Note: I’ve known Studs Lonnegan well for more than twenty-five years. Unlike all those “Woodward & Bernstein” wannabes, Studs is a standup guy, a fair man, and an all-around good egg. I saw the following tribute in the Calvert Sun newspaper ten days ago and got in touch with Studs, who (along with the Sun) has graciously allowed me to reprint the story here in my blog. — Steve


by Studs Lonnegan, Calvert Sun, Friday Aug. 6, 2010

There are certain historic events which crystallize themselves in our collective social consciousness; hard, sharp events etched indelibly into our minds, which can be recalled with the simple question, “Where were you…?” The questions change as the generations pass. For my grandparents it was “Where were you when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor?”; my parents answered to “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” I suspect the inevitable query about 9/11 will be the hallmark communal question for today’s youngsters.

For my generation, our unifying question is “Where were you when Manta-Man died?”

I was there, right there. I saw it all. By freak chance I was on the scene on August 6, 1982 when the Crusaders and the Paladins (the latter just a trio of kids without a group name then) arrived at Crusader Citadel, prepared to do battle with the Crushers and reclaim what was theirs. From across the street, I witnessed Manta-Man enter the building through the lobby doors.

I was thus one of the last people to see Manta-Man alive.

As I write these words twenty-eight years later, I realize that a significant number of readers weren’t yet born at the time these events occurred. The building which we today call Justice Tower was then known as Crusader Citadel, the home and headquarters of the world’s foremost team of superheroes (which was the term by which my generation referred, perhaps naively, to “good guy” metahumans in those bygone days). Other cities had their own superhero teams, to be sure, but the Crusaders were widely regarded as the best of the bunch; they were recognized and revered, even loved, worldwide. Best of all, they were Calvert’s – they were our heroes, based right here in their proud shining tower beside our harbor.

The leader of the Crusaders was named Manta-Man. He wasn’t a metahuman, not really; his amazing abilities were the product of technology, a suit he designed and wore, which was part armor, part flight pack, part weapon, and 100% impressive as hell. Even more impressive was the man inside the suit. He was brilliant, courageous (as were all the Crusaders), and moral (in a day when notions of “morality” were fast becoming passé). But what I remember most about Manta-Man was his heart. He loved this town and the people who chose to live in it. There was no such thing as a problem “too big” or “too small” for his notice. He’d spend a solid week battling to thwart some metahuman sociopath’s designs, the following night rounding up drug pushers near The Block, and then on his way home, tired and battle-weary, he’d stop to pull a five year old girl’s kite out of a tree and then sign autographs for all the kids in her neighborhood as they gathered wide-eyed around him. The older folks said they’d not seen anything like him since Jack Victory excited and energized hearts and minds in Silver City during the dark days of World War II.

This was in the early 1980’s, a time with its own set of problems not unlike the challenges we face today. The country was in the midst of a recession, political and social conflicts were the order of the day domestically, and the international scene was (as always) in a state of constant, often violent, flux. Through it all we looked to our galaxy of costumed heroes for hope, and Manta-Man was at the top of our list.

I was a cub reporter for this present journal at that time, and on the fateful day I was downtown at the harbor to cover an entirely different story. The Crusaders hadn’t been seen anywhere for days, which was highly unusual. Sure, our band of heroes would go off to another city (or even into space) to meet some crisis head-on, but this absence was different. The Crusaders had vanished without a trace and callers to the Citadel heard only a recorded message. A group known as the Crushers (as we later learned) had taken over the Crusader headquarters, capturing half the members in the process. And, as I stood on the sidewalk across the street from Crusader Citadel I was in just the right place at the right time to see the other half of the Crusaders, reinforced by the original Paladins, arrive and storm the building.

There was Manta-Man, leading the charge. I heard him order the youngest of the Paladins (a teenager who I was soon to learn was called The Brain) to stay on the street to intercept any Crushers leaving the building. I saw another young man, a Paladin named Deep Freeze, “ice up”: creating armor by condensing and freezing the moisture in the air around him. Grimly, the combined forces of the Crusaders and Paladins pushed through the Citadel’s main entrance, prepared to do battle with whatever they found within the tower’s reinforced walls.

While it’s true that Crusader Citadel’s walls were reinforced, sadly, its windows were not.

