Comics you should own: Defenders
Marvel, 5 issues (#46-50), cover dated April-August 1977
Comics fans today often talk of "big, dumb superhero comics." They may use this phrase as a compliment or pejoratively, depending on their mood. Even if they are using it as a compliment, it comes off as faintly condescending, as if there is something wrong with the book, even though they like it. As if they're enjoying it in an ironic way, the way some people might take in an Ed Wood film festival.
I've used the phrase before, so I know that of which I speak. I try not to use it, though, because there is absolutely nothing "dumb" about good escapist art - and superheroes can be a lot of things to a lot of people, but first and foremost, they are escapist fantasies, and we shouldn't belittle them. Especially when they are done well, which is a lot harder than it looks. Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the first volume of Marvel's The Defenders, and a little tale called "Who Remembers Scorpio?"
I have to thank Wizard for turning me onto these five issues, ironically enough. A few years ago they ran an article about comics worth reading, and this forgotten gem was on the list. I figured the issues would be cheap (I was right), so I went out and got them. Surprisingly, Wizard was right - these are good comics. From beginning (well, page 11 of issue #46, when the action starts, as the first ten pages are the Defenders having an argument over who's leaving and who's staying on the team) to the end, we stop very few times to catch our breath. The various writers, aided by Giffen before his art got really weird (and, admittedly, much better, although it's perfectly fine here), run the Defenders through their action-filled paces, and it's fun to go along for the ride. However, we get very little character development of our heroes - Marvel trusts us to know who these people are, and how they interact with each other, and we're just going to have to deal with that. We do get some nice moments between Valkyrie and Hellcat, and the Hulk ruminates on the (non-)team and how he just wants fried chicken, and Kyle Richmond is suitably tortured after he becomes the group's leader by default when Dr. Strange quits in the first issue of this story, but it's largely surface stuff. Slifer, Kraft, and Warner don't really care about delving into the hearts and minds of our heroes (joined in this story by Moon Knight). They care about the Hulk smashing things and the rest of the heroes generally wreaking havoc, because they have a threat to deal with. And isn't that what heroes do - wreak havoc while dealing with threats?
Ah, but what a threat. In their choice of villain, Slifer and Kraft struck gold, and the presence of Scorpio in this story is what elevates it from a decent-but-forgettable slugfest into a Comic You Should Own. Scorpio is the perfect postmodern, late 1970s-era villain: chock full of angst, always ready to drink a beer, clever and resilient, scheming in a vague, comic-book-villain kind of way (we're never exactly sure what he plans to do with the new Zodiac, although wreaking of havoc and robbing of banks is probably part of it), and not really a bad guy once you get past the murderous tendencies he has. He adds such a strange spark to this story that he completely takes it over and makes it his own. We know and learn very little about the Defenders in this story, but we do learn quite a bit about Scorpio.
The story begins in issue #46 on page 11, as Jack Norriss is tracked and blasted (in a non-lethal way) by Nick Fury and a couple of SHIELD agents. At about the same time, the Defenders head to Kyle Richmond's ranch, where they find Scorpio, who fights them pretty much to a standstill (even the Hulk, which stretches credulity just a tad). Then he teleports away, vowing to return (just like a good villain). This, however, is just a prelude. Issue #47 is kind of an interlude, as Scorpio is absent throughout, and the Defenders fight Wonder Man at Avengers Mansion (don't ask). The Norriss plot, which does eventually intersect with Scorpio's, is picked up on, though, as Moon Knight stumbles onto Fury and his agents carting Norriss away. This is one of MK's early appearances, but even I, who love the character, have trouble believing that Hackensack, New Jersey is "his territory," or that he would simply throw himself into combat against SHIELD - I suppose his explanation that SHIELD treated Norriss badly is okay, but for all he knows, Norriss could be a violent terrorist and Fury was just taking precautions. It's best not to think about it too much. Moon Knight kicks ass and rescues Norriss, who tells him, "I'm innocent" (of what, he's not sure). Moon Knight, in full, wonderfully cheery 1970s-mode, says, "For now, that'll be good enough." Excellent.
I don't mean to belittle the plot, because it is escapist literature, after all, and heroes know best, so I'll ease back. Moon Knight takes Norriss to Doctor Strange's place, where Valkyrie is hanging out, and they head over to Avengers Mansion to get Hellcat, who been fighting Wonder Man (I told you not to ask). When they see that Hellcat has been in a brouhaha, they rush in, with Norriss the voice of reason: "I realize my opinion doesn't count for much lately ... but aren't we sorta rushing into this?" After some fisticuffs, all is resolved, but then Fury gets on the line telling the Avengers that if they find Norriss, they need to turn him over to SHIELD at once!
