Getting Defensive

Find a Silver Age superhero comics fan, and ask him who his favorite funny book writers of that era are, and one name that is going to recur on nearly every subsequent listing (unless the person you're talking to is a total tool, I mean) is Steve Gerber. Ask him what his favorite run by Gerber was, and the numb fuck will probably say Howard the Duck or Man-Thing, which is just aggravating, but I concede the likelihood, because, you know, hardly any of my fellow Silver Age superhero comic book fans are as cool as I am. But if you asked me (and for the love of Jebus, what are you doing wasting your time on some hypothetical Silver Age superhero comics fan when you've got me, anyway?), I'd tell you the simple, inarguable, absolutely objective truth -- the greatest superhero comic book Steve Gerber ever wrote was, without a doubt, The Defenders.

(No, it's inarguable. Man-Thing and Howard the Duck simply cannot compare to Gerber's Defenders, not least because, Man-Thing and Howard the Duck aren't superheroes, and that's how I oh-so-cleverly framed the question at the top of the column. Ha! I win again!)

Yeah, a few disgruntled souls might mutter something barely audible about Omega the Unknown, before slinking away to some clock tower with a high powered rifle over one shoulder, but Omega the Unknown wasn't a superhero either, and anyway, Gerber co-wrote the series with one of his groupies, so it doesn't count as true, pure malt, honest to God, YEAH!-strength Gerber. So there.

Anyway, as I've noted before this, WizKids' upcoming set, Sinister, has a great many characters in it that I've yearned for years now to see in plastic figure form. Unfortunately, as I've also noted, a great many of these are mal-defined by appallingly poorly conceived combat dials that might, possibly, suit some bizarre Mighty Comics character under the tenure of a desperate and perhaps entirely hopped up on pain medicine Jerry Siegel, but which really seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with the characters they are actually supposed to represent from the Marvel Universe.

Sinister continues this admirable tradition with two more figures we've now seen sculpts and dials for: Nighthawk and the Valkyrie, both of whom were mainstays of the Silver Age Defenders when Gerber was writing the book.

Nighthawk... ah, there are so many reasons to be disappointed by what WizKid's done to him, but for a change, more of them revolve around the sculpt than the actual dial.

Here's the WizKids figure. Looks okay, at first glance, but still, there are a couple of reasons I'm not satisfied. (Aside from, you know, me being an asshole, which is pretty much a given at all times.) First, this is pretty much how the sculpt looks at all levels -- Rookie, Experienced, and Vet -- with the only difference being, the Rookie doesn't have a flight stand, which means, the Rookie can't fly. This is fine, at the beginning of his costumed career, Nighthawk couldn't fly -- in fact, he was essentially a costumed, roof leaping, cable swinging acrobat in the tradition of Daredevil, Spider-Man, and, not at all coincidentally, Batman. (Nighthawk was, in fact, originally created as a thinly disguised Batman-surrogate for an issue of Avengers in which Roy Thomas wanted to pit Earth's Mightiest Heroes against the Justice League of America, so he did, after changing their team name to the Squadron Sinister, and also revamping Superman, Green Lantern, and the Flash into, respectively, Hyperion, Dr. Spectrum, and the Whizzer, so they could hang out with Batman/Nighthawk and get their asses resolutely kicked right alongside him by the Almighty Assemblers.)

So, yeah, the rookie Nighthawk certainly shouldn't fly, and while I think WizKids should have whipped up a Squadron Sinister Team Ability for this level of the character, well, I think WizKids should do a lot of things they don't, and this one I won't hold against them too much, because, honestly, I'm a really swell guy. But what annoys me here is that, well, in Nighthawk's first several appearances, when he was still a villain and didn't fly, he looked like this:

Now, I know -- I know! "WizKids can't do different sculpts for each version of a character in a REV, it's not cost effective, the most we can expect is different color paint jobs or maybe a difference in the type of plastic used, get over it!" To which I respond with an enthusiastic "Fuck you, fanboy -- they did it for goddam Jewel/Jessica Jones, and she's very nearly the worst character in the entire universe, so they can absolutely do it for my boy Nighthawk."

