November 10, 2004

A Tribute to Bill Mantlo

by Matt Rossi

This post is entirely due to a phone call that I had this afternoon: be glad you weren't the poor bastard who called me. He had to listen to me ramble about this for an hour, and my long rant about George Lucas. At least you get to miss the Star Wars stuff.

I have in the past maintained my fondness for DC over Marvel, when that long-repeated squabble rears its ugly head, the Coke vs. Pepsi of the comic book world that ignores the various other brands (and it may say something about us as a people that we tend to reduce down to two what in fact contains more than two possible choices... are we simply fond of duality?) but I'm being somewhat disingenuous here. Because I did love a lot of Marvel's output growing up. And I did dig through the back-issue bins for a few specific titles. One of them was Iron Man. And it was, although until Dave Fiore reminded me recently I'd forgotten, in the pages of Iron Man that I first encountered the work of Bill Mantlo.

If Bill were writing today, his workload would stagger people. In a world where people often complain that a single writer is writing too many books (I'm not saying this isn't an accurate statement) Bill wrote everything. A list of Bill's credits over his career, thankfully not all at the same time or he might have imploded, includes the following titles:

Alpha Flight, Amazing Adventures, Amazing Spider-Man, Astonishing Tales, The Avengers, Battlestar Galactica, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Cloak & Dagger, Daredevil, Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu, The Defenders, Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, Hero for Hire, Heroes For Hope Starring the X-Men, Howard the Duck, The Human Fly, The Incredible Hulk, Invasion, Iron Man, Jack of Hearts, Journey Into Mystery/Thor, The Mighty Thor, Ka-Zar, Marvel Age, Marvel Chillers, Marvel Fanfare, Marvel Premiere, Marvel Spotlight, Marvel Super Hero Contest of Champions, Marvel Tales (Marvel Tales Starring Spider-man), Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Treasury Edition, Marvel Two-In-One, Micronauts, Rawhide Kid, Rocket Raccoon, ROM, Sectaurs, Spectacular Spider-Man (Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man), Spider-Man and Daredevil, Strange Tales (2nd series), Super-Villain Team-Up, Swords of the Swashbucklers, Tales of Suspense (Captain America/Captain America and the Falcon/Steve Rogers: Captain America), Team America, Transformers, The Vision and The Scarlet Witch (the entire miniseries), Web of Spider-Man, Werewolf by Night, What If..., X-Men, and X-men and the Micronauts.

That's one hell of a resume.

Obviously, not everything he wrote was a gem. However, that early run of Iron Man stories was everything a warped kid like me could hope for. Mantlo came on the book with Ultimo rampaging, Jasper Sitwell and Shellhead doing their level best to stop it (I've always dug Ultimo, a big bad robot who smashes things like a Kaiju gone nuts... it's interesting to me that Iron Man has fought Ultimo and later Fin Fang Foom, making him the Marvel universe's version of Ultraman) and moving on to a fight with Michael O'Brien in the Guardsman armor, then ol' Shellhead himself forced to wear the Guardsman armor against Sunfire in Japan, and then the return of the Malevolent Mandarin in Iron Man issue 100, one of the first times I ever saw more than one guy in an Iron Man suit (Stark was forced to wear the classic 'fin-head' armor to bail Michael O'Brien out, who'd taken Stark's new armor in an attempt to take the Mandarin out... the scene of Iron Man switching into his new finery has been oft-repeated by later writers on the character) and all of this was just a prologue, really, to Mantlo's next fifteen issues on the book, where he would introduce the Dreadknight (Iron Man actually ends up at Castle Frankenstein), then introduces the character of Midas, a corporate raider who would attempt to seize control of Stark Enterprises (Obadiah Stane before there was an Obadiah Stane) before taking Iron Man to space alongside Jack of Hearts to fight the Rigellian Colonizers, and then Mantlo introduced Arsenal, the robot created by Howard Stark in case of a Nazi conquest of America before leaving his tenure on the book to Michelinie and Layton with a big Madame Masque/Count Nefaria story. While some of Mantlo's dialogue was a bit stiff, just looking over his 20 issues from Iron Man #95 to 115 is looking at what Iron Man should be: a wild, frenetic, action packed thrill ride with giant monsters, sneering villains, corporate intrigue, high-tech gadgets, Stark family dynamics and doomed love affairs with beautiful but deadly women. Seriously, and I don't know that anyone realized it later or even realizes it now, but what Mantlo did for Iron Man is exactly what Grant Morrison did for JLA, grounding the character in his strengths and going full-bore on the action. (I suspect that Grant's use of Midas as a sinister, Iron Man-esque villain in his Marvel Boy series shows awareness of this, but I could be wrong) - In many ways, Mantlo's run was a template that the team of Michelinie and Layton could use by deviating from it or adhering to it as it suited them.

