The Defenders: A Comic Book History of Marvel’s Weirdest Team

The Defenders wasn't always Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. Oh, not even close...

The Avengers has long been Marvel’s greatest superhero team. The Fantastic Four (despite what Marvel’s top brass thinks these days) has long been Marvel’s first family. The X-Men have long been Marvel’s most popular group of heroes. And then there’s The Defenders, Marvel’s non-team, a rag tag group that has had just about every hero in the Marvel Universe serve as a member at one time or another. But despite the fact that the Defenders have long played also rans to Marvel’s more well-known superhero squads, this loosely knit group of champions have a very long, fascinating, and varied history.

Despite the fact the Defenders have always been overshadowed by Avengers and X-Men, the property is ready to finally achieve the big time. Yeah, you know it, the Defenders are coming to Netflix with a team made up of Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. But newer fans anticipating this streaming TV event might be surprised to learn that these four street level heroes have, until recently, had very little to do with the comic book Defenders.

So get ready to travel back to the Bronze Age as we take a look at the history of Marvel’s strangest and most varied super team, the always mighty and sometimes wacky Defenders…

The Early Days of The (Shockingly Overpowered) Fab Four

One of the major issues with the original Defenders was that the initial lineup of heroes that made up this team was ridiculously overpowered. The original Defenders lineup was Doctor Strange, the Hulk, and Sub-Mariner. I mean what villain other than Galactus would pose a threat to this mega-powered threesome? Soon after the Defenders debuted, the Silver Surfer became a glistening addition to the roster. That’s right, Marvel’s greatest sorcerer, Marvel’s strongest monster, and Marvel’s mightiest monarch weren’t enough it seems, because right away, Marvel’s most powerful space hero soon joined the power packed team of heroes. That’s like adding Hank Aaron to the 1961 Yankees just for shits and giggles. But before we dissect this unbeatable squad, let’s look at how these beat sticks began.

Ad – content continues below

The Defenders came together as a publishing necessity. After the Doctor Strange series was cancelled in 1970, writer Roy Thomas had no choice but to complete a dangling story arc in the other titles that he wrote. What began in Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), continued in Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970). In this tale, the three stalwart heroes teamed up to take on the HP Lovecraft inspired Undying Ones. The story was fraught with Bronze Age goodness as Marvel’s mightiest reluctantly teamed up to face Lovecraftian cosmic gods in a story that was just made for black light posters. Now think about this, the seed of the Defenders, the seed that would germinate forty-seven years later into a streaming Netflix series, took root because Marvel cancelled Doctor Strange back in 1970. I freakin’ love those sort of connections. Anyway, Hulk, Doc, and Subby were not an official team before or during their battle with Undying Ones, but this threesome must have struck a chord with Stan Lee, Thomas, or some other Marvel higher ups because these improbable allies would gather again.

Thomas would bring another Defenders prototype together in Sub-Mariner #34–35 (February–March 1971) when Hulk, Namor, and the Silver Surfer joined together to battle the Avengers (hell to the yeah), free a nation from a brutal dictator, and destroy a weather control doodad. Hulk, Subby, and the Surfer were dubbed the Titans Three and seemed to spend more time arguing with each other than fighting their enemies. This was a theme that would carry though pretty much every incarnation of the Defenders moving forward including, judging from a few snarky moments we got in the trailers, our four new Netflix Defenders. Again now, let’s stop and think about how stupid overpowered the Titans Three were. A cosmic god, an undersea king that could control all sea life and had vast armies at his disposal, and the freakin’ Hulk. Add Doctor Strange to that mix and you have a group of heroes that would have a hard time finding a worthy adversary. I mean, can you picture these four stopping an armored car robbery? That would be like using MOAB to get rid of some moths.

The gathering of titans in Sub-Mariner must have sparked something because soon after, the Defenders made their official debut in the pages of the Marvel anthology title Marvel Feature. In Marvel Feature #1 (December 1971, written by Thomas with art by the great Ross Andru), Doctor Strange, Sub-Mariner, and Hulk reunite to battle an evil techno-wizard named Yandroth. Where’s Silver Surfer you ask? Well you see, Stan Lee was really protective of the Surfer and had a number of plans percolating for the character. Lee didn’t want to be bogged down in continuity issues of a team book so he withheld the Surfer from the Defenders.

The new team takes on Dormammu in Marvel Feature #1 which is just beyond awesome, and a villain called Xemnu the Titan who kind of looks like the offspring of Chewbacca and a marshmallow in issue #3. The Marvel Feature try out went well and Doc, Subby, and Hulk graduated into their own book in August, 1972. This time, the trio face the returned Undying Ones and remained reluctant allies. Writer Steve Englehart comes onboard as Thomas takes up the editorial reins and Sal Buscema is called on as artist. In Defenders #4 (February, 1973) (and this should be of interest to those of you looking forward to Thor: Ragnarok), the Asgardian warrior known as Valkyrie joins the Defenders. In Issue #6 (June, 1973), the Silver Surfer finally rejoins the crew (I guess Englehart bought Lee a malted or something), and the overpowered fab four are finally reluctantly joined together. And how do you make a ridiculously powered team even more ridiculous, how about adding a nigh unstoppable Asgardian warrior and her flying horse to the mix?

