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Meta-Messages – Bill Mantlo’s Bizarre Goodbye to Alpha Flight!

All October long I will be exploring the context behind (using reader danjack’s term) “meta-messages.” A meta-message is where a comic book creator comments on/references the work of another comic book/comic book creator in their comic. Each time around, I’ll give you the context behind one such “meta-message.” Here is an archive of the past installments!

Erich, of the awesome comic book blog, Fish-Flavored Baseball Bat, suggested that I feature Bill Mantlo’s final issue of Alpha Flight, where one of the characters in the comic realize that they are in the comic and decide to fight back against the whims of his creator – Bill Mantlo!

Alpha Flight #66 was the final issue of Bill Mantlo’s run on the book. He wrote 37 issues, which was a longer run than the creator of the book, John Byrne.

Whitman Knapp was just a regular fellow who worked at the same hospital as Lionel Jeffries, brother of Madison Jeffries of Alpha Flight. Jeffries had the ability to manipulate organic matter. He eventually went nuts and fought Alpha Flight as the villain known as Scramble. When Knapp tried to intervene in a plot by Jeffries to attack Alpha Flight, Jeffries used his powers on Knapp. The resulting stress unleashed Knapp’s hidden mutant abilities – he was able to summon three relatives of himself from three different points in human history – two ancient ancestors and one futuristic descendant: a primordial pile of goop, a cave man and a futuristic being with powers. Knapp could basically control these three “relatives,” although it was more a matter of them looking to him for guidance than any specific control over them.

Since they were his “kin,” Knapp took the name Manikin. Yes, I know, I know. Moving on…

In any event, in Alpha Flight #66, the book opens with the caption “In this issue…an Alphan dies!” Well, Manikin takes issue with this and begins to converse directly with Bill Mantlo…

The rest of the issue is therefore a battle of wills between Mantlo and Manikin as Mantlo attempts all sorts of manipulations to force Manikin to follow Mantlo’s plot, including threatening to kill a different member of Alpha Flight in Manikin’s place. It is really an interesting plot.

I presume this issue can be picked up pretty cheaply – it is worth giving a read to see all the later scenes between Manikin and Mantlo (the art is by Hugh Haynes and Gerry Talaoc, by the way).

27 Comments

I remember this blowing my mind as a kid. I think I had a theory that they were doing a “Mature Readers DC” take …the meta stuff, that Dream Queen instead of Sandman …Forgot the rest.

You know, Brian, I always enjoy your monthly themed posts, but “Meta-messages” and “Scariest Comics” are both so good that I’m going to be very sad when October is over. Please don’t think that we won’t welcome more of these in further months, maybe on a one-by-one/when-you-feel-like-it basis. I haven’t been so excited to check CSBG every day since I first ran through the Urban Legends archives.

This preceded Animal Man, right? I thought Morrison was the one who first went so deep into ‘we’re self-aware comic characters – we can see you!’ territory.
But it seems Mantlo got there first, unless I’m mistaken?

In any case, does anyone know which writer first made a comic character self-aware, or can no-one say for sure? I’m not just talking about “tune in next month, dear reader” sort of stuff in the final panel: it has to be what Morrison or Mantlo were doing- a character engaging directly and at length with an omnipresent creator.

When did She-Hulk start having arguments with John Byrne?

By the way, Brian, this is a good example of why it would be sooo helpful if you could include dates in your various columns. I’m very big on comic book history, so knowing when these issues came out would be greatly appreciated!

some stupid japanese name

October 28, 2011 at 11:06 am

There’s this thing called google.
January 1989.

In any case, does anyone know which writer first made a comic character self-aware, or can no-one say for sure? I’m not just talking about “tune in next month, dear reader” sort of stuff in the final panel: it has to be what Morrison or Mantlo were doing- a character engaging directly and at length with an omnipresent creator.

