The latest iteration of Marvel’s Defenders is writer Al Ewing’s clearest, most comprehensive love letter yet to classic Kirby comics as well as a masterfully composed culmination and recasting of cosmic Ewing ideas going back to what is still my favorite (non-X-related) Ewing run, Ultimates and Ultimates 2 (specifically drawing most from issues #6 and 100 of the latter title, though we also get a dash of his New Avengers #1-6 with Moridun, Dark Wizard of the Fifth Cosmos). Most immediately, however, the story here spins out of the Al Ewing-written portions of the massively oversized 2019 one-shots Marvel Comics #1000 and 1001, and the reader really should read or reread just those fragments to fully understand what the Masked Raider and Eternity Mask are all about*. (Fortunately, these comics are on Marvel Unlimited!)
Of course, artist extraordinaire Javier Rodriguez has always been riding that Kirby wave, most recently in 2019’s History of the Marvel Universe with Mark Waid and inker Álvaro López, his primary collaborator, when he’s not inking himself as here. He also collaborated once before with Ewing, in 2017’s Royals #8-12, which was definitely Kirby cosmic all the way. As often in the past, he’s also the colorist of Defenders, and color theory plays a surprisingly major role in this pretty darn complex allegory for the evolution of superhero comics.
Happily, yet sadly, the five-issue Defenders is for all its symbolic complexity a very quick read. It’s even more fleeting on the reread, which is wild given the amount of cosmic time covered, but I think this really allows for readers to revel in the visuals. Appropriately, Rodriguez is given equal storytelling credits here—it’s as if Ewing wanted to be sure to get in his mapping of Marvel’s iterative cosmology and reinterpretation of the Defenders brand, in the guise of six reluctant heroes finding different correspondences to the Tarot^ (that reluctance has always been key to this quirky little franchise), and then just let his collaborator run free within those vast parameters.
In fact, I love this series most for the fact that it sees Rodriguez coming definitively into his own following equally cosmic work in his pop-’60s signature style in 2017’s Doctors Strange and the Sorcerers Supreme and the aforementioned History of the Marvel Universe. (Appropriately enough, next up for him is Reckoning War tie-in Trial of the Watcher with Dan Slott, allowing him to draw Galactus again after rendering him in Defenders as wee baby Galan.)
So, what’s this miniseries all about, anyway? I’ll let two “footnotes” lead into that—so we don’t get overwhelmed right away!
*If you want to be super thorough, maybe you’ll want to read just the first two pages of another one-shot from late 2019, Incoming. But I have to say, all this Masked Raider stuff is, to me, the least interesting thing about Defenders—which is a wild thing to say given my love of this comic and the fact that the Raider’s role here structures the entire plot, from A to Z, a deliberate pun we’ll get back to in a moment (with Dr. Zota).
^It’s critical to note that there’s no reason for the reader to go researching the Tarot to appreciate this story. Everything you need to know in this regard Ewing gives you. Maybe the author himself did some readings to inspire certain elements of this series, or perhaps he knew what correspondences he wanted to foreground ahead of time (given that it’s unlikely he picked his Defenders roster in the way that Dr. Strange does!), but whatever’s relevant really is on the page here. The only thing that’s not directly stated is that each Defender, including the Masked Raider, has by the end metaphorically rectified whatever initially reversed card they corresponded with (and they all started out reversed cards, which would be a dire diagnosis for anyone who takes these matters seriously, but it makes for a great dramatic setup—also very efficient in this short format). At the end of this review, I’ll touch on what these reversals entail without going into the specifics (call them vague spoilers). Of course, the Raider’s reversal of his fate, his undoing of himself, is most complex.
I. Relevant Backstory
A. The Masked Raider, Dr. Carlo Zota (alphabetically backward), and the Enclave
The main or recognizable Defenders here (Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer, Cloud, even Betty Ross the Harpy, who in alt-universe Red She-Hulk form starred in 2012’s Defenders vol4* by Matt Fraction) are all reactive. The drivers of this timey-wimey plot are Dr. Carlo Zota of the mad-scientist Enclave, the Eternity Mask, and the Masked Raider, which are overlapping but not exactly identical. (Galactus’ boisterous baby momma meanwhile is along for the ride, joyously—the most vital Kirby adventuress that Kirby never created. Okay, okay, she’s not quite Big Barda but she is freer, more unbound! More exuberant! Packing more adventures waiting to unfold! Sorry, but Taaia’s exuberance is just that infectious.)
*This is the sixth volume of Defenders; the fifth is totally unrelated, and the others are worth checking out for relevant takes on this cult little franchise, but again, everything you need is on the page.
