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.
Creatives often talk about fighting against editorial control, but how bad did things really get?
I did an issue of the West Coast Avengers which got completely rewritten in New York without my knowledge, which was over the top. I took the idea I had had for the West Coast Avengers and her and sort of transferred it bodily over to the Fantastic Four. I was sort of able to do the story but it was under a lot of stress and duress and I was unhappy and I’m sure they weren’t happy. And so, you know, I left Marvel. She kind of was there at the end for me, but that was but not in a pleasant manner.
All the more reason to bring her back again.
So, then jump ahead 15 years and Tom Brevoort came to me and said “People have really screwed up since you left. What’s happened to Mantis has not been done very well. I’d like you to come back and write…” what turned out to be Avengers: Celestial Quest, “…which is where you can like really establish who she is and what she’s supposed to be.” So, OK. I did that.
Then pretty soon after that, I left Marvel for the third time and this time apparently forever. And so when I left Marvel and left comics and all that sort of thing. I started writing novels for Tor books. And again, I own the character called Lorelei, and I own the character called Coyote, and I own the character called Scorpio Rose. So I put all of them in the books. Just, you know, it’s Englehart’s fifth world or whatever in that regard.
So she has followed me along. Part of it is because when she was first introduced she sort of kept unfolding, kept unfolding, and that’s part of what I see in her; that there’s always some new aspect to what she becomes.
And now she’s becoming a movie star. With the premiere looming is there any anticipation or trepidation about seeing her on screen?
Yeah, I dunno. Sort of none of those things. [Laughs.] I mean, I created Star-Lord, right? And I’ve explained a zillion times: I created him and then I left the company. So everything that happened to him after, that was done by other people. So this guy shows up on screen who has nothing to do with my creation. Well, he’s kind of an asshole and the guy I created was a real asshole. But, you know basically a very distant relative of the guy that I created. And yet I created him. I get my name on screen, and all that good stuff. But, I try to make it clear: Beyond creating him I didn’t make him the popular success he is today. So, that was kind of different. I mean, it was like that was the first time that a character I created was going to be on screen but he was a totally different guy. So it’s like I had no expectations one way or the other.
But what about Mantis?
I expect that to be the same with Mantis. In the trailer she seems like sort of a different character, but until I see it, I don’t know and even then I’m not sitting there going “woo, you know everything is riding on how they treat Mantis.” Once I see it, then I’ll just evaluate it. But I can separate the fact that as close as they’ve gotten to the tone of Marvel comics and the Marvel movies and all that. Those are the movies and the comics are a different thing.
I mean, she is my firstborn, in a sense. She’s a character that I really learned a lot about the craft of writing comics and so forth while writing her and the rest of the Avengers and everything else. But, I mean, she is sort of deep in the DNA of what it is that I do and just again more out of just being young and creatively free. She sort of then followed me to DC. She followed me to Eclipse. She followed me to Tor. I’m not obsessed with her but she’s just kind of there for me to do that. That’s kind of part of who she is, someone I can do that kind of stuff with. I do hope they do a good job with her in this movie. I hope that she comes off well. But, I don’t know. That’s where every one of those stories always ends up: I don’t know.