The History of 'The Defenders,' From Comic Book to Netflix

Understanding how Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist became Marvel's latest "supergroup"

From left: Mike Colter, Krysten Ritter, Charlie Cox, Rosario Dawson, Jessica Henwick in 'The Defenders.' Credit: Sarah Shatz/Netflix

"Before you tap that shoulder, sugar – identify yourself."
"The name's Daredevil – horn-head for short. And you?"
"Depends. If you're spendin' money, it's Power Man – Hero for Hire. Otherwise, Cage'll do – Luke Cage."

Thus began the not entirely auspicious teaming of Luke Cage and Daredevil in the pages of the 24th issue of The Defenders, from 1975. It was, in fact, the only story in that comic's 15-year existence in which any of the characters on Netflix's identically titled series would meet. The 2017 incarnation – Daredevil and Luke Cage, plus Jessica Jones and Iron Fist – comes forth with the rampaging momentum of the four individual series that preceded it, a gamble of narrative and corporate synergy that stakes the investments of about 60 hours of sitting on a couch (for viewers) and nearly a quarter billion dollars (for Netflix). And despite its tenuous connection to the Defenders of old, this grouping also comes with its own historical pedigree.

In the comics, Marvel's first "supergroup" – if one uses that word in the way it's used in rock & roll, to describe a conglomeration of already established luminaries – was the Avengers, in 1963. And the second, eight years later, was the Defenders.

Initially, it was a mere trio, consisting of Doctor Strange, the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk. (The Hulk had not stayed long with the Avengers. He was fickle.) So haphazard was the group that even Marvel famously referred to it as a "non-team." These were leftovers, up for grabs and, in the early days, no Defenders issues were more popular than the ones that guest-starred the Avengers. With wild-card additions like the Silver Surfer and Clea and the Son of Satan, the series would become an unwieldy canvas for the action-painting antics of whichever writer happened to have the assignment.

At the time of the 1975 meeting between Daredevil and Luke Cage ("This fellow's street sense is as keenly honed as my radar sense," the former's thought balloon observes of the latter), writer Steve Gerber had the reins, and he had turned the non-team into something like the fractured anti-war movement, in which strong, goal-oriented personalities were generally looking out for one another but slightly out of whack. The brashly progressive Gerber, who'd recently created Howard the Duck, was audacious at a time when few superhero comics were. He was also impolitic. "Stay outta this, man!" Cage shouts to Nighthawk, an insecure millionaire who's dressed as a bird, as he punches the African-American financier who's been funneling money to a white supremacist group. "It's between me an' the Oreo, here!"

Cage's character was surely a vital ingredient for whatever statement Gerber wanted to make about race and class, but it's not evident why Daredevil's been conscripted. Maybe it was a mandate from the marketing department. The two shared about 20 panels, and then they parted.

Power Man (a.k.a. Luke Cage) and Iron Fist (a.k.a. Danny Rand) were, in the early 1970s, two seemingly irreconcilable creations that might have simply been cash-ins on the popularity of Blaxploitation movies (i.e., Shaft) and kung fu shows (i.e., Kung Fu). Cage, a wrongly imprisoned black man from Harlem, had gained his powers from a medical experiment; now he tried to pay the bills and clear his name. Young Danny Rand, meanwhile, had been stranded in the Far East when his wealthy parents were murdered by Mr. Rand's business partner, and was raised by monks in the mystical village of K'un L'un. Now he tried to adjust to modern life and avenge his family.

Considering the gimmicky premises, each was more interesting than one might expect, and lasted all the way into the summer of 1977. When Iron Fist was cancelled and Power Man sales struggled, writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne (who were meanwhile beginning their acclaimed work together on the X-Men) sealed Iron Fist's long-budding romance with the bionic-armed Misty Knight with a kiss – one of Marvel Comics' first interracial kisses, no less – and then began work on Power Man and Iron Fist, which combined the casts of each.

Power Man and Iron Fist went into business together as Heroes for Hire, and the series became a comic-book version of the action-comedy buddy movie before there was even a movie version. Cage lived above a 42nd Street movie theater that only showed westerns. For a time, it looked like it would even yield a successful spin-off when Misty Knight and Iron Fist's martial artist pal Colleen Wing teamed up as "Daughters of the Dragon." In the climactic fight scene of their lone adventure, Wing gradually lost all of her clothing. A passing line of dialogue stated that Iron Fist has also been "more than friends" with Colleen Wing. John Byrne, who proclaimed his preference for Misty Knight, reacted thusly in a 1980 interview: "[Claremont] soured me on Colleen Wing when he told me that she was a) bisexual and b) promiscuous. She sleeps with anything because she's looking for the big O." Either way, someone at Marvel evidently thought the white people should be paired; one Iron Fist cover mistakenly referred to Iron Fist's "beloved Colleen Wing."

