My brother’s Avengers run ended in the high hundred-teens, and I started buying issues in the 130s or 140s, so as I filled in the gap, issue by issue, and bought new ones, the Mantis story was a main focus for me.
Step back for the bigger picture. Steve Englehart started on the Avengers with the brief Avengers-Defenders War. I see his 70s run on the book in two phases, with the first one defined by Mantis, introduced in #113, her boyfriend the Swordsman, and how she complicates the romance between him and the Scarlet Witch. The main other content concerns further complicating the Vision’s origin. The villains are largely incidental. Even the sort-of interesting turn with Zodiac only functions to connect Mantis with her father. [Englehart’s second, perhaps better-written phase on the title would be best described as Oh My Stars and Garters, and is certainly worth a post of its own.]
Englehart was the main 1970s author to do what both Lee and Thomas had successfully done, to completely ignore the “illusion of change” instruction and instead to go ahead and change things. Not through planned structural events with more organized outcomes, but organically, writing as you go, changing relationships, changing characters, finishing out problems with closure, and changing circumstances. For him, the primary variable was relationships. It’s all a frame for emotional shenanigans: #1: the Vision’s wandering eye (sort of), and the Mantis dumping the Swordsman, with the surprisingly touching death of the latter; and #2: the Celestial Madonna whatchamacallit which as far as I’m concerned finally closes out the Kree-Skrull whatchamallit for good, but is really about Mantis deciding emotions are too important to play games with. In the Avengers stories, some of it’s goofy, some of it’s contrived or arbitrary, some of it’s plain bizarre, but he did keep his eye on that emotional ball. In this, he preceded Claremont significantly with his intense focus on the soap opera and on developing female characters’ power, and I think his stories had a better touch for concluding the episodes of the former, and for validating rather then caricaturing the latter. Mantis is clearly his favorite.
So why the general disdain for Mantis? For one thing, such a writing-process had little place at Marvel after 1978; you can’t put “finds her maturity and fucks a cosmic plant, then leaves,” on the package copy of a Mattel action figure. Even without the sex part, and this is important, you can’t base an action figure on an eventful story, specifically not on a concluded story.
For another, there might be some Author’s Sue going on with her physical bad-assery, especially in contrast with the Witch’s then-feeble hexing, and also at the expense of the Panther. Yet, maybe not, as there was precedent and examples from other characters to work with there too, implied in a brief friendly sparring match between the Panther and Iron Man when the former scores and wins with a precision strike. (This was echoed many years later in Suicide Squad with the Bronze Tiger and Stalniovolk: “There is no such thing as true invulnerability. Struck with enough speed and skill, even a steel man may be brought down.” With a rather pointed metaglance at a certain other DC character.)
Still … given that athletic-human characters like the Widow, Hawkeye, and similar were always part of the Avengers and reasonably pulled their weight, and given a careful re-reading, I don’t think Mantis was written with absurd effectiveness – she didn’t elude all damage or consistently outdo the other Avengers. More importantly, and this is a good thing, nothing happened to Mantis that happened to other female characters all the time. She never got her powers taken away, never maundered about her ability to handle herself, never whined when faced with someone tough. It’s telling that I even have to examine the Sue issue for her when all she did was pull her weight along with the boys. I think she might qualify in fact for the single most effective and unproblematic “strong woman” superhero of the day. I call attention especially to how Bob Brown depicted her physical build, which is formidably muscled. Contrast her arms with Wanda’s during this run.
Then there’s her spoken affectation, which I decided to monitor in re-reading. And you know what? She actually doesn’t say “this one” all that often. A few times, and I might add, in the company of several other odd-speaking teammates. It’s nowhere near as frequent as the constant mention would indicate. A bit of orientalism? you think? Doug Moench was busy trying to work this out with Shang-Chi, but “work in progress” is probably the most favorable way to describe that issue, then and now. But hang onto that thought too, because I think something else is going on here, something really important.
Vietnam was very much a living issue in the Bullpen. Starlin was a veteran, an aviation photographer, which as I understand it means some awful, bloody experiences. Englehart was a conscientious objector (a very specific term) who lost at least one close friend there. They were close friends and unequivocally opposed to this war.
You might be interested to know that the Vietnamese refer to it as the American War.
- 1945-1949: The United Nations Security Council grants France continued sovereignty in the former colony of Vietnam; when the local popular party Viet Minh requests French recognition as a free republic, the French government responds with military occupation.