But here’s the thing about the Defenders, it really wasn’t a team. Unlike, say, the Avengers or the FF, the Defenders had no charter, no headquarters, no mission statement, no membership requirements, no formal leader, and no guiding rules. Heck, the heroes didn’t even want to team together, but cosmic menaces and unstoppable monsters kept popping up so the forever fighting, forever adversarial Defenders just kept gathering.

And the roster would grow. Boy, would it grow.

Ad – content continues below

Doctor Strange’s lover and ultra-powerful sorceress Clea would be a constant presence in the Avengers while Hawkeye joined the team in Defenders #8 (because when you have a team of gods, you totally need an archer). In Defenders #14, the hero known as Nighthawk (a fun Batman riff) joined the team and would become a mainstay. Having Valkyrie and Nighthawk on the Defenders allowed writers to actually have members on the team the readers could relate to because the rest of the members were just sledgehammers.

Around Nighthawk’s arrival, the Defenders established an unwritten rule that whoever worked with the Defenders would be recognized as a Defender, so basically now, the team was open to everyone and anyone. Thus begin the era of loosey-goosey membership. With Doctor Strange, Namor, Surfer, Hulk, Valkyrie, and Nighthawk as the core, the Defenders became the Airbnb of super hero teams. Soon Luke Cage (establishing a relationship with the team that becomes very important in the Netflix era), Devil-Slayer (who?), Hellcat (yeah, Patsy Walker herself, there’s some Netflix connective tissue for you), Red Guardian, and Daimon Hellstrom the Son of Satan all joined the team at one point or another. Heroes like Luke Cage had quick pops with the team, but others like Patsy and Hellstrom stuck around for a long time.

Even heroes that joined the team for a single day were recognized as members. So included in the Defenders Hall of Whatever are (deep breath) Black Goliath, Captain Mar-Vell, Captain Ultra, Daredevil (another Netflix check), Falcon, Havok. Hercules. Iron Fist (making his Defenders debut), Jack of Hearts, Marvel Man (later known as Quasar), Nova. Paladin, Polaris, Prowler, Stingray, Tagak the Leopard Lord (wait, really?), Thing, Torpedo, and White Tiger. Even characters like Howard the Duck and Dracula have helped out the Defenders in some capacity so are technically considered part of the team.

So let’s let this sink in, Marvel has a team that has the son of the devil, Dracula, a Duck, a flying Leopard guy, some mutants, and the Hulk as members. Glorious. In the ’80s, famed X-Men member the Beast joined the team as did the monstrous hero known as Gargoyle solidifying the Defenders as comics��� oddest gathering of heroes ever.

The Steve Gerber Years

You just can’t discuss Defenders history without discussing writer Steve Gerber. Creator of Howard the Duck and Marvel’s go to guy for everything awesome and weird in the Bronze Age, Gerber had one of the most memorable runs on the Defenders in the history of the non-team. Gerber embraced the hell out of the concept of a loosely knit band of adversarial heroes and his run on the book was a precursor to experimental and surrealistic books like Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol. It didn’t carry a mature reader label, but the free-wheeling nature of Gerber’s Defenders was a predictor to the Vertigo movement of the 1980s and 1990s.

Gerber wrote Defenders #20-41 (February 1975- November, 1976) and Annual #1 and during this time, the always daring writer delved into the history of Marvel and pulled out some truly wacky characters to go against the team. Gerber introduced the Headmen (a group that consisted of a dude with a human head and a gorilla body and a woman with a big shape shifting crystal ball for a noggin), and also presented a character known as Elf with a Gun. This bit of madness appeared in many Gerber issues and consisted of the Elf showing up, shooting someone, and leaving with no explanation and no follow up. It just was. In the Elf’s last appearance, he was hit by a truck and that was it. Yes, the Elf with a Gun never encountered the Defenders and was just a random bit of Gerber madness that defined his unforgettable time with Marvel’s greatest non-team.

Ad – content continues below

Will the Elf with a Gun appear on the Netflix series? We’re guessing no. Maybe on Legion though.

The New Defenders

The Defenders non-team status lasted from its first appearance and defined the team throughout the ’70s and ’80s, but in the New Defenders (a team book that used the adjective “new” way before it was cool), Marvel ended the free-wheeling concept of the Defenders and made the classic squad of heroes a more traditional team. Under the watchful eyes of writer JM DeMatteis and artist Don Perlin, the Defenders went from a roster of everyone and anyone to a set team with a leader, a HQ, and a charter.

