These days, archival collections of The Defenders are likely to lead off with the "Titans Three" story (from Sub-Mariner #34-35) or even the "Undying Ones" crossover trilogy (from Doctor Strange #183, Sub-Mariner #22 and Hulk #126), but I like to go back further still. No, I don't go all the way back to Avengers #3 (although I could), I do go back as far as Tales to Astonish #84 (which I read for the first time reprinted in Marvel Super-Heroes #39. With the help of Mike's Amazing World of Comics, I have been able to determine that Marvel Super-Heroes #39 was probably my fifth Hulk comic (behind Hulk #167, Marvel Super-Heroes #38, Marvel Feature #11 and Hulk #168). 

Tales to Astonish was a "split book" and #84 is a "crossover" in the sense that Sub-Mariner "crosses over" to make a guest appearance in the Hulk's story. Although the two don't even meet face-to-face, the Hulk at least catches a glimpse of Subby across a crowded movie theater. The Sub-Mariner is suffering amnesia (due to the effects of an explosion in the previous issue) and is being manipulated by the mysterious, red-robed "Number One" of the Secret Empire. Number One wants Namor to destroy the Hulk for reasons of his own, and set Namor loose in Manhattan to track him down. 

But the story really begins (AFAIAC) in the Hulk feature, which is the start of a new story arc. It opens with the Hulk raging in the southwestern desert. "And then, some dim, forgotten memory returns to his clouded brain, as the green-skinned giant vaguely recalls a time months ago, when he was briefly part of a team--when he had powerful friends to turn to."

"AVENGERS!" shouts the Hulk. "Avengers will help! Hulk must go to them!" Understand, this is the very first time I had ever heard of the Avengers. I had no idea what to expect. "Avengers" was just a name to me at the time. "The once-brilliant brain of atomic scientist Bruce Banner--having been affected by the mysterious gamma rays, some years ago, can now barely remember that the headquarters of the mighty Avengers is located somewhere to the east -- and so. without a second's hesitation, the incredible leg muscles of the mightiest mortal to walk the Earth, begin to hurl him skyward--on a tireless journey half-way across a continent."

Three quarters, more like. I don't know how long that trip took him, but it's impressive he managed to hold the idea of "Avengers" in his head the entire time. He lands in the pre-dawn darkness, breaks into a men's over-size clothing store and steals an overcoat and hat. Later that day, the Sub-Mariner spots a movie theater showing newsreel footage of the Hulk and steps inside, hoping to find a clue to his whereabouts. 

"There he is... on the screen before me," thinks Subby. "I have faced him before! I know it! But... I cannot remember where... or when!" A footnote informs us "If Namor were in full possession of his memory, he would surely recall having battled the incredible Hulk while the green-skinned rampager was a member of the mighty Avengers!" There's that name again! The Sub-Mariner is wearing a microphone around his neck so Number One can communicate with him, which brings him to the attention of the other patrons, which causing a ruckus.

Meanwhile, outside in the light of the day, still thinking about finding the Avengers, the Hulk is spotted by a beat cop who sounds the alarm. Now on the run, Hulk ducks into the same movie theater Sub-Mariner entered minutes before. Hulk enters just as Subby is being chased from the theater. "That face!" Hulk realizes. "I know him! I have seen him--somewhere--fought him--somewhere! But--I have fought so many--how can I be sure?!!

And that's basically it for this encounter. I  have put the events in roughly chronological order above, but each half of the comic is told strictly from each respective character's point of view. Two panels of Gene Colan's Subby story are even clipped and brought over to the Hulk's. The Hulk finishes watching the newsreel and leaves the theater, but a gust of wind blows his hat off. He is recognized, flees to the subway, accidentally damages the tracks, then saves the train. By the time he's done all that and bursts through the street, he has forgotten why he came to New York in the first place.

"Nothing stops the Hulk!!"he declares. "I'm free! Free--to do--what??!"

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"THE UNDYING ONES"

Now it is time to bring in Doctor Strange...

DOCTOR STRANGE #183:

This story occurs during Doc's "superhero" phase (which began with #177). The title began with #169, which carried the numbering over from the "split-book" Strange Tales which he shared (most recently) with Nick Fury. This issue introduces a new civilian identity for him, Stephen Sanders, created by the cosmic entity Eternity. Writer Roy Thomas intended this to be the first chapter of a multi-part story featuring other-dimensional invaders inspired by the concepts of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, but the series was abruptly cancelled with this issue (which was drawn by Gene Colan and inked by his best inker, Tom Palmer).

The story opens with "Stephen Sanders" receiving a telegram from an old friend, Kenneth Ward, who sponsored Stephen Strange through medical school. Dr. Strange arrives at Ward's brownstone and finds him in a bad way, confined to a wheelchair with no memory of having sent the telegram. He tells Dr. Strange about finding a small statuette in "a lonely valley between Himalayan peaks," but the statue is now missing. Ward's three servants are, in reality, servants of the "Undying Ones" and seek the statue as well. Dr. Strange defeats them, but Ward does not survive the battle. Dr. Strange leaves to seek the statue.

