Out of the Vault – The Defenders #76-77

This has been a long time coming. I’ve been intending to cover these two issues ever since I first started the Vault over at They Stole Frazier’s Brain in April of 2008. That first Out of the Vault was a recap of the 70’s Marvel series Omega the Unknown, written by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes and pencilled by Jim Mooney.

You may not want to click that link right away, because the article gives spoilers about what wil be covered in this article. So…

Omega was a weird comic, featuring a character who was superficially Superman (superpowered last survivor of a destroyed alien race who flees to Earth in a blue and red costume). Only the character (whose name we never actually learn–the Daily Bugle dubs him “Omega” because of his headband, but his landlord calls him Sam) can shoot fire out of his hands and shares a strange mental bond with a 12-year-orphan named James-Michael Starling… whose dead parents were robots. Yeah.

The comic lasted 10 issues, in which James-Michael learned about the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen while Omega fought low-level crime lords and a mentally challenged handyman. The final issue was cover-dated October 1977, in which James-Michael went back to his parents’ old house in Pennsylvania and found their robot duplicates, while Omega went to Vegas and was gunned down by cops. The final panel promised that Omega’s story would be wrapped up soon in The Defenders (which Gerber had also been writing).

But it didn’t happen. A year or so after the last issue, it was announced that Omega would actually be wrapped up in Captain America, which Gerber had been assigned to. But Gerber’s run on Cap only lasted four issues, so Omega’s story remained unfinished until The Defenders #76, cover dated October 1979, exactly two years after the final issue of Omega’s own series.

This final story did not involve any of the original creators. Writer Steven Grant replaced Gerber and Skrenes while Herb Trimpe handled the pencils. Gerber was reportedly not happy with the way Grant wrapped up the story.

The story actually started to wrap up a couple of issues earlier. In the final issues of Omega, James-Michael’s guardians, Amanda and Ruth, were being menaced by a super-villain known as Foolkiller. The Defenders saved Amanda from Foolkiller in issues #74 and #75 before disbanding. Valkyrie and Hellcat were then asked on the last page of #75 to help find James Michael, who had been missing for a week. That’s right–although the previous issue had published two years earlier, Grant set the current story only a week after the last one (figuring it wouldn’t matter since Omega hardly ever dealt with the larger Marvel Universe).

So as issue #76 opens, Valkyrie and Hellcat are taking Amanda and boyfriend to Pennsylvania on an Avengers Quinjet piloted by the Wasp (who offered to help since Hellcat was a former Avenger). One unique thing about the Defenders, as opposed to the Avengers or the Justice League or even the Legion of Super-Heroes, was that they really didn’t have any official organization, so there was no official membership roster. Whoever showed up that issue was a Defender, it seemed.

So the Sisterhood of the Travelling Quinjet are nearing James-Michael’s home when they run into a fleet of flying saucers and decide to follow them instead, fearing an alien invasion of Earth. Meanwhile, James-Michael and his young girlfriend are attacked by alien robots (the same robots that Omega fought in issue #1 of his own book) who intend to destroy something called X-32, which is apparently Omega (who’s still dead in Las Vegas).

The alien robots are surprised to find James-Michael, and even more surprised that he can do this…

Which was Omega’s big trick, shooting fire out of his palms. Meanwhile, Ruby Thursday has stolen Omega’s body from the Las Vegas morgue with the intention of dissecting him and the Defenda-Babes have followed the flying saucers to… James-Michael’s house. They have a big fight with the alien robots, which they are on the verge of losing when two things happen.

This chick shows up…

Her name is Moondragon and she’s the second most annoying female character in the Marvel Universe (the first, of course, being Mantis, an avatar of Steve Englehart’s Cosmic Madonna who always refers to herself as “this one”).

And the second thing is, James-Michael disappears in a flash of light and in his place, they find the dead Omega. Weird.

Which leads up to issue #77, in which case ‘weird’ doesn’t begin to…

Okay, so Ruby Thursday is really mad, because she was just about to dissect Omega’s android body to learn the secret of his weaponry when it suddenly disappeared and left a 12-year-old James-Michael instead. And meanwhile, the Defenda-Babes are walking down the main drag in Las Vegas looking for a sign of James-Michael.

At which moment an alien robot comes crashing out through a wall, thanks to Ruby Thursday’s demonic assistant Dibbuk. The battle is joined between Ruby and the Defenders, as James-Michael wanders off, dazed and blowing flying saucers out of the sky as he begins to glow. Moondragon follows him and telepathically learns from one of the alien robots the reason they want to kill him. And it involves the Defenders being on the wrong side.

Meanwhile, the battle with Ruby Thursday takes an odd twist.

Oh my God, that’s completely non-gory and yet disgusting. The Defenda-Babes discover that both James-Michael and Moondragon are gone, so they follow the trail of destruction to find Moondragon on the ground as a glowing James-Michael destroys everything in his path, almost including the Avengers Quinjet where his girlfriend is. News of her jeopardy shakes James-Michael out of his destructive trance, and then a recovered Moondragon saves the day with… EXPOSITION!

We are then treated to a four-page origin story/flashback in which we learn that the robots are an advanced alien race who created a series of human-like androids in the hopes of allowing their race to flourish in flesh. Each android in the series was supposed to live and learn and pass its knowledge up the chain to the ultimate recipient, James-Michael.

The problem was that the next-to-last android, Omega, lived on a planet where the local inhabitants gifted him with amazing superpowers that drew upon the planet’s biological energy, ultimately destroying the planet. Only now, Omega is dead and his powers have passed to James-Michael. James-Michael is willing to destroy the planet to end his own misery, except for one thing.

So James-Michael kills himself, and Moondragon calls the Defenders idiots and leaves, and then the fans, if they haven’t already, throw the comic across the room.

Because while Grant’s scenario painstakingly flashes back upon several points in the chronology of the original series to explain the lingering questions, the story felt like a total betrayal. In the original series, James-Michael was a likable kid just coming of age and trying to find his way through the maze of adult life without parents to help guide him. And Omega was a cool guy who seemed to be trying to do the right thing.

What we (or at least I) wanted in a finale was to see Omega somehow survive or revive from that shooting and protect James-Michael from the robots while helping him find some sort of closure around his parents’ death and find a path to adulthood. Instead what we got was Omega’s dead body being carted around, robot head guts spilling into the street, James-Michael turning out to be the bad guy and finding closure by killing himself, with freaking Moondragon as the bald green cherry on that shit sundae of a story.

And the art didn’t help. Trimpe at one time was one of the most interesting pencillers Marvel had, but this was a really stagnant phase of his career, quality-wise, and the crappy inkers they stuck him with didn’t help. It also didn’t help that what felt like a three-issue story got shoehorned into two.

Which ultimately leads us to this: if a story you love gets canceled before it finishes, it may in fact be a blessing. Because they could have ended it like Omega.

Tomorrow: another Steve Gerber comic that got made into a movie.

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One Response to Out of the Vault – The Defenders #76-77

  1. Yeah, they included these issues in the _Omega the Unknown Classic_ TPB (which I guess was only released because of the reent “remake”) and… they really shouldn’t have. Yeesh!

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