Although the honorary title of “queerest Marvel superteam” is most often bestowed upon the Young Avengers series by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, there is another, slightly more obscure but also incredibly queer Marvel superteam, and it deserves its props: the Defenders.
Who? You mean that Netflix series with Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and Daredevil? No! Well, sort of. Yes, it was a Netflix series. Yes, it is a Marvel property. No, the comic and the Netflix series are not the same thing, or at least they weren't until recently. As usual, this is going to take some explaining, so buckle up and let's ride.
The first appearance of the superteam known as the Defenders occurred in Marvel Feature #1. Marvel Feature was a “try-out” book, through which Marvel would test the popularity of certain characters to see if they warranted their own ongoing series. The Defenders apparently qualified, and the original series ran from the early '70s through the late '80s with an impressive 152 issues. Retitled New Defenders with #125, the final run was written by Peter Gillis. Despite doing pretty well in sales, it was eventually canceled to make room for what Marvel expected to be an exciting, universe-changing concept: the New Universe. If you haven't heard of the New Universe, it's because it made zero impact and was rapidly canceled. Marvel usually tries to forget it ever happened, but if I can't, neither can they.
In short, the incarnation of the Defenders that was recently popularized via the Netflix series bore little resemblance to the comics, so it seems timely to address some of the key differences, one of which being the fact that the Defenders comic is, beginning to end, some of the gayest stuff I've ever read in my life.
To begin with, we have Valkyrie. The backstory of Valkyrie is changeable and thus somewhat difficult to describe accurately, but it is generally accepted that she is the spirit of the legendary Valkyrie, Brunnhilde, placed into the body of a mortal woman, who, in exchange, is trapped inside Brunnhilde's sleeping body in Asgard. In her early appearances, Valkyrie was introduced as a villain in Avengers #83, under the control of Thor's recurring foil, the Enchantress. Creator Roy Thomas appeared to completely miss the purpose of the Women's Movement and reduced it for the sake of that story to, more or less, a woman screaming about how men are evil.
Regardless, Valkyrie's early appearances are kind of delightful, because even with all the nuance zapped from her stance she still has a point. She was the only prominent Marvel character of her time to openly discuss feminism, as warped as the discussion might have been, and for that she deserves some consideration. Her feminism was significantly reduced by the time she joined the Defenders, at which point all of her story arcs came to revolve around her relationships with arbitrary male characters rather than being about her life as a Valkyrie.
Valkyrie was introduced to the Defenders in Issue 4. According to writer Steve Englehart, this was meant to “provide some texture to the group.” That sentence makes me want to start screaming and never stop, but “add texture” she did. The original lineup of the Defenders was Doctor Strange, Namor, and the Hulk (pretty much the last three heroes you would want to be stuck in a room with), so the addition of Valkyrie helped salvage these early struggling character dynamics. Most of Valkyrie's stories revolve around her trying to learn what it means to be a human, which is an incredibly tired trope by now but was slightly more relevant for the time. But it also meant that one of the strongest female characters Marvel had was stuck in a position of constantly deferring to the men around her. She was aggressively pursued by some male characters, including the husband of the mortal woman whose body she currently resided in.
While Valkyrie would not be bisexual on-page until years later in Cullen Bunn's Fearless Defenders series, even her early appearances are laced with an undertone of homoeroticism. During Patsy Walker/Hellcat's time on the team, she and Valkyrie develop a close friendship. When Patsy begins dating Daimon Hellstrom (really long story), Valkyrie expresses jealousy and loneliness. Now, check out Valkyrie's reaction when Hellcat chooses to depart the team and marry Hellstrom:
In Fearless Defenders, the story arc begins on an exciting tone, as Valkyrie shows up, saves the life of Dr. Annabelle Riggs, and promptly makes out with her, finally giving us on-page evidence of Valkyrie's bisexuality after hinting at it for decades. Unfortunately, that's about all we get to see of any possibility of a relationship between the two, as they immediately are forced into sharing Valkyrie's body in a non-metaphorical sense. After that, Annabelle dies, then is resurrected as the mortal host of Brunnhilde, which is a pretty weak resolution to that romance in the hearts of most queer readers. Fortunately, Valkyrie was far from the only LGBTQIA member of the Defenders.
