Remembering Bill Mantlo
July 6, 2001
Although we live in the same state, I usually am unable to visit my mom more than two or three times per year. She is in suburban Pittsburgh, and I am in Philadelphia. It’s about a 5-hour drive, so when I do go to see her, it’s generally for a long weekend. Aside from visiting with family, there isn’t much to do after hours—I’ve lost touch with virtually all of my school chums. However, I do keep a small stash of approximately 100 comics in a box in a closet of the downstairs bedroom of my mom’s duplex. The box contains a variety of comics, all very low-grade reading copies for those of you thinking of performing a little breaking-and-entering. And when I am visiting, and the hour is late, and I am bored, I typically open the box and reread some of the comics therein. I have many of these comics in my collection at my home in Philadelphia, but I enjoy keeping these reading copies my mom’s house—and no, she hasn’t thrown them out! For me, they serve as a sort of reminder of my youth, of how life used to be. The comics in this box include various issues of Werewolf by Night, The Defenders, Captain America, Amazing Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk, and Marvel Team-Up. When I look through this box, I seem to be transported back to my teens, to the time when comic books became forever intertwined with my life. Which brings me to Bill Mantlo.
In each of our lives there are moments that shape and define who we are—who we will become. In 1978, at the age of 14, I had no idea who I was, much less what I wanted to be. It was Star Wars, of all things, that piqued my interest in comics, and in May, 1978 it was Marvel Team-Up (MTU) 72 that ultimately hooked me on super-heroes once and for all. I won’t profess to be an authority in the works of Bill Mantlo, but his was one of the first “names” I started to recognize on the splash-page credits (the other being John Byrne). MTU 72 was, truth be told, a fill-in issue. The book’s regular creative team (Byrne and Chris Claremont) did not produce issue 72, although Byrne (with Bob Layton) did contribute a fantastic cover. The story, written by Bill and drawn by the outstanding Jim Mooney teamed Spider-Man with Iron Man. The story features one of the most dramatic sequences in any Spider-Man comic: While attempting to foil a fur heist, the webbed-wonder is ambushed and shot by a machine-gun turret (firing “mercy” bullets) atop the crooks’ getaway vehicle. Spidey valiantly fights back the bullets’ deadly nerve drug, and topples the getaway van onto its side. Moments later, near collapse, he is snared by a electrified coil belonging to the notorious Whiplash. I will not retell to you the entire story, needless to say, good triumphs over evil. Amazingly enough, MTU 72 features one of the few apperances by Whiplash since his initial stint in Tales of Suspense 97-99 from a decade prior. Whiplash would later be featured in the pages of Iron Man, and would eventually assume the moniker Blacklash (courtesy of David Michelinie). But it was MTU that had hooked me like a fish on a line (which is, I swear, the only sporting-related analogy I will use in this column).
A comic book junkie is not all so different from a crack junkie, or a cocaine junkie. Comic book junkies need their super-hero fixes just as narcotic addicts need to experience the altered states akin to their choice of poison. How many of us have dragged our significant other into the comics shop, feeling embarrassed, as if a secret hideout had suddenly been revealed. As if a “dealer” had suddenly been made known to them. I’d like, however, to believe that comic book dependence is a bit healthier than illegal substance obsession. Point being, the comic book addict invariably must return to the source—be it newsstand, grocer, bookstore, or comics specialty shop—for a new fix. After reading MTU 72 several times during the week in which I purchased it, I returned for my fix and found two consecutive issues (20 and 21) of Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man. To my delight, both issues were written by Bill. I was now hooked on Bill’s work; fortunately for me, there was plenty more to be found. And as I began to locate back-issue comics through various mail-order suppliers, I began to see the name Bill Mantlo more and more frequently. In the months and years that would follow, Bill would work on countless titles including three of my favorites of the era: Incredible Hulk, Rom: Spaceknight, and Micronauts. These series, particularly the latter two mentioned here, are among the overlooked gems of Marvel circa late-70s-to-mid-80s.