Except, of course, they didn't. Which pisses me off, and causes me to once again offer my entire ass to WizKids' collective lips.

As to Nighthawk's dials, well, let's take a look:

Those of you who have been following along on Mike Norton's and my blogs as regards the Sinister set, and who have the ability to read a HeroClix dial-card, will now be reeling back from your screen in incredulity. "Where the Christ," you may well moan in incredulity, "is all the Psychic Blast? We've grown accustomed to seeing Psychic Blast on EVERY Sinister power dial, for the love of God, even Kitty Pryde has Psychic Blast, how can they deny it to Nighthawk?"

Okay, I'm kidding. This is the 28 point Rookie Nighthawk, and of course, he shouldn't have any Psychic Blast, or, for that matter, any kind of range strike, either. So WizKids got that much right, at least. He should have Super Strength, as at this level, Nighthawk had taken a mystic potion which "doubled his strength" when the moon was out, although, on the other hand, whether this was the kind of power that would let someone pick up a dumpster and beat someone else upside the head with it (as Super Strength allows, under WK's rules), I kind of doubt. Still, okay, I'll give you that one. And WK has adequately represented Nighthawk's early career villainy by giving him a Sinister Syndicate TA, which is very close, in sound, anyway, to Squadron Sinister.

But where's his Leap Climb? The early Nighthawk was a Batman-surrogate; he was vaulting around rooftops and swinging on cables like a crazy man. Well, never mind, give him a Swing Line Feat Card and he'll be okay, at least, under my House Rules, where I've rewritten the text to allow characters to ignore different terrain heights when they have one. (Yes, it's true... the official WizKids' version of Swing Line lets those who have one ignore Hindering Terrain when they move, and it adds +1 to their movement, but it doesn't let them move from one terrain elevation to another, despite the fact that getting from street level to rooftop and back again quickly is about the only damn thing superhumans in comic books ever use a swing line for. Oh, WizKids... someday I'll be rich, and buy your company, and fire a great vast lot of people, and I'll laugh, and laugh, and laugh...)

He's got the typical 9 attack, which is, I suppose, pretty good for a Rookie, most of which get stuck these days with an 8. If he hits someone he's not going to leave much of a mark, with a crappy 2 damage (he gets Close Combat Expert at the end of his dial, so he can get up to 3 on a punch then, but his Attack Value has dropped so far he's not going to hit anything much more mobile than an EZ Boy recliner with built in vibro-massage by then, either)... but, still, I suppose he could get adjacent to some other Sinister Syndicate member and use the TA to borrow a higher attack. Or someone could Perplex him. Or use In Contact With Oracle on him. Or, we could just melt all the Rookie Nighthawks we get in a microwave, although we're going to have a ton of them, since they're low numbered Rookies.

I don't know. If he had the right costume on, I'd save at least one Rookie Nighthawk just for that reason, but as it is, well, I'm thinking the microwave option may well be best.

Now, the 42 point Experienced version --

Okay. He's got a click of Charge, which the street legal players wil love, since it lets him Move and Attack in the same turn -- he can only move half his paltry 8 movement, which is entirely inconsistent with a jetpacked hero whose main battle tactic was to come screaming out of the sky and whack the crap out of someone as he flew straight through them -- but still, it's an improvement over Pokey the Dumb Ass rookie version, anyway. He has no team ability, which is enough to make any serious Defenders fan's hands itch for Seth's no doubt pencil neck, since Nighthawk went from his original costume, and a villainous career with the Squadron Sinister, to this new costume, with the jetpack under his wing-cape, as a heroic member of the Defenders, in about twenty minutes real time -- how in the world can his Experienced version have no TA? But never mind, never mind -- Seth's an idiot, his reign as Senior Designer has so far been shrouded in miscues and wrapped in stupidity, let's move on. What other powers does the Experienced Nighthawk have? Well, he's got some Super Strength, with that same goddam 9 Attack Value; he's got some Willpower, on top of a 16 Defense that Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer could hit, if he wasn't too stoned; later on down his dial, he gets some Close Combat Expert, one click of which he has with an 8 attack, where it might actually do him some good, if Luck is a Lady tonight. And, he's also got...