Shortly after Power Man & Iron Fist got off the ground, artist Frank Miller was assigned to draw Daredevil. The character had always one of Marvel's lonest wolves and lowest sellers, but with Miller's unabashedly film noir-influenced style, the pulse picked up quickly. Miller had just finished a two-part story that pitted Daredevil against the Punisher (now a sort of anti-hero guest star on the Netflix) for the first time when he got the go-ahead to write as well as draw the series. He then turned around and introduced the femme fatale Elektra, and renovated the once-laughable villain Kingpin. That Daredevil had existed for 15 years without these two pillars now seems unthinkable.

Miller had drawn Luke Cage and Iron Fist in one panel, but Daredevil wasn't even conscious – they were just visiting him in the hospital for some reason. A more substantial meeting didn't happen until Miller really started to indulge his ninja fixation, introducing both the Hand, a shadowy and centuries-old Japanese order, and Stick, Daredevil's crusty old mentor, to the mythos. Once the Manhattan skylines started to include silhouettes of rooftop ninjas, it was only a matter of time before Marvel's most popular martial artist came around.

Daredevil #178 was bookended by Elektra murdering various henchmen in the employ of the Kingpin, but the bulk of it was comic relief that played against the violence that surrounded it: Foggy Nelson unwittingly hires Power Man and Iron Fist to act as Matt Murdock's bodyguard; there are throwaway gags involving pizza and Kermit the Frog, and even a stage whisper or two.

It wasn't of much consequence, but it did provide a template for middle ground between the heroes' respective universes, and if one looked past the goofiness, there might be plenty to mine one day. Both series demanded the setting of a seedy New York City, in the adjacent neighborhoods of Hell's Kitchen and Times Square. And unlike Thor or Captain America or Iron Man, all of whose fortunes were improved by the superhero life, the stars of Daredevil and Power Man and Iron Fist were broken people who'd found surrogate non-superhero families at their workplaces, a law office and a detective agency respectively.

Brian Michael Bendis, whose comic-reading adolescence coincided with Miller and Claremont's ascent, continued that ground-level focus when he became the writer of Daredevil; with the creation of Jessica Jones, the Marvel Universe's alcoholic and depressive private eye, he zoomed way in. In triangulating the melodrama of Chris Claremont and the deadpan quips of Frank Miller, Bendis was able to draw out surprising levels of pathos and menace from such long-forgotten nemeses as Man Mountain Marko, the Owl and the Purple Man, who even Miller hadn't been able to take seriously. Because Jessica Jones wasn't fenced in by past canon, her story could be agile, weaving in and out of Marvel's knotty history. And so, readers learned, she'd gone to high school with Peter Parker, and battled the Purple Man, and met the original Defenders.

Once Jessica Jones shared a drunken one-night stand with Luke Cage, it seemed almost inevitable that they'd also take a job together as Matt Murdock's bodyguards, or get married and have a child, all of which they have done in the pages of the comic books. Iron Fist, who avoided meeting Daredevil for years, has since dressed up as Daredevil for months on end, which demonstrates the strong bonds between orphaned men raised on hand-to-hand combat.

The expansion of Jessica Jones' world, since her introduction in 2001, has roughly paralleled the rises of both Bendis' influence on Marvel's publishing line and Marvel's success in Hollywood. The world-building is now at the point where there's a lot to organize, and less to fill in. The mysteries of Jessica Jones' past have been illuminated. Bendis eventually presided over not only the Avengers but the New Avengers and the Mighty Avengers, choreography that involves a boggling number of moving parts. And the Spider-Man franchise has been rebooted twice. In the scattered chaos of the Marvel Universe, curating is half the battle.

And all of these new Defenders that millions are now meeting for the first time – Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist – have served together in the Avengers. Perhaps it's also unsurprising that Ms. Marvel and Spider-Woman, both characters that bore the stamps of early-1980s Claremont authorship, are near the center of Jessica Jones' orbit. The job of the superhero writer, after all, is to revise the myths they read in their formative years, to streamline and rebuild and remix, until the next generation comes along.