Or – “War Against The Zodiac! (Also: DOO DAH!  DOO DAH!)”

In the classic Marvel Universe, there was always a superhero team pecking order.  The Avengers with the first line of defense against criminal conspiracies and schmucks trying to, say, kill everyone in New York born under the sign of Gemini.  The X-Men were mostly dormant, but  still showed up here and there to fight the odd mutant menace or guy with a funny head.  The Fantastic Four were the ones who dealt with all the cosmic menaces, like when Galactus mistook the Roman Coloseum for a Port-A-John.  And when the menace was a multi-dimensional eight-headed troglodyte, or self-help clowns, or even a man with a gorilla’s body who wants to take over the world using the power of EST?  That, my friends, is when you called in the Defenders.  They were original non-team, founded by Doctor Strange, The Hulk, The Silver Surfer and The Sub-Mariner, four guys who didn’t team up much, and usually meant it when they did.  In their many years of operation, the Defenders dealt with some oddball menaces, but few of them reached the level of the man called Scorpio.

Defenders #50
Script: David Kraft
Pencils: Keith Giffen

Inks: Keith Giffen; Mike Royer/John Tartaglione/Dave Cockrum (art assists)
Colors: Don Warfield
Letters: Gaspar Saladino (page one); John Costanza
Published By: Marvel Comics

Previously, on Defenders:  After being founded by the big four, the nucleus of the non-team called the Defenders added a few new kids:  Brunhilde, the Valkyrie, a lost daughter of Asgard, trapped in a world she never made.  Former Avenger Hellcat, once Patsy Walker, whose mother idealized her childhood in comic book form and scarred her for life.  Nighthawk, aka Kyle Richmond, a former member of the Squadron Sinister, created in the image of a dead man from another universe and left alone in a world that makes even less sense than he thought.  Marc Spector, the Moon Knight, a man of many minds who fights crime in the dark wearing a blinding white outfit.  Together, they are currently the Defenders.

Many years ago, General Nick Fury of SHIELD fought a costumed villain known only as Scorpio, who was unmasked to be Fury’s own brother Jacob in disguise.  Having tried and failed to follow in big brother’s footsteps, Jake had taken on the identity of Scorpio out of rage, but was bequeathed the mysterious and ultra-powerful Zodiac Key by a race of extradimensional beings so that he would continue sowing discontent and conflict on Earth.  After laying low for years, Scorpio returned to the public eye in fine fashion, kidnapping Jack Norriss (ally of the Defenders and agent of SHIELD) and blackmailing Nighthawk for half a million bucks.  When making the drop, though, Nighhawk himself was snatched, as Scorpio had somehow discovered that ‘Hawk was actually multi-millionaire and playboy Kyle Richmond.  Hellcat, Valkyrie, Moon Knight and The Hulk chased after Scorpio to recover their beloved “Bird-Nose,” but Scorpio took the upper hand again by revealing his masterstroke:  A fully functional Life Model Decoy creation matrix, capable of birthing synthetic humans so real, only their hairdressers would know for sure.  Adding insult to injury?  The matrix has already created eleven friends for Scorpio, filling out the roster of THE ZODIAC!

Wait, did I say ELEVEN?  Don’t judge me for that, because I also said “fully functional” which, judging from the look of Aries, wasn’t entirely accurate either.  As Aries, Cancer and Taurus tear into the Hulk, Scorpio realizes that some of his charges are missing, and suddenly panics.  “Where is VIRGO?” he cries, turning himself into water and flowing past the Hulk in fear.  Before the battle turns into an 8-on-1 slugfest (and, honestly, I still put my money on The Hulk), the other Defenders leap into action.

The Hulk is very unhappy to end up in the river again, having swum to New Jersey last ish to confront Scorpio in the first place.  While his partners fight for his freedom, Nighthawk comes to an important revelation:  It’s finally dark outside.  Since he has mystically imbued super-strength in darkness (hence the night part of the name, natch), he now has an edge that Scorpio didn’t expect…

While Kyle busts out to join his non-teammates in the trenches, Scorpio returns to the Zodiac birthing chambers to find out what has happened with his missing LMD friends, but what he beholds chills his blood…

I remember reading this the first time, and having the real horror of his situation sink in:  Scorpio wasn’t creating a super-villain team to support his dreams of conquest.  He was creating friends, a family, even a lover to replace all that he has lost in the service to the Zodiac key.  This loss of Virgo is the last straw for Scorpio’s sanity, even as his artificial friends continue to pummel the dynamic Defenders just outside the door…

Interestingly, Scorpio’s Zodiac members aren’t his slaves at all, and each is representative of their astrological sign and the psychological aspect thereof.  Gemini switches sides, Libra refuses to act until the situation has been weighed and assessed, while Leo attacks Hellcat with a one-two punch of bravado and savagery…

Scorpio returns to his private chambers, his heart broken, and his mind in not much better shape.  Trying to figure out his next move, Scorpio turns to his closest advisor…  NICK FURY?