...a range strike of 4? What the FUCK?

This could be a mistake on the dial-card. If it's not, though, well, it's a monumental mistake on Seth's part. This version of Nighthawk, the Silver Age version who was a member of the Defenders all through the late Silver Age, had no weapons besides his fists and the jetpack he kept hidden under his cape. I'm not even sure he still had any Super Strength at this point, but even if he did, he had no ability to strike a foe at range. Pretty much all he ever did, in fact, was swoop down on dimwits from above and double-punch them in stiff looking Sal Buscema poses as he went zooming on by. You'd think a simple, very basic character like that would be impossible to screw up -- a few clicks of Charge, maybe some Energy Shield/Deflection, (because he's moving really fast when he attacks), a few clicks of Close Combat Expert. But, I said, throwing my head back and sneering in my best John Belushi fashion, OHHHHHHH noooooooooo... they couldn't even get THAT right.

Giving Nighthawk at ANY level Willpower is also a mistake. The character just didn't have it. "Easily Influenced" should, in fact, have been Kyle Richmond's middle name, based on how often duped, led astray, and generally mush-headed he was. Don't get me wrong, Kyle Richmond was a likeable guy -- well, no, okay, he really wasn't, but he was an admirable -- um, uh uh, that's not getting it, either -- okay, he was a competent fighter and a good friend and... nope, nope... fine. He was a buffoon, and the only thing that made him interesting with Steve Gerber's writing. Whatever the case, he shouldn't have Willpower.

So, okay -- maybe they'll get it right with the Veteran. You know, like they did with the Swordsman:

Okay, well, he's... um. Yeah. First, a little more background. At this stage in his career, I was no longer reading The Defenders, because Steve Gerber wasn't writing it any more, and the guy who took over after Steve, Gerry Conway, may well be the worst writer in the history of superhero comics, worse even than all those Image artists who couldn't write but tried to anyway, and I gave up on the title in disgust after two truly wretched Conway scripts. Conway didn't stay on the book screwing it up for long; after he left, David Kraft wrote it for quite a while, and several people have tried to tell me the Kraft run was 'interesting', and they're right, but alas, it isn't interesting in any good way, and then after Kraft came J.M. deMatteis, who wrote Defenders for what seemed like several hundred years, and who may be the only writer since the dawn of time whose scripts were so bad that they actually made Don Perlin's artwork look even more boring than it would have anyway.

I never bought any of those issues, and have only read a very few of them, and so I only know vaguely about this particular version of Nighthawk, who was paralyzed whenever the sun was out and who wore an armored version of his red and blue costume that had blast-beams built into its wing tips and scythe-like claws projecting from his knuckles and I don't know WHAT the fuck all else. (I do know that shortly after he started wearing this costume someone shot him in the head, and God, how he must have been relieved to be finally out of his misery, too. But that's a digression.)

So this is the 60 point Veteran version of the character.

He's got the Defenders Team Ability, which he should have. It doesn't do a damn thing except rack up his point cost, since the Defenders Team Ability under WK's rules doesn't do much ("A member of this team may use the unmodified defense value of any other adjacent friendly member of this team instead of its own", which sounds cool, except the whole Defenders array in WizKids has one, count them, one, character with an 18 Defense, and it's the Silver Surfer, and he costs $40 or so, so I don't have one). Under my House Rules the power works considerably better ("For every 2 Defenders there are in a force (rounding down), one member of this TA may, once per turn, add 1 to his/her defense as a free action; this modifier remains until the beginning of the Defender's next turn", which totally rocks, since it means that any time Nighthawk is out there with at least one other Defender, he or his teammate can add 1 to their Defense Value if they need to, and if he has three other teammates, they can add 2, etc). This might make the character worth the 60 points despite the lame stats; as long as he's on the board, he'll give any other Defender out there, like the very useful but woefully low-Defensed Sub-Mariner or Dr. Strange, a chance to have a higher Defense Value if they need it.