In looking at Mantlo's work this week, I'm struck by how gonzo and imaginative it could be: his 79 issues of ROM (75 issues plus 4 annuals) are far, far better than they have any right to be: this was a comic book about a Parker Brothers Toy line that had exactly one toy in it, a toy that wasn't even all that fun to play with! Sure, his writing wasn't polished perfection all the time, and some of the plots were kind of dull, but I think that's excusable when you look at the size of his workload and the ability he had to make deadlines and turn the writing in month in and month out: obviously, it wasn't all going to be great. Still, the fact that so much of it was great, in the sense of contributing neat toys to the toybox for future writers to come along and play with... ROM Spaceknight contributed the Dire Wraiths as Skrullian deviants, the entire concept of the Neutralizer that Claremont would later use in X-Men, and in Hybrid, a telepathic offspring of a human and a dire wraith, a really creepy and effective villain. I'm often amazed at how well ROM holds up, for what it was: a campy, goofy, 'cosmic' comic book starring a cyborg from space. (And it had Sal Buscema and Steve Ditko on art.) ROM had an alien society with a war between superstition and science as well as along gender lines, a 'dark nebula' with a living black sun that fought Galactus, the In-Betweener and the Living Tribunal... Mantlo never treated the book as 'just a license' and as a result, even years after the license has elapsed, Rom makes appearances in books like Universe X (a book that, in my opinion, would have been a lot better if Mantlo was writing it). It certainly wasn't a masterwork, but Mantlo's hand can be felt all over it.

I realize in going on about Bill Mantlo's work, I run the risk of painting it as far, far better than it was: I really do think that the sheer volume of his output kept him from polishing the plots and dialogue as much as he could have, otherwise, and clearly books like Team America were at best journeyman fare. (Still, only Bill Mantlo would have taken the job to write a comic book based on a toy motorcycle you placed in a launcher and wound up and treated it so sincerely - neither Shooter nor Steven Grant can say they did the same) But Mantlo's best work... his most insanely inventive and outrageous work... simply defies convention. One of the examples of this is in Mantlo's run on The Incredible Hulk. Much as his run on Iron Man was eclipsed in the imagination of the fans by the Michelinie/Layton run that wouldn't have been possible without Mantlo's work, Mantlo's run on old Jadejaws was been eclipsed by the long Peter David run that built on the groundwork that Bill Mantlo laid down in his time on the character.

Also, Mantlo had the Hulk go to a world based on a Beatles song.

Bill Mantlo's run on the Hulk went from issue 245 to issue 312, an astonishing 67 issues that took the Hulk from Jarella's world (the character having died previous to Mantlo's run) to a quietly powerful issue dealing with the origins of the rage that Bruce Banner carried in his heart, the rage that the gamma rays made real as the rampaging Hulk (and if you saw Ang Lee's Hulk movie, you've seen that issue of the comic book made real in the opening sequence and later when Bruce comes to the house he grew up in) but Mantlo built up to that powerful and disturbing issue of the comic with stories of ghosts in the old west, of the Hulk self-defining himself as a monster, with a story of a lost and confused Hulk on an alien planet populated by talking animals (the 'Rocket Raccoon' storyline/crossover) and the establishing of Banner's mind as dominant in the Hulk's body (during which time Mantlo has the Hulk cross paths with the Wendigo, MODOK, an aging gangster and a dog who would be cured of disease by the gamma rays but ultimately would mutate into savage berserkers like the Hulk himself, and a man who wanted to kill the Hulk for the damage the enraged monster had done to his town and his life, the first time anyone really dealt substantively with the aftermath of the Hulk's long rampages across the American west) which led to some interesting consequences in the Hulk's life: what other comic book would have the main character, upon discovering that his current love interest is in fact a spy for S.H.I.E.L.D. watching for signs of danger, decide that they might well be right to do so and forgive her for it, continuing the relationship? And when Mantlo has the savage, unthinking Hulk return, he does so deftly: it's Banner who ultimately causes the savage Hulk's dominance by choosing to destroy himself utterly in a battle against the dimensional tyrant Nightmare, who was using the Hulk as a weapon against Dr. Strange: Banner chooses to 'die', to allow the savagery and rage of the Hulk loose with no human moderator, rather than go back to the constant struggle between himself and his anger. The huge battle between the Hulk and the various heroes who oppose him and the Hulk's banishment to the Crossroads dimension, Mantlo moves the story one step further along his ultimate path: having shown Bruce Banner gaining a moment of control only to have it slip away due to his own unwillingness to confront his inner struggle, we now see the near-mindless Hulk totally unable to manifest any positive change, as Strange's spell keeps taking him to works where not even a Hulk can wreak havoc, and then whisking him back to the crossroads when he becomes unable to cope with these new existences. Now even the Hulk cannot control his situation: his rage is seen as empty and ultimately as self-destructive as Banner's refusal to accept it.