So why did the OG Defenders like Doc Strange, Hulk, and the others leave you ask? Well, DeMatteis came up with an idea of an alien prophecy that said that if the original four Defenders of Strange, Hulk, Namor, and Surfer remained together, their alliance would lead to the end of the world. Now, one wonders what threat could have defeated these four engines of overpowered awesomeness, but there you go. Taking the place of the four were Defenders stalwarts Gargoyle and Valkyrie who were joined by X characters Beast, Angel, and Iceman. Angel would act as the money behind the team and team leader. Cosmic Marvel mainstay Moondragon (the bald lady once known as Madame MacEvil and daughter of Drax the Destroyer…no, really) would become a member of Angel’s team and was soon joined by little known heroes like Cloud, Manslaughter, Andromeda, and Interloper. 

Wait, there was once a hero known as Manslaughter? Did he once form a team with Patricide, First Degree Murder, and Sex Offender?

Anywho, beginning with New Defenders #125 (November 1983), DeMatteis penned the first six adventures of this new team until Peter Gillis came onboard and continued the tradition of experimentation that defined the Defenders for well over a decade. Alas, despite some early sales success, the Defenders title that began with Thomas and Andru in 1971 ended with Defenders #152 in 1986. The final issue saw just about all the Defenders except for the three X-Men characters old and new die in battle. That’s a rough end for a team that had staying power despite its fluid membership policies.

Alas, with the death of the Defenders, the first (quite long era) of the team came to an end. But like all good comic book concepts, the Defenders and all the strangeness that came with it was soon to return.

Ad – content continues below

Buy The New Defenders Volume 1 on Amazon

Shh…It’s a Secret

The incarnation of the Defenders came in March, 1993 with the coming of the Secret Defenders. What was the deal with this new team of Defenders? We can’t tell you, it’s a secret. Ha! No? Okay.

Defenders co-creator Roy Thomas revived the Defenders name and even got Doctor Strange involved with this new team of Secret Defenders. While this Defenders title didn’t last long, the concept had tons of potential. The Secret Defenders took the idea of the non-team to the next level as each story arc would see Doctor Strange choose a new team of Defenders for every mission. So every time trouble reared its ugly head, Doc Strange would pick his Defenders team. It was like Mission: Impossible but with ’90s characters, so lots of Wolverine and Ghost Rider here. During these missions, Doctor Strange recruited Hulk, Ghost Rider (toldja), Silver Surfer, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Darkhawk, Nomad, Spider-Woman Julia Carpenter, Namorita, Sleepwalker, Captain America, Scarlet Witch, Thunderstrike, War Machine, Northstar, and Nova to go on various missions, so add these heroes to the teams all time roster.

In Secret Defenders #12-14 (February and April), the title switched gears and featured a new team of Secret Defenders led by Thanos which is all sorts of awesome. This squad of evildoers featured Geatar (who the heck is that?), Nitro, Rhino, Super-Skrull, and Titanium Man. So if you ever wanted to see Thanos team with Rhino, well here you go. After the villain era, Doctor Strange turned over leadership to the group to Doctor Druid. You know if Doctor Druid is featured as leader of a team book, the ax of cancellation is soon to fall. Before Druid’s team was inevitably shit-canned, the balding mage recruited Luke Cage (Hey, at least there is some Netflix connective tissue in this nuttiness), Deadpool, Sepulchre, Cadaver, Hank Pym, Iron Fist, Archangel, Iceman, U.S. Agent, Dagger, Deathlok and Drax the Destroyer.

The Secret Defenders may have had a brief run and most of the stories spend most of the page count trying to justify each member of every chosen team, but at least the nearly forgotten title added about 700,000 new team members to the non-team, and isn’t that what Defenders history is all about?

The Fab Four Return

Remember how we said that the original four Defenders were forced to disband because of some alien prophecy that predicated that if they remained together the world would end and blah-bah-blah? Well that turned out to be a load of hooey.

In 2001-2002, Image co-founder/Savage Dragon’s daddy Erik Larsen and always awesome because he wrote all the superheroes Kurt Busiek joined forces to bring the original Defenders backe together. Larsen and Busiek leaned into the Defenders concept as the team’s oldest nemesis Yandroth manipulated reality so that whenever there was a crisis, Doc, Subby, Hulk, and that naked surfer guy were thrust together to save the day. This series is pure Defenders madness with the heroes spending as much time lamenting that they had to deal with each other as they did fighting evil. Non-team indeed.

Ad – content continues below

Soon Valkyrie, Hellcat, and Nighthawk joined the fun and the sorta team changed their named to The Order. Hey Marvel, what the heck is wrong with the name Defenders? The Order? I’ll take a tuna melt. The Order…so dumb. Anyway, no matter what you called this second return to Defenders greatness, like all incarnations of this odd duck team, the book was an absolute blast.


