the day. So off the wall they were...all those weird villains. The Defenders were the anti-team we needed, and you never knew where you were with them. Hellcat, Valkryie, all classic characters. I vividly remember a massive wave sequence spread over two pages that absolutely frightened the life out of me as a child, and a Busby Berkely style dance sequence with that villainess with the 'bubble head' [she was a riot! Quite mad!] and the singing ''we're in the money''...totally ridiculous but compelling reading. We had a British comic here in England called 'Rampage' and I vividly recall reading the Defenders in it during the electricity blackouts of the 70s...bliss.
      Just loved the early Defenders.

      1. Hello Karl:- Always good to hear from someone who admires Mr Heck's work. Though I shared the disappointment of what seemed to be the typical fan of the period, I later learned to think far more highly of his work. His earlier romance work, his fine inking on Jack Kirby's Tales Of Asgard, even his work on the turn-of-the-Eighties Justice League; there's a great deal to value in the man's career.

        I similarly struggled with Mr Tuska's work at the time. It was obviously the product of a man who had worked out his repertoire a long time ago. Yet even in the day I recognised that he drew a mean Iron Man. Again, time has shown me that his work had considerable qualities, though perhaps, as with Mr Heck, the super-book wasn't, despite his achievements, best suited to him.

        Mr Colletta certainly seems to have had a complicated relationship with the folks around him. (That's me being polite!) And there are aspects of his work which are shameful. The willful disregarding of Jack Kirby's in the early 4th World books, for example, reflect poorly on the man. Yet he was a fine inker when he had the time and will behind him. There are several books in the Defenders - 20 & 21, if memory serves - which contain some fine work, and Giant Sized Defenders #4 is a little triumph.

        One of the things I hope to do in the other posts in this series is to take the chance to look at the weird, off-the-wall - to use your terms - nature of Gerber's work on The Defenders. I agree entirely that it was a strange, and challenging, book. At the same time, Gerber it also delivered as a conventional super-book would, which is a brilliant business. Re-reading the issues made me wonder with more stellar artists would have really benefited Gerber's work at all. As I tried to say in the above, the conventional and somewhat backward-looking styles of most of collaborators on the book actually helped make the weirdness and the radicalism digestible for a mass audience. I wonder whether a Gerber Defenders which had been entirely out-there would have been as effective and subversive a book. I suspect not ...

    2. I hate to do this, but: the Marvel Treasury Howard/ Defenders team-up was drawn by Sal Buscema. Colan did the cover and a quick epilogue that appeared in the regular HtD comic.

      I'll admit, I did not expect to see a piece on Steve Gerber's Defendes begin with several paragraphs praising the art. I love these comics, and the art never bothered me (not that I wouldn't have loved to see Colan, Simonson, or Perez draw at least some of them) but it's not the main reason for the series' appeal. That's not to say you're in any way wrong, as the art is under appreciated and very important to the book' success.

      While Our Pal Sal will never be my favorite artist, I respect his skill and professionalism. I can see many an artist balking at Gerber's Defendes scripts ("... a deer?") but Buscema's solid-but-unremarkable art may have been just the grounding they needed. It reminds me of how the art of Chas Troug and Richard Case brought out the weirdness of early Grant Morrison comics by not going overboard with artistic flash.

      -Mike Loughlin

      1. Hello Mike:- I've amended the footnote with reference to the cover of the Treasury, but thanks to you for the correction. You are, as you've always been, a good egg and I appreciate it.

        I didn't mean to imply that the artwork on those Defenders books was uniformly excellent. Indeed, some of it is downright uninspired, and that usually happens when the finisher doesn't the time or determination to turn SB's layouts into gold. Still, I think there's some excellent work there, and the post gave me a chance to chat about the likes of Jim Mooney and George Tuska. (I think those panels by Mooney are fine, fine frames.)

        By chance, I was just reading the first Grant Morrison/Richard case Doom Patrol tale this very evening. And I thought exactly as you did; the art stops the story spinning off into the more ... shall we say ... exalted realms.

        I suppose John Romita Jr would be one of the few heirs to that tradition of craftmanship which is built for quality as well as speed. I can't think of many others who occupy the same kind of place in the scheme of things. Comics can be very pretty and dynamic these days. But I often long for artists who can tell a story as the likes of Buscema could. (His very earliest work in the Avengers is dazzling, actually, really daring and striking. Within a year he'd dialed back and moved towards being a generator of layouts. I often wonder what SB might have become if the industry had paid more and he might have produced less when he was still finding his way. Still, we've got lots of well-told comics from his career, and some of them are moving as well as efficient.)

    3. I did have something to say, but then I saw that picture of Angry Bamby and it took the words right out of my mouth. What could I say that the image of a soon-to-be-murderous fawn hasn't already said?

      1. Hello Adam:- Sooner or later I'm going to get round to a "12 nest super-villains" list, and Angry Bambi is going to get as close to the top as I can possibly justify.

        Oh yes ...

