I approached this volume without any prior knowledge of or interest in the Defenders, so this review won't discuss the monumental events contained within that may or may not have shaped Defenders history. Instead, as a complete novice to this "un-team," what really resonates about this volume is the intense characterization that Steve Englehart brings to the stories. I'm used to tedious early essential volumes that show the history of how it all began, but which are generally limited by dated style and narrative, as well as a less than fleshed out understanding of the character or team. When, for example, you want to read the best Fantastic Four stories ever printed, you don't go back to the very first issues. And yet, only a few stories into this first Defenders volume, the characterization begins to soar in ways that would make modern day writers kneel in awe.
The pre-Defenders stories in this volume fall short in most respects (they are included for historical/continuity reasons), and the first three stories in Marvel Feature are true sleepers. Yet, somehow, these stories left the fans demanding more Defenders stories, and that brings us to Defenders #1, where Steve Englehart takes over as writer, ably backed by artist Sal Buscema. This is the stretch that really makes vol. 1 an absolute delight to experience. I first realize what Englehart is bringing to these characters when I experience passages like "They pass an oddly disturbing painting, and enter a stairwell that seems, to Sub-Mariner, to rise higher than the scope of the house, and it occurs to Namor--as it has occurred to others--how little he truly knows about the mystic called...Dr. Strange." Here, a simple description of Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum, as perceived by Namor, casts a powerful aura about the character of Doctor Strange. He feels real and mysterious instead of colorful and two-dimensional.
This character-intensive treatment continues as we explore the intricate morality of Namor, seeing The Sub-Mariner go off in a blind rage to repay Silver Surfer for attacking him, yet stopping to prevent the Hulk from engaging an army of giant apes affiliated with The Surfer because the apes have not made the first move. Namor in particular, frequently becomes a vehicle through which Englehart is able to explore the differing moralities and codes of ethics belonging to each member of the team. Sure enough, each member has a clear sense of right and wrong, but those senses are not always compatible.
Englehart's mastery also includes the further development of The Silver Surfer, an advanced and generally benign cosmic entity trapped on Earth. Englehart puts the Surfer on a path to make sense of his situation and, more than that, allows the character to become a contradiction. In the past, Norrin Radd had always been the perfect, Christ-like entity who judged and yet forgave the human race for its fear and rashness. Yet, in this volume, though the Surfer still espouses these beliefs, we also see him make rash judgments and even confess to Doctor Strange that he fears him because he does not understand his powers. For someone who has followed The Surfer from the beginning (as I have), these are big steps in the development of his character. After all, it's far easier to identify with a hero who possesses flaws, and it's far easier to admire a hero who is aware of those flaws.
There is, perhaps, less to be done with a simple character like the Hulk, but Englehart still makes him shine, delivering outrageously fun lines like "Shut up, monkey! Hulk does not want to hear you!" while charging into combat with a giant man-ape. The Hulk also explores his own limited sense of ethics/morality as he muses on the value of friendship and his continual irritation at being ordered around and used by the Defenders.
Of course, there's also the fascinating character of Valkyrie, introduced partway through this volume, who must reconcile the fact that she is a singularly strong-willed Nordic goddess sharing a body with an insane woman. If that's not a compelling premise for a character, I'm not sure what is.
Rare is an Essential volume that is truly worth reading from beginning to end. Rarer yet is a volume of stories done so well that their quality easily rivals or surpasses what's being printed today. Essential Defenders vol. 1 features some of the best characterization you'll ever find in a Marvel Essential edition, plus it features the historic beginning of a time-honored comic book team. Whether you approach this volume looking for history, strong art, tight continuity, "Shut up, Monkey!" action, or abundant characterization, this volume will not disappoint.