Characters Appearing: Bucky (Julia Winter), Darkhawk, Dr. Strange, Nightmare, Nomad, Spider-Woman (Julia Carpenter), Wolverine
Secret Defenders #1-3
Issue(s): Secret Defenders #1, Secret Defenders #2, Secret Defenders #3
It seems like Secret Defenders is just about universally loathed (at least until we get to the all-villain issues). It does sort of epitomize the worst aspects of the 90s, at least in the sense of using "hot" characters as perpetual guest stars to boost sales (and the fact that issue #1 had a foil cover doesn't help). And Sean Howe does have this quote regarding the series, coming off the fact that editors had begun receiving royalties:
To some, the monetary incentives offered to editors clouded judgement...
I actually think there was a niche for a Secret Defenders book to exist in. A part of the problem, i think, is that the book was marketed as a kind of return of the Defenders. Since the cancellation of the Defenders series, there were perennial requests in the lettercols that the book be reinstated. And when this book was coming out, people making those requests were directed to this series. Roy Thomas' text piece in the back of issue #1 doubles down on that. Now, it's true that the Defenders were often called a "non-team" ("team-that-wasn't-really-a-team", in Thomas' piece). But in practice the group had as consistent a line-up as any team book, so you can't just call any group of heroes the Defenders (although as i write this, i can't help think of the Netflix crossover). It's true that Dr. Strange is here, but that on its own wouldn't be enough to make this a Defenders book even if he weren't depowered and acting solely as a recruiter and background operator.
Still, if you ignore the title and the promotional framing, this is essentially Marvel Team-Up. I've often said that i wished that the 1970s-1980s Marvel Team-Up series really was Marvel Team-Up and not Spider-Man Team-Up. And that's what this book is. I think one problem is that while Spider-Man was Marvel's most popular character in the 70s-80s, allowing him to play the headliner alongside more obscure characters, in the 90s the popular characters like Wolverine and Punisher were already overexposed as guest stars, so the constant appearances of characters like that were already met with fatigue by fans when this series came out in a way that wasn't the case with Spider-Man.
Another problem is with the set-up. The basic idea was actually given a fair amount of set-up in Dr. Strange's series. The idea is that he's lost most of his powers, so he needs to recruit heroes to help him when he detects threats - threats that are said to be the result of the return of Lilith and her Lilan. He does that by using a tarot card deck - which, yech, blecch, pthuuutt - so that the characters chosen are basically random (i.e. selected by some higher power for reasons that we cannot fathom). And as a way to put a bunch of characters together for a team-up, it's no worse than every contrived intro to every past Marvel Team-Up story. It basically gets that set-up out of the way and lets us get in to (what should be) the fun character interactions and the story. The premise does have an obvious flaw, which is that any threats that Dr. Strange is detecting ought to be mystical in nature, or else why wouldn't a group like the Avengers take care of it? The amount of times that Dr. Strange should need to recruit the likes of Wolverine or the Punisher to deal with a mystical threat ought to be pretty low. So either those characters are standing around wondering how they're going to punch/claw/shoot some ethereal spirit, or we contrive a physical threat for them to deal with, or the mystical turns out to be not-so-mystical. Dr. Strange is not going to recruit a bunch of heroes to fight the Sinister Six or anything fun like that.
That said, i think that all the flaws could have been surmounted. The real reason this series was a "piece of shit" is because of the execution. First, in terms of the guest stars, in addition to Wolverine we have Darkhawk, Nomad, and Spider-Woman in this first story. Ignoring the fact that Spider-Woman is a character in Roy Thomas' Avengers West Coast series, she feels like a fine "regular" character to include here. But Darkhawk and Nomad are both starring in solo series that have been promoted as being "edgy". It's not really accurate, but in a superficial sense it feels like we have Spider-Woman and three Wolverines here.
But even that could have been surmounted. The real problem is that the writing is just terrible, and the art is as basic as you can get. No 90s speculator type fans drawn here by the new #1 and the foil cover and the Wolverine appearance was going to stick around for this.
Some nice interchangeable dialogue there, and the art is stiff and boring.
And the story... well, the story is about old homeless people that are lured to a Second Chance Institute to get turned young again in return for performing crimes. The creature behind the Second Chance Institute is a Viral Swarm that was able to come to Earth thanks to Lilith's arrival having weakened the Earth's dimensional Fabric.
The Viral Swarm also has the ability to turn people into extremely lame Super-Villains For The 90s, including Tokamak and Decimator, the latter of which can be seen in all his shoulder-padded, pony-tailed glory.
And then there's Dreadlox, which... just no.
Even the characters laugh at her, but that doesn't make it any better.
As the next issue blurb promises, there's another character called Macabre (who may be the closest to actually representing the Swarm). There's also another one called Stasis. But the three i've shown are really all you need to know about what the creative team has to offer on the new characters front. It's really clear that these characters exist because you really can't expect any of these heroes to fight a Viral Swarm, so they need super-villains to fight. None of them appear again.
