I thought that for my first actual review of a Marvel Comics book or comic, I'd use one that had one of the first comics I remember buying. Way back in 1971, I remember being entranced by this fantastic cover, which had the Incredible Hulk leaping out at the reader, followed by the Sub-Mariner and Doctor Strange. It was a huge comic, too, being square-bound and costing a whole quarter. I got it from Holt Drugs in Park Ridge, Wisconsin (a sort of suburb of Stevens Point, the Trivia Capitol of the World) and was mesmerized by the tale on the ride home to Amherst. Doctor Strange and his companions battled Yandroth the Scientist Supreme. That comic book was Marvel Feature #1, the first official gathering of the Defenders.
The Defenders were kind of second-string to the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, primarily because they never really considered themselves a team ... in fact, they were always called a "non-team" on letter pages and in Marvel Bullpen. That was because they always seemed to be brought together by Doctor Strange, the Master of the Mystic Arts and Sorcerer Supreme. Eventually, everyone just hung around his Greenwich Village Sanctum Sanctorum, until the wealthy Batman-esque Nighthawk came on the scene (in the last couple of issues reprinted in this volume).
The fact that the Defenders were second-string to the Avengers and the FF was somewhat weird, since technically, the four heroes making up the core of the Defenders were more powerful than almost any super-hero team in comics. I remember quite a few spirited debates with fellow comic geeks about the topic. The Defenders were usually debated to be among the three strongest teams out there, along with the pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Legion of Super-Heroes and the original Justice Society of America.
Essential Defenders starts off by reprinting some early team-ups between the core membership of the Defenders, from each character's own book. The first three issues of Marvel Feature are also reprinted, being both the genesis of the team and the start of one of Marvel's many attempts a comic like DC's Showcase title to showcase new features and characters. Marvel Feature only lasted twelve issues and featured three character ideas: The Defenders, a new but really self-contained Ant-Man series, and two issues of a team-up series featuring the Thing of the Fantastic Four (which soon become Marvel Two-in-One).
The early stories of the series featured the three initial members, and added the power of the Silver Surfer and the new Valkyrie to this "non-team". Former Avengers the Black Knight and Hawkeye the Archer are featured. Hawkeye also hangs around for a brief period (as does the Black Knight, though he's a stone statue for the entire time), in time to battle his former team in one of the seventies' most memorable conflicts, The Avengers-Defenders War, in which both super-hero groups are drawn into battle with each other by the machinations of Loki and the Dread Dormammu and their quest to gain the power of the Evil Eye. The final story arc reprinted in this book features Nebulon the Celestial Man, who was sold the Earth by the villainous Squadron Sinister, a group of Justice League-inspired villains Roy Thomas created in the pages of The Avengers.
The stories are definitely vintage seventies Marvel. There's a lot of angst, posturing and exposition. Steve Englehart, who's always been one of my favorite writers, provides the scripts for fifteen of the reprints, with Roy Thomas handling most of the rest. This particular volume features also some great artwork, including issues by Herb Trimpe, Marie Severin, Sal Buscema, Don Heck, Bob Brown and Bill Everett.
The Marvel Essentials series reprints all the original stories in black-and-white, but luckily most of the artists here have the professional chops to withstand the scrutiny that a lack of color can incur. I purchased the first three volumes of Essential Defenders and they are all great reads, and great additions to the collections of comic fans on a budget.