David Yurkovich is not just the Xeric Award winner that gave us Death By Chocolate, Less Than Heroes, and other indie comics gems. He’s also the historian that’s putting together a book about 70’s Marvel mainstay Bill Mantlo, and when I found out about the project I was immediately interested. Like most of us that got into Marvel comics in the 1970’s, I had a lot of Mantlo comics in my collection: I was particularly fond of his work on the Sons of the Tiger in Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, a strip he was doing with a new kid named George Perez.
I never knew that much about the man himself — Bill Mantlo seemed to disappear from comics in the late 80’s, and I’d seen vague reports about him being in some sort of accident, but that was all. So when I heard David Yurkovich was researching Bill Mantlo’s career in comics, I was nosy enough to write and ask him if he’d talk about the project here. He was gracious enough to agree, and I’m giving the column space to that interview today. Enjoy.
First of all, can you tell us how this book project came about? Is it a benefit? What kind of book is it, exactly? A biography, a critical appreciation, a retrospective, all of the above, or what?
The Bill Mantlo Benefit Book (aka, MANTLO: A LIFE IN COMICS) is a project I’ve wanted to do for many years and for a variety of reasons. I’ve recently launched a portal on my site that has sample pages and other information about this project: you can find it here.
Having grown up in the 1970s, I was a huge STAR WARS fan; this led me to comics. Initially, I had little interest in super-hero titles, though I’d read ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS many times a few years earlier and quite dug it. But what attracted me to comics was the Marvel STAR WARS series, which was launched to coincide with the film’s release. Because the title existed outside of the Marvel Universe, Marvel’s editors would fill empty, non-paid-ad pages with house ads for other Marvel titles. One issue had something like 15 or 20 house ads for other Marvel titles. The ads were just these tiny, quarter page teaser pieces-the kind you’d typically find on a letters page if the editors hadn’t received enough letters to fill an entire page. Those ads hooked me into trying super-hero titles, and I was soon collecting and reading Spider-Man (even, gasp, SPIDEY SUPER STORIES). At the time, Bill was writing the PETER PARKER title, and he totally sucked me in with the Carrion saga.
Another seminal event during this time in my youth was the publication of MARVEL TEAM-UP 72. Bill wrote this fill-in after leaving MTU a year or so earlier. The cover by John Byrne and Bob Layton was iconic, and featured Spider-Man and Iron Man being thrashed by Shellhead’s long-time adversary, Whiplash. Bill wrote the tale, and I think it was drawn by Sal Buscema and Jim Mooney.
Anyway, I must have read that story a dozen times; it ensnared me further, and I started to notice this “Mantlo” fellow appearing in the byline of quite a few of the comics I was reading. Shortly thereafter, MICRONAUTS debuted, and again, I bought into the whole mythology. When I was age 15 or 16, I wrote a fan letter to Bill (around the time MICRONAUTS was going to the direct market). I sent him a few drawings that I’d done of the Micronauts cast. He sent me a nice, hand-written reply (which I still cherish) basically telling me to keep at it, to keep practicing. It was very inspirational because, by this time, I really wanted to draw comics and Bill (along with Roger Stern and Roger McKenzie) was among my favorite comics writers.
It was only a few years ago that I learned about Bill’s accident. The news moved me to compose an essay about Bill on my web site. Shortly thereafter, I was contacted by his brother and caregiver, Mike Mantlo. Mike and I have never met, but we’ve been email pals since that time. I dedicated my 2004 collection, LESS THAN HEROES, to Bill, and then started to really shift my thought process more toward doing a mag that showcased Bill’s legacy.
It became an obsession and I found myself having difficulty sleeping at night because I’d lie awake and think about what the book might consist of. I initially hoped to attract the interest of Two-Morrows (since they do the Jack Kirby non-profit magazine), but they expressed no interest. Thus, I decided to produce it myself and to make it a benefit book. I don’t want to profit from Bill’s legacy; rather, I’d like to give something back for the hundreds of stories he gave to me and to comics fans worldwide.
The book is part biography, part critical review, part retrospective. I’m working to develop each section in a chronological fashion. This initially proved challenging, because Bill was constantly writing multiple projects on a consecutive basis, but I’ve managed to work it out in a way that should prove reader friendly. I’m also including new fiction that Bill wrote but has never before been published. One story is entitled IT FLOATS (A GHOST STORY). It’s very clever, and is being published as a short prose story with a text-design treatment. The other story is entitled AFTERMATH, which I’ve adapted into a six-page sequential story. Bill wrote the tale as straight dialogue, so I didn’t have to edit it to work as a comics tale. Rather, I just needed to draw the pages and position the dialogue balloons. Additional never-before-seen material will be a series of cartoons that Bill drew, probably circa 1980s. These are sharp, one-panel gems reminiscent of the cartoons you’d see in THE NEW YORKER. All of Bill’s newly published fiction that is appearing will be in a color section in the center of the magazine. I think it will please Bill’s many fans who’ve been longing to read something new from Bill.
Can you tell us how Bill is doing these days?
Bill is not in the best of health. Bill was working as a public defender in New York and was severely injured many years ago while rollerblading after being struck by a driver. The driver who hit Bill didn’t stop and, as far as I know, was never caught or brought to justice for his crime. For a while Bill was comatose. Although no longer in a coma, the brain damage he suffered in the accident is irreparable. His activities of daily living are severely curtailed and he resides in a healthcare facility where he receives full-time care.
Most of us reading this probably remember Bill Mantlo as “the fill-in guy,” or “the MICRONAUTS guy,” or “the ROM guy,” during his years at Marvel . But he certainly did a lot of other work at Marvel as well… was there anything that jumped out at you, researching, that surprised you? A “hey, I didn’t realize that was Bill Mantlo!” kind of moment, or maybe just something you’d like to see him get more credit for than he does now?