Meanwhile, here's what passes for characterization.
Wolverine is to answering machines as Garfield is to Mondays.
The above scene happens when the heroes realize that they're completely incompatible with the threat they've been sent to deal with, so they try to contact Dr. Strange. But that doesn't work out.
Since Wolvie has destroyed the phone, they try to contact Strange by concentrating real hard. And that actually works, but it results in them getting sucked into a crossover that they weren't invited to. Just to make things less accessible, this story takes place during a crossover between Dr. Strange's solo book and the Morbius series. They get sucked into Nightmare's dimension and see Strange fighting Nightmare.
Strange sends them back, telling them that the fight with Nightmare's is his alone (well, his and Morbius', really).
Strange does return later, though, and the heroes eventually whatever whatever the Death Spore.
It's incredibly bad. Even if the villains weren't so uninspired and if the dialogue wasn't, er, by 90s era Roy Thomas, the basic plot is really generic. So that's what we've got here, a book that aspires to be generic but the creative team can't manage even that. It's clear that Mike Rockwitz didn't think much of this book but i don't think he even tried to make it work (except in the sense - and this shouldn't be completely discounted - that he was also editor on the Doctor Strange series which did help make this series possible by depowering Strange). Let alone not demanding a strong plot. Just in terms of the creative team pick it seems pretty weak. There was a place for Roy Thomas at Marvel in the 90s (somewhere...) but this was not the right book for him. And as far as i can tell, Andre Coates was a complete newbie (two pin-ups in Punisher, and one cover and one story for Neal Adams' Continuity Comics prior to this). It's not a winning combo. But Rockwitz made seven grand for issue #1 alone, so what do i know?
Quality Rating: D
Chronological Placement Considerations: This story takes place during the crossover between Morbius #8-9 and Doctor Strange #52-53. Since Strange comes in and out of this story, there's no way to really break things up on an issue by issue basis, so i've got that crossover following this.
Dr. Strange recruits Wolverine for Secret Defenders stories both here and in Fantastic Four #374. Neither story references the other. We don't see Wolverine's reaction to being recruited in that story, but the Sa'arpool reference here (see below) makes it seem like this is the first time Wolverine has seen Dr. Strange in a while. The MCP are inconsistent, placing Secret Defenders before FF #374 for Wolverine but afterwards for Dr. Strange. Based on the Sa'arpool reference, i'm placing this before FF #374. Also see the reference regarding Nomad; this seems to fit well between Nomad #9-10.
Continuity Insert? N
My Reprint: N/A
Oof, I remember buying these 3 issues but dumped the series after that. Just bad comics. There's a sequence in (I think) issue #1 where a thug punches Wolverine that always cracks me up.
Posted by: Joe Gagne | September 14, 2016 2:49 PM
What's wrong with the tarot deck, Fnord?
Anyway... this really looks bad. The scene of Wolverine trashing the phone booth seems like something out of a parody book.
BTW. I'm pretty sure Grant Morrison would be able to write a story about Wolverine fighting a viral swarm :))
Posted by: Piotr W | September 14, 2016 4:11 PM
To answer Piotr's question, i pulled some cards, and i got:
The Lord of Cheap, Boring Shortcuts
Posted by: fnord12 | September 14, 2016 7:08 PM
Secret Defenders might have been inspired by Valiant's Secret Weapons, which came out a few month later and featured a similar "heroes-that-don't-usually-work together-working-together" concept.
Posted by: Michael | September 14, 2016 9:58 PM
If you take out the issue break, this is priceless:
Deadlox: The name, lover, is Dreadlox (Sexy pose.)
Posted by: FF3 | March 9, 2017 8:19 AM
To back up the quote from Sean Howe's book that fnord provides, yes, these issues made the creators involved a ridiculous amount of royalties. Roy Thomas had the following to say about Secret Defenders #1 in Alter Ego #136...
"The speculative boom was at its absurdist heights, and that comic, on a non-returnable basis, sold three-quarters of a million copies, which was pretty good even for that period. Dan and I returned home from a trip, and there was a check for $43,000 waiting for us. At first we thought the decimal point was in the wrong place! I hadn't got any five-figure checks since I'd stopped writing movies, and not many of them then! Out of that sum, $38,000 was for Secret Defenders #1. The rest was for Fantastic Four Unlimited #1 and a couple of other issues."
Posted by: Ben Herman | November 26, 2017 3:59 PM
Ugh. I remember bying those issues. Back then I was a loyal reader who usually stayed with a series even through its bad phases. If I collected sth I stayed with it through the bitter end..... except for this series. I don't remember at which point I got off but I did and it was one of the few series I got rid off quite early.
Posted by: Multiple Manu | January 3, 2018 8:29 AM
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