The Swordsman is a somewhat obscure Avengers supporting character whose roots go back to Marvel's Silver Age heyday of the swingin' '60s – and though he's not particularly a household name, Swordsman (in this case the Cotati hybrid/clone of the original Swordsman, Jacque Duquense) plays a critical role in the publisher's current blockbuster summer crossover, Empyre.
To explore Swordsman's place in Empyre as both friend and foe of the Avengers and the father of the Cotati Cosmic Messiah Quoi, writer Alex Paknadel and artist Thomas Nachlik have created Lords of Empyre: Swordsman #1, a one-shot that explores how Swordsman came to be the patriarch of a universal despot dedicated to ending non-plant life.
Following a conversation with Paknadel about his companion one-shot Lords of Empyre: Celestial Messiah #1, Newsarama spoke with Paknadel about how this tale ties into the larger tapestry of Empyre, and what it's like expounding on a character as surprisingly complex as the Swordsman.
Newsarama: Alex, Lords of Empyre: Swordsman #1 focuses on the Cotati clone/reincarnation of Jacques Duquesne – a classic Avengers character who has often found himself on both sides of the hero/villain fence. Where does he find himself going into Empyre?
Alex Paknadel: This one-shot is set a couple years ago in Marvel time, but it feeds directly into Empyre in that – from one perspective at least – it attempts to really solidify the Cotati's case for war. Although this war is played out on a grand scale, I really wanted its origins to be surprisingly intimate and hyper-personal.
I won't give too much away, but this is a story about a father-son road trip that goes hideously awry, with far-reaching consequences for the Marvel universe.
As for the Swordsman, in this one-shot we find him exhausted and anguished by the uncomfortable synthesis of plant and animal that he is - an elder Cotati essence fused with Jacques Duquesne's corpse and memories to form a new entity, but these discrete identities refuse to rub along harmoniously.
I was thinking of Brundlefly in the Cronenberg remake of The Fly when I wrote this – of two entities with wildly different and mutually incompatible agendas thrown into the same monstrous body by a pitiless twist of fate. The Cotati Swordsman hasn't known peace since his creation, so going into Empyre – and hopefully this one-shot will shed some light on his motivations – he's decided that his animal nature must be eliminated, both inside himself and across the cosmos as a whole. He's a scary, scary dude.
Nrama: Swordsman's roots go all the way back to the 60s. Are there any bits of his history that you focused on for this one-shot?
Paknadel: Quoi and the Swordsman (at least in this Cotati iteration) haven't really been seen since Celestial Quest back in 2002, so this book aims to fill in the backstory that led to such a dramatic shift in Quoi and the Swordsman's allegiances. The last time we saw these characters they were otherworldly and conflicted, but essentially well-meaning.
We're dealing with a few years in Marvel time here, but something happened to them between then and now to radicalize them. The Cotati were the ultimate pacifists, and while this story doesn't chart every development that led to their new bellicose dispensation, it depicts a crucial moment in that journey.
Nrama: Swordsman is something of a cult-classic Marvel character. What do you see as the core aspects of who he is? What makes him such an important player in so many Avengers stories?
Paknadel: He's a thwarted idealist, which makes him incredibly dangerous.
He started out as a swashbuckling freedom fighter in French Indochina, but when that turned out to be more morally complex than he anticipated he turned heel and wound up grifting in traveling carnival, where he trained a young Clint Barton in the use of bladed weapons before becoming an active supervillain himself.
He danced on the line between hero and villain for a number of years before sinking into a slough of despond and drink in Vietnam, which is where he met Mantis, a fellow lost soul. They patched each other's psychological wounds up enough to travel to New York and make their case for Avengers membership, which ended with the Swordsman's death at the hands of Kang the Conqueror.
He died a hero, but I think what makes him fascinating is the fact that underneath it all he was this Errol Flynn heroic archetype whose lofty ideals couldn't hope to survive reality. He reasoned that if reality wouldn't let him be a hero then he must be a villain, but he couldn't pull that off convincingly either.
At the core I think Duquesne's life was one guided by a performance of the expectations he'd placed on himself, and that was preserved in the Cotati incarnation. He doesn't know it, but he's still playing a role – this time as the guardian of Cotati tradition and floral supremacy throughout the universe. It's another chance to be the rope-swinging swashbuckler, but this time the goal is genocide.
Nrama: This one-shot focuses on Swordsman's relationship with his son Quoi, the Celestial Messiah. How does Quoi's mother Mantis, the Celestial Madonna, factor in here?
Paknadel: Mantis is very much the ghost at the feast in this one-shot – never truly present but never absent either. Just as Mantis is fighting for Quoi's soul in the Celestial Messiah one-shot, the Swordsman is fighting for Quoi's soul here. Where Mantis tried to insulate Quoi from his cosmic destiny, the Swordsman wants him to embrace its most extreme interpretation.
This is a story about the sins of the father, and how pain gets transmitted down the generations. It's a story about what gets left unsaid between men until it's too late to stem the tide of bloodshed. It's very sad and I'm very proud of it.
Nrama: Thomas Nachlik is drawing Lords of Empyre: Swordsman #1. What does he bring to the table for a story like this?
Paknadel: Thomas brings a grounded photorealism that is beyond perfect for this story. Alex Lins's art on the Celestial Messiah one-shot, which is definitely a companion piece to this despite being self-contained, is very kinetic and heightened, whereas Thomas's is very earthy and naturalistic.
That's exactly the tone I was going for in making one of the contributing factors to this epic cosmic smackdown a kind of road trip gone wrong for Quoi and the Swordsman. Thomas can capture these really subtle nuances of emotion which are absolutely essential for a story like this, where the stakes are primarily internal. He's a true character artist and I can't wait to work with him again.
Nrama: With so much Marvel history on the table and so much at stake in Empyre, how do you parse exactly how deep to go into the history behind a story like this?
Paknadel: Honestly, I didn't parse and that's why I now dream in Kree. I didn't discriminate at all, so I read every appearance of the Swordsman and the Cotati Swordsman I could find, as well as everything related to Mantis, the Priests of Pama, Quoi, etc. etc. Mega-dosing continuity is really useful because you begin to see patterns emerge, particularly on the character level.
Nrama: Can we expect more Marvel work from you after your two Lords of Empyre one-shots? Is there a dream project we can help you get out into the universe?
Paknadel: It's a weird time so I honestly have no idea, but they know where I am if they want me. I had a blast writing these one-shots and I'd love to do more.
Dream project-wise, I don't want to step on anyone's toes here, but I do have some rather spiffy Sleepwalker and Multiple Man pitches that have no business gathering dust in my desk drawer.
Nrama: What do fans need to know going into this one-shot?
Paknadel: Very little, frankly. All readers need to know is that this guy is the offspring of a dead Avenger and a sentient tree and he's not at all happy with his situation. Oh, and his son is a demigod prophesied to unite all life in the universe, which is wide open to all manner of unsavory interpretations.