Still, the Experienced version should have had the TA, too. There's no excuse for leaving it off; now those of us who want to play the wing caped Nighthawk without all the gimmicks can't put him on a Defenders team... well, I can, because under my House Rules you can put any TA you want to on a figure as long as the TA is compatible with the figure's actual history, but street legal players won't have that option, and even under my House Rules the Experienced Version is still screwed up by that inexplicable Range Strike.

But, okay, let's look at the powers -- well, he's got one more click of Charge. His Movement is still lame, but the extra click of Charge is happy-making, both for the mainstream HeroClix players and under my House Rules (where Charge allows characters to ignore the effects of hindering terrain and other characters while they are moving forward to get adjacent to an opponent and launch a close combat attack; if the close combat attack hits, it also adds 1 to the damage dealt).

He's still got Super Strength, but, well, armored exoskeleton; yeah, that makes sense. He's still got Willpower, which doesn't, as noted above; and it really doesn't, since, you know, he's wearing an armored exoskeleton now and should at least have Toughness. He at least has a slightly higher Defense Value to start with, so figs with the ubiquitous 9 Attack Value will have to roll higher than average to hit him. He's got a 6 range strike, which is plausible. A couple of clicks of Leadership, which isn’t as useless as it used to be since the Inspiring Command Feat Card came out, and one click where he has a 9 attack, 2 Damage, and Close Combat Expert... but no Willpower there, because WizKids' would have a collective corporate aneurysm if they created a slot on a Sinister power dial that looked as if it might be too useful.

I don't know much about this version, but I'm thinking he's basically like an X-wing fighter with arms and legs; it probably would have been appropriate to give him a click or two of Running Shot and maybe some Ranged Combat Expert, too. But... whateva. I guess he'll play well enough under my House Rules to justify putting him out, if I feel like it.

So, let's see our score -- the Rookie sculpt isn't wearing the right costume. In previous sets this wouldn't cause me to mark off points, but, again, if they can do it for Jewel/Jessica Jones, they need to do it for the characters I like, too, or face my wrath. All the sculpts have Willpower, which is just plain wrong for Nighthawk, and none have Energy Shield/Deflection, which would be far more appropriate. The Experienced is missing a vital TA and has an inexplicable range strike. The Vet... will be useful if only to give the Defenders some Leadership, which they could use, I guess. And under my House Rules he'll be reasonably playable. But, still, all told -- this is a very basic character; it shouldn't have been at all difficult to do him up right, and WK, as seems to be the norm these days, failed miserably.

Now, let's move on to every fanboy's favorite Maid With A Blade -- the Valkyrie!

The Valkyrie is weird, even for as weird a title and concept as The Defenders undoubtedly was. In her first appearance, she was just a disguise for the Enchantress, who utilized the alter ego in order to mind control all the female Avengers into a group that would very nearly embody all the worst feminazi fears of Rush Limbaugh -- the Lady Liberators. Under the Enchantress/Valkyrie's influence, the various chick Avengers whacked the crap out of their male chauvinist pig teammates. Eventually, the Enchantress' ploy was revealed, the hottie Avengers were chagrined at being so easily duped, and everything went back to the way it was meant ot be, with the Scarlet Witch knitting spare costumes out of unstable molecules yarn for Giant-Man in the sewing room while the Wasp helped Jarvis bake out in the Avengers kitchen.

Apparently, this "Enchantress disguised as the Valkyrie" version is what WK means to represent on their Valkyrie's Rookie dial. Either that, or Seth was high as a kite on goofballs when he designed it. Either way, let's take a look.

Well, we got some Flurry, which is a nice power – two Close Combat attacks per turn. It’s a little odd for the Enchantress to have it, given that she disdains physical combat. Ditto the Super Strength – yeah, the Enchantress has it, since she’s an Asgardian, but as a practical matter, she never uses it… most likely, she’s afraid she’ll break a nail.

