Defenders: Beyond #5 Brings us A Cosmic Ending Worth the One Above All.

Our non-team of fearless DEFENDERS meet their maker in the HOUSE OF IDEAS and have a chat with THE ONE ABOVE ALL. But is EVERYTHING as it SEEMS? Defenders: Beyond #5 created by Al Ewing and Javier Rodríguez, letters by Joe Caramagna.

Mark Turetsky: Hey Karen, for our final Defenders Beyond review, I wanted us to meet God. I bought these mushrooms from this guy who guaranteed we would, but it turns out they’re just cans of cream of mushroom soup. So happy Thanksgiving, I guess?

Karen Charm: It’s too bad about the soup, because I don’t have any silverware on me. Let’s just wait for it to cool down a bit, room temperature should be good, and we can see about using our hands. And as for meeting God, she just lives next door (you can tell from the orange cobblestone walkway). We could go over and see if she wants any soup.

Finger-Painting With God

Karen: Ewing introduces the grand finale to his and Rodríguez’ Defenders saga with a series of texts. Solid, all-caps, black against stark white, we encounter a quote from Einstein about the Mystery, essentially. Extra points for having the word “marvel” in there, too. The next page has a statement of solidarity from American Socialist Eugene Debs – ”…while there is a soul in prison, I am not free…” – and an aphorism from one Loki. Hey, we know that person!

The structure of these two series has been pretty deliberate, a straight line moving to the foundations of Marvel cosmology. Even still, we’ve never quite known what we’d find each month as we followed the Defenders backtrack through the history of the universe. We’re finally at the end, and these quotes are telling us right at the gate that we should expect to keep wondering – we’re not necessarily here for “answers.”

Mark: And the use of an epigraph (that’s my fancy word for “quote at the beginning”) also ties it into Ewing’s other masterwork, The Immortal Hulk. Whereas Hulk’s epigrams were white on a black background, this is black on a white background. Where Hulk concerned itself primarily with The One Below All, this issue concerns itself with The One Above All. Spoilers for The Immortal Hulk: they’re both aspects of the same cosmic being, just seen from different angles.

Karen: I really like the colors on this page – the cool hues offset by the almost green ivory color of the title lettering, Loki’s bright, smiling teeth, and his crown-like headpiece. It’s also remarkable that while this is redrawn from a different comic (as you pointed out), it fits the established pattern for first pages. 
Mark: It’s pretty cool, right? Like, was the motif of the full page of someone’s face at the beginning of each issue drawn (haha) from this, or is it just a happy coincidence? Also, isn’t it fun to compare Mike Deodato’s and Javier Rodríguez’ styles?

A comparison of Loki's face drawn by Mike Deodato vs Javier Rodriguez.

Karen: I get the impression that this series enjoyed several happy coincidences. At the same time, it feels quite meticulous. We’ve gone over CMYK and RGB in earlier chapters, but here we’re arriving at the fundamental pigments of Red, Yellow, and Blue. Our deity here using only its fingers and paint pots seems to evoke cave painting, which is itself at the root of art history. We’ve gone as far back as we can know, just as the Defenders have reached the limits of human comprehension. 

Mark: We’ve reached Keter, The Crown! This is the highest point on the Tree Of Life. What goes on here is utterly beyond human comprehension. The One Above All speaks in the great big caption speech that Ewing loves so much (see Utlimates, the first issue of S.W.O.R.D., and Immortal Hulk for other examples).

When Adam Kadmon, sorry, Brashear, questions The One Above All, they respond with a direct quote from The Book of Job. They ask, “Where were you when I laid these foundations?!” It’s the question that God asks Job when Job demands to know why God has allowed him to suffer. One can read God’s response as being akin to, “excuse me, who are you again?” or else it could be a much more gentle response along the lines of a generous “I could explain it, but you wouldn’t understand, because you literally can’t conceive of my plan for the world.” The modern Jewish interpretation that I’ve learned is that we don’t know why God allows suffering. You could be the most pious, generous person, and bad stuff can still happen to you because we have no way of even conceiving what God has in store.


TOAA unleashes a stream of monsters. I can only identify Goom personally, and have had some trouble tracking the others down. But they all seem to be in the style of the monsters created by Stan and Jack prior to Fantastic Four #1 (itself a superhero book in the guise of a giant monster story). A few verses after God asks Job where he was when he laid the foundations of the Earth, God shows Job Behemoth and Leviathan, two giant biblical monsters that we really have no idea about. But the Gooms and the gang, they’re the Behemoth and Leviathan of the Marvel Universe. The Bible has a focus on weird monsters at its outset? Well guess what: so does Marvel comics. (A special shoutout to Robert Secundus for helping me formulate these thoughts).

