Monday, December 10, 2018

Defenders of the Earth #1

Christmas 2018

Kid’s Stuff – Saturday Morning Cartoon Edition

Defenders of the Earth #1

A strange gathering of a cartoon league of gentlemen

"Defenders of the Earth”

Writer – Stan Lee with and assist by Bob Harras

Penciller – Alex Saviuk

Inker – Fred Fredericks

Letterer – Ken Lopez

Colorist – Nel Yomtov

Editor – Michael Higgins

Managed – Tom DeFalco

Overseen – Jim Shooter

I’ll admit to having missed the train on Defenders of the Earth the first time around. It came on after my awkward tween years had passed and I was far more interested in girls and sci-fi movies than I was cartoons. Flash Gordon had been a favorite of mine since the Filmation version of the character in 1979 updated him in animated form yet kept him true to his retro stylings. Likely I would have dovetailed right into Defenders of the Earth had the show occurred a bit sooner.

Produced by Marvel Productions in association with King Features Entertainment, the show capitalized on three licenses that King held: Flash Gordon, The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, and Mandrake’s bodyguard Lothar. The idea of the show was to blend these three universes so the characters could form their own “Justice League”-type group. Initially the troop would fight the forces of Flash’s nemesis, Ming the Merciless. As the show wore on, the Phantom’s evil brother Kurt Walker became a new antagonist, as did Graviton, a former foe of Mandrake the Magician.

The show feels like it is pulling in elements from several modern cartoon sources. We have a group of heroes each with different abilities like the G.I. Joe troops. They each have a teenage sidekick of some sort like Bumblebee does in the Transformers cartoons. Some of the bits feel recycled, but not in a bad way. If you would like a taste of the show, they can be seen on Hulu in three long form movies that combine several episodes. The first can be seen HERE if you have an account.

Defenders of the Earth lasted only a single season, but this was back when a season of an animated production got 65 episodes to kick itself off, so there still is a lot of content out there. The music of the intro each week was made by Rob Walsh and Tony Pastor with lyrical assistance from none other than Stan Lee. It certainly sounds like Stan’s. The thing is loaded with embellishments that are his trademark style.

Lee has his fingerprints all over this issue too, receiving writing credit. The book mirrors the show, but changes a couple of things that we will go into. As a comic book series, Defenders of the Earth only lasted a short time. Issue four has a next issue blurb, but that fifth issue never materialized. We do have the first book here, so let’s kick things off.

Just a word of caution to those of you who either remember the opening of the show or followed that link above and watched the first episode. This comic deviates a bit from that show. It brings in The Phantom right away instead of saving his addition for episode two. Otherwise, the entire book is a bit on that same rail plotwise.

Since Stan Lee has writing credit for the book, he is also given a Supervising Story Editor credit on the show. With Stan it is hard to tell how much input he did or did not give. This book connects some of the dots better than the show does and kicking it off with all four principal characters together, no matter how flimsy the premise of their meeting is, I would count as a good thing.

But we begin here with a BANG as a spaceship flashes past us as it streaks through the galaxy. It ends the journey in a spectacular crash landing on the front lawn of a sprawling estate.

The mansion’s owner is none other than Mandrake the Magician, a sort of better dressed version of Doctor Strange. He rushes out to investigate the commotion, but not as quickly as Lothar, his bodyguard and companion. Upon reaching the ship, we get our first taste of the magician’s powers as he concentrates…

…and rips the canopy of the ship off, revealing its pilot. Note that Lothar could have done the same, as he is billed as the strongest man alive, but Mandrake worried about his safety around the flames.

The pilot of the craft reveals himself to be none other than Flash Gordon, who is in need of a nice lie-down on someone’s couch to cure his ills.

It’s also around this point that we introduce two of the young sidekicks who will be tagging along with our super heroes. Meet Kshin, an orphan boy that Mandrake has adopted as his apprentice and L.J., who is the son of Lothar. Unlike the tv show, the book feels free to drop in Spider-Man’s name. In fact, the entire issue has more dialogue than the show. It fleshes out these individuals in a way episode one doesn’t, possibly stemming from Stan’s ability to write good characters and having more “time” to do so.

We get a Flash flashback, since the kids don’t know who he is, which serves to explain a bit of background on the setting The writers have created. It also serves to drop Ming the Merciless’s name as a setup for what is to come.

All this conversation causes Flash to regain consciousness, at least for a few moments anyway before Mandrake knocks him back out. And no sooner does Flash fade back to sleep than the mansion comes under attack!

What a strange way to start a morning is all I’ve got to say. Imagine having breakfast at Mandrake’s.

His next unexpected guests are Ming’s ice robots, who have a singular thought on their collective minds.

Lucky for the ‘drake-man, these bots are susceptible to his illusionary powers. Our top-hatted tactician quickly hides Flash from their sights and then projects an image of an imaginary takeoff of his busted up spaceship outside. In a blink of an eye, the ice robots vanish in pursuit of the phantasmal spacecraft.

