As a fellow reviewer at AIPT poignantly put it, New Defenders was a “fun and forgotten chapter from Marvel’s past” and that continues with the latest Epic Collection trade paperback. In this latest edition, New Defenders #138-152 and Gargoyle #1-4 are collected for anyone looking for a somewhat different superhero team experience. The team consisted of Beast, Angel, Moondragon, Valkyrie, Gargoyle, and Iceman and not so surprisingly, the team tends to try to distinguish themselves from the Avengers. They aren’t the powerhouse heroes of the Marvel universe, but they’re doing their best to fight against the mystical and lesser-known threats hiding in plain sight. It was also a series that was a little bit ahead of its time.
You see its progressiveness in how it tackles a racist group a few issues into the collection. They are spouting hate and they’re not unlike the alt-right folks in Charlottesville. We soon learn there’s a darker reason for their spreading of hate that adds a touch of supernatural storytelling to the mix. The character known as Cloud is also fascinating as they are genderfluid. Seeing other heroes witness the transformation from female to male is interesting since they don’t judge nor find it repellent. It’s a character that is cosmic by nature but accepted. There is a message there that readers today could learn from.
Many of these stories–which originally published between 1984 and 1986–read like a good season of the X-Files. The four-issue Gargoyle series, for instance, written by J.M. Matteis, weaves in religion and a dark noir style that is as clever as it is interesting in its exploration of character. At one point the team must face off against a slime mold that grows, reshapes into faces, and is the epitome of monster of the week style storytelling.
As a team book, there are dynamics between the characters that are fascinating to see. Beast, for instance, always seems to argue with Moondragon. Meanwhile, Moondragon fully admits to the team she was mentally coercing them to take off her headband for nefarious reasons. Beast is one of the more interesting characters of the bunch thanks to his chipper nature and at times or smarmy replies. At the same time though there’s a bond between these characters that is unmistakable.
One element of this book that shows its age is how it can get tied up in the minutiae of a superhero team that’s not very interesting. For instance, in the very first issue collected here, multiple pages are devoted to a new hologram defense program installed at their headquarters. You can get Namor, Hulk, and even Galactus riding a dog to appear to scare off any unwanted guests. In hindsight, it’s quite silly yet these characters take it very seriously. It goes on and on and ends up being a meatier part of the issue. Characters can at times talk casually for so long it’s hard to find the point in their discourse.
This is a good read, but bring a bucket of patience. The slower pace and at times bizarre focus on the minutiae of the team can be taxing, but the is no denying the progressive takes and supernatural storytelling are great fun.
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