Although I am a Marvel zombie rather than a DC fanboy (hell, I don’t even know whether they have a special nickname), I tend to avoid the more cosmic adventures. Partially because comics often get in an almighty mess when they try to grapple with science fiction, and partially because I have my own cosmology that doesn’t include rip-offs of Kirby characters (The Eternals are photocopies of Kirby’s New Gods, and Thanos is a ersatz Darkseid), I just don’t enjoy the journeys into outer-space like I love seeing Daredevil bash up some toughs round the back of a housing estate.
Avengers: The Celestial Quest has the predictable problems of most comics published after about 1986: lingering panels featuring super-heroines’ bums, skimpy costumes and a preoccupation with adult themes (in this case, a sexy romp between a robot and the ‘Universal Madonna’). It also has splash pages that evoke an art student’s first LSD trip, all swirling lines and melodramatic commentary. And the final confrontation in the last issue gets a bit confusing, as enemies become allies and allies act like tools. Still, it is a surprisingly intelligent mini-series.
Intelligent might sound like pushing it, when the plot is described. A woman, who had sex with an alien, who came from an evolved species of plants, gave birth to a ‘universal messiah’, who turns out to be a grumpy teenage plant/human hybrid, whom a god of death decides need to be killed, because death. A Norse God, a were-woman, a robot, a witch and this other guy who comes from another reality chase around the universe, trying to rescue the teenage messiah. There are dinosaur space pirates, too.
From this unlikely material, writer Steve Englehart cracks out the big ideas. Thanos, the god of death, represents a nihilistic urge for destruction, battling against Mantis (Celestial Madonna) and her son, Q, who represent life. Mantis gives Vision (the robot or, as the plot insists, an android) a pump and a sense of his own humanity, while Vision struggles to regain his emotions in front of his ex-wife. Meanwhile, the were-woman, Silverclaw, a youngster by the standards of the Avengers, learns about love. Stripped down to the basics, it becomes an exploration of the nature of love (and it is earthy, sexual desire, not some floaty spiritual love) in the face of destruction.
Superhero comics work better as allegories than naturalistic thrillers – when a Norse god of thunder twirls his hammer about, gritty realism is smashed through the window along with the baddies, and Englehart uses his characters to examine different types of love. Mantis does maternal, as well as sexual; Silverclaw’s abortive romance is a naive crush (the object of her attentions turns out to be obsessed, not in love, with his former partner). Vision gets to feel more human because he gets to be needed, although his final rejection of Mantis is a bit like – because continuity. There’s even mature letting go of the past (evolved plants turning out to be better at this than humans). Englehart weaves these together, as parallels and counter-points, to make The Celestial Quest more than just a punch-up with some nice backgrounds of star systems.