Tuesday, March 9, 2010

March Answers From the Vault

Welcome back to another round of Answers From the Vault. Earlier this week I threw open the gates of inquiry and you, my loyal readers, flooded through, cramming my inbox with literally trillions of questions. Most of these I will answer in full through private correspondence, so keep sending me questions, but a select few I have decided to post here for the wider internet world to see so that all mankind may benefit from this exchange of knowledge. As always, previous questions and answers can be found here, here and here.

And now, on with the answerings.

So I just learned that the Haunted Tank's nemesis was Attila the Hun. What's up with that? -- Pat B.

Thanks for the question, Pat, it's a good one. For those of you at home who may not be familiar with the comic in question, the Haunted Tank was a feature that ran in DC's classic war anthology G. I. Combat from 1961 until the series was canceled in 1987. It followed the crew of a World War II tank which was haunted by the ghost of Confederate general J. E. B. Stuart, who stood watch over his namesake tank commander by issuing vague and mostly useless platitudes and cryptic prophecies.

But while the Haunted Tank was usually dealing with regular ol Nazis and whatnot, Pat is spot on, as their arch-enemy was none other than Attila the Hun. The reason is fairly simple as these things go: during World War I and to a lesser extend World War II, Germans were referred to as Huns in Allied slang. This was in (very small) part because of the historical link between the Germans and the tribes of the Hun, who way back in the day of Attila did speak some Germanic, but was mostly due to the Hun-like appearance of the German spiked helmets during WWI and Kaiser Wilhelm II's Boxer Rebellion speech comparing his army to the Huns while exhorting them to show no mercy in their dealings with the Chinese. From these things, Allied speakers, including most notably Winston Churchill, often called the German army "the Hun".

So if our boys could have a ghostly protector, then wouldn't it make sense for the Nazis to have their own ghostly avatar? And who better to watch over "the Hun" than the original Hun himself, Attila?

I'm guessing the logic was more apparent to audiences in the early 1960's than it is to today's readers.

Why were the Defenders the greatest super hero team of all time? -- Rob L.

Thanks for the insightful question, Rob. I should start by saying that I don't really agree with your central premise here, as I have to admit I've never been a fan of the Defenders. And I say this as someone who has probably read over a hundred issues of the original series, so I'm not just blowing smoke out my Hellstrom. The series just always seemed flat and uncompelling to me.

However, there are certainly a lot of people who have a soft spot for Defenders and who probably agree with you, so I'll answer the question from the assumption that you're correct.

The main reason the Defenders were the best super hero team ever was their basic premise: the non-team. This, of course, was dictated by the fact that the original members (Namor, Hulk, Silver Surfer and Dr. Strange) were all loners. There wasn't really any logical reason they should want to be in a team or work well in a team, so Marvel just said: okay, it's not a team. It's just a group of heroes that happens to help each other out on a monthly basis.

This flexibility was a perfect fit for the 70's and let the book really flow, as characters would leave, or join or not or whatever with basically no rhyme or reaspn to it. In other words, it was a writers playground, where you could pretty much just go nuts without having to fit your ideas into the more logical structures that titles like Avengers or Fantastic Four demanded. This allowed people like Steve Gerber and Doug Moench (who, as Pat B. correctly points out, didn't technically write Defenders even though the series has his stink all over it) to go crazy with weird ideas (Elf with a Gun, anyone?) crossovers (Guardians of the Galaxy?) and events (such as "Defender for a day," when over twenty Marvel heroes showed up to help on one case and ended up creating some of the most unlikely and chaotic team-ups ever).

Personally, I think this lack of structure played a little too much into the tendency of the time towards self-indulgent navel gazing and that a little more editorial structure could have made for better stories (plus the rotating cast too often was stuck with second stringers and obscure pet characters). But if there's any reason why Defenders can stake a claim to the title of best super hero team ever, this is it.

In your opinion, who are the three most powerful earth-born characters in comic book history? -- Rob L.

