Friday, September 14, 2012


 There are two Steve Engleharts, obviously. One is the well-regarded comic writer who had a definitive run on Captain America and was one of the early architects of the Avengers, introducing concepts that would endure for decades (and, inadvertently, The Crossing) He is considered one of the greats of the early-to-mid 1970s Marvel writers.

 The other Steve Englehart has written comics so bewilderingly insane the mind fairly shrinks from contemplating it. Yes, whether it's putting an entire interstellar empire in the hands of a shitty comic relief character named Clumsy Foulup; Creating a superteam with a gay hero named "queer" who gets AIDS after being bitten by a racist South African vampire named the Hemogoblin, and, it must never be forgotten, created the man/myth/legend Snowflame; this Steve Englehart is considered a bit mad, but on the plus side, whatever he's writing is going to be memorable, in a "will cause post-traumatic stress syndrome" sort of way.

 All the way from ten years ago, Avengers: Celestial Quest is a story wherein Englehart returns to Marvel to continue writing about Mantis, considered his signature character. I'm going to let Wikipedia do the heavy lifting with regards to the character, because, for reasons which will become clear shortly, I kind of hate Mantis.

 Avengers: Celestial Quest is, nominally, an attempt by Englehart to tie up a whole bunch of rogue loose continuity ends he left when he left Marvel around 1988, and naturally, doing eight issues in 2002 when none of the original material had been kept in print for decades was the perfect time to tie up all the loose ends.

 It is, in a sense, precisely why this kind of backward-looking stuff can be a bad idea..

 So. Let me try to summarise this book as best I can without weeping and rocking back and forth on the floor: Mantis seeks the Avengers help because she got split into multiple copies and Thanos is going around killing these facets of her because he loves Death and she's the embodiment of life or some bullshit like this (Jim Starlin retconned all this as being a clone of Thanos, and for all people give him shit about using that decide as a way of Control & Z'ing plot developments he doesn't like, but stories like this are adequate justification for why having a way to run them out is a good idea) Mantis' rebellions son, Quoi, wanders around and has sex with a lizard-woman while his mom has sex with the Vision as a way of helping him get over breaking up with the Scarlet Witch, who fights Thor for god only knows what reason. The Avengers are then called to help Quoi defeat the Rot, which is a black spot in the universe created when Thanos and Death mated which happened when Thanos died the first time.

 Let me say that again: The universe is, essentially, under threat from Thanos' pecker tracks.

 (And with that, "Thanos pecker tracks" joins "best dinosaur comics" and "power girls tits" joins my ever-more unfortunate top search results list)

 This book barely makes a lick of sense, even to some fool like me who's steeped in this kind of thing. I think this is supposed to be some mediation on notions of love and family and anima and animus, love and loss, death and taxes, whiskey and rye, but what it actually is is a confusing mess featuring characters acting insanely out of character, plot developments pivoting on characters we just meet and are expected to care about and/or like, however, they're not likable and we're not really given a window into their motivation.

 And then, there's a subplot involving Haywire. Haywire is one of the Squadron Supreme, and had been knocking around the Marvel Universe with his storyline responsibilities more or less fulfilled. The main thing driving his plot in this book is hoping to bring his girlfriend, Inertia, back to life (who was killed in a rather perfunctory and baffling Crisis riff ten years and change before) and acts wildly out of character. He then ends up getting killed, and the Avengers are like, "Well, damn. We were on an adventure the whole time, and even though he was with us, HE wasn't!" Because what this book needed is the Avengers acting even more like selfish dickheads to button this journey of self-discovery.

 You were on an adventure? Man, fuck you guys--nothing in this book was an adventure. You're confusing it with "ordeal."

 I don't know that I hate this book exactly. My relationship with it is far more complicated than this. I think, reading this book and re-reading it for the purposes of this review has given me a kind of survivor guilt. I mean, after reading it, you've experienced this horrible, wrenching, tragedy which has shaken your faith in life being fair and people being generally happy. Depression sets in, and as the trauma becomes permanent, you actually stop being able to feel emotions (not in the lurid sociopath sort of way, but more in the "life has no meaning" way) and the only thing running through your mind is a desperate breathless question, repeated over and over: "why am I alive?"