Well, comic book characters have been interacting with comic book writers since at least the Silver Age, but usually portrayed less as creating the stories than recording them. The Marvel Bullpen exists on Marvel-Earth, publishing the “true” adventures of its heroes, and characters have stormed through from time to time. DC set up its offices on “Earth-Prime,” and writer Cary Bates became a villain in a 1975 JLA/JSA crossover, with cowriter Elliot S! Maggin trying to help save the day. (I remember Maggin pointing out that he and Green Arrow talk just alike, because he writes Ollie modeled on his own speech patterns.)

The first Man-Thing series ended in 1975 with Steve Gerber explaining that he can’t write the comic anymore because he’d become a character in it, helping Man-Thing in a battle against a demon. The second Man-Thing series ended in 1981 with Chris Claremont actually merging with the Man-Thing, fighting that same demon.

But the closest to what you’re talking about, and the earliest example I can think of, is when Robert Kanigher showed up in the Wonder Woman comic in 1965 to completely change the style of her adventures and her entire supporting cast. Brian featured that issue right here a couple of months ago: http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2011/08/26/i-love-ya-but-you%E2%80%99re-strange-when-robert-kanigher-personally-fired-the-supporting-cast-of-wonder-woman/

Yes, I know I have the ability to look up these dates. I was really suggesting including them as sort of a nice addition to these articles. It wasn’t a desperate plea for help. It just puts things in better context to have a date.

Regardless of whether or not Mantlo’s fourth wall breaking preceded Morrison’s or not, I’d say it was definitely better. Morrison seemed way too enamored of the high concept that he didn’t really do anything great with it. He seemed to feel that the reveal of the fourth wall breaking was a worthy payoff in and of itself, whereas for Mantlo it was just the tip of the iceberg, and he actually used the reveal to fuel more conflict in the story and it was just part of the journey rather than the destination. To me that is much more creative.

This type of story always puts me in mind of the classic Looney Tunes cartoon where Daffy Duck is constantly screwed with and argues with the unseen animator…

@T: You’ve talked about that in the past and I got the idea that your main complaint about Morrison’s breaking of the fourth wall was that it was too self-indulgent. Don’t you think this qualifies as that as well? I’m not criticizing you, I just don’t get why you find this one different.

And I’d argue that in Morrison’s case, both the journey and the destination were fueled by the fourth wall breaking. Even though he only shows up in the final issue, the meta-fictional aspect was present throughout the whole run.

thanks for featuring bill.

his Micronauts is one of my favorite comic series of all time.

however, when i think of him these days it breaks my heart when i think of him brain damaged and incapable of taking care of him self.

i keep hoping for a miracle cure…….

Good choice. This is one of my favourite non-Byrne issues of Alpha Flight: It’s perfect because, despite dropping a thermonuclear plot bomb on the fourth wall, it actually helped to build up to the Fabian Nicieza Dreamqueen arc that followed it.

Allow me to second the wish for some sort of miracle cure for Mantlo, so that he can go back to do what he so obviously loved to do. I can’t think of many other writers who write with such wit, exuberance or vast reaches of imagination as Mantlo did. Both Rom and Micronauts are classics, going beyond their simplistic toy roots and exploring mature and complex situations and emotions. I effing love Mantlo’s writing and have since I was a child.

That would have been James Hudnall writing the DreamQueen saga. Fabian didn’t come along until Hudnall & co. had really screwed with some things.

Ronald Jay Kearschner

October 28, 2011 at 8:43 pm

I’m glad I’m not the only one who remembers ROM and MICRONAUTS fondly. But I’m always sad when I think of Bill Mantlo.

Oh shoot, you’re right; it was Hudnall after Mantlo. My mistake.

I grew up on so many books that Mantlo wrote. It breaks my heart to see what happened to him.

While it’s true that Mantlo precedes Morrison in breaking the fourth wall and doing this whole self-awareness bit–as do dozens of other writers–the reason Morrison’s Animal Man has always been a critical darling is that he told an entire, complete story about fiction, and he told it very skillfully. People love to trash the dude, but there really is a reason he became the rock star of comics, and later one of the legendary creators of the medium. He’s very good at writing comic books, and Animal Man was one of his best efforts.