To attempt to describe these books would defeat the point of this column. Rather, I will only say that Bill Mantlo brought to his scripts a sense of life and continuity that far exceeded what I think most of us expected from comics at that time. His first Micronauts story arc spanned 11 issues, and culminated with amazing maturity and acumen that genuinely showed what being a “hero” was about. Likewise, when he took over the reins of Incredible Hulk, he introduced new characters, reinserted old characters, and gave the Hulk a sense of direction, a feeling of permanence that remains unsurpassed to date. His narrative was pure Marvel “house” style, but yet, it stood out as unique and fresh. When Rom: Spaceknight was released, I purchased it with a bit of skepticism. It was, after all, based on a Parker Brothers toy that, to my then 15-year-old eyes, looked about as much fun as watching a roof being tarred. But Rom was, in my humble opinion, one of the more unique concepts to be launched by Marvel during that time. Indeed, the book ran for nearly 80 issues (75 monthly issues and 4 giant-sized annuals)! Not bad for an armor-plated spaceknight sent to earth to fight evil. A simple concept, yes, but one made interesting and enjoyable by Bill’s amazing scriptwriting and characterization.
There are others, of course, many others: A brilliant seven-issue story arc in Spectacular Spider-Man in which the clone of Professor Miles Warren returns to destroy our webbed-hero; the Human Fly, purportedly based on the real-life exploits of a human daredevil adventurer; Captain Universe (in the pages of Marvel Spotlight, with art by the legendary Steve Ditko; an incredible issue of Marvel Fanfare meticulously rendered by Michael Golden and featuring a knock-down drag-out battle between Spidey and the Hulk. That’s really just the tip of the iceberg, the needle on the nerve ending, of a truly inspiring writing career.
Time marches on. Following graduation from high school and, four years thereafter, college, I relocated to the Washington, DC, area, and a year later, to Philadelphia. There was a period during college when I lost interest in comics more or less altogether. Thankfully, this period was short lived, and I soon found myself returning to the 7-11s and newsstands for a weekly fix.
In the mid-to-late 80s, I did not see many new comics with Bill’s name in the credits. At that time, I didn’t think much of it and assumed that with the massive volume of work he’d written he was probably taking a sabbatical from comic book writing.
Time marches on further. In the latter part of the 90s, I read an article—or perhaps it was a letter—in CBG that made reference to the fact that Bill had been struck by a vehicle while roller-blading on the West coast. I was stunned. I really went into a bit of shock with this news. While I’d never met Bill, I did feel a kinship toward him: Years earlier, when I wrote to the Micronauts letter’s page, Bill wrote back to me personally. This was a very important moment in my life at that time. Other chums had their own heroes—mainly, professional sportsmen—but my heroes were people I had never even seen much less met; people like John Byrne, Michael Golden, Frank Miller, and Bill Mantlo. These were (are) my heroes, and that note from Bill was every bit as sweet as the home-run ball in the ninth inning of game 7 of the World Series. (Okay, so I made another sports analogy; sue me why don’t you?)
Yeah, I was stunned when I’d read the news of Bill’s accident. And as I write this, I’m still filled with sorrow. I understand that, at the time of the accident, Bill had actually left the comics industry and was working in, or studying, law. I would like to think that had the accident not happened he would one day have returned to write comics. Bill Mantlo will always remain, to me at least, one of the great comic book writers of the 20th century. And every time I visit my mom’s home, and flip through the comics in the cardboard box in the closet, I read one of Bill’s stories, and time seems to dissolve and the world is a simpler place.
NOTE: I do not have a checklist of Bill Mantlo’s work but would like to have one. If you have such a list, I’d be most appreciative if you would share it with me.
Addendum (July 10, 2001): In rereading this column, it occurs to me that my words may lead readers to believe that Bill's accident was fatal. It was not. Although the accident caused injuries that have left Bill cognitively impaired, he is, to my understanding, alive and living in Merrick, New York.
Addendum 2 (Revenge of the Addendum) (February 28, 2003): Just a brief word of thanks to Colin Campbell. Colin's knowledge of comics and comic book history is amazing, and he's not only shared this knowledge with me, but has helped me correct several of my own oversights. Good man, that Colin is.
NEXT: Shock value versus shock value! Really, no, really!!
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