An in-depth, issue-by-issue exploration of Marvel's Micronauts comics, including background on the Mego toys, the publishing contexts of its 1978 - 85 run, as well as its place in the pop culture and some of its lasting influences.

                                                          

Last Free Comicbook Day I managed to almost complete my recently started back-issue collection of Micronauts.  I have almost all the issues up to the end of volume one and a few of volume two, but as Bill Mantlo wasn’t involved in volume 2, I’m not as interested in those.  I think it’s great that the writer who created the comic series was able to tell the stories he wanted to tell for 60+ issues.  (More or less – see later posts.)

The story is that Mantlo was inspired to create the Micronauts comic series at Christmas 1977, when he looked closely at some of the Micronauts toys his son had got.  The Micronaut toy line was begun in 1976 by Mego, and Micronauts issue #1 was released by Marvel comics just before December 1978 with a January 1979 cover date.  (30 years ago!)  It was Mantlo who pushed Marvel to acquire the rights to the toys as he was convinced he could tell a great tale with the properties.  Sadly, this meant that Mantlo’s perhaps best and most fondly remembered work is twice removed from him in terms of ownership of the ideas.

This is a good site that focuses on the toys rather than the comics, and will give you an idea of the raw materials that Mantlo had to work with.

The dates are interesting, because a lot of Micronauts is reminiscent of Star Wars, which was released in May 1977.  Most similar is the major villain Baron Karza, who, with his jet-black armor and face-covering, grill-mouthed helmet, is incredibly similar to Darth Vader.  A lot of the elements of the story too, are similar, beyond the rollicking space-opera/medieval fantasy feel.  Baron Karza commands a galaxy-wide empire and our heroes are a minority band fighting what seems at first to be a hopeless rebellion.  Further, just like Star Wars, the hope for the future lies with the children of the recently ousted royalty.  (Princess Mari is even introduced wearing a kind of headdress that is an echo of Princess Leia's Apple Strudel earmuffs)

As the toys, the comic and the movie all came out around the same time, it’s possible that they were all thought up independently, but some of the plot developments in Mantlo’s tale must have been partially inspired by Star Wars.  The series is ostensibly science fiction, but like Star Wars there is a force permeating the universe that functions much as magic would in a fantasy story.  In Jack Kirby’s New Gods it was called the Source, in Lucas’s film, the Force, and in Mantlo’s comicbook space-opera it is the Enigma Force that binds the universe together and grants supernatural powers to those who can tap into it. 

In many ways Micronauts is a much more successful attempt to do what Kirby was trying to do several years before.  It is much more accessible and simple than the New Gods, which was off-putting to many.  It’s a more kid-friendly New Gods with the corners knocked off it and the rough edges smoothed out.

 

Issue 1

Mantlo came up with a fairly original source of Karza’s political power, which has nothing to do with the toys.  Karza is a former professor whose control of the body banks, where obedient citizens’ lives can be extended indefinitely, has given him power over the whole society.  Fear of death is something fundamentally human, so it’s interesting to see it worked into this fantasy tale so overtly.

The main hero of the early parts of the story is Commander Rann, also known as Space Glider.  He has been on an extended deep space voyage to the edge of the universe for the past 1000 years, so he serves as an excuse to tell the reader what has been happening in the meantime.  His many years of suspended animation have somehow linked him to the Time Travellers, who are otherworldly representatives of the Enigma Force.  His ship is very old-fashioned compared to what are used now in Karza’s empire, so what took him hundreds of years can now be travelled in a matter of days. 

A helluva lot happens in the first issue.  Prince Argon and Princess Mari are captured by Karza.  In his prisons they meet Commander Rann, the mighty warrior Prince Acroyear and the roguish Bug.  We also meet the robot pair of the tall, fastidious Biotron and the small, brave Microtron.  (Hhhmmmm!)

Rounding out the cast are the mysterious shadow priests, the villainous Acroyear Shaitan, and the enigmatic Time Traveller himself.

