The League of King Features Syndicate Gentlemen – Defenders of the Earth #1
Of the many cartoon ideas that came around in the 1980s, few were more promising in concept but disappointing in execution than the funny pages mash-up known as Defenders of the Earth. For those unfamiliar, it was the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen of its day, uniting three King Features Syndicate newspaper strip stars — Flash Gordon, the Phantom and Mandrake the Magician — in one unstoppable team. They banded together to battle Ming the Merciless, Flash Gordon’s bête noire and mustache-twirling galactic threat, as well as other lesser and associated threats. Which all sounds great — all three character’s on their own were kind of cool in their way — and what could go wrong?
Unfortunately, they had their dopey kids in tow. Which ruined everything.
An indicator that what could have been an all-ages delight was saccharined up for juvenile consumption was the fact that the associated comic book series was published under Marvel’s young readers Star imprint. Yes, right alongside Peter Porker and the Muppet Babies, which pretty much says it all. All four of the primary adult characters — Lothar, Mandrake’s mighty African assistant, was shorn of his native elements and elevated to a full partner in the foursome (he was last seen on this blog in an, ahem, awkward panel) — had their dopey kids in tow. Flash had his son Rick, the Phantom had his fetching daughter Jedda, Lothar had L.J. (Lothar Jr.), and Mandrake had his adopted son Kishin. One big, happy, dopey family.
The comic only lasted four issues in 1987, though the first was scripted by none other than The Man himself, Stan Lee. Not that you really need to see the credits to detect his hand, since the dialogue is presented with the standard Stan Lee exclamation points after every sentence, something that’s always jarring in more modern books. WHY IS EVERYONE YELLING?! EVEN WHEN THEY’RE SUPPOSEDLY WHISPERING THEY’RE YELLING! NOT EVERYTHING NEEDS TO BE SO URGENTLY STATED! (Before writing up this post, I never knew that Lee also wrote the lyrics for the admittedly catchy series theme song. Prolific.) The first comic recreates much of the team-up genesis seen in the cartoon, as the figures slowly glom together. And it’s all sparked, fittingly, by Flash, who crash lands oh so conveniently just outside Mandrake’s palatial pad (art by Alex Saviuk and Fred Fredericks):
Point of order: Does Mandrake always wear his hat and cape? It seems like something crashing outside your front door might catch you unawares, you know? Maybe in your robe and slippies. But no, Mandrake is right out there in his full formal attire. Just an observation — here’s hoping that our Master of Magic occasionally finds time to slip into something more comfortable.
Anyway, Flash soon wakes up and recounts his tale of woe: his son and his wife, Dale Arden, are trapped in Ming’s clutches, and he has to get to them — now that he’s warned Earth about Ming’s plans for conquest and annihilation (this should really be a standing Red Alert for mankind). Mandrake and Lothar, being upstanding men of hero-ish inclinations, immediately volunteer to pitch in. But Mandrake foresees the need for another helping hand:
Yes indeed, the Phantom. (We could stop right here and quibble about whether or not the Phantom’s tracking skills would work out well on another world, but let’s just move on.) The Ghost Who Walks is duly recruited, along with his daughter and her pet panther, and off they rocket to confront Ming and rescue Flash’s family. There on Mongo, in Ming’s lair, Rick has managed to escape, but Dale is still held in evil bondage. Here’s Ming taunting her, in a most menacing Mingy manner:
You have to give credit to both the comic and the cartoon for one thing: they weren’t afraid to kill someone off — in this case poor Dale. She’s duly offed as Ming makes his escape from the avenging foursome (or eightsome, whatever), which prompts this overwrought scene:
Much of the drama us undercut by having a nude purple monkey alien thing in the foreground — that and that Dale’s spirit is found inhabiting a crystal moments later. Just a thought. (The creature’s name is Zuffy, and it was a series regular. It reminds me of — God help us all — Zook.)
This Sturm und Drang gnashing of teeth also offers up the chance to deploy this pose, which has long been a comic book cliché:
Dale later became part of the Defenders central computer — their Cerebro, if you will. I think Flash preferred her as the hot babe who showed a lot of skin, but hey, what are you gonna do. And the Defenders would stay together to battle the never-ending threat posed by Ming — or in comic terms, until the series was abruptly canned before issue five.
The DotE universe kind of stunk in spite of itself, and always felt more watered down than it had any right to be. It just didn’t gel. On a personal note, the cartoon was also my first exposure to Flash Gordon, and it’s colored my perception of the character and his milieu ever since. (Even sensational art like that found in this fanzine carries the residual stink.) While the concept has long been dormant, it was recently announced that there will be an mini later this year, whimsically entitled Kings Watch, that will reunite the main three characters (not sure about Lothar). If the Defenders concept floated your boat, but the execution left you cold, maybe check it out.