Wikipedia features articles that are mere "stubs," but this essay is a "sub-stud," since I don't intend to lay out even the basics of the Celestial Madonna saga that occupied a couple of years in the AVENGERS title.
This was a popular sequence in the early 1970s, and I liked it as much as anyone back then. These days, however, I find that it lacks even the basic mythic underthought that I found in Roy Thomas's Kree-Skrull War. Indeed, Englehart's multi-issue continuity should be seen as a creative response to Thomas's project, which also concerned the operations of the alien Kree upon Marvel's version of Planet Earth. However, what was a minor failing in Thomas's narrative becomes a major liability in Englehart's story.
For both authors, THE AVENGERS was a book where they could seek to impress fans with meticulously interwoven plot-threads. The title's original scripter, Stan Lee, showed little indication to take advantage of the feature's potential for soap-operatic complication, but Thomas arguably gave the feature its narrative identity. Englehart's AVENGERS scripts are even more dense with plot-complications than those of Thomas. This is SOP today, but in the early 1970s comics were still a mass medium, expected to make most of their money selling to kids who might or might not read every issue. Englehart's story proceeds as if he's rock-solid certain that his readers care nothing for "done-in-one" stories; at most, he would throw in a story with a menace overcome in one issue. Yet the emphasis was clearly placed on the ongoing continuity, not any single conflict.
The "Celestial Madonna" of the title is the half-Asian heroine Mantis, who was (appropriately) sort of a camp-follower to the superhero group, not initially joining the team but simply tagging along when her beau, the former villain Swordsman, applied for membership. Swordsman was clearly just Englehart's way of getting Mantis into the group, for in due time Mantis's attentions strayed from him to the android Vision. Further, the group's adventures began to emphasize some of the mysteries surrounding Mantis's origins, while her former boyfriend was unceremoniously slain (at least, temporarily).
Thomas's Kree-Skrull War built up plot-elements from Lee/Kirby's FANTASTIC FOUR, regarding the way the alien Kree experimented with archaic humans, turning some of them into Inhumans. These experiments by the warlike Kree had the long-range purpose of using the descendants of the Inhumans as a martial resource. Englehart, however, evinces a fascination with Eastern concepts of mysticism and unity, and so he posited that a group of peacenik, kung-fu fightin' Kree were exiled from the bosom of their people. These Kree, "the Priests of Pama," migrated to Earth and decided to conduct their own experiments. Without going into lengthy detail, Mantis was the result of their attempt to create a "perfect human being," whose exalted status was signified by the "Madonna" term.
Most of the "Celestial Madonna" saga consists of adequate but unexceptional superhero action, as the Avengers charge about fighting Kang and other menaces, giving Englehart leeway to concentrate on the development of his creation Mantis. I can't say that I consider Mantis all that impressive a myth-figure; once one knows her origins, she loses most of her dubious charm. She's perhaps the first of the author's more self-absorbed character-types, but Englehart doesn't compensate for her obnoxious qualities with any deeper psychological complexity. She's also something of a one-note joke: having been a prostitute in the past, she's "the whore" who becomes "the madonna."
Thus, given how episodic and convoluted the saga is, it lacks the unifying theme of a good myth-comic, and must be rated as just an assemblage of many differing myth-motifs. Not least of these involves the Swordsman's body coming back to life, animated by the spirit of a tree, which Mantis then marries so that she can birth a super-baby.
Yes, it definitely read better in 1974.
SUPERHEROES ARE DAMN-NEAR EVERYWHERE #186
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