Although, yes, the story of the Eternity Mask’s role in Marvel history is important here, fortunately, it can all be found in Marvel Comics #1000. But even there, it helps to have read a few particular classics from the Silver and Bronze Ages. However, the one-shot’s few but initiatory deep cuts into the Golden Age definitely don’t make the Golden Age Marvel Comics #1 a better read in the modern era, and there’s absolutely no need here to read that 1939 anthology issue that’s most famous for debuting both the android Human Torch and Prince Namor of Atlantis and thus inaugurating Marvel’s mainline continuity. As retcon, Ewing has recast the opening two pages of “The Human Torch” so that the three unnamed scientists representing the so-called Scientists’ Guild in their visit to Professor Horton to view his android creation are actually the future Enclave, Doctors Carlo Zota, Jerome Hamilton, and Maris Morlack, all of whom debuted in 1967 classic Fantastic Four #66-67* by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. For all that story’s limitations, I do highly recommend it for anyone who wants to see the laboratory/cocoon birth of the cosmic player we now know as Adam Warlock; in that story, however, he was known only as Him, and given the context (which we’ll come back to below), he could well be considered Marvel history’s first posthuman. But Ewing’s retelling in 2019’s Marvel Comics reveals that the machinations of their guild go back to at least Arthurian times, that is, 6th-century England (or Wales, depending on your Arthuriana knowledge). There, the Eternity Mask is introduced as enabling its wearer to match the skill and might of any and all opponents, which we see in the most outsized fashion later in Defenders.
*The other most relevant Enclave story for all serious Marvel heads is 1977’s Hulk Annual #6 (debut of their next creation, Paragon, aka Her, Kismet, Ayesha). Fantastic Four #240 and Avengers Annual #12 (1982-1983) show their involvement with Inhuman shenanigans while the latter issue explicitly identifies the Enclave as the creators of Him/Warlock. Their subsequent 1985 appearance in Avengers #262-263 is purely a silly red herring in the lead-up to the revelation that Jean Grey has been in a cocoon in the ocean since before the Phoenix Force saved her life way back in X-Men #101 and became her perfect impostor, fooling absolutely everyone until this moment. (Their aquatic investigations simply motivate the Avengers to investigate and thus discover the sleeping Jean Grey’s Warlock-like incubator.)
Torn from the flesh of ultimate abstract entity Eternity by these early “scientists” of the arcane, the Mask is obviously a threat to ancient hierarchies if worn by a commoner, as briefly seen in Marvel Comics #1000. Fighting for the monarchy, however, Sir Percy the Black Knight defeats the rebellion’s masked figurehead, but the Guild of Strange Science goes back into hiding with their weaponized scrap of Eternity (who would clearly not appreciate having his body used as such though he doesn’t show up until late in Defenders).
Now the details of the history of the Mask thereafter, until it pops up again in Golden Age comics, are unclear. There are suggestions, recapped in Defenders #1, that it was crucial to the American Revolution, which is clever mythologizing on Ewing’s part, lending a deeper history to the Marvel Universe that can now match that of DC and its superheroes stretching back to the 18th century; however, in light of so much that we currently understand about the real-world history of the United States, this kind of mythology that merely adds to America’s self-aggrandizing myths of rugged “antiestablishment” exceptionalism is toxic*.
*We’ll touch on this in the final section, assessing the few but considerable weaknesses of this miniseries.
Regardless, it next appears in the hands of the original Masked Raider, who until 2019 was totally irrelevant and completely forgotten since the start of the Silver Age (Marvel’s definitive turn to superheroes, completely forgoing its previously popular genres—western, romance, and monster horror/sf). So Ewing has imbued one utterly forgettable story from 1939’s Marvel Comics #1 with sudden relevance, a sense of ongoing continuity. The Raider’s subsequent adventures were chronicled in Marvel Mystery Comics #2-12, and that was it. Obviously, this guy didn’t seem like a mad scientist, and he was clearly a solo hero (read: rugged individualist protecting vulnerable (no doubt strictly white) folk of the Wild West). These stories are set in the late 19th century, and the Guild won’t get its “property” back until the early 1940s.
[Marvel Comics #1, fourth story, by Al Anders]
Post-Raider, the Mask’s legacy brings in a much more popular pre-Silver Age character, the Black Rider (debuting All Winners #2, 1948, before getting his own solo and appearing in other Western titles)—though he last appeared in 1959’s Kid Colt Outlaw #86.
