Thursday, February 8, 2007

Bill Mantlo's Life in Comics

In my younger days, Marvel was blessed with a talented, often brilliant, journeyman writer named Bill Mantlo who cranked out a mind-bogglingly voluminous quantity of some of the most exciting, ridiculous, literate, awful, thoughtful, and sublime--in a word, great--comic stories of an era noted for great comic stories. Bill was generally never considered to be of the top tier of his creative contemporaries, but any comic reader would have to concede he had some pretty stiff competition in that era. Probably, in fact, the stiffest competition he could have ever faced in any era in the comics business.

Bill began working at Marvel in the '70s as a production assistant to John Verpoorten. The story of how he broke into writing comics is a classic: one day, Tony Isabella bursts into Verpoorten's office, going on about how he desperately needs someone to script a story for DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG-FU. The thing is, it has to be done overnight. The two mull it over, and it looks like Tony, who absoultely doesn't have time for it, is going to be stuck with it anyway when Mantlo, listening to the exchange, speaks up and volunteers to do it himself. Remarkably enough, Tony lets him, and this launches Mantlo's writing career. Lana Turner, eat your heart out.

Bill soon became, to '70s and '80s Marvel, what Don Heck had been in the '60s, a fellow who got the call when the Deadly Deadline Doom was approaching and the regulars just weren't going to make it. Fill-ins are unforgiving and a poor showcase for a new talent, and though Bill wrote them for practically every major Marvel title at one time or another, he didn't seem to think very much of them.

It was when he got his own books that he really began to shine. He was the first person who seemed to realize that MARVEL TEAM-UP could be something more than just a monthly knock-off gimmick book. His run was certainly the first time the book had ever been worth reading from month to month--who else would have thought of co-starring Cotton Mather in a multi-part Spider-Man time-travel epic? How could you
not read something like that? He put in runs of varying quality on, among other books, IRON MAN, MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE, CHAMPIONS, HOWARD THE DUCK (his post-Gerber Duck stories are supposed to be wretched, but I've never read any of them), and ALPHA FLIGHT (generally regarded as his creative low point).

His really great stuff came in his long and fantastic runs on SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN, HULK, ROM, and MICRONAUTS. ROM and MICRONAUTS were both licensed properties, but Mantlo deserves creator credits for them. He took lame, utterly forgettable toys with sketchy, at best, premises and fashioned them into kick-ass star-spanning epics that outlasted the toy lines on which they were based by many years. He wrote every issue of both series. His time on Spider-Man was excellent. It's where he began Cloak and Dagger, gave us bionic Silvermane (a seriously hideous image, to be certain), and the great Owl vs. Doctor Octopus storyline culminating in "The Long Goodbye" (somewhere around #80),
the best Spidey vs. Doc Ock battle ever published, bar none. He wrote a lot of first-rate HULK stories, as well. He particularly seemed to let his imagination run wild on the Hulk, and filled the book with insane fantasy elements--that's how we got Rocket Raccoon, among other things. He wrote a long arc in which he had Bruce Banner's mind gain control of the Hulk, which took the book in all kinds of new directions. His most significant contribution to the character, though, was, of course, in writing the story of Banner's childhood, the real origin of the Hulk.

Bill was a master of haunting stories, things so beautifully written and that got under your skin so effectively they'd stay with you long after you'd put the book down. I'd even call this his trademark, the thing he did better than anything. In particular, he would, every so often, pull, seemingly out of nowhere, some remarkably haunting one-shot short-story, plop it down in a book where it would seem, on its face, to have no business being at all, and make it work so well that the reader not only thought it entirely appropriate but was left wanting much more of the same. These showed up in almost every book he wrote for any length of time. Many found their way into the Hulk (two of my favorites are "People In Glass Houses Shouldn't Hurt Hulks" from #262 and "Jack Frost Nipping At Your Soul" from #249). One became one of my favorite Marvel Conan stories, "The Army of the Dead," from SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN #110--a wonderfully odd metaphorical tale of the Army of the Dead beseiging the City of Life, with a nearly-dead Conan caught in the middle..

Bill was remarkably prolific. His output amounted to hundreds of stories, almost all of them for Marvel. He created Jack of Hearts, Cloak & Dagger, and probably more other characters for Marvel than anyone since Stan Lee. Jim Shooter notoriously dissed him after he was no longer capable of defending himself, but Jim Shooter is a notorious prick, and nobody really gives a damn what he has to say about anything, right?

Now I imagine that any of you who know who Bill Mantlo is will, by now, have heard what happened to him. Several years ago, he was clobbered by a hit-and-run driver while he was out rollerblading. It didn't kill him, but his head took an horrendus whack, and a lot of his mind just didn't make it. These days, he's a mess. The online sources don't go into too many details, but it's certainly obvious it isn't a pretty picture. He needs constant daily care, and will for the rest of his life.

A Mantlo fan, David Yurkovich, has put together a tribute to Bill called A LIFE IN COMICS, scheduled for publication in early summer. As the title suggests, it's a retrospective of Bill's comic career. The proceeds from the sale of it are going to help pay for Bill's care; you get a copy of it when you make a donation to the cause. It's a fine project. I made a donation earlier tonight. I almost felt ashamed that I couldn't give more. Money is a bit tight at the moment, but, in all honesty, anything I could give, even in the best of times, would seem utterly inadequate. There isn't a dollar figure I'd ever be able to muster that would repay Bill for all the enjoyment his work has given me over the years. As inadequate as it seems, however, my donation this evening is at least something, and, with the spirit upon me, I wanted to come here and urge all of you to follow my lead. If Bill's work has ever touched your heart, if you've ever experienced mad laughter at the audacity of the spectacle of Cotton Mather striking down the Scarlet Witch, if you've ever had your breath taken away by a seemingly doomed Spidey fighting back against, defeating, and ripping the mechanical arms from Doc Ock, or if you've felt a shiver down your spine when pondering the grotesque Hybrid, click on the link below, punch up the old Paypal account, and share some of the love. We in comics are a small, marginal group. We have to look out for our own.

http://www.sleepinggiantcreations.com/comics-ogns/mantlo/sgc-mantlo-main.html

--j.

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