Moondragon was introduced to the team in the New Defenders after mostly appearing as a villain. She was forced by Odin to wear a headband that dampened her powers and teamed with Valkyrie, who was meant to keep an eye on her. Valkyrie was mostly uncomfortable around Moondragon, which, retroactively, we can view as being two mostly closeted queers having competitive feelings toward each other. Moondragon had not been known to be involved with women before, but she's considered bisexual by most now, and, as of the Annihilation event, was in an incredibly cute relationship with Phyla-Dell that doesn't get enough page-time even by half. On the Defenders, Moondragon proved herself to be a hero, resisting psychic temptation and serving as a mentor to one very special sentient gas known as Cloud.
Cloud has barely been described or explained, and their appearances in the New Defenders leave a lot to the imagination. Their power was that they could become intangible, holding their physical form together only occasionally, vanishing into a wisp of amorphous gas anytime they so chose. Originally appearing in a female form, Cloud professed that they were in love with Moondragon, who felt conflicted about entering a relationship with someone much younger than her. Next, we discovered Cloud's ability to change gender when they entered Moondragon's room one night, naked, in male form, assuring her that it was okay for them to be in love because Cloud could be male or female. Understandably, Moondragon freaked out from the random naked person in her room, and things got fairly uncomfortable between the two after that.
This conflicted love story went on for several issues and included most members of the team. Iceman seemed attracted to both Cloud and Moondragon, Warren Worthington the Angel flirted incessantly with Moondragon, and Moondragon seemed to cross lines as Cloud's mentor fairly regularly. By the end, Moondragon claimed that she had influenced them all to fall in love with her in hopes that they would remove that power-lessening headband.
Moondragon might 'fess up to tricking the other Defenders, but there's a question mark over her confession. In a villainous appearance in the Avengers, before she joined the Defenders, Moondragon used her powers of attraction to ensnare Thor. This was unquestionably not consensual, and, although she apologized and saw the error of her ways, the story is still really difficult to read. Writer and former Marvel EiC Jim Shooter has created more than one story where a character manipulating another character into sexual relations is played as being not a very serious offense. In order to enjoy Moondragon as a character, I have to ignore that story entirely.
On the other hand, there are many instances of Moondragon being rejected in which she claims to have been manipulating the other person simply to make them feel less guilty about rejecting her, which is very noble but blurs the lines of her relationships even further. In the Defenders, when she lets Cloud down gently, Cloud insists that their feelings for Moondragon are real, while Moondragon insists that they aren't. This situation can be read in many different ways, one of which being that Moondragon didn't learn anything from her abuse of Thor and repeated the cycle with a new group of heroes. Another way to read it is that she feels ashamed and afraid of causing Cloud harm, and wants to let them down as easily as possible. We never truly learn the resolution of this story, because, as of yet, we have no idea what became of Cloud after their stint with the Defenders.
Besides Valkyrie, Moondragon, and Cloud, there's another LGBTQIA icon who makes regular appearances as a Defenders team member: Bobby Drake, aka Iceman. Although, as with many of these characters, Iceman is now canonically queer, he certainly wasn't in the '80s. In the New Defenders, he makes a few jokes alluding to homosexuality, at one time claiming to be Warren's boyfriend, “Lance.” Later, Cloud, in female form, asks Bobby to understand and help them, before shifting to male form. Bobby responds badly, fleeing the room, and spends most of his remaining time with the team antagonizing Cloud in a way that crosses the bounds of friendly teasing. Now, we can read these actions as the self-loathing of a closeted gay man without having to stretch too far.
These stories mostly occurred during the years of Marvel's editorial mandate against stories featuring homosexual themes. The New Defenders is notable for its ability to tell incredibly queer stories during a time in which they were explicitly forbidden.
Looking back, it's difficult to believe that any of this stuff got past the Comics Code Authority, and the stories stand out against what was considered to be standard superhero fare of the time. No shade to Young Avengers, which is a must-read for all superhero fans and most definitely did great things for queer representation in comics, but the Defenders writers and artists provided mastery of subtext so clear that it just became text. Speaking as someone who grew up reading comics during a time when diversity was much sparser than it is today, I salute you.