Mantlo seems to have just done this for the same reason Byrne and PAD always did it: for a goof. It probably reflects a lot of personal emotion about leaving a title, and a group of characters, that he’d spent so much time with, and this was his way of saying, “I’m bad at goodbyes, so why don’t we just have a big fight and I’ll leave.” Morrison, on the other hand, told a broader story with a planned beginning, middle, and end. You’re right, T., that Animal Man #26 doesn’t have the same feel of being an actual story unto itself, but that’s basically like saying that the last page of a comic book doesn’t feel like it’s a story unto itself.

Ultimately, intention really does count for a lot. When Jackson Pollock splashes paint on a canvas, it’s art, and when a third-grader does it, it isn’t art, and intention has everything to do with it. Similar idea here. When Mantlo used this gimmick, it was basically a cute kiss-off to his run on the title, but I sincerely doubt that he began his run on the book planning to finish with this issue. Morrison, however, laid the groundwork for what he planned to do with the title very early on, and that’s what made the payoff so satisfying.

Any Mantlo mega-fans out there happen to know why he didn’t write Micronauts vol. 1 #59? I stopped reading around issue #20, though can’t deny that I did like it, and ROM.

Great entry, and my best wishes to Bill Mantlo too.

Teeny tweak – it looks to be ManIkin rather than ManAkin.

Morrison, on the other hand, told a broader story with a planned beginning, middle, and end. You’re right, T., that Animal Man #26 doesn’t have the same feel of being an actual story unto itself, but that’s basically like saying that the last page of a comic book doesn’t feel like it’s a story unto itself.

See, the fact that it’s part of a broader story is part of my problem with it. I feel like metafiction can be a very distancing thing in a story that sucks people out of it, and can often veer into self-indulgent and masturbatory. So I think it should be used sparingly and in short doses, and only if the story is really good enough to justify it. The metafiction should serve the story rather than the story serving the metafiction.

In Mantlo’s case, it was only one issue, so it started and was over with before it became too distancing, and he used it to serve the overall, existing conflict that was already in his Alpha Flight run. It just added a new twist to it. With Morrison, the metafiction took too long as it was spread over the run of a bunch of issues, and the longer metafiction goes on, the more it feels distancing, masturbatory and self-indulgent to me. And also, everything that happened in the story leading up to his final issue including the death of his family all just seemed to be there solely to setup the metafiction element and lead up to the reveal of Grant Morrison. It sucked all the life out of the characters and their struggles thus far and made all of them suddenly seem secondary and irrelevant compared to Morrison.

Ed (A Different One)

October 31, 2011 at 11:57 am

I’ll echo the “shout out” to Mantlo and the hopes that some kind of miracle cure would present itself. Mantlo rarely gets mentioned as one of the great writer’s that came out of the Marvel Bullpen in the 80’s, but he left a consistent mark of quality on many titles that I enjoyed during my formative comics reading years. My favorite was probably his work on PPSSM (which gave the flagship title a run for its money at the time), but also loved Rom and Micronauts.

I kind of have this picture of Mantlo in my head just be-bopping around the Marvel universe putting out good comics. Kind of like how I picture Jeff Parker or Pak/Van Lente currently . . .

I may be wrong, but i think this was also the last Marvel comic writen by Bill Mantlo.

Of course Mantlo, Morrison et al. were much preceded by a couple of amazing Chuck Jones efforts:

Duck Amuck (1953)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duck_Amuck
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdqQat8Jys4

Rabbit Rampage (1955)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbit_Rampage
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Frl3kR_wKn4

@Jono: I wouldn’t call this just a goof. I haven’t read the entire issue, but from what Brian posted there seems to be a really cool analysis of how writers plot a story and why going on.

Wow, that was weird. I think I have this issue–I’ll have to dig through my back issue boxes and try to find it.

“I may be wrong, but i think this was also the last Marvel comic writen by Bill Mantlo.”

Actually, he continued to write the odd story for two or three years after that, but I believe this was the last issue of a regular, monthly comic that he wrote.

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