When folks think of Civil War, the seven-part Marvel Comics event that inspired the new film Captain America: Civil War, they think of superhero against superhero in an all-out war. But Civil War is by no means the first time that happened. Meet me after the jump for my thoughts on a crossover event from a simpler time when Loki and Dormammu manipulated the Avengers and the Defenders to go to war against each other.
The Golden Age of Comics
There’s an old saying in the comics field that the real Golden Age is actually eight or nine or ten. It’s a bit of a pun, but it’s true. No comic book you will ever read will ever be as cool as they were when you were at those ages. That said, the Avengers/Defenders clash happened in my ninth summer. It is still awesome, nothing will change my mind about it, and even those it has its flaws, I still love it.
As far as I’m concerned, it is the perfect crossover, jumping between issues of Avengers and Defenders for the duration of the story, and with an ending that featured the entire Marvel Universe without being cost-prohibitive. The tale fits our theme of superhero vs. superhero, and yet has them united in the end to save the entire universe from the forces of evil. I had missed two issues of Defenders in its original run, but rest assured, those comics were among the first back issues I ever obtained… I had to know what happened.
Tough Shoes to Fill
If only the Avengers had fully trusted the Swordsman, none of this would have ever happened. Hawkeye had recently quit the team, and not under the best of circumstances, so the Avengers had a space to fill. Old foe the Swordsman showed up, with his companion Mantis, and claimed to have reformed, and wanted to take his place among the heroes. The Avengers had a history of making heroes of former villains – Hawkeye, Black Widow, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch being prime examples. Still, the Avengers felt they needed to keep looking, and tried to contact the Black Knight.
The Avengers found the Knight’s castle protected by magic, the magic of Doctor Strange. And though he had helped the team in the past, the team was ousted from his home when they sought to question him about the Knight. But once they saw the Black Knight petrified as a statue within the residence, the Avengers counted Strange as an unfriendly, and made plans to save their former comrade. Meanwhile in the Dark Dimension, other plans were afoot…
Whispers of War
Dormammu, the archenemy of Doctor Strange (and the Defenders once as well), waaay back in 1965’s Strange Tales #127 vowed to never set foot on Earth again, but had devised a plan, using the Evil Eye, a weapon encountered by the Fantastic Four but lost in battle, to bring the Earth into his own Dark Dimension. A complicated but efficient way of taking his revenge on Strange, Dormammu still needed help in this task. He employed the aid of Thor’s at-the-time blind half-brother Loki. Together the two handicapped villains might succeed.
Dormammu planted false information to Strange that the Evil Eye might be what was needed to save the Black Knight. And there’s the key. The reason Doctor Strange was not receiving visitors, and had placed a magical shield over Garrett Castle was that he and the Defenders were trying to save the Black Knight, who had been turned to stone by the Enchantress. Now this answer from Dormammu, that by reassembling the six components of the Evil Eye, its power could transform the Black Knight back to flesh. Now, the Defenders would unknowingly collect the weapon through which Dormammu would conquer the Earth…
Loki, ever devious and thinking only of himself, foresaw that Dormammu’s plans might eventually overshadow his own, eventually bringing doom to Asgard as well, and he had plans of his own. Loki sought out Thor and the Avengers and wove a web of lies that all things considered, actually sounded feasible. This Doctor Strange, a current thorn in the heroes’ side, has assembled the villains the Valkyrie, the Hulk, and the Sub-Mariner, all of whom had had hostile encounters with the Avengers, along with the Silver Surfer, not always on the side of good, and Hawkeye, their former friend, and former villain as the Defenders, teamed together to find and use the Evil Eye to take over the planet. Yeah, you guessed it, Loki or not, the Avengers fell for it.
Soon both teams knew where the six components of the Evil Eye were hidden and sent members to those locations. The difference being the Avengers knew they were going to war, and the Defenders didn’t, at least not yet. The latter team thought they were merely retrieving the Evil Eye to save their friend, the petrified Black Knight. The first clash of this war happened on the South Seas island Rurutu in what was then French Polynesia, where the Silver Surfer, and the Vision and the Scarlet Witch would soon meet.
The Surfer arrives first, scouring the island, but finding nothing. Questioning the natives, who believe the gleaming one a god, he determines the Evil Eye to be in the island’s active volcano. That’s when the Avengers arrive. Bob Brown, artist for the Avengers portion of this war brings an almost Kirbyesque vibe to his Silver Surfer, but he really shines in showing the rage of the Vision when the Scarlet Witch is threatened. The Surfer is lucky to escape his wrath. The Vision’s ferocity in this battle, and his blindspot when it comes to Wanda, doesn’t help when these two combatants report back to their respective teammates. The war is on!
In Defenders #9, an issue I would not see for quite some time, both teams are alerted to the enmity of the other, and are prepared. Doctor Strange’s brief investigation into the Avengers reveal the Swordsman as a new member, convincing him the heroes have turned evil. The gloves are off. In Monterey, Mexico, the next fight commences. After Hawkeye being Hawkeye and stealing a kiss from the Valkyrie, he renews his rivalry with Iron Man. These two began their Marvel careers as hero and villain, and while at first they try not to hurt each other, the old dynamic quickly comes back.