The rest of it isn’t relevant here except to note that once the Guild has their hands on the Mask again, we see—through a scrawny young Steve Rogers’ eyes—one explicit but shadowy indication that they then start subjecting random (white) men (captives of some kind) to not just donning the Mask but being manipulated through torture into becoming their proto-superhuman/superhero guinea pigs. In other words, they’re definitely heartless mad scientists in pursuit of dehumanizing goals, self-aggrandizing, and ruthlessly futurist-like not wholly inaccurate caricatures of present-day Silicon Valley billionaires. The further details of this particular period don’t currently signify anything else (not clearly, anyway).
Seemingly buried alive in Fantastic Four #67, Enclave member Jerome Hamilton turns up alive and, having found the Eternity Mask in the rubble of the Enclave’s old base, has long since recast himself as the obscure 1980s Avengers-related vigilante Blind Justice, ultimately seeking vengeance against his erstwhile partners—all this per Ewing’s 2019 retcon. He shows up in a flashback page later in Defenders playing a vital role, however muted, in freely handing off the Mask before the Defenders’ quarry, Carlo Zota, discovers and kills his former colleague. The new wearer of the Mask is unknown to everyone until the final issue.
Of course, Zota himself doesn’t become the Defenders’ quarry until this new Masked Raider shows up looking for Strange’s help in the opening pages of issue #1. This moment dovetails with Marvel Comics #1001 this time, wherein the subject of Zota’s latest experiment, Adam-IV, has rebelled against his creator and escaped with his own universe-conquering ambitions in mind—as further chronicled in, oddly enough, the current ongoing Iron Man by Christopher Cantwell and Cafu (which I highly recommend!). However, that particular detail isn’t relevant to Defenders.
All that matters is that Zota is freaked out by his potentially world-ending mistake (which will, again, end up as Iron Man’s problem), and he casts a spell (learned from an amusing source as seen in Marvel Premiere #13-14, 1973, one of Dr. Strange’s more cosmic misadventures) to hop back in time to undo whatever is supposed to have been his initial errors with this project. Instead, this god-tier casting goes predictably awry but in a wholly unpredictable way. The Masked Raider seems just moments too late to stop him; however, take note of the moment he shoots the book of magic—the strange visuals here are key to understanding revelations in the final issue.
So that’s a lot of maybe unexpected background for this miniseries, but again, its plot machinery really isn’t at all the reason to read and enjoy it.
[Marvel Premiere #14 by Steve Englehart, Frank Brunner, Dick Giordano, Glynis Wein, John Costanza]
B. Cloud and Harpy
More briefly now, let’s touch on the other two lesser-known figures here. Sure, we all know Hulk’s wife Betty Ross, who about a decade ago was the Red She-Hulk and also had an alt-universe counterpart featuring in Fraction’s Defenders vol4—in lieu of her classic Defender husband—but it’s worth noting here how refreshing it is to have here in a mainline (Earth-616) Defenders in her current Harpy form, which debuted in Ewing’s Immortal Hulk #16, upon her gamma-guaranteed resurrection. In Red She-Hulk’s guise she was too much a rehash of the original Shulkie Jen Walters. As Harpy, she is, well, a harpy of antiquity, manifesting so much repressed but entirely justified anger and resentment, especially toward her husband. She was last seen going off on her own in issue #48, shortly before this volume of Defenders. Until then, she had been critical in fighting shadow elements of the US military and generally being antifascist.
It makes sense, then, that her Tarot card here would be the Priestess reversed; she is still more intimate with death currently rather than reveling in her own renewed but mostly untapped vitality and strength. But it’s strongly suggested by the end that she’s ready to transition to a happier or at least a status quo rebooted for the better.
Cloud, too, undergoes a fascinating evolution, but most readers might not get its full effect because this is after all a super obscure character. Debuting in 1983’s Defenders #123 by ever-adorable J.M. DeMatteis, this trippy triad being pretty much disappeared into the ether after quirkier-than-thou writer Peter Gillis closed out the series just two years later. Suffice to say that they were once three separate beings: first off, there was the “sentient nebula” whose fear of a star-thieving threat saw it haring off to Earth for assistance; then there was the teen couple, Carol and Danny, whose car crashed upon Cloud’s distracting descent (all this is revealed in Gillis’ late New Defenders #149). Somehow, Cloud’s first contact with these two humans so deeply imprinted on Cloud that the latter initially became an exact replica of the girl and later began shifting between her and the boy, often befuddling others (like the sadly closeted Iceman), while the youths themselves lay comatose for months in a hospital following the accident; they eventually get better. Initially, for the majority of their appearances in fact, Cloud is taken to be a confusingly dual gendered person—unfortunately but all too predictably distrusted by their teammates because of this. However, everything is resolved hunky-dory by series’ end, with Cloud’s return to their home region in space, definitively, it seems, in nebula form. Really, though, after a mind-expanding trip with Moondragon on the nature of love, it was ultimately unlikely they’d be satisfied just being an ordinary super-slow-evolving star nursery in the void.
