Oh the wondrous mysteries of human memory. As a lover of old comics and nostalgic to a fault, I wanted to look back on a childhood fave today, Defenders #38, which I purchased over forty years ago at the dawn of the summer of 1976. One of my clearest memories of this comic was a panel where Nighthawk referred to Nebulon (in his nebbishy disguise) as a “twerp.” So imagine my surprise when I looked for that panel and discovered…
The word was nowhere to be found.
Go ahead, take another look.
As I said, it was one of my clearest memories—I can recall it vividly, my old friend Maurice & I, laughing at the word “twerp” in that panel. In hindsight, the word must have come from ‘Rice’s mouth and I associated it so closely with this panel that I unconsciously inserted it into Nighthawk’s dialogue.
I was not yet seven years old. ‘Rice was two years older and had a deeper vocabulary, clearly. The word “twerp” struck a chord because it was (and is) one of those words that somehow sounds like what it means. The little twerp was indeed a twerp. Just look at him.
I can remember the issue on a stack of others in my backyard, all the boys on the block there, swapping comics—my first comics swap. I didn’t trade this issue with anyone because (A)I loved it too much to ever part with it, and (B)I think all the other guys already had purchased their own copy of it anyway. Some books were like that; every kid you knew bought their own copy, for whatever reason. Maybe it was the cover, as the design was glorious and irresistible.
Kudos to Rich Buckler and Joe Sinnott; an amazing job. I loved this cover so much, in fact, that I later used it on one of my many homemade T-Shirts (which I then proceeded to wear into oblivion—appropriately enough, the title of the story here is “Exile to Oblivion”).
…Of course it could have also been the story. Written by the inimitable Steve Gerber and illustrated by Sal Buscema and Klaus Janson (whose artistic efforts throughout this run still make my heart leap every time I see it), it was just crazy fun.
We open with Doctor Strange, Red Guardian, and Luke Cage/Power Man trapped on what appears to be some strange, alien world, courtesy of their old foe, Nebulon the Celestial Man.
(I made note of Cage’s humor here in another post from a while back.)
Doc’s magical powers aren’t working too well on this world, causing the trio to retreat to the safety of a nearby cavern. Once inside, they stumble across this… silver-haired, sorta space-ape. And he’s not in a pleasant mood.
Cut to Jack Norriss at the hospital telling Kyle (Nighthawk) Richmond about the missing Defenders; then cut to Valkyrie eating in the cafeteria of a woman’s prison(!); before cutting back to those missing Defenders fighting the space-ape. With Doc’s magic out and Red Guardian possessing no superhuman strength, it’s up to Luke to put down the ape. He does so by ripping a stalactite from the cavern ceiling and walloping the brute, Reggie Jackson style.
But back to the prison for a sec. Looking at it now, I get another serious nostalgia burn in my brain. At one point, Val butts heads with a con named Felicia—the biggest, brawniest chick in the prison, who’s obviously used to running the place. She puts out a cigarette in Val’s stew and Val responds by dumping the stew on her head. That leads us to this:
I remember having no idea what “screws” meant here, and maybe thinking that its use was dirty somehow. I also had never encountered the word “tepid” before, but could figure out its meaning given the context. (Comics were most definitely expanding my vocabulary, as well as my general knowledge of the larger world.)
…So after Luke takes out the space-ape, Red Guardian finds herself covered with alien ants that seem to be trying to “eat her alive,” as Doc puts it. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Nighthawk busts in on CMC (Celestial Mind Control) headquarters and beats up a bunch of guys in Bozo-like clown masks before Nebulon (in his twerp disguise) tricks him into walking through a doorway leading to the bizarre world where his teammates are trapped. Coming upon Doc and Luke trying to stamp out the alien ants, Nighthawk begins to wonder if he’s lost his sanity. When Doc sees him and asks how he got there, ‘hawk tells him he just walked through the door. Doc then uses his magic to find the door and get them all back to Earth. There are some obstacles waiting for them there, of course…
…So we got the Porcupine, the Eel, a slew of bozos, and a revived space-ape to contend with. As if this madness weren’t enough, the next page offers this little interlude:
Yes, it’s the infamous Elf with a Gun—the subplot Gerber would never resolve. Can you imagine reading this as a not-yet-seven-year-old? It should have been utter nonsense to me, but somehow I loved it. Ultimately, there were a number of sweet action scenes here, and I guess that’s all I really needed at that age; but the madcap atmosphere also had a flavor that, even then, I recognized as unique and appealing.
So the group mops up this wild cast of villains—including space-ape, who gets tied up in the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak courtesy of Dr. Strange—and calls it a day. The neat ending here likely made the rest of the lunacy more palatable to my young brain.
Still, to this day, I don’t understand what’s going on in the last panel. Is space-ape dissolving? Transforming? If so, why? Maybe Doc’s magic still isn’t functioning properly? Who the hell knows?
Also, the next issue teaser was a bit of a brain twister for me back in ’76. I didn’t recognize the word “riot” and not sure I would have understood the context even if I did; and of course, had no clue what a “B-movie” was.
A month or so later, I’d buy the previous issue, #37, off the stands down the Jersey Shore, and got my first real inkling of how issue-to-issue continuity worked. Many of the events of issue #38 made sense in light of this purchase: Nighthawk was in the hospital because he had just undergone brain transplant surgery(!) courtesy of Russian neurosurgeon Tania Belinsky, who also just happened to be the Red Guardian(!!); while Val was in prison for wrecking a restaurant during her fight with Chondu the Mystic, after he had been surgically altered and given bat wings, bird legs, a unicorn horn, and lamprey arms(!!!).
Other things would take years before their deepest meaning was clear to me. The CMC being a swipe at EST, for example (or perhaps more broadly, all the self-help crazes of the 70s—Lord knows there were plenty of ’em back in those days). This made it a rewarding experience to go back and re-read these issues as I got older; there always seemed to be some fresh discovery to be made.
The Elf with the Gun, though? Still a mystery. (At least as far as what Gerber’s original plans may have been.)
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