Finally, Adam refers to TOAA as “the greatest power we could ever reach,” and he’s absolutely correct. They can reach and interact with TOAA because they exist in the same level of fiction. They couldn’t meet, say, Al Ewing. They could meet a fictional version of Jack Kirby that Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo call The One Above All, but they couldn’t actually meet the man himself. It’s literally impossible.

By that same standard, I could go to any number of cons and meet Al Ewing or Javier Rodriguez. I’ve met Stan Lee, and in that way I’m a more powerful being than Adam Brashear, simply by virtue of not being fictional. But also, I can’t meet The One Above All. Well, I could write a fic about The One Above All, I suppose. As The One Above All puts it, “where the world of action ends […] the world of creation begins.” Of course, there is action in our world, but the only way that feeds into the Marvel world is through the act of creation.


The Defenders meet God.

Karen: We see the One Above All above an expanded, interlocking Tree of Life, in sections of green, blue, yellow, and red (interesting that green is the only secondary color – I’m not sure of the significance but maybe it’s gesturing to Loki? I digress). I like how when drawn with outlines, Rodríguez uses a sketchy line, a style we saw briefly in the first issue of Beyond. Also notice how the panel borders tilt 45 degrees, giving us a nice diamond layout on the following page…

The Defenders each get to ask the One Above All their most pressing question. Taaia is still disturbed by the knowledge of her son’s inevitable future as Galactus, which will keep her from returning home. America Chavez is reassured that her sister is still out there, and Tigra will get to go home… eventually. Blue Marvel still has eyes planted firmly on the mission, and asks after what has brought them all so far. “The face of Eternity’s enemy.”

Mark: TOAA tells Tigra she’ll go home, “when the storyteller chooses.” And whaddaya know, “storyteller” is the credit that Ewing and Rodríguez share.

Karen: This section is all hints toward the future and I really hope that we’re meant to infer more Tigra stories from Ewing. For now, the Defenders get a stunning double page spread of, well… it’s a crown.

Mark: Let’s have a look at the individual aspects of The Crown, shall we? There’s a landscape littered with burgers and fries, with a logo that’s an inverted triple golden arches (which, if you squint, might just look like the design of Loki’s crown, but more likely the design is that way to skirt a lawsuit). McDonald’s is more or less synonymous with corporate ubiquity. It’s the same burgers and fries everywhere on Earth. It’s the golden calf of capitalism. The second image is a bombed out cityscape. Is it a nuclear apocalypse, or plain ol’ conventional weapons? Either do the trick, really. The third image is a fiery sky over an acid sea. It’s the endgame of climate change. The fourth image is a landscape of bodies, with the crown now made of maggots: mass disease and death. Finally, the one real sci-fi element of it is a looming spaceship. I mean, I suppose we might technically be under threat of a more advanced alien civilization, but in reality it seems more far-fetched than the other aspects of the crown, as far as apocalypses go, in that we’re not directly dealing with it as I write this.  

Karen: Going back to the first issue, we see that the Ten of Crowns was Tigra’s card… what could it mean?!

Mark: I think the thing threatening Eternity is The Mouse. Or maybe the success of Eternity’s cousin, The MCU putting more attention and pressure on Eternity. 

Karen: Whatever it is, Loki is hip to the narrative promises of a good riddle and offers a clue. “Where there are four – look for the fifth business.” Is the crown-shaped space vessel the one thing not like the others? It’s hard to say, but Ewing has done some heavy work with the galaxy so perhaps. A mind-consuming puzzle like this is the perfect parting gift, because the recipient is so busy figuring it out they might not notice you slipping out the door. Exit Loki, stage left.

Mark: Loki’s mention of their being a “fifth business” might well be a reference to Robertson Davies’ seminal Canadian novel “The Fifth Business,” where a fifth business is defined as being neither “Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the dénouement.” Score one for grade 11 English class in Canada!

The End is the Beginning is the End

Loki wields the Infinity Mask.