- 1950-1954: The French forces combat and suppress the Viet Minh with significant U.S. support, but without success; they withdraw in 1954 and turn the matter to the U.N.; an election ostensibly grants power (with an alleged 95% approval) to the former French colonial government which is rejected immediately by the Viet Minh, resulting in a U.N.-decreed north-south partition.
- 1955-1964: The period of “technical advisors” meaning various U.S. special forces and many attempted CIA operations to (somehow) overturn the popularity of the Viet Minh. This period corresponds roughly to the Saigon regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, which is concluded by a military murder-coup with more to follow.
- 1964-1968: Johnson’s war, with no Congresssional approval or even procedure, still technically a U.N. police action albeit unilateral, including mass U.S. conscription and immediately high fatalities.
- 1968-1974: Nixon’s war, including the invasion of Cambodia, covert B-52 bombings, and then the so-called decent interval; announcement of withdrawal in 1973 and final U.S. withdrawal in 1975.
This is that last bit, the forgotten phase of U.S. stand-down prior to final withdrawal. The decent interval refers to Nixon’s and Kissinger’s private agreement in 1972 that although the Hanoi government’s victory was assured, to keep U.S. troops there until the U.S. public would blame Saigon instead of them for the inevitable withdrawal. CIA officer Frank Snepp wrote a book by this title as well which I’ll be drawing upon.
Starlin, Englehart, and anyone else informed about the war saw through the ploy immediately, and arguably, the Watergate scandal transformed into an excuse for a covert referendum on this precise Vietnam policy. This story occurred right at the height of confusion between the U.S. agreement to withdraw – including ceding Saigon – and actually doing it. The corresponding details in the comics are blatant: in this case, the Kree pacifists as the Buddhist monks who’d been protesting the Saigon government for decades, the general reference to Saigon as a criminal, corrupted hellhole, and the Swordsman as a not-quite-literal stand-in for the haunted U.S. veteran with the sort-of shady Vietnamese girlfriend he’s brought home. And when in the course of investigating Mantis’ origin the Avengers actually get there, there is a fascinating interlude in which three long-standing communist villains – now official government heroes – deliver some rough justice to a local, and are manipulated into harassing our heroes by a vicious U.S. ex-G.I. villain lurking in Saigon. After figuring out the problem, the communist villain-heroes order them out of the country. This offers a good portrait of Iron Man in his on-again off-again militarist-or-not phase, contemporary with his on-again off-again nose, and also a clear picture of the communist characters as assholes. That’s an opportunity to point out that opposition to the Vietnam War did not simply indicate “commie sympathies.” (commies in this era of comics is a post of its own one day, of course)
Crucially, the entire context of this subplot is that of the Hanoi government as the winner, and, although the Dynamo and his buddies are clearly jerks, the Avengers cannot strut into the joint and starting acting like the arbiters of right and wrong. Because, you see, the Hanoi government did win. That business about how U.S. forces won every battle but lost the war is an 80s fabrication. It draws upon two 1960s myths which by the 70s were completely discredited.
This is the first myth of the war: the very existence of any “north” and “south” Vietnam as national entities. They never existed. This construct was an artifact of the grossly rigged 1955 election which was rejected by everyone, and the puppet government installed in Saigon governed nothing at all. Its reach was defined strictly by U.S. enforcement and mainly achieved only an appalling forced-relocation program which in any non-U.S. context would be decried with horror and rage. There was no pro-U.S. South Vietnam, only an occupied city. The term “Viet Cong” is a U.S. State Department invention to try to spin the fact that everyone living in the designated region aside from the Saigon elites considered the National Liberation Front to be a local branch of the real [North] Vietnamese Army.
The second, subsidiary myth is that the neat little sectors I-IV mapped out in the Pentagon were ever in serious contention, in fact that they even existed as any sort of real-world entities, and that the “war” was about “holding onto them.” The real campaign, meaning the Vietnamese one, was not fought from north driving to south, but from the western mountains to the sea along the entire coastal stretch. The more this campaign progressed, the faster those designated sectors vanished, with even the idea that we “lost” them being a myth. Frank Snepp destroyed his CIA career in trying to bring this to light in the face of dedicated spin and the careers that relied upon it. This reality of Saigon’s isolation was laid bare in 1968, and the entirety of the events from 1954 through 1974 are only described as resistance and expulsion, plain and simple. The U.S. policy culture kept trying to pretend that this place was Korea and that a quickie “we won g’bye” + return to the pre-hostilities status quo was just around the corner. It wasn’t Korea.
