The blogosphere is considering the case of Grant Morrison, and all the talk of mad ideas overflowing has reminded me of one of my favorite comic-book stories of all time. It’s not by Morrison, though I have to wonder if he didn’t read it at some fairly critical developmental juncture.
The run in question is Steve Gerber’s Headmen/Nebulon arc in Defenders 31 to 40 and Defenders Annual 1. It’s easily the best Defenders story ever, and probably one of the most interesting stories Marvel has ever published. It’s never been collected for reprinting, though it could easily fit into the Visionaries or Finest line of trade paperbacks. Chances are it would show up in the second Essential Defenders volume, should Marvel choose to publish one.
But, really, this is a story that begs to be collected on its own, reprinted in color to do full justice to the wonderful art by Sal Buscema (inked either by Jim Mooney or Klaus Janson). Plus, it’s rather painful to contemplate it sharing a binder with Defenders 30, “Gold Diggers of Fear,” where the non-team faces the dreaded menace of Tapping Tommy.
Morrison gets a lot of credit for dense, high-energy weirdness, but Gerber got there first, and this arc is a wonderful example. The story starts with the Headmen, an utterly narcissistic group of geniuses, kidnapping millionaire superhero Nighthawk. They intend to use him to infiltrate the Defenders. Instead of using methods as mundane as mind control, they actually transplant one of their member’s brains into Nighthawk’s body. (Arthur Nagan, the group’s putative leader, has something of a surgical fetish. It’s how he wound up with his head sewn onto a gorilla’s body.)
The Headmen are united by their belief that their intelligence entitles them to rule the world. They’re also linked by a variety of cranial mishaps. Jerry Morgan is a scientist who developed a shrinking gas concurrently with Avenger Hank Pym. Unfortunately, the gas only shrunk the bones in Morgan’s head, leaving him looking a bit prunish. Grade-Z mystic Chondu’s power rests in his brain, thus the necessity of the transplant. Bodacious Ruby Thursday has replaced her head with a malleable, cybernetic orb, for reasons of efficiency and productivity.
They generally consider violence beneath them, preferring to rely on political, economic, and scientific subterfuge to achieve their ends. They want to use the Defenders to further those ends, luring them into their clutches to alter their brain waves. But the Defenders twig to the brain swap, and the nefarious scheme is only partly successful. A battle for Nighthawk’s brain ensues, ending with the organ in possession of Jack Norris, currently inhabiting Nighthawk’s body thanks to Dr. Strange. (Norris is also the ex-husband of Barbara Norris, former inhabitant of the body currently in use by Valkyrie. Does your head hurt yet?)
Before Jack can return to Dr. Strange’s home with the brain, he’s kidnapped by another would-be conqueror, Nebulon. In a previous run-in with the Defenders, Nebulon tried to melt the polar ice caps to make Earth a fitting environment for his squishy, aquatic species. This time around, he’s been banished by his people, and he’s taken it upon himself to liberate humanity from… well… their own stupidity. In the grand tradition of EST and other self-help movements I won’t mention because they freak me out, he develops Celestial Mind Control, urging the common herd to embrace then destroy their inner bozo. Clown masks are involved in the self-improvement process.
So, two rival ideologies are in place: the Headmen, who rely on humanity’s predictable stupidity to advance their agenda, and Nebulon, who wants to elevate humanity into a state of advanced uniformity. Plus, brains are still floating around. Poor Chondu, evicted from his own brain, gets stuck in the body of a fawn. Then, his team-mates transfer him into a powerful but hideous artificial body of their own design, complete with bat wings, a forked tongue, tentacles, and a horn coming out of his forehead.
Nighthawk has it a bit easier. All that’s needed to set him right is a visit from acclaimed Russian neurosurgeon Tania Belinsky. Tania’s turn-ons include experimental brain surgery, communism, and fighting crime in Moscow as an outlaw vigilante, the Red Guardian. With all the issues of identity, conformity, power, and ideology swirling around, Tania is a fabulous addition to the cast. Her tart observations on the insanity are a consistent highlight.
Best of all is her interaction with Luke Cage. The hero for hire is brought in by Nighthawk as extra muscle to compensate for the frequent absences of the already unreliable Hulk. Watching capitalist Luke and communist Tania spar and spark is a treat, and, ideological differences aside, they share an entirely believable mutual respect. (And no one can convince me they aren’t hot for each other.)
While all of the competing forces steadily converge, there are tons of amusing side-tracks. Valkyrie does a stint in prison for destruction of property. (She trashes a restaurant while trying to keep Chondu from stealing a new body.) Since she’s under an enchantment that prevents her from hitting another woman, she can’t rely on violence to protect herself. Lame super-villains like Plantman, the Porcupine, and the Eel turn to Nebulon and his Bozos to learn to be all that they can be as criminals. Jack is such an irritant that Nighthawk eventually pays him to leave. (It’s nice that the obvious point-of-view character, regular guy Jack, is allowed to be so distinctly obnoxious.)
In other words, it’s 31 flavors of carefully modulated and paced craziness that culminates in the most excellent Annual. It’s funny, thoughtful, intelligent, satirical, and just plain weird in ways that Marvel hasn’t been since.
I think it’s the best Defenders story because it most fully articulates the book’s premise. Gerber has described the non-team as an encounter group, and that’s very much in evidence here. While their interests often intersect, their temperaments clearly don’t. There’s an appropriately loose feeling to their association, and yet they’re the perfect protagonists to pit against this particular group of would-be conquerors. They don’t have the organization of the Avengers or the family structure of the Fantastic Four, so they can be more contemplative, more oblique in their approach. The arc is more of a philosophical argument as it is a slug-fest, though there’s plenty of action.
Many have described the story as ahead of its time, and it probably was. It would be interesting to see what a contemporary audience thinks of it.