Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Bill Mantlo, the Destroyer of Dreams

When Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #38 came out back in 1980 it really annoyed me. Never mind the Ditko-panel rip-off cover by Al Milgrom, it was the content that ticked me off, specifically the first three pages.

Written by Bill Mantlo and pencilled by Sal Buscema this issue is memorable in Spider-History, if at all, for the spontaneous cure Morbius had of his vampire-disease. A sub-plot across many books of the time was the hunt for Morbius, who was considered a serial-killer. One of those plots came to a head shortly in this title as Morbius was tried for murder after his temporary disease remission.

What irked me to no end in this issue is that Marvel came right out and left no doubt what their target demographic then was...the Total Geek.

The tale opens with the cliche of the Jock, Hottie and the Geek that lusts after the Hottie from afar. That particular combination of characters right there on the splash page had me dreading what happened next, because I just knew what was coming. I was correct.

The Geek, having no self-respect whatever, hangs with the others in the hopes that he'd get some kind of notice as a person. But all he receives is abuse from the Jock and the Hottie pretends she doesn't know he's alive. Being the object of desire Jenny is very aware of her effect on others and uses it for manipulation. Look at how the girl uses Geek-boy as a buffer against Mark the Jock.

Anyways, while storing up on the festering resentment that will some day have him looking at innocent people through the cross-hairs of a rifle sight from the top of a tall building, Freddy the Geek notices blood-thirsty Morbius swooping down on them.

Morbius attacks Jenny and starts with the biting. Jenny yells for help from the Jock, who of course, freezes in fear. Raise your hand if you did not see that coming. Puny Freddy tries to help but gets his lunch handed to him twice with casual backhands from Morbius. When the attack is done Morbius flees, supposedly leaving his victim alive.

Predictably, the jock is a coward and the geek is a hero.

Right...there. Right there on the last panel of page-freaking-3...I was enlightened, and not in a good way. Darn it! I was Freddy! I imagined that across America thousands of other fan-boys were shaking as the hammer of realization smashed into their acne scars and shattered their delusions. Did they cry? I bet they did.

Bill Mantlo took the rusty knife of my high school feelings of inadequacy and dorkness and rammed it straight into my psyche, twisting it with every panel. I felt as if that dream you have of being naked in a public place had come true.

Up until I read this issue the fact that geeks bought comics and you were a geek for buying them was always politely left unsaid and in the background. It was like an embarrasing secret no one talked about. Right up until Bill Mantlo shoved it in my blotchy face I was doing just fine, existing with the belief that I too, could get a Super-Model Girlfriend once someone cared to look beneath my nerdiness and noticed my not-so-obvious superiority to everyone else.

Denial is not just a river in Egypt, you know.

That was 1980, when a reader wanted to identify with a Richard Ryder, but not so much that they couldn't feel superior. With the exception of the once-brilliantly written Jessica Jones in Alias, gone are the pained characters who come from loser backgrounds.

From the characters populating today's books, it's obvious the target consumers are beautiful, wealthy ravers who know code, hold their pistols sideways and have unlimited personal resources. Even the persecuted characters are still coming from a home that has plasma screen television sets in every room. From a sales perspective that drives editorial policy that makes sense. Who wants to read about the "Parker Luck" when they can identify with popular Ken and Barbie-clone mall-rats with disposable income?

Comic characters have gone from being people who are starting a journey to ones who already have everything, and are only treading water, fighting to keep what they have. That reflects kind of negatively on us, I think.

1 comment:

  1. What do you expect? Nowadays, if you can afford to read comics, at the very least, you are finacially well off.


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