Friday, June 22, 2007

Bill Mantlo

If you happen to be passing a comic shop this weekend, go in and pick up a copy of Mantlo: A Life In Comics. It's a magazine/book/something all about Bill Mantlo, one of my all-time favourite writers of superhero comics. Even if you're not a fan, buying the book is a good thing - Mantlo was knocked down and nearly killed by a hit-and-run driver fifteen years ago, suffered permanent brain damage and all the proceeds from the book are going to the costs of his care.

Bill Mantlo, if you look at his work objectively, was never the greatest writer in the world. His dialogue is much too long-winded and stilted, and his stories are often more miserable and depressing than most people are happy with. Characters, when they're not being summarily killed off, will often spend pages lamenting about their own shortcomings and anxieties. None of the comics he wrote is hailed today as a landmark in the history of superheroics. But what he did do is write a heck of a lot - nowadays when a writer misses his deadline, the comic just comes out late. The publishers don't seem to care any more. In the seventies and eighties, if a Marvel writer didn't turn in a script on time, the editor called Bill Mantlo. He seemed to have an endless capacity for producing superhero stories that were always readable, and often exciting, funny and clever too. And his run on Alpha Flight was something that really struck a chord with me and played a big part in making me a comic fan today.

Picture the scene - it's the late eighties, or early nineties, I can't remember exactly which, I'm a young teenager and my comic experience has been limited to Transformers and whatever series had been the backup strip in Transformers. And a Spider-Man annual or summer special here and there. One day in WH Smith I found one of the paperback collections of the Marvel Universe handbooks, profiles of Marvel's characters from the Abomination to the Circus of Crime (it was only volume 1). Alpha Flight were in it, and they sounded like fun. A bit later, I can't remember exactly how or why, I ended up with a catalogue from the Nostalgia and Comics shop in Birmingham (or somewhere like that) and decided to order the latest issue of Alpha Flight, to see what it was like.

Actually, I didn't like it all that much. It was the penultimate issue of Fabian Nicieza's run, and that was the kind of comic you really had to sit down and study to make any sense of. Or I did, anyway. But I could see it had potential, stuck with it, and kept with it through the start of Scott Lobdell's run, which was a completely different style, still not a classic, but again compelling to a superhero-comic-newcomer. But after a year or so of this, I discovered the existence of back issues, and the wonders of the Bill Mantlo issues of Alpha Flight. And THAT was the kind of thing I'd been looking for!

For a couple of years, my aim in life was to collect the entirety of Mantlo's run on Alpha Flight - thirty-something issues of death, misery, characters recapping the events of the last twenty issues every time they opened their mouths and un-put-downably compelling stories. Yes, I also liked John Byrne's acclaimed original run on the series, but Mantlo's stories struck a chord with teenage me like nothing ever before. I got my brother reading and collecting them too, forced them on my best friend in return for having Judge Dredd forced on me, read them out of sequence, one or two at a time with months in between. I liked them a lot.

So this book describes a pretty significant person in my life. He wrote a lot of other great stuff, as I've discovered since - Spider-Man, Micronauts, Cloak and Dagger, many many more. A lot of them are long out of print and never collected, but I'm hopeful that one day we'll see a lot more graphic novels of his classic works. When it comes to people I admire in comics, the five people I wouldn't be the same without are Simon Furman for those wonderful Transformers comics that hooked me since the age of eight, Tony Isabella for an obscure Marvel Team-Up comic that found its way into a Spidey summer special and showed me that superhero comics could be something very much more than hero-fights-villain (it chronicled the supervillain Blacklash suffering a nervous breakdown), Kurt Busiek for dragging me back into comics in the late nineties when Alpha Flight had been cancelled and I'd given up on finding a new series that wasn't terrible, Alan Moore for just writing such amazingly, staggeringly good comics, and Bill Mantlo for those thirty-odd issues of Alpha Flight. Go out there and check it out!

1 comment:

Ian said...

I'll be sure to check it out!!