SUB-MARINER #22:

With his own series now cancelled, Dr. Strange continues his search in another of Roy Thomas's titles, Submariner. At first, Strange contacts Subby mentally and relates the history of the Undying Ones on pages 3-5, then he mentally guides Namor to Boston when the statue can be found. Fearing detection by the followers of the Undying Ones, Dr. Strange elected to use an non-magical being to do the footwork. Although it is not mentioned, we may assume that Strange remembers Subby from Fantastic Four #27. Namor did not meet or see Dr. Strange at that time, so page 23, when Dr. Strange first appears before him physically, is the first time Sub-Mariner meets Dr. Strange in person. 

They fight two more of the Undying Ones' followers (one disguised as the childless Kenneth Ward's daughter, the other her cat), but they are drawn into a portal leading to the Undying Ones' native dimension. Only one can escape (because reasons) and, although Namor volunteers to stay behind and fight, Dr. Strange forces him through the portal while he is taken captive. "And yet," Namor muses upon his return to our reality, "one thing do I know, and know well... that, as long as memory endures... and man rules above or below the tossing seas... he will owe a debt to... Dr. Strange!!"

HULK #123:

As the story opens, a human cult which worships the Undying Ones has witnessed the Hulk's fight with the Absorbing Man (last issue). They capture the unconscious Bruce Banner with the intention of sending the Hulk to fight the Night-Crawler (in later stories "Dark-Crawler" to avoid confusion with the by-then-better-known X-Man), an enemy of the Undying Ones. Night-Crawler lives in a dimension adjacent to that of the Undying Ones, and the cultists send Bruce Banner there. But one of their number, a young woman named Barbara, is having second thoughts, When she voices them, the cult leader sends her through the portal as well. 

The stress changes Bruce Banner into the Hulk and he fights the Night-Crawler for seven pages, destroying the Night-Crawler's dimension in the process. Dr. Strange finally enters the story on page 18 when Hulk, Night-Crawler and Barbara are shunted  into the dimension of the Undying Ones. The Hulk and Dr. Strange interact for only two pages; this is the first meeting for both of them. Hulk is unable to free Dr. Strange through brute force, so Barbara takes his place. dr. strange and the Hulk return to Earth, but don't worry: we haven't seen the last of Barbara. Dr. Strange and Bruce Banner (who has reverted by now) interact for a page, and Banner leaves feeling grateful. Without a title to support him, Dr. Strange retires from the mystic arts and that's the last we see of him for some time.

The Defenders Omnibus v1 begins with these three comics.

"TITANS THREE"

The Defenders Archives series begins here. (This story is included in the Defenders Omnibus as well.)

SUB-MARINER #34:

All the time I was working on completing my Hulk collection, I was holding Defenders in reserve. Once I filled all my Hulk holes (an unfortunate turn of phrase) I moved on to Defenders, which soon led me to Sub-Mariner #34-35. I'll never forget the splash page (almost literal, in this case) of the Hulk emerging from the surf onto the barbed wire strewn beach of the Caribbean island of San Pablo. This issue and the next are drawn by future regular Hulk artist Sal Buscema, whose pencils, inked here  by Jim Mooney, have seldom looked better. 

The Hulk immediately runs afoul of troops led by the dictator El General. (Hulk is known as La Mole in Spanish, or the "Mass.") Sub-Mariner is monitoring Hulk as well. "Elsewhere in the Caribbean, air-breathers are constructing a mammoth experimental apparatus which... may wreak havoc with the very weather itself." Namor, who now seems to be aware that the Hulk has another, non-bestial state, considers recruiting his aid. Suddenly his scanner detects the Silver Surfer soaring overhead. Subby decides to approach him instead and, in true Marvel fashion, first they fight, then they team up.

When Namor mentions that the Hulk is near, the Surfer suggests they try to recuit him to their cause as well. (The sight of both of them riding the Surfer's board is a classic.) In true Marvel fashion, once the pair finds the Hul;k, first they fight, then they team up... in this case against the El General's forces. By the time Subby has fought the Surfer, and the two of them have fought the Hulk, and the three of them have fought the soldiers, that's the end of the issue.

SUB-MARINER #35:

The second series I completed after Hulk was Avengers so, by the time I acquired Sub-Mariner #35 as a backissue I already had the entire run of Roy Thomas's Avengers, and this issue came as a pleasant little treat. It opens with the "Titans Three" all riding the surfboard, but nowhere near as gracefully as Namor and Norrin Radd together. The trio soon comes into conflict with Col. Willis, reluctantly pulled from Viet Nam to command this detachment of U.N. soldiers. Back in New York City, at Avengers Mansion specifically, Captain America divides the team in two: he, Black Panther, Vision, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch will "dash off to make that charity TV spot," leaving Iron Man, Thor and Goliath "on call to the U.N., as we promised." 

[A footnote cautions: "A word to the wise: Don't waste time trying to correlate this tale with the current Avengers issue! No way!"]