Two clicks in, this version of Valkyrie gets some Blade/Claws/Fangs, which is only appropriate, given that she was toting a damned big spear in her one and only comic book appearance. Note, however, that Seth is very careful not to let the dial show Flurry and B/C/F at the same time; as we’ve noted before, if a power combination would actually be effective, WizKids wants none of it… they either find some way to create a rule that outlaws it (as with Flurry and Incapacitate) or they just straight up won’t put the powers together on a dial, even if a blade wielding character having two strikes in one turn might make perfect sense.

The first part of the dial shows an undistinguished defense (16) with Toughness, a power I have no problems with for this character, who is, after all, a mythical warrior woman type. So that’s okay.

It’s the last half of the dial that gets really wonky though – three clicks of Phasing/Teleport, which I can only interpret as the Enchantress using spells to get the hell out of Dodge once things have gone pretty badly south for her, since the only thing she’s going to be able to hit with the bullshit attack number she has at that point is Dorothy’s little dog Toto, or maybe the Tin Man… he’s pretty slow.

Three clicks of Willpower… I don’t know what to make out of that, except that maybe it’s so the Enchantress can run like hell two turns in a row without taking a push. Probably the most infuriating aspect of this dial is the fact that the best damage is in the last two slots on it, and to make it even worse, she’s got Exploit Weakness, so if she could manage to land a smack on someone in close combat, all the damage would go through no matter how tough they were… but by now she’s down to a pitiful 6 attack, and she can’t even hit Toto any more, much less any actual superhuman character represented by any HeroClix figure in the history of the game.

A final telling feature is that 4 range strike. The Valkyrie has no ability to attack at range; like the Experienced Nighthawk, she’s strictly a close combat fighter. So this, pretty much also has to be a disguised Enchantress.

Given all that, I wouldn’t have minded if they’d reflected this Valkyrie’s true identity with a Masters of Evil Team Ability. But, you know… whatever. Let’s move on to the 60 point Experienced dial:

Well, this is better. Two clicks of Charge, although Seth pretty much slapped leg irons on the character with that second slot Movement of 6, which would only allow the character to move 3 squares if she wanted to attack as well. But an opening Movement of 8 with Charge, an Attack of 10 with Super Strength, a defense of 16 with Combat Reflexes, and a 3 Damage… hey, that’s a sweet initial slot. Get her adjacent to a fig somewhere within the same point range as her and she can do you some good.

This level gets the Defenders TA, which she certainly should, since she was a member of the team for pretty much her entire actual existence. In this form, she’s no longer a disguised Enchantress, but rather… um… well… okay, this gets really weird…

Early on in their run, the Defenders – who at that time were Dr. Strange, the Sub-Mariner, the Hulk, and the Silver Surfer (a team you really wouldn’t think would need much extra help) went up against the Enchantress, alongside sometime Avenger the Black Knight. They all got captured and tossed into a magical dungeon by some other dimensional sorcerer supreme whose name I can’t remember, and it all had to do with some other blonde vixen sorceress who had beguiled the Executioner away from the Enchantress, and I could go reread the comic because I have it out on the shelf, but I’m not going to right this second. Anyway, as it happened, the Defenders were dragging this crazy blonde chick named Barbara Norris along with them at the time, because Barbara had been forcibly joined with an evil otherdimensional entity, and when Dr. Strange managed to mystically rescue her, she went bananas.

So the Enchantress couldn’t use any of her spells on the dungeon itself. However, she could use her spells on the people she was locked up with, so she cast the same spell she’d used before to assume the Valkyrie guise, only this time on whacko Barbara. Barbara turned into the Valkyrie, complete with her own personality that was entirely separate from that of her crazy host body, and the Valkyrie knocked down the dungeon door so everyone could escape.

At the end of the story, the Enchantress, as is her wont, teleported out with the Executioner in tow, abandoning the Valkyrie (as well as the Black Knight, whom she had at first mind controlled into loving her, something else she likes to do a lot to any good looking supermen she encounters, and then turned into stone, when he threw a hissy at the idea of her leaving with the Executioner). So the Valkyrie, like a big puppy, followed Dr. Strange home, and wound up ‘joining’ the Defenders, which was a pretty good trick, since the Defenders was a non-team that didn’t really have any kind of official roster.