This is where the story really gets interesting, as Scorpio returns in issue #48. On the splash page, Scorpio sits in semi-darkness, brooding like Odin in an art style that can only be called Kirby-esque (it's amazing how influential he is - Giffen's art in this issue looks a lot like Tom Scioli's in the current series Godland, and they're both copping from Kirby). In this issue we begin to delve into Scorpio's twisted and rather pathetic psyche. Fury is with him, and we learn that the two men are brothers. In trying to capture Norriss, Fury is not working for SHIELD - he's working for Scorpio. In the opening dialogue, Scorpio tells us that he's 52 years old and that he has always been an outcast from society. He launches into a rant about how society tells people what to do and how if you raise your head up and speak your mind, you get smacked down. It's a fascinating pseudo-monologue (Fury gets a few words in) for several reasons. First, Scorpio's age. The issue of age is rarely raised in comics - everyone is perpetually in their late 20s/early 30s and in peak physical shape. Scorpio doesn't really look 52, but the point that Kraft is trying to make is that here is someone who has grown older and not participated in the sorts of things that make a life worthwhile. He can rant against society all he wants - he didn't do anything that "society" says makes you "happy," but he also didn't try to do any of the things to change that society. His life has been a waste, it's mostly his fault, and suddenly he realizes he's running out of time. The rant reaches a triumphantly wacky climax, as on page 3, our villain shouts: "Thus, in order to survive, I have become my own creation - an image, an ideal! I have become Scorpio - and I shall succeed!" He then instantly calms down and says to Fury: "Now, it is time for you to collect Jack Norriss from those unwitting fools! Pick up some beer on the way over, too - I don't want our hostage going thirsty!" I can't make this stuff up - it's pure villain-esque gold!
The Defenders turn Norriss over to Fury without blinking, but they soon learn that Scorpio has kidnapped him and demanded a ransom from Kyle Richmond. In another excellent line, Kyle gets the call from Scorpio just as he "was splashing [himself] with Windjammer cologne." Scorpio wants $500,000, and Kyle convinced him to allow Nighthawk to deliver the money. Because he's crafty like that. Over in New Jersey, where Scorpio has his secret lair (I'd say something about the Garden State being the home of a crazed villain, but I'm above that), he and Norriss get acquainted over cans of Schlitz (Norriss gets the cold one, because Scorpio is a swell guy). Norriss actually sounds like Scorpio in the exchange - he talks of people in positions of power simply using others, and Scorpio sympathizes. He then shows Norriss his grand design - the Zodiac Chamber, which he claims is "the salvation of the world," which makes him "a savior." In the chamber he is creating life, one for each month of the year. What his plans for these life forms is not yet revealed (nor is it ever), but throughout this whole exchange, we get more nice glimpses into Scorpio's mind. When Moon Knight shows up to save Norriss, he traps the hero in a standard death trap, but before sealing him in, he gives MK a beer, because that's the kind of guy he is. Moon Knight escapes, of course, and the cool thing about it is that we never find out how. He just escapes, and the next time we see him (at the beginning of issue #49) he's on his way to warn the Defenders. We're just supposed to know how he got out. Scorpio goes to get the ransom money, and it turns out he knows that Nighthawk is really Kyle Richmond, and it was a trap to capture the hero. Nighthawk is just another part of Scorpio's mysterious plan.
Moon Knight rushes off to get the Defenders, and Scorpio tells Norriss his "origin" story, which is brief and typically bizarre. The sibling rivalry with Fury is brought up, but Kraft leaves it to us to read into it what we want. Later Scorpio tells Norriss that he tried to emulate Fury, but that quickly turned to hatred. Again, Scorpio's character development is prominent in this story, and we are realizing how twisted he is - Norriss accuses him of creating the Zodiac just to have friends, and he agrees. Alienation has been a motive in stories before this, but what's interesting about Scorpio is how self-aware he is and how single-minded he is just to have friends. He activates the Zodiac Chamber prematurely, because he fears that the Defenders will arrive soon. Kraft then drops another bombshell - it's not really Fury! it's actually a life model decoy made to look like Fury, and Scorpio, interestingly enough, has the same love/hate relationship with the LMD that he does with his brother. He can't see past the fact that the LMD is just reacting to him, and his envy of his brother drives Scorpio to abuse the LMD, who is, by design, devoted to him. It's an interesting twist on the idea of split personalities - Scorpio could be talking to himself the whole time, and for all intents and purposes, he is. The pop psychological aspect of this story is what makes it fascinating - Scorpio is unhinged, true, but he wants to make himself and the world better, in whatever twisted way he can, but he's so inept he can't even defeat a simulacrum of his brother.
