It hasn’t been that long since Guardians of the Galaxy exploded from the farthest reaches of the Marvel Universe, making movie stars out of the characters from a once-obscure comic book series. In 2014, the first cosmic installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe earned strong reviews and more than $770 million at the box office. Almost overnight, Star-Lord, Drax the Destroyer, Gamora, Rocket Raccoon, and Groot became household names.
The film’s first sequel is now upon us, and this time there are some new characters along for the ride, including the scene-stealing Mantis (played by Pom Klementieff.) We decided to dig into the secrets of Mantis’ past by sitting down with writer Steve Englehart, who co-created the character with artist Don Heck in 1973. A longtime comics veteran whose work includes memorable runs on Captain America and Detective Comics, Englehart also co-created Star-Lord. Mantis is a slightly different creation for Englehart, however. Under different names, he wrote her into comics he penned for DC and Eclipse while keeping her recognizably the same character. Englehart talked to Uproxx about Mantis’ personal importance to him and just why he decided to smuggle her across so many corporate borders.
In spite of copyright law, and the fact that she was a Marvel character, you took a lot of liberties by surreptitiously crossing borders with Mantis. What makes Mantis so important to you?
Well, she is my first creation. Maybe not the absolute first but the first sort of major one and maybe the first for all I know. The first book I did was with the Beast and I’ve always had a soft spot for the Beast but I didn’t create him… With her, I mean the deal was I was writing The Avengers and I thought they needed to be shaken up and I had this idea of bringing in a sort of femme fatale character who would seduce all the male Avengers and cause dissension and so forth, and that was Mantis. So I set her up over the course of three issues just kind of three-panel appearances and then she came into the Avengers with all of that in mind.
But that was right at the point where I did the Avengers/Defenders clash… and so Mantis, who had just joined the group to be a femme fatale, ended up fighting alongside the Black Panther against Dr. Strange in a professional manner. We got to see that she was a good teammate, that she had skills, that she looked good doing them. All of a sudden, the idea that she was a femme fatale kind of became hard to do.
It sounds like you weren’t so much creating her as discovering her
It intrigued me because I had an idea and she just went off and did something else and I mean she had to because of the other idea that I had. But I got interested in the idea of a character who just sort of invented herself as she went along. And I was a young writer and I was I was sort of learning my craft and one thing that I learned right at that point is you can say “I’m going to do such and such a thing.” But then when you do it you find that there are details involved that you hadn’t looked at, once those details are real then it’s not exactly the same concept that you had. I sort of ran with that and tried to make her story as complex and as unfolding and as many layers as possible.
So there was no real master plan?
In that sense, it was an exercise for a young writer. But you know, I mean, I also believed in her as a character. I tried to believe in all the characters that I wrote as individuals. So she went from being a prostitute on the streets of Saigon to an Avenger, to a Celestial Madonna.
Eventually, she just kept unfolding and I kept expanding and running with it.
That whole era of comics has a kind of free form feel to it
That was, you know, a hallmark of my run on the Avengers team, as the Avengers does eventually get reinvented. So I wrapped up her story and put together a new group of Avengers and started off on the second leg of my Avengers run.
How do we get to her secretly becoming Willow over at DC, and Lorelai at Eclipse?
I left Marvel and went over to DC and I went to the San Diego comic book convention. Somebody came up to me and said, “Does this mean we’re never gonna see Mantis again?” And being a young comic book writer I said, “I’ll figure out a way that you can.”
So that led to Mantis showing up in the Justice League –under another name of course– because Mantis has a copyright to Marvel Comics. But I had a lot of fun with that Justice League story where this alien woman shows up and says “I can’t tell you where I come from, I can’t give you my history, but here I am.” And that was fun! So I said, “Well then I’ll put her in everything that I ever do.”[Laughs.]
Did you? I mean, she shows up in one of your novels, and in Scorpio Rose, right?
So, I did some stuff for Eclipse, Scorpio Rose over there. And so she shows up again under a different name. But this time, of course, since it’s a creator-owned project, that particular character Lorelai belongs to me, right? But then as life continued to unfold I realized I couldn’t put her in everything I ever did. I mean I recognize there’s a fine line between fun and indulgence. So she kind of didn’t appear for a long time.
But you weren’t done with her
When I came back to Marvel, I introduced her as a girlfriend for the Silver Surfer because that made sense. She was the Celestial Madonna. He was a space cowboy. So she was there. But I did a run with her and then Mantis left and Firestar came in to be his girlfriend… whatever. I was just sort of using her now where she was useful, where she was interesting. And then as I came to the end of my second Marvel run I introduced her back into the West Coast Avengers and right when I introduced her into the West Coast Avengers the Marvel Age came to an end.
The editors came to me and said, “You know we’re gonna start taking over the books and we’re gonna tell you what to do because we need to sell lunch boxes.” The whole era of complete creative freedom came to an end. As somebody who really had benefited from and had done a lot with the complete creative freedom, I didn’t take very kindly to this new approach.