“Nick” isn’t exactly as he seems, though.  As it turns out, Scorpio captured a SHIELD issue LMD (since they invented the synthetic humans for use during spycraft, to great effect) in order to finally have the final word over the REAL Nick, Scorpio’s older brother.  The Defenders manage to pick off the Zodiac one by one (albeit with help from Libra and Gemini), and as Moon Knight and agent Norriss rush to capture the mastermind behind it all, Jacob “Scorpio” Fury’s despair overtakes him completely, and he takes an unprecedented (in comics, anyway) step…

Again, when I read this years ago, I could NOT believe that this ending had made it through the editing process, but was absolutely stunned by the power of Scorpio’s emotional dilemma.  The issue ends with the kind of touches that we NEVER get in comics anymore, a cutaway layout of the Defenders headquarters (aka Kyle Richmond’s riding academy on Long Island) with headshots of all the heroes who had served as Defenders to date.  (A coveted Bronze Blok Award to the first person to identify them all…)

The story of Scorpio is old-school classic Marvel, steeped in continuity and filled with melodrama, but not quite full enough to capsize.  The Kirbyesque art is provided, believe it or not, by a VERY young Keith Giffen, predating his work on Legion of Super-Heroes, Ambush Bug and the like, while the script is from the vastly underrated David Anthony Kraft, probably best known for publishing Comics Interview, back when he was working in the Marvel trenches.  The concept of the anniversary issue as we know it has come together over years and years, but this issue #50 really carries power, even in the next century.

There are portions of the story that simply have not aged well, notably some of Hellcat’s pop culture remarks, and Scorpio’s dialogue can move into the territory of purple prose.  Giffen’s overall storytelling is pretty weak as well, especially during some of the fight sequences, even as he innovated in the use of panels (having the gutter of two panels serve as a separator between two scenes happening on two different floors.)  The use of Moon Knight is puzzling but fun here, as his powers and modus operandi aren’t what I expect (this is VERY early in the character’s history) but the overall effect of this issue reminds me what brought me into comic books in the first place.  It’s an emotionally moving story, regardless of the trappings of the time or the conventions of comic writing in the 70’s, and it still has enough juice to earn 4 out of 5 stars overall.  The early issues of Defenders are some lost gems of the Bronze Age, and serve as the backbone of a great deal of the current Marvel Universe, and this issue is one of the highlights of that run…

Rating: ★★★★☆

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day:  Given the tendency to revive everything from the 70’s at Marvel, why haven’t we been able to make a Defenders revival stick?

The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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8 Comments

  1. August 15, 2010 at 10:50 pm — Reply

    Giffen was obviously drinking heavily from the Kirby mead bucket!

  2. Tom Grice
    August 15, 2010 at 11:19 pm — Reply

    In order they are Howard the Duck, Damien Hellstorm “the Son of Satan”, Namor the Submariner (IMPERIOUS REX!), Silver Surfer, Power Man (Sweet Christmas!), Hulk, Ant-Man/Yellowjacket, the Valkyrie, Nighthawk, Hellcat, Moon Knight, the Red Guardian (Dr. Tania Belinsky! My Knowledge is GREAT!!!), Dr. Strange, Daredevil, Hawkeye, the Thing!

    I loved the Defenders of that era! I remember them so fondly that I absolutely LOVED your retro review!

    • Jim
      August 16, 2010 at 11:34 am — Reply

      Well done. I had them all except Red Guardian. I have no idea who that is.

      • Tom Grice
        August 16, 2010 at 11:03 pm — Reply

        She is actually the second Red Guardian, a Soviet scientist that was kinda like Captain America, but obviously, you know, Russian. And the second one was a woman. And a doctor. She was in the Defenders for about 30 seconds and then basically vanished.

        • August 17, 2010 at 12:24 am — Reply

          She is actually the second Red Guardian, a Soviet scientist that was kinda like Captain America, but obviously, you know, Russian. And the second one was a woman. And a doctor. She was in the Defenders for about 30 seconds and then basically vanished.

          She was irradiated, got super-powers from it, hung out with The Presence, and recently appeared in Darkstar and the Soviet Super-Soldiers under the new codename “Starlight.”

  3. August 15, 2010 at 11:39 pm — Reply

    Maybe because fans don’t actually want to go back to the ’70?

    Or maybe because they keep trying to make the non-team feel like the former non-team?

  4. Ocho
    August 17, 2010 at 5:05 pm — Reply

    I loved this era of the Defenders. 50 is a favorite of mine. I bought it out of the back issue bins the very first time I walked into a comic shop.
    I’d also love to see a Retro Review of “Defender for a Day”.

  5. November 14, 2010 at 9:47 am — Reply

    I recently set out on a search for a super team comic that featured the zodiac gang and scorpio,
    I knew it was very kirbyish,with detailed inks and a portrait page featuring the gang…and it was a milestone issue(ie no.50 or no.100 )…..
    i could not find it any where,then this morning i was reading an article on tony de zunigas inking and at the corner of the article was moon knight drawn by kieth giffen,and there was that art style .
    Al the cogs slipped into place and this led me here to your page…..wonderful memories…if only we could present the smell of the original paper.

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