Comic Art Friday: Preying M.A.N.T.I.S.

Once upon a time — after he’d found fame as a horrormeister by way of his Evil Dead franchise, but before he’d earned megamillion box office as the director of the Spider-Man trilogy — Sam Raimi produced a series for FOX Television, called M.A.N.T.I.S.

M.A.N.T.I.S. and Mantis, pencils and inks by comics artist Darryl Banks

Carl Lumbly starred as paraplegic scientist Dr. Miles Hawkins, who invented an exoskeleton that not only restored his ability to walk, but also provided him superhuman strength and other abilities. This being popular media, Miles did what anyone who invented an exoskeleton like that would do — he became a superhero. With support from his friend and colleague, John Stonebrake (played by the sublime Roger Rees), Miles donned his M.A.N.T.I.S. suit (the acronym stood for “Mechanically Augmented Neuro-Transmitter Interception System,” and you totally understand what that means), flew off in his armored hovercraft, the Chrysalid — because, once you’ve invented a superpowered exoskeleton, a flying battle wagon is the next logical step — and went mano a mano with the forces of evil.

Although, so far as I’m aware, M.A.N.T.I.S. was never licensed for a comic book, the character does possess a comic book connection beyond his obvious superhero origins. Comics artist Denys Cowan — best known for his work on such series as DC’s The Question and Marvel’s Power Man and Iron Fist, as well as for being one of the cofounders of Milestone Media — designed the M.A.N.T.I.S. costume.

M.A.N.T.I.S. was an intriguing series for a number of reasons. It represented one of the relatively few opportunities in mainstream media for a black superhero to headline his own property. (Anyone remember Marvel’s abortive Black Panther animation project? Yeah, that’s what I thought.) M.A.N.T.I.S. was also one of a handful of TV series that ended with the death of its protagonist. (The only other one that comes immediately to mind is Nichols, a short-lived Western starring James Garner, in which the title character gets gunned down in the final episode, only to have his identical twin brother — also played by Garner — arrive on the scene at the conclusion to avenge his sibling’s murder. You know… just in case the network changed its mind about that whole cancellation thing.)

Like many TV shows, M.A.N.T.I.S. changed radically between its original pilot concept to the series version. In the pilot movie — which still pops up now and again on independent TV stations — M.A.N.T.I.S. had a gritter, more realistic tone, and almost the entire cast was African-American. When greenlighting the series, FOX ordered Raimi to lighten up the show both figuratively (it went from a dark, urban crime drama to focusing more on the science fictional elements) and literally (several Caucasian actors, including Rees, were added to the supporting cast). The resulting show remained fun and entertaining, but wasn’t nearly as fresh or original as Raimi’s initial vision. Then again, this is FOX we’re talking about — not an organization renowned for its embrace of diversity.

Sadly, M.A.N.T.I.S. lasted only a single season, and is largely forgotten today. Fortunately for us, one of the other people who recalls the show as vividly and as fondly as I do — perhaps the only other such person — is artist Darryl (Green Lantern, Doc Savage) Banks, who lit up when I proposed using M.A.N.T.I.S. in a Common Elements scenario. Darryl and I combed the Internet for reference images of Dr. Miles Hawkins’s costume (no easy task), which Darryl has painstakingly recreated here. I don’t know whether this is the first comic art commission ever to feature M.A.N.T.I.S., but it’s the first I’ve seen.

Dr. Hawkins’s companion here is no stranger to Comic Art Fridays, or to my Common Elements theme. The barefoot Avenger known only as Mantis (no periods, please) previously appeared in the series alongside Gypsy of the Justice League, in an artwork created by Robb Phipps. “This One” is glad to welcome her back for a return engagement.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

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