And so was the next series. In 2005, writers JM DeMatteis and Keith Giffen and artist Kevin Maguire, best known for their industry changing and immortal run on DC”s comedic Justice League International, came together to work their magic on the Defenders. Yeah, the team that made Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, and Guy Gardner household names popped over to Marvel for a bit to work their bwah-ha-ha hilarity with the original Defenders. While laugh out loud funny, this series was still high stakes as Dormammu serves as the series big bad and as usual, the original four Defenders just can’t stand being around each other. And Hulk has sex with Dormammu’s sister.

Buy Defenders: Indefensible on Amazon

The Last Defenders That Weren’t The Last Defenders

In 2008, writer Joe Casey introduced a team of Defenders that were designed to be the Last Defenders. They weren’t, but the team’s random membership is just further proof that the Defenders must have every hero in the Marvel Universe as members at some point. Casey’s team of last/not last Defenders consisted of Nighthawk, Blazing Skull, Colossus, and She-Hulk. Yes, not even Ghost Rider, Blazing Skull.

Later the team disbands because of incompetent leadership. Poor, poor Nighthawk.

Buy The Last Defenders on Amazon

Stranger and Stranger

If you want a modern take on what makes the old school Defenders so awesome, this is the perfect series to experience. In 2011, modern day master Matt Fraction wrote a version of the Defenders that returned the team to its surreal glory. With artist Terry Dodson, Fraction reunited three of the fab foursome and combined them with Black Cat, Nick Fury, Ant-Man, and Iron Fist. Joining this cadre of incongruous heroes in place of Bruce Banner was the Red She-Hulk aka Betty Ross, Banner’s long time lady love.

This team had so much going for it, namely, 3/4ths (get it, a FRACTION!) of the original Defenders snipping away at each other while battling Death Celestials and trying to solve a mystery that threatens reality itself, the Hulk’s longtime girlfriend battling side by side with her beau’s long time squad, and Matt Fraction once again writing Iron Fist. And if you haven’t read Fraction, Ed Brubaker, and David Aja’s Immortal Iron Fist, get thee to a comic store, because that comic series was everything that the Netflix series woulda, coulda, shoulda been.

Ad – content continues below

Fraction and Dodson’s Defenders was one of the highlights of 2011 and its cancelation just shows that the comic market in the early 2010s sucked eggs and that we just can’t have nice things.

Buy Defenders by Matt Fraction Volume 1 on Amazon

The Other Teams

Right around the team of Fraction and Dodson’s truncated masterpiece, Marvel presented two very experimental teams of Defenders. First, we have the Defenders that appeared in 2011 in a book entitled Fear Itself: The Deep. This team consisting of Stephen Strange, Loa (an undersea X-Men with a special bond to Namor), Lyra (an alternate dimension daughter of the Hulk), and Silver Surfer (just that dude on a space surfboard) were charged with saving Atlantis from Attuma, who’s like the undersea Khal Drogo (wait, I guess DC Films’ Aquaman is literally undersea Khal Drogo).

This team of Defenders did not last past the Fear Itself story arc. In 2013, write Cullen Bunn introduced a new team to the world. This team, led by the classic Valkyrie, included Misty Knight (a character that will hopefully play a prominent role in the TV Defenders), Danielle Moonstar, Clea, Frankie Raye Nova, Elsa Bloodstone, Ren Kimura, and Warrior Woman. This all female team of Fearless Defenders gained critical acclaim and their myth steeped adventures are well worth tracking down. It’s also kind of cool that long time Defenders Nighthawk and Valkyrie both got to lead their own team of Defenders and forge their own Marvel legacy in very different Defenders titles.

Takin’ It to The Streets

When Marvel and Netflix announced that their four series streaming push into the world of super heroes starring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist would culminate in a big honking team up series entitled The Defenders, fans know it was only a matter of time until these TV Defenders began to fight the good fight in the pages of Marvel Comics as well. That’s exactly what happened in 2017 when writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist David Marquez introduced a new TV friendly team of Defenders to Marvel fans. That’s right, the TV crew have replaced the overpowered foursome of yesteryear as Marvel’s core Defenders and the results have been awesome.

Bendis and Marquez have managed to capture that gritty, noir street vibe from Netflix and shunt it over into the pages of this new Defenders comic. Even though the TV four are front and center, this iteration of the Defenders still has that non-team convention as many other Marvel street heroes like Punisher, Paladin, Blade, and many more come in and out of the title. Like all the Defenders before them, this new team of heroes is wonderfully varied as the anything goes tradition roles forever on!

Read and download the full Den of Geek Special Edition magazine here!

Ad – content continues below