At the end of the issue, the rebels, having escaped from the prisons, flee to the very edge of the universe and break through to the Universe beyond.

Issue one ends with the following:  “Six fugitives breach the fabric of space and streak faster-than-light speeds towards.... EARTH!”

 

(1400 - 170512)

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I don't know if you're familiar with the toys. This page (via Wikipedia) has images and descriptions of them. The Force Commander and Baron Karza figures could be combined with their horses. Hence Argon's and Karza's appearances in centaur forms in the comics. The Acroyear toy was packaged as the enemy of the Micronauts.

Mantlo co-wrote the X-Men and the Micronauts mini, and there were also two annuals, partly or wholly drawn by Steve Ditko.

Captain Universe appeared in three issues of Marvel Spotlight (1979 series), in stories by Mantlo and Ditko, and later (the GCD tells me) in stories by Mantlo in Incredible Hulk Annual #10 and Marvel Fanfare #25. Apparently he also made an appearance in the Marvel Super-Hero Contest of Champions mini. He looks so much like a Ditko character I've often wondered if Ditko was really responsible for creating him, or at least his design, but I've not seen either claimed anywhere.

The Micronauts Special Edition series reprinted Golden's issues on heavy paper. The issues had text pages by Mantlo and new splashes in some issues (where they opened with the second part of a reprint).
Behind the little red 'this' in my first post there is another Micronauts toy site, although I must confess I only really looked them up today. The relationship between the toys and comics is interesting, and its obvious that part of Mantlo's art was in judiciously selecting from the materials that came with the toys.

One of the letters in a later issue takes issue with how Mantlo was ignoring a lot of the lore of the toys, such as the ability to interchange the body parts of the toys and thus mix machines and humanoid toys. He ended the letter by saying that the stories were still brilliant though, and the editor pointed out that Mantlo was telling his own stories his own way about the Micronauts.

Mantlo did work those aspects of the toys into the series, but in a subtle way. Karza runs the body banks, where peoples lives are extended by interchanging their organs and body parts with those of Karza's victims, and the machines are shown to have organic parts and to be half-alive.

Mantlo made a great artistic choice making Acroyear* a good guy. His people are called Acroyears too, but as their cosmically ordained prince, he was given the name of the whole race. At the beginning of the series, he is the only Acroyear to oppose Baron Karza, and thus he was thrown into the prisons and sentenced to die at the gladiatorial games in issue 1. That the Acroyear people work for Karza is a reflection of that toybox designation. Acroyear himself is a wonderful creation. A classic mighty warrior, noble and uncompromising, he has a great arc leading from his beginnings as a fighter above all else.

Of volume 1, I am only missing Annual #1 and the X-Men and the Micronauts mini and a couple of other issues. But I'm patient.

I enjoyed Captain Universe's appearance in issue #8, but I hadn't quite realised this was his origin. So that's something else that the Micronauts contributed to the MU. Captain Universe seemed to be around a lot when I first got into Marvel comics. He does indeed look like a Ditko character, now that you mentioned it. Ditko draws him in one of the pages reprising 'what has gone before' in annual #2.

I have issue one of Micronauts, but for the remainder of the first 12 issues I will be reading the Micronauts Special Edition I have 4 of the 5 issues. I'm also hoping to share some of the information in the text pieces where I think its interesting.

*The internet says this is pronounced Uh-kroy-yer, FWIW!
I missed the link in your post. Sorry, Fig.
Micronauts is (or at least once was), I must admit, a guilty pleasure of mine. I have spoken before of how for three years (seventh through ninth grades) I collected only three titles (Avengers, Captain America and Hulk), and those via subscription. When those subscriptions ran out, an ad in the school newspaper led me into my first comics shop. (I don’t know how much that ad cost, but they more than made their money back from me over the years!) The first time in, I bought virtually one of everything (every Marvel and DC, anyway). Three of my favorites were the three Marvel titles available only through “direct distribution”: Ka-Zar, Moon Knight… and Micronauts.