While this is all going on, Mantlo gets to engage in full-on freakish imagination on a scale most comic books would be totally unable to: the Hulk travels from world to world, from fantasy worlds out of Moorcock or Howard with names like The City of Death (the Hulk even ends up a slave turning a wheel remarkably similar to the one Conan turned in his film incarnation) to strange wastelands where food can only be had by entering into symbiosis with what look to be alien spinal cords. There's an encounter with the U-Foes, as Mantlo has them arrive in the Crossroads because Vector's powers of repulsion grow so strong that he repels reality itself, an idea you'd expect to read in New X-Men if it had been written more recently, and a cross-cosmos hunt for the interdimensional version of the great white whale, an old Hulk antagonist named Klaatu. There's a puffball collective which is ultimately revealed to be an agent of the N'Garai demons, an appearance by three aspects of the Hulk's personality as floating imps that alternately help and antagonize him, and an ancient alchemist from Edinburgh, lost since the 1700's on an alien world seeking immortality. Through it all we're exposed to various facets of the Hulk as he interacts, for once, with forces even more powerful than he is, culminating in Mantlo's use of the excreable Secret Wars II crossover to delve into the history of Bruce Banner and his relationship with his parents in Mantlo's last issue of the book before switching with John Byrne's Alpha Flight, a title I didn't read and don't have a lot to say about. I should take the opportunity to say that Sal Buscema's art really worked on the Crossroads stories, and his signpost made of melted together vaguely human forms is very iconic for the kind of weirdness Mantlo would unleash during this year on the book.

Of course, detailing the work of Bill Mantlo also means we have to acknowledge what happened to him after he left comic books to go back to practicing the law: Bill was hit by an car in 1992 and a 'closed-head, traumatic brain injury' that seemed to cost him some of his faculties. This is a rotten shame and I can't think about the man's work without hoping he's continued to improve, although the last time I heard about him (this post on the comicon board from November of last year) he has not. It's not a fitting way for someone who was in many ways the most relentlessly imaginative comic book writer Marvel ever had to spend his life, and I hope that he knows that what he did influenced and entertained a whole lot of us.

Posted by Matt Rossi at November 10, 2004 9:17 PM

#1 ::: David Fiore ::: November 10, 2004 10:41 PM ::: link

very nice Matt, and I concur with you on Iron Man, Hulk, and Rom, all of which were very interesting! (and also on Alpha Flight, which I never read either) Still, I'll always associate Mantlo primarily with Spectacular Spider-Man... (I know, I know--is there anything I don't associate with either Spider-Man or The Blithedale Romance? but in this case I think it's justified!) I'm pleased to see that the early issues of that series will be collected into an essentials volume, because I think they deserve to be read! Mantlo really made use of the mandate they gave him to play up Pete's on-campus life as a grad student (which I can appreciate now more than ever!) He also brought in the White Tiger as a supporting character, and I always liked good ol' Hector! And don't forget Razorback! (he was one tough road-hog!) and the motherfuckin' Hypnohustler (a one-man disco-demolition crew!) Sal Buscema, Jim Mooney, Frank Springer, and Frank Miller all contributed some fine artwork...