Well, my father was in Vietnam, and he told me this, and he told me that. Yeah? How nice for you. (1) You aren’t your dad, and (2) my dad was U.S. Naval Historian in Saigon from sometime around 1969 through sometime around 1973. Like his whole generation he was a textbook of cognitive dissonance; he went to his grave simultaneously swearing “we could have won the war against the communists” and “communism had nothing to do with it.” But his job was to assess the whole military action in real terms, which I suspect your dad’s wasn’t. He spoke and read Vietnamese, which I suspect your dad didn’t. I’m the only son he talked with about this stuff, opening up the huge steamer truck with piles of records and photographs. Decades later I’d be reading about recently-declassified spy operations during the war and recognize the photos in the book, from that trunk. I’m the one who sat with him and those evil-looking, bitter spooks as they drank themselves stupid, listening to them talk about it. I shall not be lectured by anyone else’s child concerning this piece of history.
[I will address American narratives regarding U.S. military veterans in a different post, using a comic more directly related to that issue. Please hold your water.]
Here, I’m making a military point, completely opposing the common American propaganda that “we weren’t allowed to win” or that “we won all the battles but lost the war.” Nope. Doctrinally, we lost because there was nothing to do but leave; we simply had no viable objective aside from office-holders not wanting to be blamed for losing (a Cold War no-no) and not seeing a moment o’win to hang withdrawal on. The primary failing at the strategic level was that weird thing about “holding sectors” without the slightest regard for actual geography, and therefore engagements became, for the U.S., simply gang fights. After Tet, the Herblock cartoon anticipates the “decent interval” and nails it to the wall – 18-year-old kids were being drafted simply to die until the Nixon administration could hit upon the right spin for leaving. If you want to call “winning a battle” having some guys still alive after the other side achieves its tactical goal and leaves, then we won some battles, sure. But we didn’t win anything with those battles nor was such “victory” especially common … nor was it remotely on the policy radar of anyone in charge of anything.
Hey man, my dad died in Vietnam and I don’t appreciate … Yeah? I am in fact sorry about your dad, but you should direct your anger meaningfully. Of the myriad U.S. tactical failings, one is that the M-16 was a heinous piece of worthless crap, especially in a tropical, muddy war theater. If you want to honor your family member or friend who was killed there, then never mind talking to me, and ask why he was torn apart by AK-47 rounds while struggling to unjam his fucking gun.
Those myths were resurrected with a vengeance in 1980 and compounded with a number of others, in a whirl of propaganda from which the nation’s head is still spinng. All that context for the Mantis story is what Reagan-era Marvel could not possibly say out loud. That’s what the G.I. Joe cartoon watching kids and the Rambo II watching teens could not possibly be permitted to see. In the new officialized Marvel Universe, we could not lose the war.
Whereas a decade earlier, in Mantis’ Marvel, we unequivocally did. Mantis was never an American, nor written to imply any pro-U.S. policy in Vietnam. She was not in anyone’s back yard, nor a domino. Nor was she a waif grateful to the “good guys” for saving her in any way. She refused to need “saving.” She did not need moral redemption – and this is a former whore we are talking about. She did not need to “find” her superpower, nor did it overwhelm her, nor did its control elude her. She was emotionally callous at her introduction but learned, made mistakes, and grew, to find an honorable place for herself.
Look at that one-punch on Thor, and consider every imaginable cultural, political, and thematic meaning. That’s what Vietnamese means, in 1975.
Mantis traveled with Englehart through a variety of titles, names, and comics companies, eventually reappearing at Marvel and getting wrapped into much weirdness again in the past decade. My interest in that material is precisely nil. I’ll bet you my Marvel Value Stamp collection against yours that the word “Vietnam” did not appear with her.
Next: Moses and the Mosquito
Posted on May 24, 2015, in Heroics, Politics dammit, The 70s me and tagged Avengers, Bob Brown, Celestial Madonna necrophiliac Tao sex, commies, cosmic zap, decent interval, Frank Snepp, herblock, Mantis, NLF, NVA, Saigon, Scarlet Witch, Steve Englehart, Swordsman, Vietnam War, Vision. Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.