This is part of what writer Steve Englehart does best. He was the scripter on both titles at the time, making this coordination seamless, but he also has a sense of history, from this Hawkeye/Iron Man feud to the mention of Captain and the Sub-Mariner fighting together during World War II in the next segment, Englehart knew his Marvel Comics history. In the issue’s second battle, Doctor strange is pitted against Mantis and the Black Panther in the cornfields of Fort Wayne, Indiana.
When separating to stop the Defenders, the Swordsman had originally wanted Mantis to accompany him, but she refused, sensing that the Black Panther would need more help. Granted, she was right, but as it turns out, the same could be said of any of these conflicts – especially the Swordsman. Poor Swordy, he was always getting the raw end of the deal. Though the Avengers lose the Eye again, the fight between them and Strange are a nice spotlight of their abilities, and it’s always a treat to see Sal Buscema, the artist for Defenders, draw any Avengers.
Misery and Victory
Next in Avengers #117, with Dormammu now aware of the Avengers interference but unable to do anything about it, a new battle begins in the jungles of Bolivia – the self-pitying Swordsman vs. the Valkyrie. The search for the Evil Eye leads to a Nazi-built castle where the two do battle, reenacting many sword fight tricks from classic films, excellent work from artist Brown again. The Swordsman is rather shocked that Valkyrie is using both the Ebony Blade and winged horse Aragorn of the Black Knight, cementing his belief of the Defenders as villains. However the near equally skilled combat is halted by the castle’s owner shooting the Swordsman, and yet another piece of the Eye goes to the Defenders.
The next bout is one for the ages, Captain America vs. the Sub-Mariner. Hearing what has happened to his teammates, Namor has arrived in Japan first, found the Eye, and yet waits for Cap… because he wants to fight. The battle is fierce but noble, and goes on for a few pages, only to be interrupted by a third party, who like his native Japan, has no love for either Cap or Namor – the mutant Sunfire. Cooperation against the new threat and conversation after lead the Avenger and the Defender to come to the same conclusion – they have been manipulated…
Thor vs. the Hulk
When comics fans get together and they talk about superhero fights, which thematically as we count down to Captain America: Civil War is what this is all about, there are prime who’d win scenarios for Marvel Comics… Hulk vs. Thing, Captain America’s shield vs. Wolverine’s claws, and this one – The Mighty Thor vs. The Incredible Hulk. As the Hulk finds his segment of the Evil Eye and Thor lands nearby, and tries to reason with the beast, it begins. Thor wants to talk, ‘Avenger to Avenger,’ and the Hulk ansswrs with my favorite line from this saga – “Hulk was Avenger once… didn’t like it!” and lands the first punch.
Hulk is in no mood. The fact is, after he helps the Black Knight, he plans on punching ‘Stupid Magician’ (Doctor Strange) too. Let the games begin. This fight, by Sal Buscema, whose Thor and Hulk are truly marvelous, is perfection. The battle has everything one would expect from a Hulk/Thor fight: the banter both savage and Shakespearean, the hammer that can’t be picked up, burying each other, grabbing the cape, and of course, the madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets. But the main feature of this battle is the full-page death grip the two combatants have each other, and hold for over an hour. Only the appearance of the Avengers and the Defenders united halt the battle.
United Against the Dark
The good guys have figured everything out, including who’s behind this, and stopped Hulk and Thor from killing each other. The problem is, once they assemble the Evil Eye, it’s stolen by the villains… and the Dark Dimension begins to merge with Earth… with humans transforming into demons… as The Bride is often wont to ask, “Is it time for the good guys to win yet?”
As I mentioned in a recent review for “Avengers: Ultron Revolution,” this is where a perfect old school Marvel Universe begins. Steve Englehart includes everybody through one panel or more appearances to show how this confrontation between the Avengers and Defenders and Dormammu affects the Marvel Universe. These cameos introduced me to so much of this world and these characters in a way that current crossover events do not. I got my first tastes of Nick Fury, the Watcher, Thanos, Adam Warlock, Dracula, Luke Cage, and others in this way.
While the rest of the Marvel Universe do battle with demons who were once friends, the assembled Avengers and Defenders make their way toward Dormammu. In one of the most disappointing scenes of the entire saga, the dread one dispatches the Defenders in one panel, leaving the Avengers to save the universe in the comic that bears their name. Highlights include Thor and Iron Man being separated from their hammer and armor, the Vision panicking in quicksand (hinting at his past as the original Human Torch), and the Scarlet Witch, proving for perhaps the first time that she is the most powerful Avenger and taking down Dormammu and Loki. Her words, “You cannot stop me!” are chilling knowing what we know now.
The Watcher explains that Wanda’s hex caused the Evil Eye to backfire and destroyed Dormammu (he got better) while simultaneously healing Loki’s eyesight, but driving him insane. Loki too got better, but after a stay in Rutland in the care of mayor Tom Fagan… but that’s another tale for another time. The Defenders are able to save the Black Knight, though not as they originally intended, but it all worked out.
I loved this story, and upon re-reading it for this review, I still love it. I was made a Defenders fan as well as a Hulk fan, and the ending made me curious of much of the Marvel Universe I was unaware of beforehand. Truly epic in scale, the Avengers/Defenders remains my first experience with superheroes fighting one another, and has whet my appetite for the big screen version of Civil War just scant hours from now.