The current issue on the racks was #48, featuring (IIRC) the first professional artwork of new series artist Jackson (then “Butch”) Guice. The series was just about to kick into high gear for the remainder of its run, and Marvel was soon to reprint the seminal Mantlo/Golden issues on slick “Mando” paper stock. It didn’t take me long after that to fill in the gaps in my collection. Mircronauts introduced me to the work of Michael Golden, Pat Broderick and Jackson Guice. Incidentally, Michael Golden did submit a cover to issue #1, but the editor went with the better-known Dave Cockrum for the all-important first number.

I also think Micronauts represents writer Bill Mantlo’s best and most personal work. He had some good raw material to work with (the toys themselves), but it was his own imagination which sparked the creativity of the series. Case in point, the 2002 Mircronauts series from Image. I dropped that one after three issues, tried it again when Pat Broderick was brought back aboard and later filled the gaps from the quarter bin, but even then I could not bring myself to finish it was so boring.

I read all 20 issues of 1984’s Micronauts: The New Voyages, and although the art by not-quite-yet-fan-favorite Kelly Jones was interesting, the scripts and plots by writer Peter Gillis were not. Micronauts is one of the few times a comic book has sent me scurrying off to the toy store, twice, both times too late. By the time I first discovered the comics in the early ‘80s the toyline was already defuct. When it returned in the early 2Ks the toys were re-released, but I decided to give them a pass. When I later changed my mind, those, too, were gone.

I am looking forward to this discussion and I hope you carry it all the way through to issue #59.
I know that Marvel owns Captain Universe and Bug, who is so far removed from the Galactic Warrior toy. They also appeared in altered forms in "Universe X". Does Marvel own any of the original Micronauts in any way?
Philip Portelli said:
I know that Marvel owns Captain Universe and Bug, who is so far removed from the Galactic Warrior toy. They also appeared in altered forms in "Universe X". Does Marvel own any of the original Micronauts in any way?

If you look at either of the toy sites Luke and I hyper-linked to, you'll get an idea of who owns what. Of the central cast Baron Karza, Acroyear, Biotron and Microtron and Time Traveller are TM of Mego Corp (as at 1983). They all existed before Mantlo came along. The Bug and Marionette/Princess Mari belong completely to Marvel. In fact all the female characters were invented by Mantlo and belong to Marvel. Little boys don't want to play with girly dolls!

Interestingly, the characters of Commander Rann and Prince Argon are Marvel creations, but in the guise of Space Glider and Force Commander respectively, they are registered TM Mego Corp, so they can be used but not in their Mego Corp outfits. (Marvel missed a trick in not giving Rom a more personal, private name that the now-humanoid character could use after the end of his series.) Or perhaps not - see below.

The molecular-shaped Homeworld is a fine Mantlo creation (based, no doubt, on Kirby's vision of the microverse as first seen in Fantastic Four) but a lot of the bits and pieces that make up Homeworld are TM Mego Corp, such as Astro stations, battle cruisers, lasersonics (whatever that is!) etc.

Alas, the term Micronauts itself is owned by the toy company (I'm not sure if Mego corp still exists and still owns the copyright here.) which really ties Marvels hands in continuing to use the characters and concepts.

Interestingly, the very first issue just states that "Micronauts and the distinctive likenesses thereof, are trademarks of the MEGO CORP". As the series continued and its huge popularity started to become obvious, both parties would have realised that ownership of the properties was a big deal. By issue 16 (the next original issue I own after issue 1) the 'copyright' space at the bottom of the splash page lists 18 different terms as property of MEGO CORP, whether they appeared in the comic or not, so it looks like MEGO was being very protective here. It also states that the trademarks 'and the likenesses to which those names are applied are the property of MEGO CORP." (Italics mine) So my possible get-out clause for Rann and Argon may not apply. Perhaps the 'likeness' issue is one reason Rann goes for the Australian Bushranger bearded look by the end of the series?