This is a classic fanboy type of question, Rob, which I heartily approve of. After all, if we can't debate whether Superman or Thor would win in a fight, what's the fun of comics? Although in that case there's not really any debate as the answer is obviously Thor.

Your question is a little trickier, though, mainly because of the Earth-born clause. That, of course, eliminates Superman and other cosmic powers such as Silver Surfer, but it also puts a few favorites on iffy ground. Thor, for example, was probably born on Earth since his mother is actually Gaea herself. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, wasn't born at all but was formed out of clay that the gods then animated, meaning she is made of Earth but not born on it.

Just to make things plain, then, I'm going to disqualify anybody who has questionable backgrounds like Thor and Wonder Woman. I'm also going to DQ people like Phoenix, since the Phoenix-force wasn't born on Earth even though her host form was; and pet character wankfests like the Sentry, who has been inflated to godlike powers as an on-page manifestation of Bendis's ego.

So who does that leave? Well, for my first choice I'm going to go with the original Captain Marvel from the folks at Fawcett, who was given the abilities of the pantheon but who isn't actually a god himself. Secondly, I'll give a shout out to the nerdy FF villain Molecule Man, whose powers were enough to rival The Beyonder at times.

The third one, though, is a bit of a puzzler. The most obvious choice would probably be Hulk, but he has certain weaknesses that I think render him a little too one-dimensional in terms of his powers, which makes sense considering he's the most one-dimensional comic character of all time. Likewise, Dr. Strange is usually overpowered, but is he more powerful than, say, Dr. Fate?

Anyway, at the risk of parsing continuity and going against my own self-imposed rules, I've decided to go ahead and give slot number three to the Silver Age Spectre. I have to specify Silver Age because DC's continuity is so messed up at this point that there's really no telling what version is appearing these days -- the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the post-CoIE, the Hal Jordan, the post-Infinite Crisis version... whatever, guys. Honestly. But while some of the newer versions have added layers of goofiness to the backstory that would otherwise disqualify Spectre from the competition (i.e. he's actually an angel cast out of Heaven or some other Evanescence-level goth nonsense), the traditional version was both born on and died on Earth.

So there's the answer: Captain Marvel, Molecule Man and Spectre. Three guys you probably don't want to mess with.

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Next time could you put a little thought into your answers? LOL!
Excellent job.
I agree, the "non-team" label made the defenders unique. But I would also suggest that they were great because, despite their rocky formation, they eventually became a family. Not a perfect family, like the Fantastic Four, but a dysfunctional family, the type most of us can claim membership to.
The very first comic book I ever bought (with my own hard earned money) was Defenders #89.


In that issue, Pasty Walker's mother died, and the team came together to help their colleague mourn. It wasn't the typical story for the slugfest-fueled comics of the day.
I loved it because it showed superhumans doing very human things. After the team attended the funeral they stayed with Hellcat at her mother's house to comfort her. Valkyrie and the Hulk went grocery shopping (and to the team's dismay, the Hulk could not be deterred from spending the monthly grocery budget on hundreds of cans of baked beans.)
My favorite scene in the book involved Kyle Richmond using his Nighthawk wings to repair a broken tv antennae on the roof.
So I would say that while your answer is correct, I need to tack on an addendum.
And, hey, they had Namor.
Your answers to my second question were spot on. It was a trap really, but because you did not forget the Molecule Man, you continue your unabated mastery of all comics trivia. Well done. I was going to dispute Captain Marvel, but when I read that you were talking about Fawcett's version I had to had no choice but to agree. Well played. The Vault continues it's Hurt Locker-like domination of online comics information.

I'm not sure your exclusion of Thor is really valid. As I recall, Dr. Don Blake found the hammer which was inscribed "whoever holds this hammer shall have the powers of Thor" or at least something close to it. So Don Blake was Earth born, and not really Thor, but just someone with the powers of. Okay, it got confused later on, but that's how it began.