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Why Mantlo Matters: An interview with David Yurkovich about the Bill Mantlo tribute book

By Greg Pak
Comic book writer Bill Mantlo has long been one of my literary heroes. His legendary collaboration with Michael Golden on Marvel’s “Micronauts” blew my little mind when I was a kid. And when I started writing the “Planet Hulk” and “World War Hulk” storylines for Marvel, I found myself constantly referring back to Mantlo’s classic “Incredible Hulk” run. Sadly, Mantlo was hit by a car and suffered severe head trauma in the early 1990s. Now David Yurkovich, a comic creator and fan of Mantlo’s work, is publishing a tribute book entitled “Mantlo: A Life in Comics,” featuring interviews with Mantlo and his collaborators as well as several pieces of unpublished Mantlo work. The book is a non-profit venture, with proceeds going to Mantlo’s caregiver. Read on for the Pakbuzz interview with Yurkovich to learn more about Mantlo and view preview pages from the tribute book — and click here if you’re inspired to donate to the project.
Greg Pak: How did you make the leap from being a Bill Mantlo fan to taking on the enormous undertaking of producing this Bill Mantlo tribute book?
David Yurkovich:
I first started reading Bill’s stories in the mid-1970s. Wasn’t actually collecting comics at the time, but comics were everywhere. My friends had them. I had them. And we’d swap comics or read them together. Probably the first strip of Bill’s that I was aware of was his work on Marvel Team-Up. After the release of Star Wars in 1977, I became a rabid Marvel fan. Initially I got sucked in by the monthly Star Wars comic, but soon became hooked on nearly every title being published at the House of Ideas. I soon noticed that a lot of my favorite comics were written by Mantlo. In my teen years, I wrote to Bill and sent in a bunch of sketches in hopes of drawing Micronauts. Of course these were just crude sketches, not sequential art, but I guess Bill was touched by the sentiment because he wrote back and told me to keep practicing.


It was very encouraging, and I followed Bill’s work at Marvel all throughout the ’80s and caught up on the ’70s stuff I’d missed through back-issue shops. Years ago when I learned about Bill’s accident, I felt there should be a tribute book to honor his contributions to the industry. I think that there may have been a fundraiser in the past, but I’m not really certain. Anyway, after dedicating my Less Than Heroes graphic novel compilation to Bill in 2004, I started to really think about the dynamics and logistics of putting together a tribute book that would be a career retrospective with comments and interviews by the writers, artists, and editors with whom Bill collaborated. This sort of, I guess I got a bit obsessed with this, because it would keep me awake at night. I was losing sleep and saying to myself, “I should just do this.” So I did.
[Click here for a page from the tribute book featuring Yurkovich’s new comic book adaptation of a Mantlo short story.]
GP: Tell us a bit about one or two of your very favorite Bill Mantlo comics. What makes them special to you — as both a reader and a comics creator yourself?
DY:
I love Bill’s more unusual, offbeat stories, one good example of this being Peter Parker, Spectacular Spider-Man 72 (November 1982). Great story in which a young kid, Ollie Osnick, idolizes Dr. Octopus. He and his friends all dress like super-villains, but this kid is obsessed. I mean he’s out there. He actually gets mechanical octopus arms that work and he ends up breaking into a big toy store one night. When Spidey swings into the dark store, he doesn’t initially realize he’s fighting a kid and not the real doc ock. Dr. Octopus makes just a cameo in the story, but it sets up a much larger clash between Spidey and his six-armed foe.
Bill wrote lots of awesome Hulk stories, but one of my favorites is a one-off called “And They Call the Wind Pariah” (issue 268, February 1982). It features a very creepy story about a man whose been cursed since the days of the wild west and who encounters ol’ greenskin. Another fine Hulk story Bill wrote features the intelligent Hulk. He’s trying to atone for some of the damage he did as the savage Hulk, so he rebuilds a town he’d destroyed. Anyway, while Bill could write these really unusual tales (not to mention lengthy epics), he had this gift for writing very solid mainstream tales that accomplished their purpose of telling a complete and entertaining story in 17 or 18 pages. No cliffhanger ending. No “continued next issue.” Just good, fun single issues.