Ewing’s Defenders has provided them the opportunity to fully harmonize their triplicate nature; however, I’d hesitate to say that in Cloud we’re getting anything like adequate trans representation. This isn’t criticism so much as it is an acknowledgment that while Cloud’s previous status was an albeit awkward attempt at maybe sort of positively acknowledging non-normative sexuality and gender identity (for which more credit should go to DeMatteis here than Gillis whose origin story for the character was probably overcomplicated, especially compared to what their creator might’ve originally had in mind), the overall intent just remained too obscure to make full sense of. So Ewing should certainly be applauded for bringing them back and harmonizing their persona into a cosmically chill hermaphrodite, but again, it’s not clear how much of this transgender people will find relatable. For example, would Ewing’s solution for them, a melding of masculine/feminine as a serene, cosmically framed harmonization speak to a trans individual who has only ever felt alienated by the body they were born into? I’m certainly not even close to an expert here, but I also don’t know if Ewing has fully thought through the issues at hand.
Where Cloud goes now, who can say, but I’d love to see a transgender creator take on the character—really, any and all characters!
I also want Ewing’s sequel here; let’s provisionally call it Defenders into Mystery…
II. Comic Cosmogony
Back to my limited area of expertise now, I find myself pressed for space and time here, but I’d like to think I’ve at least convinced Marvel continuity heads who haven’t yet checked out Defenders. Everyone else will understandably have to weigh how much they may initially or even entirely feel like this comic just wasn’t meant for them, making them feel too much the “novice,” making them feel like they’re left out of this super-geeky rather navel-gazing convo, versus the thoroughly lovely and perception-expanding prospect of simply reveling in some of the most beautiful artwork you’re going to find in a modern-day funny-book. For those of you who love the stylings and stories of Marvel Cosmic past and present, this is a no-brainer. Ewing’s work here is the capstone of this particular aspect of his impressive career as the successor to Hickman’s early-to-mid 2010s cosmology.
So for those of you who’ve read Defenders but were left scratching your heads or those who want more context or even light conceptual spoilering before taking the dive, I’ll leave off with what are the clearest major correspondences at play throughout these five issues.
While the mainline Marvel Universe is currently set in the eighth iteration of the cosmos/multiverse (almost an exact replica of the Seventh Cosmos, destroyed by Hickman at the start of 2015’s Secret Wars), Ewing has previously (mostly) mapped out the multiverse’s prior iterations (most especially in Ultimates 2 #6). Now, the First Firmament was not multiversal but rather a lonely singular entity that created Celestials*, which along with its brittle lone(li)ness led to its own shattering into the Second Cosmos, the first multiverse and the birthplace of the so-called Omega Force—something that we’ve yet to see (unless it’s related, obscurely as yet, to the Celestial-created Omegas introduced by Fraction in his Defenders vol4). However, it seems that it wasn’t until the first multiversal death and rebirth that representation as such becomes feasible.
[from Ultimates 2 #100; art by Filipe Andrade, Matt Yackey, Joe Sabino; the far-left figure is First Firmament]
*Ewing and Fraction’s primordial cosmology both, of course, are indebted not just to Jack Kirby but that wonderful 2000 cult classic miniseries that’s probably due for a retrospective piece soon: Marvel Boy by Grant Morrison and J.G. Jones.
And so we’ll descend from the Sixth to the Third Cosmos:
The Sixth is the birthplace of science, here represented by Taaia, baby Galan’s mother, and perhaps Galan himself—whose eventual transformation into Galactus in the crossing from the Sixth’s death to the Seventh’s birth I’d love to see retold someday, in its own miniseries. This cosmos also corresponds with the comics of the 1960s, specifically the Kirby Revolution, from the mind and pen that birthed all the super-science gods and monsters that still dominate Marvel today.
The Fifth is the birthplace of magic, and apparently it was born in darkness and secrecy, the creepy dark that fits well with the cult horror vibes of Marvel’s comics of the 1950s, where the monsters came of sorcery and nightmare more than super-science gone wrong. (Mor-i-dun is from Ewing’s New Avengers #1-6, but what we see here in Defenders is a past version of him—though Omnimax in the Sixth is his final form.)