The Defenders, meanwhile, are trying to get the Hulk to help them rescue Nighthawk. Hulk is just hanging out in Central Park stealing picnic food, and - say it with me - wants to be left alone. Hellcat, Valkyrie, and Moon Knight goad him into following them across the river, causing major property damage along the way (Damage Control is such a good idea for a series - Marvel should revive it!). They lead him right to Scorpio's lair, and as issue #50 begins, the Defenders face off against the newly-created Zodiac! In the Mighty Marvel Manner, this is a huge fight issue, but once again, Kraft subverts our expectations. Scorpio really care about only one member of the Zodiac - Virgo, whom he created specifically to be Eve to his Adam. Aquarius and Libra debate morality during the fight, while Aquarius has a beer. Scorpio reaches the Zodiac Chamber to find that Pisces, Capricorn, and yes, Virgo, did not survive the awakening process. Pisces gets a nice death scene - he asks Scorpio, "What happened? You have the answers ... We all know you have the answers ... But this pain ... It was not ... part of our programming." Scorpio yells at him as he dies, "I care about you ... and everytime I care, I get hurt." Finally, he finds Virgo's body, and that drives him over the edge. He no longer cares about the rest of the Zodiac, because he'll never feel Virgo's caress or embrace. The Defenders are busy fighting the rest of the bad guys, but they get unexpected help from Gemini, who switches sides in the middle of the battle. The rest are easily beaten, but Norriss and Moon Knight realize that Scorpio and the Fury LMD are still on the loose. So they head off to find them.
On the last two pages, Scorpio's saga comes to a depressing end. He gets one last rant, and he uses it to tell Fury that life is unfair. Yes, we all know that, but it's interesting because Scorpio just gives up, unlike most comic-book villains. He says "Every time I've ever believed in anything, or had faith that the future would get better for me, I've had that false hope knocked out of me ..." Scorpio's despair is palpable, and it becomes even more ironic when the Fury LMD tells him how much he's always respected him. Scorpio has been so desperate for a friend that he never realized he already had one. It's too late, though, and he asks Fury for his gun and shoots himself. Norriss and Moon Knight find him too late. Before he kills himself, Scorpio says, "A man must meet his own final defeat with class, with panache. Haven't I always said that?" Throughout the story, Scorpio has been concerned with style, with doing things with class. He is an anachronism in this world, and unlike Kraven's rather showy suicide, we understand this one better because we have seen how ineffectual Scorpio is and also how out of touch he is with the world and even those close to him. This suicide is more real than Kraven's, because we have come to know Scorpio much better than we know Kraven. This is not showboating on Scorpio's part. Norriss and Moon Knight don't understand this - they think the Fury LMD killed him, and Moon Knight says, "Who'll miss a maniac like Scorpio, anyway?" The Fury LMD gets the last words of the issue: "I will." It's a downer, sure, but it makes us realize that even crazed villains like Scorpio have a soul and have people who are going to miss them. It's also interesting that the Defenders are nowhere to be found. They are incidental to this story - it's about Scorpio and how he has failed to deal with his life, and we're unconcerned with anything except examining this man's spiral into suicide.
For all its goofiness, these five issues offer us something more than a superhero slugfest. Why is Scorpio a villain? Does he really have nothing to offer the world? He is obviously a brilliant scientist - he creates life, after all, which in the Marvel Universe might not be as amazing as in ours, but it's still pretty impressive. He craves human companionship, doesn't necessarily want to fight the Defenders or take over the world (it's worth mentioning again that he never reveals his plans to anyone, so we can only speculate what he was going to do with the Zodiac), and he is in good shape. His self-esteem issues are what drives him, and it's quite the dichotomy that he achieves so much while driven by an inferior complex. We don't know Fury's role in all of this, either. Is Scorpio just crazy and Fury never did anything to cause these feelings? Or was Fury not the best brother and tormented Scorpio to the point where he was consumed by his rage? Knowing Fury, it was probably a bit of both. In the end, despite his accomplishments, Scorpio cannot overcome his feelings and, instead of teleporting away, which he mentions that he could do, he commits suicide. In much the same way that Kevin Smith attempted to make Mysterio a sympathetic character before killing himself (and failed), the creators of this story actually succeed in making Scorpio sympathetic. We can't condone much that he does, but he do understand it.
If you question whether these issues are collected in a trade paperback, my answer would be: "Are you kidding?" I can't find any evidence that they are, but they're ridiculously common and cheap - I think I bought all five for five bucks. They are very neat issues from a time when comics were less concerned with grittiness but still weren't afraid to confront some tough issues. They certainly aren't "dumb" superhero comics - they are simply superhero comics done excellently. Who remembers Scorpio? We do. He's too tragic to forget.