I was pleasantly surprised with SWORDS OF THE SWASHBUCKLERS, an Epic series Bill and Jackson Guice co-created.
I hadn’t read the series before because I’m not much of a fan of the pirate genre, but Bill and Jackson (and later Geof Isherwood and Colleen Doran) put a nice spin on the series with the amalgam of pirate and sci-fi motifs. I also really enjoyed Bill’s RAWHIDE KID series, which he did with Herb Trimpe. It was a great spin on the Western genre, set during a time when the old West was drawing to a close. I think that, had the Western genre not dried up by the late ’70s / early ’80s, this would have made an excellent ongoing series.
Bill’s run on PETER PARKER is another example of ’80s mainstream super-hero comics at their zenith. He produced a brilliant run with Ed Hannigan that was, month after month, solid and entertaining. The run included the debut of Cloak and Dagger, and featured the return of Dr. Octopus as a major Spidey adversary.
PARADOX, a sci-fi tale that appeared in the black and white magazine BIZARRE ADVENTURES, also remains among my favorite Mantlo stories.
You’ve been talking to a lot of the folks that worked with Bill. Can you tell us who some of them are? Is there a common theme to their stories about Bill?
I’ve been in touch with various writers, artists, and editors. Most everyone has been very forthcoming. And of course this wouldn’t be happening without the help of Mike Mantlo, who is doubtless Bill’s biggest fan and is providing the book’s introduction.
The project picked up a lot of steam when a friend, Kent Jones (who does design and model work for Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN) invited me to hang out with his friend Xander Berkeley (from Fox’s 24).
Xander brought along a colleague, who turned out to be Marv Wolfman. So I spent the afternoon chatting with Marv, and the topic of the Mantlo book arose. Marv explained that while serving as Marvel’s editor, he developed a plan to rid the company of running reprint material as a result of the “Dreaded Deadline Doom” that seemed to plague the company during the early-to-mid 1970s. Marv hired Bill to write a series of fill-in stories that could be dropped into various monthly titles as needed. Marv agreed to an interview, and this lead to an interview with George Perez (who worked with Bill on DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG FU).
I also contacted folks like Mike Mignola (HULK, ROCKET RACCOON), Tony Isabella (who gave Bill the SONS OF THE TIGER assignment on DEADLY HANDS), Ed Hannigan, Al Milgrom, Roger Stern, Jackson Guice, and others; they all generously agreed to interviews and have helped to make this much more than a “one guy’s opinion” tribute.
The common themes that resonate in the interviews are that Bill always had dozens of story ideas in his head, that he worked very fast, that he was always enthusiastic about his assignments, that he cherished his daughter, and that he tried to work to his artists’ strengths.
With Marvel discovering their 70’s backlist and making it such a part of their Essential and other trade paperback reprint projects lately, suddenly it seems like there’s a whole new awareness of Bill and his Marvel work. If Marvel were to do a “Best Of Bill Mantlo” collection or something like that, do you have any speculation about what Bill himself would want in it? What was he proudest of?
Bill was proudest of CLOAK AND DAGGER, which he created and developed with writer/artist Ed Hannigan. After years of writing characters created by others, I think Bill had found his niche with CLOAK AND DAGGER.
The duo became quick fan favorites and, following a mini-series, spiraled into an ongoing series. It was obviously distressing to Bill when he was pulled from the book by the (then) powers that be. In sorting through old interviews with Bill, and from personal recollections from his brother, it seems obvious that Bill’s removal from CLOAK AND DAGGER was based on in-house politics rather than Bill’s ability to produce good stories. The characters are still popular with fans. Rick Leonardi told me that when he does convention sketches, Cloak and Dagger remain among top requests by fans. Some of Bill’s best work was done in the licensed books-MICRONAUTS and ROM. However, Marvel no longer (to my understanding) holds the licenses on this material, so it’s doubtful we’ll see it in collected form anytime soon. Along with the Claremont/Byrne X-MEN stories, the first dozen issues of MICRONAUTS (by Mantlo and Mike Golden), are representative of the high-point in comics storytelling of that era; I think Bill would definitely want these stories to appear in a MARVEL VISIONARIES series if it were possible. There’s a reason the MICRONAUTS won the 1978 Eagle Award for favorite new comic.
What are your hopes for this book? I mean, of course we all hope it sells well, but I was wondering, do you have any sort of mission statement in the back of your head as you are working on it? What do you hope readers come away with?
I hope readers walk away with a better understanding of Bill and his passion toward comics and the comics medium in general. Comics, being such a visual art form, typically acknowledge the artists who produce the work. The writers are often overlooked. I’d like readers to rediscover (or discover for the first time) Bill’s volume of work. I often speak with fans who dismiss ROM and MICRONAUTS as “toy” comics, but there is as much drama and characterization in these series as you’re likely to find in any super-hero series.
On a personal level, this is a cathartic endeavor. A pay-it-forward project by which I can thank Bill for the years of fun I’ve had in reading and rereading his work. I’m doing this project out-of-pocket, and believe me, my pockets aren’t deep. My wife and I are in the middle of a costly international adoption, so this project will largely depend on the support and help of Bill’s fans and his industry colleagues. I encourage fans and professionals to visit the web site to learn more about this project and, if at all possible, to help:
Thank you for the opportunity to discuss this. I hope the revenue from this project will go a long way toward helping Bill to have a nice quality of life.
….and there you have it. Thanks very much to David and I hope you’ll all check out Mantlo: A Life In Comics.
As for me, I’ll see you next week.