The Fourth is the birthplace of the superhuman archetypes of the Marvel Universe, and it corresponds with the Golden Age of the 1940s, the prototype crucible of future superhero comics, especially with the young Kirby’s creation of Captain America. Rodriguez also creates a sophisticated color-theory allegory here (think additive versus subtractive primaries), analogizing the Fourth’s shift from rigid archetypal conflict recycling endlessly to harmonization and amalgamation through the introduction of love/camaraderie/fellowship—opposing the Dr. Doom archetype whose mask the time-traveling Dr. Zota (reversed alphabet man) has taken for his own to escape, to evade, openness and solidarity; he’s like the incel fanboy who’s all in on zero-sum thinking and doubles down among the “Never-Opens” on the slowly but inevitably losing side of the culture wars.
Other archetypal correspondences include the One-Is-Four as archetype for the composite entity of the Hulk, starkly contrasted with the Four-Are-One presaging Marvel’s pioneering imaginauts, the First Family. Cloud themself will become another archetype, adding something new and lovely to the future of the Marvel Universe going forward (first going through the Fifth and so on; promising to meet their fellow Defenders again once they reach “the Mystery,” this corresponds mysteriously with the initial mention of the Pilgrim, the avatar of the Fourth Cosmos, in Ultimates 2 #100, that it/they “journey into mystery.”)
The Third isn’t just the birthplace of commercial comics as such but also the Art Deco aesthetic that inaugurates so much from the 1930s onwards; though this, the culmination of Western modernity’s globalizing/imperial aesthetic, originated in pre-WWI Europe, it becomes truly monumental and mythologizing once imported to New York City, particularly as it applies the grandness of antiquity to modernity, its industrial geometries and metallurgies set to max speed, aimed at futurity. For the pulps, transitioning from the long 19th century to the bustlingly defiant 20th in urban America, this decade wasn’t just one of raw survival in the face of the Great Depression, it was the 20th-century West’s heart of darkness, the crucible of fascism, communism, America’s reforged social contract (the New Deal) in the face of misery that’s still unthinkable in today’s United States—and the unremitting ruthlessness of elite capitalism preparing to be supercharged by the mega-war-profiteering of World War II. It was from many angles truly a Manichean epoch.
Here we see the first Sentry fighting against the Void; St. George versus the Dragon; the Surfer versus Knull; Thor versus Gorr the God Butcher; various heroes versus the Devourer; Sise-neg versus Shuma-Gorath*; and so on, in an infinity of avatars—a cyclic battle between life and its own self-defeat, the will to live forever staring into the abyss and willing nothingness itself. But what breaks the hero’s contretemps with an endless catastrophe of destructiveness that’s so delicately balanced that the merest presence of other living beings seems to enervate the primal hero? Well, apparently, our vibrant intruders’ self-sacrifice is what in the final revelatory acts brings change and thus the imminent demise of this primordial Manichean reality, in favor of the dynamic joy of multitudes of colorful archetypes in an equally interminable shifting and cycling of antagonism and allyship. Somehow, that eventual cycle will be broken by the beautiful disaster of love, leading, apparently, to some kind of dark night of the cosmos, before rebirth in an expansive adventure into super-science. And all of it comes together in our (7th/8th) universes?
Words fail. The narrative cosmology is enticingly incomplete—possibly forever? Further adventures await. Taaia looks forward to further romps with Strange, clearly the sub in this dynamic, which is hilarious and excellent; perhaps he’ll even turn out to be the donor that makes Galan possible? Does any of this really need to be answered, especially just to enjoy the story? Nope!
*The aforementioned Silver Age classic Marvel Premiere #14.
III. Cosmic Crucible for Whom Now?
At the last, though, I’ll leave all readers with this one most serious problem: This is a damn white comic, despite all the wonderful colors; we do not see a natural diversity reflective of our own world. And it’s indeed strange and discomfiting that it is a group of all-white (or white-presenting) characters that saves all existence in a way that tops all previous Marvel adventures, going back to the earliest point any character has ever gone before—where we see a Eurocentric Art Deco primordial, the first being, battling against the black of nonexistence. And then there’s the notion that the American Revolution can simply be presented as defiance against kingship and ancient smothering hierarchies. In its buildup and execution, it was, in reality, much more about slaveowners keeping a monopoly on what they deemed theirs, the birth of the Old South, while the rugged individualist idealism of the New England farmer was born in a venue that neither kings nor slavers cared a whit for. And instantiating the first Mask-wearer in America in the Wild West? That extension and final frontier of white genocide against native peoples? Really, Al, what were you thinking? Hey, he was just writing a comic. As if anyone can get away with that kind of bad faith nowadays.
All this is why Defenders is a very beautiful but very complicated thing to really love.
However, there is always hope for a better tomorrow.