Marvel's Favorite "Non-Team": The Comic Book History of 'Defenders'

Before Netflix's Daredevil, Jessica Jones et al, there was Doctor Strange, the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk.
Neal Adams/Marvel Entertainment

With the announcement that Daredevil's Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez will be taking the reins of Marvel's Netflix series The Defenders, the spotlight is turned once again on the other super-team of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, set to debut onscreen next year. But while the TV incarnation of the team will consist of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the original comic book version is … far more complicated.

The debut of The Defenders came in the first issue of Marvel Feature in 1971, although that story — aptly titled "The Day of the Defenders!" — was actually the third teaming of the founding members of the group, who in comic book mythology were the Sub-Mariner, Doctor Strange and the Hulk. If that seemed like an unlikely group of heroes, things only got stranger with the addition of the Silver Surfer and Asgardian warrior the Valkyrie in early adventures, creating a framework of a series based around a superhero group that makes no sense together — or, as Marvel called it at the time, a "non-team."

Non-team or not, The Defenders series — quickly launched after Marvel saw the success of the early Marvel Feature appearances — saw the group become an alternative to the more formal Avengers, Fantastic Four and X-Men. Not only would the lineup of the group alter with little warning, with characters showing up and "joining" for one or two adventures before drifting off — Luke Cage, Ant-Man and Hawkeye all served short tours of duty as Defenders — but the stories being told would be more off-kilter, more freewheeling than those on offer in Marvel's other comic book series.

Threats to the Defenders would include a self-help cult that was a front for a cosmic being trying to brainwash humanity, Nick Fury's brother, mid-nervous breakdown, and in a subplot that wasn't resolved for almost a decade, a psychopathic elf with a gun who killed random victims seemingly indiscriminately. The team would also, at one point, hold open tryouts for new members in an attempt to become a more organized, respectable team. (It didn't work.)

By 1986, however, both sales and interest in the concept had dropped significantly — despite a 1983 relaunch as The New Defenders, including former members of the X-Men — leading to the series' cancelation with its 152nd issue. In a move that echoed DC's cancelation of Doom Patrol more than a decade earlier, the majority of the team — those not needed in other comic books at the time, at least — was killed in the final issue, to lend an extra note of finality to proceedings.

You can't keep a good superhero group down, however, and revivals followed in 1990, 1993 (with the team renamed the Secret Defenders, to add an air of mystery to proceedings), 2000, 2005, 2008 (titled, incorrectly, The Last Defenders), 2011 and 2013, with the membership and concept shifting appropriately with each take: They would only handle worldwide crisis situations! They would be a sitcom team who bickered a lot! They would be the only heroes aware of an existential threat to all reality! They were all women! That last version — 2013's Fearless Defenders — only lasted a year, but it won the hearts of many fans online, and remains the most recent mainstream version of the team in comic book mythology.

Notably, while Marvel's comic book Defenders featured three of the four members of the Netflix lineup at some point in its four-plus decade history — Jessica Jones only debuted in comics in 2001, and avoided any of the subsequent revivals — the comic book team has never centered around a grouping that matched the Netflix membership. Another Marvel comic book superhero team has, however: New Avengers, which included Luke, Jessica, Iron Fist and Daredevil from 2011's Vol. 2 No. 16 through the end of its run in 2012. If only that name was available for TV and movie usage …

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