Licensed media tie-ins have a terrible reputation. Television shows turn into stiff and amateur comics to compelling novels dry out into soap operas. One man stands above this reputation, though: Bill Mantlo. A comics scripter known for many things, his relentless work ethic that caused him to be Marvel’s go to guy for fill-ins in the late seventies and early eighties, as well as his relentless ethics that sent him away from comics altogether after Marvel editorial fired him for not liking the artist on the ongoing series of his own creation, Cloak and Dagger.

illustration by Tom Crielly, used without permission, but check out his stuff! [e-mail Peter at haharadical@gmail.com if you would prefer another image used]

Bill Mantlo is also known for writing the two longest comic series based on toys: Fifty eight issues of the incredibly popular Micronauts (cancelled one issue after another writer tried, and failed, to replace him), and, more spectacularly, seventy five issues of Rom: Spaceknight, a toy that soon invaded empty warehouses all over the united states before settling in landfills. The comic itself, though, lasted seven years, and even brought Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Spider-man, back into mainstream comics for a sustained run of two years. Besides a couple fill-ins (a Daredevil issue written by Ann Nocenti, 236, being a remarkable exception), Ditko would languish in self published obscurity, producing black and white objectivist crime comics, styled for the hipster but moralized for the neo-con. Bill Mantlo’s fertile imagination and strong ethics (he would later become a lawyer) proved to be the only compatible comics creator Steve Ditko could find, and, of course, both men had minds that were too strong to be molded by weaker and louder men in charge.


And to think that his career came from weaving stories from mute toys. As the apocrypha tells, his son opened up some Micronauts one christmas, and while Mantlo watched the imaginative games they would play, he soon found the energy to render these toys in an elaborate space opera littered with zany backstories and daring villains. With Rom, all he needed was for one of the toy’s manufacturers to place one in his hand, and pretty soon he spun an epic of humanity fighting space vampires with a metallic pinocchio styled character (a machine in search of humanity).

Mantlo would end up having an incredible legacy: exclusively a marvel fanboy, he made their first Puerto Rican superhero (and, honestly, the first Latino superhero without a druggy or criminal past) in The White Tiger:


Although conceived by Mantlo, George Perez (himself sharing Puerto Rican ancestry) helped develop the character plenty. An interview says that Bill offered the idea of the White Tiger having successfully overcome a drug addiction. George Perez laughed, and said, why not have his brother overcome the drug addiction, and have the white tiger himself be a much better role model. Why not, Bill said, and suddenly George Perez found himself co-plotting something he would cherish his entire life. The White Tiger’s story continued in Mantlo’s Spider-man comics, and honestly deserves its own retrospective, if time should ever give me the time to find the right words.

In a seventy issue run on Incredible Hulk that Greg Pak would spend years drawing stories from in his incredibly successful “Planet Hulk” run, Mantlo thrust hulk into space as a champion among aliens. He even had his first incredibly satisfying battle with you know who:


Later, he created an absurd companion for M.O.D.O.K. [mechanized organism designed only for killing] who found love in killing things together:

Ten years later, Marvel would squander the spiderman character enough to dwindle readership in three out of four ongoing titles. A fan had become editor in chief of Marvel Comics, and he wanted to tell the story of Spiderman’s clone coming from the past and replacing him, a strikingly similar (and terribly overwrought and lazily executed) version of Mantlo’s story. Editorial at the time denied him that possibility, even denied him almost any supervillains that Spiderman usually fought. You see, this big-shot writer Marv Wolfman was handling the main Spiderman series, and he wanted all the continuity to be straight. So Mantlo would call Wolfman with the next four months plotted out, as well as some planned trajectories of Peter Parker’s supporting cast, and hear the response that nothing is known for sure, and no you can’t use these eight villains. So Bill made his own villains. One of the absolute best is the “hypno hustler”:


In a sense, this post is intended to do two things: one, introduce Bill Mantlo to any readers who do not know who he is. He was a man hard at work playing courier between his own incredibly active imagination and a comics industry that moved too slow for him. He would move on from comics after less than a decade of grinding out beautiful fantasies from blank beginnings. You see, he actually wanted to help save the world, so he became a criminal defense lawyer (passed the BAR examination on his first try with little studying, don’t you know!). He also became an incredibly skilled rollerblader, one who would forego taking the bus and would ride his skates into his office, breathlessly greeting clients while moving faster than they ever could.

This post is also intended to sort of give a toast to the man who saw an unimaginative licensed comic series as a daring challenge instead of a daily grind. I now announce my intent to read all of ROM: Spaceknight in publication order. I’ve been collecting issues of the space knight for years now, and almost half a year ago I found the last annual to complete my collection.


Expect some words to be coming your way soon y’all.

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all the biographical information comes from Mantlo: A Life in Comics, a well done retrospective of his commercial career told by friends and family who had experience working with the man himself.

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