Beyond Rocket Raccoon: Bill Mantlo's Often Overlooked Comic Book Career

Bill Mantlo portrait Illo - Publicity - P 2017
Butch Guice/Marvel Entertainment
The writer behind the 'Guardians of the Galaxy' character contributed a lot to genre culture that he's rarely credited for.

To most people who recognize his name — itself, hardly a sizable portion of the audience — Bill Mantlo's is known for co-creating Rocket Raccoon, hairiest and most irascible of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. But Mantlo's legacy as a comic book writer stretches far beyond the diminutive galactic fuzzball, and he might finally be about to get his due.

For a certain generation of comic book fans, Mantlo's name was a familiar one. During the 1970s and '80s, he was known inside Marvel's offices as the "fill-in king," able to write quickly and help multiple series avoid reprints or delayed releases when regular writers missed deadlines. As a result, his work appeared in almost every Marvel series of the time, from Avengers and Amazing Spider-Man to Uncanny X-Men and Ghost Rider.

That wasn't to say that he didn't have extended runs on any comic title, nor create his own characters outside of Rocket, of course; Cloak and Dagger, a duo he created with artist Ed Hannigan for a Spider-Man story, are about to make it onto TV on Freeform, and his five-year-plus run on The Incredible Hulk (mostly illustrated by Sal Buscema, another beloved journeyman creator whose work remains underrated by many) introduced a number of concepts that would be explored by later writers, including Bruce Banner's abusive childhood and schizophrenia.

His ability to turn his talent to almost any genre — amongst his portfolio were issues of Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu, Werewolf by Night, Tarzan and The Human Fly, a comic book based on a real-life stuntman — served him well when he was tasked with creating comic books based on a number of toylines, and his work on the original Micronauts and ROM comic books created fan-favorite series that outlasted both of their action figure inspirations by a number of years.

These two series, which mixed original characters with toy characters and Marvel's own superheroes, are arguably Mantlo's defining works, each with their own specific tone. ROM was Invasion of the Body Snatchers turned up to 11, with the eponymous hero traveling to Earth to discover it was filled with shape-changing aliens attempting to take over the world. Micronauts, meanwhile, was a near-perfect mix of George Lucas and Jack Kirby, taking space opera tropes in new melodramatic and psychedelic directions. Both, sadly, are unlikely to ever return to print given the complicated rights of the material — Marvel has rights to its own characters, but not to the toy creations, which are currently licensed by Hasbro to IDW Publishing — making it all the easier for Mantlo's work to be overlooked by today's audience.

Mantlo also wrote the initial issues of Marvel's Transformers comics, contributing elements that remain part of the mythology to this day; that work does remain in print.

For three decades, another piece of Mantlo's career had disappeared from view; Swords of the Swashbucklers, a fantasy series he co-created and owned with Micronauts artist Jackson "Butch" Guice, had stayed out of print since its 1987. That will change later this year, with Dynamite Entertainment planning to collect the entire run into one volume that is partially crowdfunded by fans. (The campaign ends May 11, for those curious about contributing.)

The return of Swords, allowing a modern audience to see what Mantlo was capable of outside of the superhero work he's most commonly known as, will go some way to salvage the reputation of a writer whose work was always fun and inventive, and whose career was cut short by his tragic accident in 1992. There's far more to Bill Mantlo than Rocket Raccoon. Hopefully, it's about to become time for more people to realize that.