Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Bill Mantlo : a Marvel Comics Group childhood

Bill Mantlo's prolific Marvel Comics Group comic book work holds many personal kid memories for me. ROM #24 is one of the first two comic books I ever bought with my own money It’s a nice way to tie up the Nova series, though I’m glad Erik Larsen and subsequent creators like Abnett/ Lanning continued his story. (Wolfman left for DC just before ROM #24 was created so it was a way of tying up the character’s legacy for the time being.)

Now when I came on to assist Joe Phillips for a brief while, one of our first conversations was how interesting it was to bring Rich Ryder back to Earth sans powers. That one idea sparks a corner of my own creative universe: it’s like Howard the Duck’s “What to do the Night After You Save the Universe?” story, that kind of quiet interface that makes the comic book world merge so readily with our own, especially when we are the young “secret identity” ! (You're welcome to check out my 'Sunstrike' posts in Be Chill, Cease ill, our sister blog. I really must re-visit the character, I think there's a cool sci-fi novel in his tale..) Meanwhile the ROM series –despite starting out with stories where the character’s name is used three to five times a page, by himself and those conversing with him, which may be a late 70′s thing—is a warm reminder of our honeymoon. My doll adored Mantlo’s Shakespearean (Surfer)-like diction and the romantic tragedy of Rom and Brandy, through about three dozen mid-run issues we found for a dime each and read together on the floor. I wrote a tribute to that memory through Zon, Cosmic Knight From Beyond, in my novel. Hey, I’m not playin’ with Parker Brothers unless it’s a board game.

 Originally, I made it back to the 75 issue run in its last year, fondly recalling #24, and bought it faithfully with my chores and grade money. I got to enjoy some first run Steve Ditko artwork( see my 2011 posts), and really enjoyed Bill's journey back to Galador, especially the fellow space knights found along the way. They represent a legacy that continues at Marvel, even with Rom himself snarled in ownership difficulties.

The Spectacular Spider-Man covers from Mantlo’s second run were full of brilliant graphic art ideas, weren’t they? Al Milgrom and Frank Springer may not be spoken of with the hushed tones of a Perez or Byrne, but their cover ideas were dramatic, even heart-pounding! To use a more straight-forward but visceral example, Spider-Man holding a bloodied Black Cat will remain sketched forever in my young memory (#76—the copy I borrowed was in bad shape, too, which just adds to the effect!) The tension of the Owl-Octopus War is remembered across the Internet; I don't think there had been a more badass confrontation with a villain since the original Goblin died, than in #78. I'll say no more! 

His Punisher appearances were really off-the-wall, and he wrote an ongoing saga with the Kingpin of Crime that hit Spidey close to home. Best of all was his creation of Cloak and Dagger, which seemed for a time to be the hit characters of the decade. With runaway teen drama and drugs, Tandy and Tyrone's dark origin story had a gritty real life vibe, and their struggles with right and wrong were intriguing. They were terrific foils to Spider-Man, who tried to control, counsel and protect them, alternatively. Bill wrote the great Carrion stories in SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #25-30; it's always a great hook when the villain knows Peter's secret and Peter doesn't know the villain's! You can find his work in the ESSENTIAL SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN volumes (this story ends the first one). Some of my first collected back issues were written by Bill. I really liked the look of the Guardsman, featured on the cover of IRON MAN #97. I was about twelve---still a great age to enjoy Bill's work. That summer, I bought IRON MAN #95-100, one by one. Stark's showdown with governmental hearings marked a different era; can you imagine Tony Stark actually keeping his identity secret today? Probably not after seeing the movies! A swap with O'Brien and new hi-tech armor culminating in a great battle with a revamped Mandarin: it was many of the classic tropes of the character during his first few decades of existence. In fact, there's almost a haunting familiarity across the stories and plots over time. Jim Starlin drew a terrific tribute cover for #100...if only I hadn't asked Jim Steranko about it when I met him in 2006! Well, at least we got to hang out a while, so I made up for my ignorance.

Finally, “The Machine or the Mountain?” issue of HULK, with the death of Glenn Talbot, was one of the rare comics Mom bought me in those days. “Sunset of a Samurai!” in #260 was my first significant exposure to Japanese culture, and the director’s story alongside the battle with Talbot was maybe the richest comic book I had ever read for the first years of my life. Hulk’s trademark melancholy, indeed! Hulk stories often relied on transient characters to embolden the drama and human element, as the character was relatively limited before Peter David. Overall, Bill is the classic Hulk scripter of the 1980's. His most favored story line included the story above, in the midst of a globe-trotting odyssey where Hulk met super people originating across the entire world (like Sabre in Israel and the Arabian Night in Saudi Arabia). Hats off for trying something different and intriguing young minds with the globe.

When I read the synopses for the MTU time travel stories, I was enthralled, trying to block that action out in the style of those terrific covers, one bleak and exciting alternative history/ future after the next, complete with Doctor Doom! I think the concept and character choices are even better than the execution, but they’re so quintessentially 70′s! I loved those Olshevsky indices…perfect for the collector with limited cash…great for the imagination! Probably why I still let the ‘Net and blogs like this substitute for my mostly-distant comics collection. Anyway, Bill introduced Jean DeWolfe in Marvel Team Up, as well as her brother, the Wraith, and their twisted father Phillip. He even did a call back to Spider-Man and the Torch versus the Enforcers, the Big Man, The Crime Master, and the Sandman when he first came on the title, like a true loving fan revisiting the first glory days of Marvel. It’s just as well we don’t have the story of Spidey’s illegitimate child to kick around (a vetoed, controversial idea that provides interesting stories, but maybe just isn't a good Spider-Man idea?). I rarely felt Mantlo captured naturalistic dialogue like, say, Roger Stern. Yet, his Stan Lee-inspired melodrama, so often paired with Buscema’s rhomboid mouths, is a delightful callback to childhood for many of us visiting here. It's too bad I've only read a couple of his MICRONAUTS issues with Michael Golden. The saga of the lost rebels of the inner world and their timely battle with Baron Karza's coup and his truly evil use of his galactic empire had a healthy 80's run. Others recall them fondly, and you have to imagine toy tie-in fans by the thousands made Mantlo's some of their first, and maybe only, comics.

Bill's ambition to use his comics money to go to law school was impressive and forward thinking; one can only imagine what Mantlo closing arguments would sound like. I am sorry for his terrible accident and brain trauma; life has not been easy for him. I am glad fans still send cards and well-wishes. Anyone who want to support any further fund raising for his ongoing care, feel free to leave a comment. Boisterous Bill, you'e not forgotten!!!

Further evidence of that: Marvel gave Bill a private screening of Guardians of the Galaxy, which featured his creation, Rocket Raccoon!  Marvel also made a large but undisclosed provision to help his family with the moutainous medical bills.  I am glad Rocket on screen could still bring a smile to Bill's face, as did his creator credit at the end.  Tears! :-D

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