Best of all, Mantlo re-opened the wonderful old Jackal/Gwen-clone wounds by introducing the menace of Carrion, in a six-part series that sucked Daredevil (as mentor to the temporarily blind protagonist), The Masked Marauder, the Tri-Man, and the whole supporting cast into its vortex of insanity!

yes Bill--you made a lot of people happy!


#2 ::: Matt Rossi ::: November 10, 2004 11:08 PM ::: link

Now I'm imagining Mantlo's adaption of The House of Seven Gables with Spider-Man and the Ghost Rider, perhaps.

#3 ::: Ralf Haring ::: November 11, 2004 12:02 AM ::: link

I agree with the comments about ROM. The book is far better than it has any right to be. After the Dire Wraith invasion is stopped and ROM heads off into space it loses its direction for a while. The Rick Jones cancer plot and subsequent resolution was not particularly welcome. Also Steve Ditko's lithe, organic art did not suit the square, boxy spaceknight as well as Sal Busecma's did.

Tony Isabella always makes the rounds to remind people about him every year at this time. Here's a newsgroup thread:

#4 ::: kate ::: November 11, 2004 1:54 AM ::: link

I've always enjoyed Mantlo's ideas.

His dialogue, however, could use some work. A lot of work. Mountains of work.

#5 ::: Martin Wisse ::: November 11, 2004 8:40 AM ::: link

Don't forget Micronauts, another lame toy line made into something quite special, as well as one of the first "hot" books, mostly due to Michael Golden's beautiful artwork on the first 11 issues and whatever happened to him?

Mantlo had some dire moments, but on the whole almost everything he wrote was at least enjoyable, at best some of the best writing Marvel had at the time.

#6 ::: Robert Karol ::: November 11, 2004 11:06 AM ::: link

I don't know what interiors Golden's done, but I know that he did a couple of covers for Stormwatch: Team Achilles towards the end of its' run.

#7 ::: Nathan ::: November 11, 2004 11:44 AM ::: link

Funnily enough, I was just thinking about Bill Mantlo the other day. However, it was in connection to the "What dream project would you work on?" thread, where I wanted to excise Mantlo's entire misbegotten run on Alpha Flight and reboot it to the day that John Byrne left.

Bill may have been a wonderful person, and of course I wouldn't wish a loss of mental faculties on my worst enemy's mother-in-law. But for years I used his name as a curse for what he did to Alpha Flight.

#8 ::: David Fiore ::: November 11, 2004 12:38 PM ::: link

interesting, it would seem that Mantlo's Alpha Flight run is the kryptonite that destroys respect for the man's work... I'm glad I avoided it! (didn't Hudnall succeed Mantlo on the title? surely the Boisterous One did a better job than Mr. 100% American?)


#9 ::: Chris Durnell ::: November 11, 2004 1:27 PM ::: link

Bill Mantlo was one of those writers whose work represents what should have been the norm/minimum on comics. For the most part, I could always read a Mantlo comic. However, he was certainly not my ideal writer, and I put his work in a distinct secondary category behind Stern/Michelenie/Byrne/Claremont/Miller.

Mantlo was very good at creating new characters - some of whom were very, very cool. He was certainly an asset to Marvel because of this.

However, I find Mantlo's work to be filled more with the potential of what other writer's could do with his creations than realizing that potential himself.

Jim Shooter has said in multiple interviews that he did not consider Mantlo an A-List writer, but Mantlo would create new characters all the time to improve his worth to the company. Obviously, even if Mantlo was not Shooter's favorite writer, the fact Shooter's Marvel gave Mantlo so much work indicates Shooter thought he was useful. Mantlo was a professional.

However, I don't know a single Alpha Flight fan (including myself) that doesn't think he destroyed the series. He just simply did not understand how it appealed to fans.

#10 ::: Matt Rossi ::: November 11, 2004 2:07 PM ::: link

Chris - without sounding like an apologist, I think it was an error to move Mantlo off of what was his best work at the time (his astonishingly creative and evocative Hulk run) onto Alpha Flight. Now, not having read his run on the book, I can hardly defend it, but it certainly seems to me that moving from a solo title which you just spent a year taking the character from alien dimension to alien dimension while slowly rebuilding his sanity and intellect to a team book heavily involved in Byrnean soap-operatics wasn't the way to go. (I base this on the Byrnean soap-operatics in his run on The Hulk, which was just entirely misbegotten, if well illustrated: I could read and reread the issue of the Hulk fighting the big four powerhouse Avengers of the time, Iron Man, Hercules, Wonder Man and Namor, over and over again just for the art.)