 In short, I cannot recommend this comic, unless you really want to read eight issues of muddled overreach steeped in ridiculous characterisation, puzzling dramatic choices, overwrought melodrama, and unlikeable characters, culminating in an utterly bewildering resolution that, if it worked very hard and went through several rewrites, might well rise to the level of "making no sense at all." So for all you masochistic neurotics, your book has arrived at last.


C. Elam said...

My top search, now and forever, is "Naomi Morinaga." Nothing will ever top Naomi, ever, even though I've written about less than a dozen times in almost four years.

You must be right about the two Engleharts. Though the one who wrote in the 1970s launched some baffling stuff at us (Snap Wilson anyone?), none of it compares to the last 25 or so years of comic books with this other Steve Englehart.

Ironically, I think some of the Mantis stories were hand-waved as a clone, too. It's like the Circle of Life, only not.

Kazekage said...

Mine is "best dinosaur comics." I hope Ryan North appreciates it.

I know, right? I know that he lays his disengagement at the feet of Marvel and Dc not being interested in "innovation" any more, but I know crazy when i read it, dammit.

Yeah, I think it was "The Crossing," come to think, though it was a Space Phantom rather than a clone.

Steven R. Stahl said...

You wrote:

I think this is supposed to be some mediation on notions of love and family and anima and animus, love and loss, death and taxes, whiskey and rye, but what it actually is is a confusing mess featuring characters acting insanely out of character. . .

Out of character compared to whose version? Bendis's? Byrne's? Johns'? Englehart circa 1975?

Your reaction demonstrates how difficult it is to come back and write characters which have been damaged by other, incompetent (B & B) writers.

He couldn't just go forward with them, since they're the sum of their histories, and writing a story that does nothing more than retcon particular events out of existence is crude, to put it politely.

Englehart tried to undo damage and avoid the damaged parts of their personalities (Wanda and Vizh, esp.) as best he could. Short of pretending that they hadn't been involved in anything since Englehart left WEST COAST AVENGERS, there was no alternative, and no one could have done as well. Busiek's version of the Vision was more forced and invalid than Englehart's.

I'd rate Englehart's Thanos as among the best in print, certainly the most developed.


Kazekage said...

Well, I'd say "out of character with any recognisable version that displayed identifiable traits recognized by even casual readers of the characters." I mean, you can make an argument that Englehart knows how Mantis is supposed to write, because, like Elektra, it's his signature character. But neither Haywire or Silverclaw are at all portrayed like they are in other comics, and if Englehart had no interest in portraying them correctly . . .why use them?

Given modern comics' mania for invalidating previous character histories, this does not speak to morn superhero comics being in particularly good place, does it?

I. . .suppose you could make the argument that Englehart's trying to roll that back (I really didn't like the Vision subplot in Avengers, either, really--mainly because it ate up so much space for not much payoff. Plus, it has Wonder Man, and that's never a great element) but I'm not really sure he closes the deal here. In the time since his Vision and Scarley Witch miniseries, for reasons more than the characters have crept too far away from what they were wen he wrote them, he's totally lost that voice. It really feels as though two different people wrote both stories.

I think we'll have to agree to disagree, there. CQ depends on a lot of tropes that Starlin already did (and Starlin even screwed that up--I think Death talks to Thanos for the first time at least three times that I can find) but Thanos is, uhm. . .kinda dumb in this story. I'll always prefer Starlin's, even if that "no, that was a clone" nonsense is a bit tedious. The notion of a character occasionally working on the side of the angels, yet simultaneously still a villain has made for some interesting stories.

Nathan Adler said...

You might like my better attempt to resolve Englehart's loose Celestial Messiah threads from the late 1980s here:)