There is quite literally naff all of interest in terms of new comics this week on Comixology, so for a wee change I’m going to look at one of the many older comics they put online each week, in this case The Defenders #100, cover dated October 1981 which meant it came out around June 1981 as comics were dated often months in advance to help sustain their life on newstands. Also, that looks like early Frank Miller inks at least on the cover.
This anniversary issue was the end of a storyline that saw The Defenders fight demonic forces, including Marvel’s version of Dracula, Mephisto and the overall baddie, Satan hence why the story is titled Hell on Earth.
Writer J.M De Matteis is to me, the great underrated writer of 1980’s American mainstream comics. While Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Frank Miller and the usual suspects always pop up in retrospectives, De Matteis never does yet he wrote Moonshadow, one of the best comics of the decade and helped write with Keith Giffen DC’s highly successful Justice League International. His earlier superhero work however is just, well, weird as these panels show.
Satan married, and then consummated that marriage with Dorothy Parker, and yes, the name isn’t a coincidence.
At this point The Defenders line up was all the Marvel characters too weak at the time to hold a place in The Avengers I(The Hulk), or poorly selling characters who could barely sustain their own book (Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange, Sub-Mariner) or cast-offs or minor characters(Son of Satan, Nighthawk, Valkyrie, Gargoyle, Devilslayer) who Marvel would chuck into The Defenders and hope a writer could do something with them. Because the book sold low amounts but was still above cancellation thresholds, writers found they could have a bit more freedom. Steve Gerber being one who had fun on the book as did De Matteis who wrote these odd metaphysical super hero stories with odd subtexts 12 year old kids wouldn’t get.
The issue does the old Gardner Fox JLA trick of splitting the team up so they each fight individual threats before coming together for one huge battle at the end.
There’s lots of superheroical fighting, but under it all is this dabbling with metaphysics and theology that De Matteis would often use later in his career, though in this context it seems bizarre but it works.
Defenders #100 is one of those comics from the Jim Shooter era of Marvel where I wonder how on earth it managed to get passed him, because the implied incest between Son of Satan and Hellcat is actually barely implied.
How about the scene where millionaire playboy and superhero Nighthawk (Marvel’s rip off of Batman) is confronted by the dead soldiers who died in Vietnam because they weren’t millionaires who could blag their way out the draft?
There’s a couple of boxes of narration which smack of editorial as they don’t match with the narrative of the story, but this is still astonishing stuff for a superhero comic published in 1981. The story veers from melodrama, to fight scene, to incestuous temptation, to fight scene, to the discussion of what is evil, not to mention the nature of reality. Oh, and a fight scene.
This is a weird amalgam of 1970’s style superheroics and something much more different, more advanced, even ahead of its time. True, the dialogue is almost universally awful while Don Perlin’s average at best pencils are beyond boring at times, but looking back at this I see a lot of stuff in it that would have shown to people paying attention, not to mention old enough, to spot what an amazing potential De Matteis had. and which on the whole, he delivered upon.