This is the character this Experienced version is meant to reflect, I guess, and, well, there don’t seem to be many truly bone headed blunders here. This Valkyrie is, straight up, a hand to hand combatant; she has a sword (for a long time, it’s the Black Knight’s mystic Black Blade, although later on, after the Defenders manage to turn him human again, she gets her own magical sword named Dragonfang), and superhuman levels of strength, and that’s pretty much it. I suppose we all would have liked it better if they’d done a sculpt of her like the WK did of the X-Men’s Moonstar, since Valkyrie had adopted the Black Knight’s winged horse Aragorn and frequently rode him into combat… but, fine, we’ll take what we can get.

There’s really nothing on this dial to object to. Charge, Super Strength, Flurry, Blade/Claws/Fangs, Combat Reflexes, Toughness, Battle Fury… all are appropriate to the Valkyrie at this point in her development. It’s aggravating, again, that WK is so relentlessly devoted to making sure no truly effective combinations of powers ever come up on a dial simultaneously… either Charge or Flurry combined with B/C/F would have been a lovely sight to see… but still and all, there’s not much to object to here.

Except for that absolutely inexplicable range of 6. One more time -- the Valkyrie is a hand to hand combatant. She has no ability to strike at an enemy from a distance. We have, I think, on one occasion, seen her throw her sword at an opponent… who promptly fell out of her reach with the sword still stuck in them. I’m thinking this isn’t a tactic she wants to use often.

Other than that, though, this version works pretty well.

Finally, we have the 71 point Veteran version.
One click of Charge with an 8 movement, B/C/F with a 10 Attack Value, a respectable 18 Defense with Toughness. The 3 Damage is almost annoying, as it means you’re really gambling if you decide to roll the d6 for Blade/Claws/Fangs damage instead of just taking the 3 clicks – 4, under my House Rules, if she Charges up and nails someone. Still, this is a solid initial slot; nothing really to argue about there.

Seth doesn’t like to give figures attacks of 10 or higher, and having given it, he doesn’t like to let it linger long, so it’s no surprise that Val’s down to a 9 on her second slot. The loss of Charge is a bit more of a gut punch; apparently Val gets one good shot and then she’s pretty much done. She still has B/C/F, and with the drop in Damage to 2, it’s much easier to decide to use the edge of her sword instead of the flat. A Defense of 17 with Toughness is… well… adequate, but still, we’ll be missing that 18 by and by (say, on the turn after Valkyrie makes her first close combat attack, when the guy she’s swinging at gets his turn at bat). Still, while I’d rather she kept her initial values for at least one more slot, this is doable.

From there she gets Flurry in combination with Super Strength, which is a nice combination under my House Rules (where a damage dealt from a Close Combat attack done with Super Strength cannot be reduced below 1) but a real zero under the standard WK guidelines, since all WK allows Super Strong characters to do is pick up objects, and objects disintegrate the first time you whack someone with them.

She gets a lot of Battle Fury towards the middle of her dial, some late dial Phasing/Teleport (probably meant to simulate her going back to Valhalla, which she sometimes does when things start going badly for her), and some Willpower (which I don’t understand at all, unless, again, it’s to let her run for two turns in a row when she’s about to be KOed).

She still gets the Defenders TA, which will be good under WK’s rules because, hey – here’s a Defender other than the Silver Surfer who has an 18 Defense which she can share with her teammates. She also still gets that completely bewildering range strike, though, and that I can’t make any sense out of. Does she fire those shell casings she’s wearing on her tits like bullets? I mean, what’s up with that?

All told, I have to give Valkyrie higher marks, overall, than Nighthawk. Neither are perfect, and what’s annoying about that is that it shouldn’t have been particularly hard to adapt either of these to clix form, as they are pretty straightforward characters. Still, it will be nice to have the figures, and either or both of them may well make their ways into some of my teams… if only for nostalgia’s sake.

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