    4. Hi Colin,
      Excited to hear you are nearing completion on your book, if I'm still around I look forward to reading it: And so, the Empire of Colin did begin...!
      Thank you very much for choosing to highlight one of my favourite comic book runs (indeed one of the Best Runs Ever), Steve Gerber's wonderful issues on The Defenders! Such a great piece of work; Humane, grotesque, satirical, political, Absurd, Touching, Witty, and Spectacularly Imaginative. What's Not to Like?! The Bozoes, Nebulon, the Headsmen, only the Great Gerber could make such amazing concepts both hilarious and yet convincing (and I didn't even mention creepy :-) ) without falling into either pretension or portentousness. Abive all thete's the beating heart of Humanity underneath it all that unifies and illuminates it (it should read "above all there's..." of course, frickin' typos!). Poor Hulk! Nighthawk becoming a better person! The Brain-Swapping shenanigans! Astonishing. As for the Bozoes and Nebulon story... Perfect.
      Sal Buscema and Co's art is an acquired taste but it doesn't get too much in the way here (particularly Sal's), Klaus Janson's inking us a boon in the way it wasn't for John Byrne on Avengers. You might like to know that Marvel are publishung Infernal Man-Thing by Gerber, it will apparently really suit the collected form, he never really lost it (jusr mislaid his enthusiasm at times, not surprising considering how he was treated, and the weight of Time played a part).
      I await the next installment keenly! And your August revamp liks neat-o! Never lose tour taste for the longer pieces though ;-).
      Regards, Robert
      P. S. Best of Luck.

      1. Hello Robert:- Thank you for your kind best wishes. I wouldn't say, sadly, that the book is close to completion. But it's closer all the time and I do want to get it done. There's an awful lot to learn and trying to do it while writing is a book is a host of useful, if sometimes dispiriting, lessons.

        I'm of course pleased to hear that you're a fan of these issues too. The more folks who are, the more it's likely that the comic will remain influential within the culture. In fact, we could do with these comics being a great deal more influential.

        And the scene in which Nighthawk discusses with Dr Strange the result of his mind/body separation is a sublime one. I'll be trying to write about it in two week's time. I think it's one of the great "smart" scenes in comics.

        I'm really chuffed to hear about Gerber's last Man-Thing story being published. I think I heard Kevin Nowlan discuss the matter on his site and I've been looking forward to it ever since. And there's also a great BIG Omnibus of all the Man-Thing stories coming out in October and November, so that's my Christmas money accounted for already.

        Thanks :)

    5. Glad to see you shining a light on Gerber's Defenders: those are absolutely the best issues on that title, and among the best super-hero material produced in the 1970s.
      I also like your shout-out to the artists on Gerber's Defenders run. First, I have to say that I love Sal Buscema's work - he's one of my favorite comic book artists, and despite being a workhorse for Marvel in the '70s and '80s, his quality and consistency rarely wavered. And like you, I've grown to greatly appreciate Heck's art as well. He's certainly one of the industry's underrated and underappreciated masters.
      Anyway, looking forward to the future installments of this feature.

      1. Hello Edo:- There's been an unexpected response to this post, which cheers me up not because it says anything about the blog, but because it means that Steve Gerber's work still counts with folks. And hurrah for that. There's few writers in today's marketplace who appear to be significantly influenced by his work, and that's a damn shame.

        Similarly, it's a privilege to be able to express my respect for the work of all the artists mentioned in the above. While I'd never suggest that the way that things used to be should the way they are now, there are aspects of those men's work which really ought to be referenced far more often.

    6. Hey, if Marvel is putting out a Man Thing omnibus, who knows? maybe a Gerberwww Defenders omnibus is not out of the question....I missed the boat on getting the Howard the Duck omnibus, and I deeply regret it.

      1. Hello Jim:- Now a Defenders Omnibus really would be something, wouldn't it? Well, actually 2 would be worth saving for, since my taste in the series survives until the end of Ed Hannigan's Defenders-In-Asgard sequence around the mid-70s.

        I'm sorry to hear that you didn't get the Howard Omnibus. I know how frustrating that can be. I missed the Eternals one and I regret that. Why Marvel doesn't keep the things in print, but then, why Marvel doesn't keep more of its stock in print ...

    7. Found Defenders 28 - 29 in the $1 section at my shop. Dropped well into the deep end of a star and time spanning story.

      All made sense.

      All had something to do.

      All depicted in the shorthand style that screams COMICS!

      Good couple of bucks might be something of an understatement. I really wish I had more to say on it but from my perspective on the material and format in general it really just hits that timely, disposable, professionally inventive sweet spot.

      1. Hello Smitty:- Gosh, you really did jump in the deep end of the Guardians Of The Galaxy story, didn't you? It's probably the least successful of Steve Gerber's Defenders tale, which means that it's of course a really good story! I'm really pleased to hear that it was an immediately enjoyable run of issues.

        Just can't have too many Steve Gerber fans in the world. Just can't be done.