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Inside "the dark turn" of the secret villain of Empyre

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Marvel Comics' big summer event Empyre is now in full swing, and despite the foreshadowed conflict between the heroes of Earth and the combined Kree/Skrull empire, it seems the Cotati – ancestral enemies of the Kree – are the real threat. And leading this army of plantlike warriors is Quoi, the Celestial Messiah – the son of the Avengers Swordsman and Mantis.

To fill in some backstory on Quoi and show just how things got to this point, writer Alex Paknadel and artist Alex Lins have created Lords of Empyre: Celestial Messiah #1, one of two Lords of Empyre one-shots by Paknadel.

Newsarama spoke with Paknadel ahead of Celestial Messiah #1's August 5 release, discussing how Quoi's story ties into the history of the Marvel Universe and what his mission means for Earth's heroes.

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Newsarama: Alex, Lords of Empyre: Celestial Messiah focuses on Quoi – who, after Empyre #1, seems to be the real villain of the story. Having focused on him for this one-shot, what's your perspective on him?

Alex Paknadel: Quoi's a zealot, and like all zealots he truly thinks he's doing the right thing. Furthermore – and I think this is key - because he's only physically an adult due to the accelerated Cotati growth cycle, he's really a kid in king's ermine. I see him as almost a child soldier, with all the tragedy and misplaced trust that implies. 

There's no mustache-twirling dastardliness here, and I think that extends to how Quoi treats his former allies. In Empyre #1 his respect for some of the Avengers he's encountered before – particularly Thor, whom he bonded with demigod-to-demigod way back in Celestial Quest – is quite sincere. He sees himself as a righter of terrible wrongs – an Avenger if you will. 

Only trouble is, the perpetrator of those wrongs just happens to be animal life as a whole. That's bad news for us meat bags.

Nrama: Quoi and the Celestial Messiah mythology have a long, storied history in the Marvel Universe with a lot of moving parts. How much do the details of his story factor in here?

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Paknadel: They're absolutely front and center in this one-shot. I designed it to showcase these neat little imagined 'deleted scenes' from some important moments in the Celestial Madonna saga and beyond. 

I think Al Ewing joked with the crowd at C2E2 that I'd read every appearance of these characters to prepare, but it really wasn't all that far from the truth. I spent a good couple weeks marinating in Marvel lore, from back issues of Marvel Fanfare to Force Works, and then I'd call Al to rationalize what I'd read so it would work for what he and Dan needed for Empyre. I've worked with canon before (on Doctor Who and Valiant's Incursion) and a big part of the fun is making the continuity work for you. 

The book's very new-reader-friendly of course, but the brief here was pretty much to reintroduce Quoi and provide some pretty heavy emotional context for his actions that the main Empyre title – which is a blast from start to finish, by the way – couldn't physically accommodate.

Nrama: Mantis the Celestial Madonna, Quoi's mother, appears to be at odds with her son in this one-shot. What can you tell us about Mantis's role here?

Paknadel: So this one-shot is set in the calm before the storm - the night before the Avengers show up on the Moon to set the events of Empyre fully in motion. Quoi is undergoing a Cotati warrior cleansing rite – a kind of ritual meditation – called a 'rootquest'. He's warned that it will be a traumatic experience, but what he doesn't anticipate is the appearance of his mother, Mantis. 

He initially believes she's a hallucination, but the reality is that the ritual has lowered his psychic defenses to the extent that Mantis can communicate with him through an avatar across the vast reaches of space. She knows what he's about to do and she's here to try and talk some sense into his thick skull before he does something truly unforgivable. 

I think I first described it to Al as 'A Christmas Carol' with Quoi as Scrooge and Mantis as his Jacob Marley.

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Nrama: You're also writing Lords of Empyre: Swordsman #1, a one-shot about Quoi's father. Does he factor into this clash between mother and son?

Paknadel: Absolutely, and he makes numerous appearances – both in his human and Cotati iterations – throughout. The Cotati Swordsman is a fascinating character – an elder Cotati wrapped around the soul and memories of a failed Avenger and supervillain. 

The universe is now the canvas for his identity crisis, so to an extent Mantis is visiting her son in an attempt to get him to see the folly of wiping out animal life when he has as much in common with the human side of his father as he does with the Cotati side. It's big, high stakes family drama… with lots of fighty-smashy and some truly exorbitant property damage throughout.

Nrama: Alex Lins is drawing Lords of Empyre: Celestial Messiah. What was it like working with him on this story?

Paknadel: My friend Alex Lins is a future superstar, and you may quote me on that. He reached out to me as soon as he landed the gig to make sure we were on the same page and we've been talking ever since. The book's full of action, but thanks to Alex none of it's dumb action, you know? When a punch lands, you wince. When Mantis pleads with Quoi, you see the parental desperation in her eyes. 

He sells every emotional beat I was going for so beautifully, you could rip out half the dialogue and still have a crystal clear sense of the story. Alex is going to be huge and I'm so lucky I got to make my Marvel debut with him.

Nrama: What's it like finding yourself writing a key tie-in to such a huge crossover event? Were there challenges you didn't foresee?

Paknadel: COVID-19 aside, not really. I swear I'm not toeing the party line here, but Marvel is such a well-oiled machine, the only real challenge was keeping my mouth shut about the gig. 

Al made himself very available to talk through my questions and concerns, and the editors – Lauren Amaro and Darren Shan – were so accommodating, and so on top of their game that the whole process felt frictionless from start to finish. They got what I was trying to do, and they strained every sinew to support me and help me craft the best possible version of the story.

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Nrama: Empyre is built off the classic Marvel story Kree/Skrull War. How much did your own knowledge of Marvel lore play into this one-shot?

Paknadel: It came into play a fair bit because I'm a second-generation Marvel zombie, but I couldn't afford to take anything for granted - especially with continuity this nuanced. My work on this was less couched in the Thomas/Adams material and more the Englehart side of cosmic Marvel, which is a bit stranger. 

Englehart wove Mantis and Quoi's story through multiple titles over a few decades, and in some cases, he cut story threads short that were later picked up by others and retconned, etc. What I've tried to do here is condense all that into one very intimate, emotionally-impactful story about a poor kid straining under the weight of cosmic destiny and the mom who had the courage to travel to the far side of the galaxy to reject hers.

Nrama: Bottom line, what makes Lords of Empyre: Celestial Messiah an essential part of the Empyre saga?

Paknadel: The biggest gift you can be given as a writer is the opportunity to write a character on their worst day – the day when all their illusions are stripped away, and their convictions are tested to destruction. The one-shots I've written set out to do this with Quoi and the Swordsman. 

There's all the bone-crunching action that Marvel fans have every right to expect, but it's my hope and belief that they'll also leave with a greater understanding of why Quoi's story took such a dark turn. Taken together, I think the Celestial Messiah and Swordsman one-shots comprise a war for Quoi's soul in two acts, and like all good tragedies they involve a series of escalating misunderstandings. 

If you go right back to the silver age, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby went to extraordinary lengths to make their most memorable villains sympathetic. It's baked into the Marvel tradition, so that's what I've busted my tail to do here. I can't wait for people to read it.  

Newsarama staff writer who learned to read from comic books and hasn’t shut up about them since.