I wasn’t looking at my watch, so my impression of the elapsed time may not be accurate; it couldn’t have been more than two or three minutes after the heroes entered the building, but dissecting the events today makes it seem as though hours had passed. From my vantage point at street level I heard a sound like a muffled explosion from somewhere high above, near the summit of the tower. Could we on the street hear the glass break at that height? I could swear that we did, but that may just be a false memory imprinted over time. But I will never forget what we saw next: two figures, silhouetted against the sky for no more than an instant, but a scene which has set itself indelibly in my mind as a frozen snapshot. After what seemed an eternity, but was really less than a second, those silhouetted figures began a rapid descent to the street.

As the world later learned, our heroes had split into teams to assault the Citadel. Three of them had just emerged from an elevator, but the Crushers were ready and waiting in ambush. Manta-Man was no more than a step or two outside the elevator when a concussive blast knocked him senseless. The explosion violently threw him backward into Traveller (another of the Paladins), and the pair, both unconscious, crashed through a window and began their plummet to the pavement.

At street level all eyes looked skyward. A crowd had gathered, with a few brave souls standing at the base of Crusader Citadel on the south side of the avenue. As the limp forms of Manta-Man and Traveller fell toward them, all of the onlookers ran for the opposite sidewalk. All – save one.

The Brain stood and stared heavenward, alone on the plaza.

Over the course of nearly three decades I’ve often had occasion to reflect on what must have been passing through that young man’s mind during those final fateful seconds. The Brain, a teenager, a new “hero”, still proverbially wet behind the ears, on his first costumed adventure, forced to make the hardest decision with which he’d ever been faced, possibly the hardest he’d ever face through the entire course of his life. Two fellow heroes, one a teammate, the other the most famous superhero on the planet, both falling toward him at an ever-increasing velocity. With no time for reflection, for contemplation, for logical thought, he must choose which one to save. He must choose NOW.

His arms outstretched, The Brain lunged forward to catch Traveller, his teammate. He didn’t quite “catch” him, but he somehow absorbed the force of Traveller’s fall. The Brain was knocked senseless, but he and Traveller both survived.

I am a writer by profession, by habit, and by inclination – perhaps by fate. But my meager skills are insufficient to describe what I next heard as Manta-Man, by now falling at a speed very near terminal velocity, hit the concrete pavement of the plaza at the foot of Crusader Citadel. I was no more than fifty feet from him when he hit; I was closer than anyone, save for the two young heroes lying nearby. No, I won’t even attempt to describe the horror of that sound. But I knew instantly that his armor hadn’t saved him. I knew he was dead.

Where was I when Manta-Man died? I was fifty feet away, and I saw and heard it all. It’s a scene which is as hard and sharp as a crystal shard, as vivid today as it was on that August 6th, twenty-eight years ago today.

No one could foresee the effects that Manta-Man’s death would have on the world. The Brain was initially branded a pariah for his fateful choice; he would later find redemption as a member of the Paladins, but today leads a shadowy existence as one of a small number of metahumans sponsored by the federal government. The Crusaders limped along for a time before breaking up, some members going solo for a few more years but eventually disappearing from the public eye. Some ex-Crusader or other occasionally still surfaces in the news, but most of the team vanished long ago, much as they unwillingly did in the weeks leading to that fateful day.

Worst of all, Manta-Man’s example died with him. With the breakup of the Paladins in the mid-1980’s the notion of “heroism” became passé, a cliché, and the world descended into a “dark age” of violent costumed vigilantes, into a time when the line between “hero” and “villain” became so blurred as to be irrelevant.

But there is no shadow without light, and hope always returns. The last years of the old century saw the rise of a new band (and brand) of heroes, men and women who truly deserved that appellation. Like a phoenix from the ashes the old Crusader Citadel rose again, rechristened Justice Tower as the headquarters and home of the Justice Federation. To honor the memory of one who has gone before, the window through which Manta-Man plunged is perpetually marked, not with black crepe, but with a gleaming gilt frame and spotlit around the clock as a tribute and reminder of the goals, ideals, and (yes) morals of the man who was loved the world over not just for his deeds but for what he represented: an example of what each of us can be if we believe in ourselves and set our goals high enough.

Where were you when Manta-Man died? I remember where I was – I was there and I hold that moment in my memory, not only on the sixth of August, but each and every day, perpetually, to honor not a hero but a man, an individual, who gave us all hope and showed us what we can be – if only we strive for it.

Copyright 2010, The Calvert Sun Newspaper. All rights reserved. Used by permission.