Avengers: Celestial Quest
(2001-2002 - eight issues, Marvel Comics)
Written by Steve Englehart. Pencils: Jorge Santamaria (and Joe Staton). Inks by Scott Hanna.
Back in the early 1970s, Steve Englehart wrote an Avengers story arc in which a minor Avenger, The Mantis, was revealed to have a cosmic destiny as the Celestial Madonna (collected in a TPB). Over the years, as Englehart came and went in comics, he had dredged up Mantis a time or two in various titles he was working on. Finally, he got the go ahead to do this semi-sequel...presented in its own self-contained mini-series.
Given that this builds on a lot of backstory, the first issue doesn't bode well, as it is enormously confusing as Thanos, Marvel's biggest baddest villain, attacks various incarnations of Mantis and you're kind of left going -- huh? But then you realize: you haven't missed a crucial prior story -- you're supposed to go "huh?" And, indeed, Englehart generally fills in what backstory is needed as we go in subsequent issues, so even those not intimately familiar with Mantis and her history won't find themselves too befuddled.
Thanos, who fancies himself the god of death, wants to kill Mantis' son -- the so-called Celestial Messiah who represents the forces of life. Thanos sets off into space to find the son, Quoi, on another world, and Mantis recruits some Avengers -- Scarlet Witch, Vision, Thor, and lesser known Silverclaw, as well as another character, Haywire -- to try and stop him.
And the result is pretty good.
Reading this I was put in mind of Infinity Gauntlet -- simply, I suppose, because both involved Thanos. It's an unfair comparison, of course, since Infinity Gauntlet was weighed down by being one of those big company team-ups involving dozens of heroes, whereas Englehart can keep his focus on a more manageable handful -- but Celestial Quest is by far superior.. The story genuinely unfolds and develops, with some twists and turns and surprise revelations.
As the story progresses, Englehart weaves some secondary plot threads, and has the story cutting between various participants: Thanos, some space pirates, the various heroes, etc. Characters switch allegiance -- some are redeemed, some not. He also puts a big emphasis on the relationships, developing (somewhat quickly) a romance between Vision and Mantis (the Vision and the Scarlet Witch having broken up some time before), Mantis' relationship with her son who, in an un-messiah like way, is a prickly teenager, and more. The story isn't just a collection of fight scenes.
Admittedly, there can be too much emphasis on such things as it mutes the threat-to-the-universe aspects of the story. If the characters are spending time discussing their relationships, it can kind of seems like they aren't really taking the danger that seriously. A sense of humour is appealing, but likewise can undermine the tension. At the same time, it gives a -- slightly -- adult feel to the story, where Englehart clearly feels emotions and relationships are as worthy of notice as action and adventure -- and there is action and adventure. It reminds me a bit of Englehart's Batman: Dark Detective, also where a refreshing emphasis on the characters and emotions served to embellish, not undermine, the super heroic adventure.
Although, for an almost two hundred page epic, Englehart maybe doesn't have as much going on as he could. For all the emphasis on the relationships, there is a certain repetition, as the characters seem to repeat conversations from issue to issue. And those characters Englehart hasn't worked into a relationship thread are kind of left on the sidelines. Thor is basically just an unflappable hero, given little if any meaty scenes to play. I also wasn't entirely sure if Englehart had the "voices" down pat, some of the characters using phrasings I wasn't sure they would (although, Englehart's no stranger to writing these characters, so maybe it's just me).
I was initially unsure how I would take to an "Avengers" story in which only three of the characters (Vision, SW and Thor) were what I think of as Avengers (no Iron Man, no Hawkeye, etc.) but it works well, feeling very Avengers-like, with characters you are interested in following.
The art by Jorge Santamaria is quite effective. Of a slightly stylized, slightly cartoony style, it's not too much so to be annoying, or to undermine the human drama. And his images are consistent and striking, and he draws a cosmic vista with a kind of robust, Kirby-esque flare that is particularly dramatic, all aided by the rich but warm, slightly sombre colours. Joe Staton pinch hits an issue and, though I'm generally a Staton fan, he's maybe not at his best here -- but still eminently serviceable.
Despite calling upon pre-established elements -- Mantis, Thanos, the relationship troubles with SW and Vision -- The Celestial Quest is also appealingly self-contained, telling a story that is meant to exist in these pages, and introducing and developing relationships the same. This isn't just some set up for the next summer crossover or anything. It is, in essence, a graphic novel. And because this is Englehart, in addition to the adventure, and in addition to the character development, there's also a few philosophical ruminations as well, about life, death, power, etc.
There's something almost...low-key about this saga. There is action and fight scenes, and the story traverses the galaxy, but with Englehart's willingness to let the story unfold at its own pace, and take time out for characters and romance. The result is quite appealing, even atmospheric.