GP: By this point, you must have read just about every Bill Mantlo comic out there. Have you been able to pick out any recurring themes or ideas in his work?
DY:
I think that the one theme that emerges in Mantlo’s writing, certainly on any of the series he wrote for a lengthy period, is a defiance of character stagnation–a bucking of the character’s status quo, so to speak. He did not write 75 issues of ROM that were rehashes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He constantly moved the series along, introducing other space knights, constructing the Wraith iconography, incorporating the Marvel heroes and villains into the series, and advancing the book to a logical conclusion.
[Click here for a page from the tribute book featuring Rom.]
On Incredible Hulk, Bill also bucked the status quo. The Hulk evolved from savage to intelligent to primal. With Cloak and Dagger, the vigilante duo’s self-appointed “mission” changed as the series progressed. Though possessed of noble intentions, C&D were ultimately in way over their heads. Their lofty goal to rid the world of illegal drugs was short sighted, and the characters themselves came to know this. How simple it would have been to have kept C&D in New York, battling super-villain upon super-villain each month. Even with Micronauts, there were numerous changes and transformations in the scope of the stories and in the characters themselves.
[Click here for a page from the tribute book featuring the Micronauts.]
GP: What lessons do you think current comic book writers could learn from revisiting Mantlo’s work?
DY:
This is a great question, but I’m not sure there’s a simple answer. There’s a definite innocence that no longer exists in the comics that Mantlo and his contemporaries were writing in the 1970s and in the early-to-mid 1980s. However, I think it speaks volumes to Bill’s work to hear that today’s generation of comic book writers credit Mantlo as being among their influences. Before mainstream comics became “relevant” there was a lot of campy humor that seems to be lacking in today’s product. Titles are either over-the-top serious or they are parodies of other titles. Bill dropped a lot of humor into his work and still managed to tell serious stories. It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation.
GP: How many different people have you interviewed for the book and how many hours of conversation would you estimate the interviews represent?
DY:
The interviews were conducted via e-mail, phone, or in person. Not sure how many hours in total, but lots and lots for sure. Interviews with folks like Mike Mignola, Colleen Doran, George Perez, Marv Wolfman, Tony Isabella, Al Milgrom, Herb Trimpe, Jackson (Butch) Guice, Roger Stern, Ed Hannigan, and a few others. Bill’s brother, Mike, and Bill’s daughter, Corinna, were very forthcoming, and was Bill’s step-son, Adam. I spoke with Ky Michaelson at length. Ky is a professional stuntman who built a rocket sled used by the Human Fly during a jump in Canada that ended badly. This was depicted by Mantlo in an issue of the Human Fly series. Ky offered some amazing insights about the character. Brian K. Vaughn, who is also a big fan of Bill’s work, provided a short interview.
[Click here for a page from the tribute book featuring the Human Fly.]
Sections of the book are told in Bill’s own words, from archival interviews, letter columns, virtually anywhere I could locate relevant material. It was definitely important to me that Bill’s voice be heard in the pages. There were several folks I planned to interview but was unable to reach or who didn’t reply to my inquires. There were a few folks who agreed to participate but who ultimately didn’t follow through with answers to my questions. But I realize that everyone’s time is limited.
GP: What’s the most surprising thing you learned about Mantlo during the course of your interviews and research?
DY:
What surprised me most is that throughout his career Bill never seemed to think of himself as any more special than you or me. He did not have a huge ego. I mean, here’s a person who was writing up to seven comics a month for Marvel at a time when print runs were in the 200,000 to 500,000 range. I did not get the impression from the family members and pros I interviewed that Bill ever let the “celebrity” of the job go to his head. He seemed very grounded and very devoted to his work and to his family.
GP: The funniest thing?
DY:
One of the stories I was told was that when Bill was working as a public defender, he mouthed off to a judge and found himself in contempt of court. He was placed in a jail cell. He was given his obligatory phone call. Most of us would have called a friend or family member. Bill phoned a pizza shop and ordered some pies for himself and his fellow inmates. I understand that another judge referred to Bill as “one of the nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of reprimanding.”