By the time of the reprints in 1983, 24 terms are listed as TMs of MEGO, and we also get one Martin B. Abrams named as 'creator of MEGO Micronauts characters' (as opposed to Marvel Micronauts characters, presumably). A quick google tells me that he was in fact the President of Mego International Inc, so its doubtful that he actually created the characters. My current understanding is that the original Micronauts were created in Japan and were called Micromen, but I'd need to do a little more research. So its not just in comics where the creatives get diddled out of the credit.

Here is a quick, pocket history of MEGO CORP from this site:

Mego International and its subsidiary, Mego Corporation, rocketed to success under the direction of Martin B. Abrams. In 1971, Abrams became president of the family business at age 28. The company went from being an unknown toy importer to a top-10 toy manufacturer by 1976. During this period, Abrams captured the limelight with lavish parties at the annual Toy Fair in New York. These expensive parties impressed buyers and generated free publicity for Mego. [....] The successful formula [of producing toys based on licensed properties] stopped working when Mego secured the exclusive rights to a series of flops. Mego filed for bankruptcy and stopped manufacturing toys in 1982.

Hhmmm! Bankruptcy in 1982, and Abrams listed as 'creator of the Micronauts' by 1983. Gotta hold onto something I guess. The comics royalties would be useful on skid row.

My quick google also tells me that MEGO might have benefitted from Star Wars in a roundabout way. It is part of toy lore now how George Lucas turned up at their office in 1977 to sell the toy rights, but none of the executives were there to see him (or the secretary told him to come back later). Lucas only had to go up one floor to the company that did secure the rights. That company weren't able to release any toys until 1978, so the gap may have allowed MEGO to benefit in the meantime from the hunger for sci-fi/fantasy space-faring toys generated by Lucas's movie.
Jeff, here is Golden's cover to issue 1, just to break up the thread:


Not too shabby at all!

(I still think that Karza's similarity to Darth Vader, possibly unintended, did no harm to the sales. That black grill-mouth and shiny helmet/faceplate would have become iconic overnight in 1977. I'd say Karza was created before Vader, and MEGO could prove it, hence they weren't sued to hell and back by Lucas!)

I am looking forward to this discussion and I hope you carry it all the way through to issue #59.

That's the plan. I'm not planning on going on at the tedious length of my Morrison posts, so might be skimming over some of the issues. There are a few gaps in my collection too so I'd appreciate any and all additional commentary.

I also think Micronauts represents writer Bill Mantlo’s best and most personal work.

I hope we explore some aspects of this, especially the 'personal' part. It's quite a trick to put so much of himself into something that was twice removed from him in terms of ownership, and was essentially a very old-fashioned space-opera, with all its pre-established tropes.

As I stated earlier, part of Mantlo's genius was in what parts of the toy-lore to use and what parts to ignore, as well as the parts he chose to use only subtly. If you look at those two toy sites, the original line of toys was very basic. Time Traveller was just the standard humanoid figure of the line that fitted into the vehicles and machines, but Mantlo re-imagined him as something much more mythic, while still aluding to how the figure came in a wide range of different colours and appearances. Similarly, it took a lot of imagination to look at the spindly Acroyear figure and see the quintessential mighty warrior figure which every culture throws up. The toys were very primitive compared to just a few years later - eg the Star Wars line - so I can't overstate how clever Mantlo was to imbue them with such imaginative life.

I don't have a lot of history with the Micronauts before 2010, so the fact that I've been drawn into their world says a lot about how strong the original series was, even removed from its cherished place in the childhood culture of 1978. I'll point out the few instances where I encountered them as a bonny wee lad when we get to the issues in question.
Issue 2 – Earth


In this issue the Micronauts, having broken the barrier into our universe, find themselves in the garden of Ray and Steve Coffin, who become co-stars for the rest of the 12-issue first arc.

First the team have to deal with what seems like an attack from young Steve, his lawn-mower and his dog Muffin. Then, before they start to become friends, Shaitan, Acroyear’s brother, leads an attack force through the breach in the barrier at the edge of the Microverse. With the help of Steve’s rake the Micronauts manage to fight them off, but they teleport using their ship, the HMS Endevour, while leaving Bug behind.