Ultimately, I don't argue with the idea that Mantlo wasn't the wordsmith that a Roger Stern was, but I do think the guy contributed a hell of a lot to Marvel: I think he was a master at adding to the toybox.

#11 ::: JJMcC ::: November 11, 2004 3:50 PM ::: link

I'll just chime in and endorse the tribute as well. Micronauts was one of two comics I ever had MAILED TO THE HOUSE. If you are plugged into my ambivalence towards sci-fi this is all the more remarkable. Sure Golden's art played a huge role, and sure it was more Star Warsy than unique. But, but, but the writing and plotting was lively and earnest and energetic, and who cared if people didn't really talk that way?

I think saying he was 'minimally' competent is prejorative. I prefer 'set the standard.' For 35-50 cents he consistently (Alpha Flight and Human Fly excepted) delivered stories worth more than the cost, and kept you coming back for more. If he couldn't generate the glorious highs of the medium he definitely raised the mean and contributed to my overall fondness for the period when I look back. Even writers that hit the highs can't necessarily claim that.

He wasn't the best there was at what he did, but what he did was NICE.

#12 ::: David Van Domelen ::: November 11, 2004 5:26 PM ::: link

While I suspect I would not enjoy going back and re-reading them, I enjoyed Mantlo's Alpha Flight at the time. And considering that Alpha Flight was the first comic I *collected* (in the sense of making an effort to keep getting issues after I first read #12), I suppose I'd count as an Alpha Flight fan who didn't think Mantlo destroyed the title.

#13 ::: Martin Wisse ::: November 14, 2004 11:41 AM ::: link

I may be one of the few people who likeed Mantlo's Alpha Flight better than Byrne's version, which suffered from all the usual Byrne defects.

At least Mantlo acknowledged that Northstar was gay.

#14 ::: Dan Coyle ::: November 16, 2004 12:14 AM ::: link

Hey, Great article! I too have a love for Mantlo's run on HULK, which did a lot of neat and cool things. Cornball dialogue to the extreme, though, but I think they still hold up.

The "Monster" storyline in #312- Barry Windsor-Smith has proclaimed for the last decade or so that that's actually ripped off from a Hulk story he wrote that Shooter rejected because Banner's father said "goddamn" in it (Apparently, Windsor-Smith discovered this after Mantlo's accident, though) There's a comprehensiver article about it in the relaunched COMIC BOOK ARTIST's first issue.

One of my favorite Mantlo stories is the SPEC SPIDEY Doctor Octopus story, which takes place roughly from issues #72-79- Peter goes through battles with Ollie Osnick, the future Spider-Kid, the Gladiator, and deals with things such as the goodbye of Deb whatshername and the sudden return- and almost loss- of the Black Cat at the hands of Doc Ock. It even has one of the strangest pieces of imagery I've ever seen. In issue #78, Peter has lunch with his friends- and the table is laid out like the Last Supper and Peter is Jesus. I'm not kidding.

The final issue of the story features a Spidey/Doc Ock battle so intense that there hasn't been any writer since that's been able to top it.

#15 ::: Matt Rossi ::: November 16, 2004 12:50 AM ::: link

It's a failing of mine, but I'm such a fan of both Windsor-Smith and Mantlo that I really have no idea what to say to the idea that Mantlo ripped BWS off: clearly he can't defend himself against the charge now, so I sort of wish Barry hadn't brought it up. Even as I type this, however, I know I'd be apeshit if I had a story idea stolen from me, so... it's sad and it will never be cleared up, unfortunately. I'd prefer to think that if it happened at all, it was a case of Mantlo turning in a similar story to the one BWS came up wth sight unseen.

#16 ::: Martin Wisse ::: November 16, 2004 11:17 AM ::: link

Personally, if Mantlo "Stole" this idea from BWS, I can't fault him too much for it: better a idea stolen well than invented badly.