Karen: God, the stuff with Loki is so good. In a certain light, you can read Loki’s desire to step outside of everything as suicidal intention. The scene is not as heavy as that might imply, but that’s one way of reading the text we get and makes the interaction with Cloud especially moving. This comic is so meta, though, that I feel like another reading speaks to me much louder. This Loki is one of the most prominent queer, specifically trans (we see the color of your makeup), characters at Marvel. Marvel, a fairly conservative company that’s timid about showing the barest hint of representation or support in the face of rising cultural/political incitement of antipathy and violence against trans communities. It often seems like the more bigoted demographic of Marvel’s paying customers is the one it kowtows to. This Loki (and Ewing by implication but also, I don’t mean to put any words into his mouth here) is self-aware enough to look at that landscape and to say “find someone else to kick around.” 

Except Cloud also knows what Loki’s going through, on a meta level, and offers another perspective. If the Loki who is a gender-fluid icon leaves Marvel Comics, what does that do but leave us with a less queer Marvel. Blue Marvel links it back to the Debs quote at the beginning, referencing Ksitigarbha who rejected enlightenment “until all hells were emptied.” Having an MCU counterpart gives Loki a unique position of power and responsibility to be as queer as humanly possible. 

Loki’s response is perhaps the most damning statement about Marvel’s handling of queer subtext, that it “wants me in an old shape… it wants to make me what I used to be…” Because unless it’s Canon, there’s enough deniability to default every character back to compulsory heterosexuality. We’ve seen it time and time again (where are my X-Men fans at). Cloud’s rebuttal is just as powerful – “do you think it canDo you think it didn’t try?”

I could belabor the point, but it’s all right there. Al Ewing and Javier Rodríguez are doing something incredibly special here. No matter what editorial or corporate regime comes along later, this is who Loki is.

Ultimately, that’s kind of what this comic ends up being about. Marvel is an endless, shared universe story, so we’re not going to get closure per se. Instead, we get wonder, delight, magic, excitement, intrigue.

Mark: I’ve been reading D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths with my kid, and the Loki of Norse mythology is extremely queer. At a certain point, Loki transforms into a mare and gives birth to Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse that Odin rides, after mating with the stallion Svaðilfari. So, while Loki’s being acknowledged as genderfluid is a relatively recent phenomenon in Marvel comics, it’s utterly foundational to who they are in the honest-to-goodness source texts that Jack Kirby was pulling from.

And while Loki’s speech about change rings true in your queer reading, it also reminded me of Kieron Gillen’s explanation (confession?) for why he killed off Kid Loki. It was because it’s a comic book in a shared universe and if he didn’t do it, the next writer would. Little did he know that his story would be the foundational text of the Loki of the 2010s. Even when Gillen tried to kill Loki off and reset the character, they remained permanently changed, and always changing.

Karen: I am so overjoyed that Taaia is sticking around in the 8th iteration of 616. I demand more stories from our cosmic “Gal Friday.” The problem is whether or not Ewing will continue to tell that story. There’s such an epic story left to be shared, enough to fill possibly another ten issues, and no plans as of yet announced for it to see publication. You always want to hope for the best, but Marvel lately seems happier to let things drop completely rather than keep comics going. I just don’t know, although Ewing’s most recent newsletter suggests that my optimism just may be rewarded. Where’s your head at, Mark?

Mark: Well, there’s certainly a movie coming in 2026 called Secret Wars, and if there’s one thing Marvel Comics loves doing, it’s tying in with its more successful cinematic counterpart. And if there’s one thing a Secret War needs, it’s a Beyonder. 

Also, let me just say that through our tenure on Eternals and here in Defenders Beyond, it has been an absolute pleasure working with you. I couldn’t ask for a better writing partner, and I hope we get to work on something else someday.

Karen: Right back at you! I would be hard-pressed to think of a better opposite number to tackle this amazing book with. Thank you for bringing all your wisdom and humor. Anytime you want another not-team-up, I’ll be ready.

Marvelous Musings

  • “I am as I am. I will be what I will be.” Both are valid translations of the original Hebrew אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה‎‎
  • The “Old Loki” we see holding the mirror is the embodiment we really last saw in Journey Into Mystery #645. Both old in age and in conception of the character. He’s the force that rejects change while also requiring it.
  • Karen! They brought back your anglerfish from issue #1!
  • Rodríguez draws a great Kirby monster.
  • Shout out to friend and former Eternals co-columnist Zoe Tunnell for sharing some fantastic thoughts about Loki in this issue.
  • Beyonder just tearing through and destroying comics is a fun meta joke. He sucks!

Karen Charm is a cartoonist and mutant separatist, though they’ve been known to appreciate an Eternal or two.