Back in the Caribbean, Namor tries to negotiate with Col. Willis to allow the Atlantean scientist Ikthor, under the command of Namor's betrothed, Lady Dorma, to inspect the weather control device. The Hulk attacks, however, forcing Col. Willis to withdraw and call on the Avengers for help. They arrive in a reverse of the cover image, with the pre-Defenders occupying the high-ground. (It occurs to me that this situation is something of a precursor to the much-lauded "Avengers/Defenders clash" a little later in the '70s.) Most of the issue is the slugfest we expected, but Ikthor runs his test and proves the machine is unstable. After that somewhat anti-climatic ending, the pre-Defenders go their separate ways. The next time three of the four of them meet (with Dr. Strange now out of retirement), they will be known as the "non-team" The Defenders.

I didn't expect to be back to this thread so soon (or at all, really), but I made a factual error above that I didn't want to let stand. Earlier this week I identified TTA #92/93 (or rather MSH #47/48) as the first Silver Surfer story I had ever read. That didn't seem quite right and, with the help of Mike's Amazing World of Comics I was able to verify that is was not. My first Silver Surfer story was reprinted from Fantastic Four Annual #5 reprinted in Giant-Size Defenders #1. I was intrigued by that story, but everything else I said about the TTA/MSH one, apart from it being my first, was otherwise correct. While I am here, it strikes me that "The Way They Were!" from Giant-Size Defenders #1 qualifies (sort of) as a "pre-Defenders" story as well.

GIANT-SIZE DEFENDERS #1:

I specifically remember flipping through Defenders #12 on the spinner rack at the Droste Drug Store and making the conscious decision to hold the entire series in reserve for when I had attained my goal of completing my Hulk collection (which I eventually did, some years later). Defenders #12 was Sal Buscema inked by Jack Abel and looked very much like the Herb Trimpe inked by Jack Abel currently on display in Hulk at the time (and, of course, Sal Buscema would later replace Herb Trimpe as the Hulk's regular artist). 

Although I wasn't buying Defenders at the time, I was buying pretty much any of Marvel's "Giant-Size" series I could find, especially the #1s. The "Giant-Size" issues often contained reprints, as did DC's "100-Page Super-Spectaculars" which also snatched up at the time. (It was a good time to be reading comics.) The issue was three reprints (four including the unrelated Silver Surfer one) tightly woven within a framing sequence (written by Tony Isabella although I suspect the general idea came from editor Roy Thomas). The reprints were Hulk by Jack Kirby, Sub-Mariner by Bill Everett and Dr. strange by Steve Ditko. Not only that, but the framing sequence was drawn by Jim Starlin. 

This was a great comic to read so early in my collecting career!

The second story of Marvel Feature #1 is frequently glossed over, but worth mentioning.  It happens between Hulk #126 and the first story of that same first issue of Marvel Feature, and explains how and why Doctor Strange resumed his classic name and appearance.

That's right, Luis... thanks for bringing it up. "The Return!" can be found in the Defenders omnibus, but not the Defenders archive. It can also be found in v4 of Doctor Strange Archives (without the main story from Marvel Feature #1). 

Funny that the editor & writer of that Tales to Astonish story, and also happened to have been the editor and writer of that particular Avengers story had entirely forgotten that the Hulk and Namor had not battled in that issue but had actually joined up to battle the Avengers, and that the Hulk had left the team in the previous issue in a bit of a huff! But Stan Lee himself admitted he had a terrible memory.  Anyhow, Avengers #3 does count as a sort of proto-Defenders mag as it contains the first meeting and teaming up of 2/3rds of the original Defenders.  That same month, Dr. Strange was having his 2nd published go-round against Nightmare in Strange Tales #116.  I think the Defenders was the first team comic in which all the original members had previously met each other in previously published comics, although the whole team had never previously gotten together.  Of course, since by that time, the Marvel universe had been around for about a decade and most of the prominent heroes had at least encountered one another at least once.  But when the Avengers got together, only two years into the Marvel Age, the only ones who had previously ever met one another were the duo of Antman and the Wasp.

"Funny that the editor & writer of that Tales to Astonish story, and also happened to have been the editor and writer of that particular Avengers story had entirely forgotten that the Hulk and Namor had not battled in that issue but had actually joined up to battle the Avengers"

Ah, but they did fight! 

In true Marvel fashion, first they fought, then they teamed up.

(See Avengers #3, p.16.)

Ah, I forgot that little detail.  Considering that when Subby & the original Human Torch first met in the Golden Age they had a big fight, and that in the very first issue of Fantastic Four, Reed & Ben had a fight before they'd even given themselves superhero names, that trope was built into Marvel from the beginning, even long before the company became Marvel.  Most heroes just got to have a fight when they meet before grudgingly agreeing to get along long enough to fight someone else.  And Subby & Hulk had several other fights before joining "stupid magician" in the Defenders.  Don't recall Dr. Strange fighting with either Subby or Hulk when first meeting them, but in the Defenders he certainly got on both of their nerves and sometimes it appeared they were keenly restraining themselves not to punch him!

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