Comic Art Friday: This One prays for Mantis

Ah, the 1970s. The Me Decade. The Disco Era. Leisure Suit Paradise.

Those were the days.

In comic book terms, we refer to the ’70s as the Bronze Age, the third major era of superhero comics. (For the non-cognoscenti out there, the Golden Age spans the late 1930s until the first appearance of the Barry Allen version of The Flash in October 1956. The Silver Age starts there and continues — depending upon which endpoint one prefers — until either the end of the 1960s or sometime in the very early 1970s.) Like the decade it encompassed, the Bronze Age was a wild and woolly time in comics, filled with bizarre characters and even more bizarre storylines.

And of course, I loved them all.

Mantis, pencils by comics artist Mitch Foust

The mysterious heroine called Mantis — drawn here by pinup specialist Mitch Foust — typifies everything that was wonderful (and weird) about the Bronze Age. Beginning with her debut in Avengers #112 (June 1973), the nameless (she was never called anything but Mantis), barefoot, Eurasian (she was born to a Vietnamese mother and a German father) martial arts expert:

* Worked as a courtesan in her native Vietnam, where she was discovered by the villain-turned-superhero known as the Swordsman.

* Joined the Marvel Universe’s premier super-team, the Avengers.

* Learned that she is the daughter of the supervillain Libra, a member of the evil Zodiac cabal.

* Battled countless threats to humanity.

* Was revealed as the Celestial Madonna, mother-to-be of the savior of the universe.

* Witnessed the death of her paramour Swordsman.

* Marries a member of a race of animated trees (the Cotati, named after the town right next door to mine).

* Departs into deep space to fulfill her destiny as Celestial Madonna, because if you’re the Celestial Madonna, that’s what you do.

In addition to her peculiar story arc, Mantis was also distinguished by — and is probably best remembered by Bronze Age comics readers for — her distinctive speech pattern, which omitted all personal pronouns. Mantis always referred to herself as “This One” rather than “I” or “me.” You can understand how a steady diet of “This One wants a sandwich” and “This One is going to the movies; would anyone else care to accompany This One?” would wear on the nerves of one’s fellow Avengers after a while, so it’s no surprise that the rest of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes didn’t shed too many tears when Mantis bolted the solar system with the tree man.

Mantis was created by longtime comics writer Steve Englehart, who became so enamored with the character that he reinvented her every time he moved from one comics publisher to another. When Englehart left Marvel for DC, he introduced Willow, a thinly disguised version of Mantis with an identical speech pattern. Later, while writing for Eclipse, Englehart came up with Lorelei, another burgeoning space mom who talked funny. (In writers’ parlance, we refer to a pet character like this — a sort of dream-world avatar for the author him/herself — as a “Mary Sue.”)

Strange (and frankly, kind of silly) though she was, I always liked Mantis. To me, she epitomizes everything that was cool about the Bronze Age, a time when comics still meant fantasy and fun instead of gritty grimness. How can you not love a kung fu hooker with antennae, who wears a costume based on a grass skirt, calls herself “This One,” and has a Madonna complex?

Comics could use a few Mantises today.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

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