GP: I was intrigued to read that Mantlo left comics to become a lawyer. Can you provide any insights into what motivated him to switch careers — and in particular, what made him choose to become a public defender in New York City?
DY:
My understanding is that Bill became interested in becoming a public defender while he was writing for Marvel. In interviews I was told that the driving force behind this decision was that Bill wanted to help others and that the Cloak and Dagger characters made him think more about the legal system. Throughout the 1980s Bill’s monthly assignments at Marvel began to decline. Cloak and Dagger, which he co-created with Ed Hannigan, was assigned to another writer. Eventually, Bill’s only monthly book was Alpha Flight. My understanding is that there was friction between (then) editor-in-chief Jim Shooter and Bill. I believe it was this friction that lead to Bill’s leaving Marvel. He did write, albeit very briefly, for DC (scripting the 1989 Invasion mini-series), but to my knowledge he did no other work with DC Comics. Bill also wrote several screenplays and many short stories. I think that, were it not for the accident, he would have continued practicing law and writing fiction and would have been very successful at both.
GP: I always loved the way characters in Mantlo books would shout “Gleeargh!” while being pummeled or blown away. Please tell me you know how the heck Mantlo came up with that particular word.
DY:
The sound is derived from gargling on Listerine while eating donuts. Honestly I have no idea.
GP: You’ve been collecting donations — can you tell us how the money will be used and how people can help?
DY:
One of the drawbacks of being a self-publisher is that I have no operating budget. I solicited the project to a few publishers, but was told that the market would not support this project. I disagree, so I elected to self-publish. However, my wife and I are in the middle of a costly international adoption, so there currently is no budget to self-publish. I decided to appeal to comics fans, retailers, and pros, hoping to raise enough money to pay for the printing costs of the book. Bill has resided in a nursing home since being hit by a car while he was rollerblading on his way home from work one afternoon in the early 1990s. With the printing costs fully covered by donations, all money raised through sales can go directly toward Bill’s legal guardian–his brother Mike. Mike will be using the money raised from this project to help improve Bill’s quality of life.
The industry has been supportive, and everyone who has donated to Mantlo: A Life in Comics (like yourself, Kurt Busiek, Brian K. Vaughn, Tony Isabella, Mile High Comics, Colleen Doran, Top Shelf Productions, Phil Hester, Sean McKeever, and many others) will be sent a copy of the book, and they will also be listed in the book as a donor. Bill’s fans can help by donating and helping the book to be fully funded. Once the donations cover the printing costs, any additional funds will be used to promote the book. Good intentions or otherwise, without proper promotion, this book will pass under the radar of many fans who might simply be unaware that it exists. However, it’s still not quite fully funded; I need the support of a few more of Bill’s fans to make that happen.
GP: Finally, when will the book be released and how can people buy it?
DY:
Mantlo: A Life in Comics is scheduled to ship the first week of June. It’ll be listed in the April 2007 issue of Previews and is being published by Sleeping Giant Comics. Diamond has been extremely supportive of this project. The book itself is 72 big pages with 12-pages of previously unpublished Mantlo work. I was extremely fortunate in that Mike Mantlo granted me permission to publish (and adapt) some of Bill’s previously unseen work, so there is a six-page color story that has never seen print. I would encourage Mantlo fans and completests to order Mantlo: A Life in Comics from their retailer or to make a donation online (which will reserve you a copy and get you listed in the book). I’m not planning on keeping an abundance of copies on hand–I don’t have that kind of storage space–so I’ll be printing fairly close to the advance orders and doing maybe 200 overruns. I encourage Bill’s fans to ask their local comic shop retailer to order a few copies, or to make a donation by visiting http://www.sleepinggiantcreations.com/sgc-comics2.html and clicking on The Bill Mantlo Project. I will be maintaining the Mantlo portal long after the benefit book is done. I’ll be adding reviews of Bill’s work and will be including a venue for Bill’s fans to add their own thoughts and comments.

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