With their departure, Mandrake removes his illusion that Flash is a couch cushion. The heroes and their young charges learn some distressing news.

Right about this point the cartoon and the issue start to diverge. 

But with the turn of the page, we move on to Ming, his son Kro-Tan, and Octon the living computer. They are mad because the ice robots failed in their task of capturing Flash, so instead Ming decides to torture the answers out of Dale and Flash’s son Rick.

Dale resourcefully works out a plan that allows Rick to escape when the guards open the cell…

…and in his flight, the young lad comes across the staple of the 80’s animated action-adventure: the goofy, cuddly sidekick. Flash Gordon got that mini-dragon thing, Batman had Batmite, and G.I. Joe had Gung-Ho. And Defenders of the Earth gets this Zuffy thing that Rick will name later.

As if Stan wanted to get as far away from the sillier parts of the show, notice how we immediately hop from the animated cartoon line over to the much more suspenseful introduction of the Phantom and his island. Gosh sakes, Stan even slips in his “the Ghost that Walks” title.

We get Mandrake telling the legend of the Phantom followed by our cast getting surrounded by an entire tribe of Bandar warriors. Mandrake tells the others to let him handle it, but before he can work any magics…

…the Phantom’s daughter Jedda and her panther companion Kisa make themselves known.

From there it’s a quick trek over to the Skull Cave for a little tet-a-tet with the Phantom about Flash and the Earth’s predicament. Seems like he’s going to be hard to convince one minute…

…and the next he’s all in. Jedda doesn’t like being called a child, though.

And while the three junior members of the squad get acquainted,…

…the yet to be discovered Rick Gordon and Zuffy come upon a nightmare in the making as Ming threatens Dale’s life if she doesn’t disclose the boy’s whereabouts.

And with a flip of a switch, Ming executes Dale. Yeah, I wasn’t expecting that either.

Rick and Zuffy make a running try at saving Dale at the last minute, but are forced to retreat in the face of Ming’s numerous ice robots and his pet purple snake thing.

Lucky for them, Flash and the Defenders of the Earth arrive to distract Ming from pursuing the boy and his pet annoyance. But the numbers don’t appear to be on the hero’s side, even with Flash’s superior flying. 

Mandrake is able to lend a hand by creating an illusionary fleet that soon has Ming’s own forces blasting happily way at his fortress. He decides to ditch Mongo for his Earth base, taking his son and allies with him.

While the bad guys evacuate, the Defenders land to search for Rick and Dale. The Phantom takes the lead, seeing Rick on a balcony about to be attacked. With his “power of ten tigers,” the Phantom is able to save the boy from two ice robots.

I like his rather cool reception to Rick. 

I also like this “ten tigers” thing. I know so little about the Phantom, having only seen the Billy Zane movie version. Is his power always measured in tigers? Is it always ten of them or does he have a scale of some sort? Like opening a jar of pickles might be the power of one tiger and broadjumping forty feet the power of ten tiger? Does the scale go beyond ten? Just how does this power work exact? I’m curious.

And now we get to the traumatic part…

…as Ming’s spaceship blasts off, Rick can’t bring himself to say what he saw happen to his mother. So instead, he leads the group to Ming’s lab. Man, this book punches you right in the guts. Take that kids! Rick’s mother is murdered and here’s her dead body.

And I have to say that I love everything about this panel. Love Stan’s dialogue, love the way things are rendered, and love that it doesn’t pull punches. This isn’t your average, feel-good all the time Star label kid’s title. I respect this book for not pulling this punch.

And to make matters so much worse, Ming shows up to gloat and threaten. This of course does nothing but make our heroes more determined. As they leave, that Zuffy character picks up a glowing crystal it finds on the ground. 

That will be important later, but we take up next with Ming landing in the Artic and carving out a place to be his secret ice robot fortress. A sign that we will have continuing adventures as our heroes attempt to outwit and outfight the evil Ming and his minions.

Then back we go to the Defenders as Zuffy shows off his find and we learn its very important properties.

Okay, so Dale isn’t exactly dead, but now Flash is married to a crystal, which isn’t near as satisfying I’d wager. And while that instills some hope in the group, we end with Mandrake bringing it down a notch. Appears the group still has a mighty big job to do…and a title to live up to…

…at least for the next three issues and the comic series gets cancelled.

If they were as good as this book, that early cancellation is a very sad event. Likely they weren’t. Stan’s dialogue in this was stellar, up to his old quality from the early Marvel days. However, issues two through four show writing credit by Michael Higgins. Not certain how he would handle this book or these characters, but no book should jump off the shelves at issue number 4 unless it is a complete dog. As for the show, it only got the one season that clocked in at a total of 65 half-hour episodes.

Thus ends the King Syndicate’s version of a league of gentlemen who were quite extraordinary. I suppose it just wasn’t meant to last.

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