By now, The Micronauts is beginning to show some of the ways that it's absolutely of its time. Marionette’s outfit is more disco than disco itself ever was, and she has that beautiful iconic ‘Farrah flick’ hairdo. More subtly, check out the silhouette of Acroyears trouser/boots combo.

Compare:


and


Young Steve mowing the lawn with his shirt off also harks back to a simpler age, before harmful UV rays were widely known, and depleted Ozone layers and Global Warming were just whacky sci-fi notions.

In Baron Karza we are beginning to see a very distinctive personality emerge. He’s somewhat unusual in coming to the head of his empire via a professorship rather than coming up through the ranks of the military, as most dictators would. Rann remembers him only as a professor, and although Rann is told that Karza isn’t the same person anymore, Karza still displays the scientist’s emotional detachment and respect for the truth. He remains calm when the Micronauts destroy his arena and make their escape, as he sees it as a means to learn more about the new elements that have entered the equation, and later he would rather tell Argon the truth that his sister Mari escaped with them.

Scientist as villain is a mainstay of genre fiction, perhaps especially in the US, but Karza has something special about him. Knowledge is power to him, in a real way, as evinced by his control of the body-banks, and he brings the scientist’s cool detachment to his role as dictator. Normally comicbook scientists get very irrational outside their laboratory, but so far, not Karza. Everything he does is from applied reason and rational self-interest, rather than hatred or cruelty. He's about to perform a terrible experiment on Argon, but probably genuinely means it when he says "I trust the preoperative treatments caused you no discomfort, Prince Argon!" These attitudes do make Karza all the more chilling, however.

(The term "preoperative treatments" has attained a whole new meaning since the 70s too, come to think of it...)
I always liked the chemistry between Acroyear and Bug. Acroyear has charactistics of the Klingons of "Star Trek:the Next Generation" as the noble, former enemy that we still don't understand, warrior.

Was Commander Rann named after Adam Strange's planet Rann?
Phillip: Some thoughts on Acroyear below...

Issue 3 – Death-duel at Daytona Beach!



Issue 3 quickly gets stuck into a great non-stop action sequence where Shaitan’s fleet locate the Endeavour and proceed to give chase. Mari mans the gun turrets and Acroyear and Rann attack the Shaitan’s ships personally on their glider wings. This fool-hardy battle plan is of course Acroyear’s idea. Alan Moore once joked that Stan Lee took one-dimensional characters and made them two-dimensional by giving them a disability, like Don Blake, or Matt Murdock. Well, Acroyear does have a great personality, but it comes mainly from the fact that he is simply super-strong, and as a result, super-brave. Here he slices a whole enemy space-ship in half with his power-sword in mid-air! We’ve already seen him stop the blades of the proportionally gigantic lawnmower and throw it at Steve! Someone of OUR size couldn’t even reach for the blade of a lawnmower to stop it and then throw it at someone!

My point is that this isn’t complex or subtle characterisation of Acroyear, but it does make him one of the coolest characters EVER in a comicbook! He’s a tough nut. His wonderful no-face helmet and the design of his body-armour add to his warrior cool as well. (Obviously his look is adapted from the spindly toy, but I wonder if it was Cockrum or Golden who finalised what the Marvel version would look like. Whoever it was did a fantastic job!)

Unfortunately my copy of The Micronauts Special Edition #1 ends 8 pages into issue 3 and I don’t have SE #2, so if anyone wants to throw in a paragraph or two on issues 4 & 5, feel free!

In the last story page of my Micronauts SE #1 Baron Karza is visited by Duchess Belladonna. She wants a new younger healthier body from his body banks, and actually specifies that she would like Princess Mari’s! When told that unlike her brother, Mari had escaped capture, the Duchess suggests that she’ll take Argon’s body instead:

“At my age, I can’t be choosy!”

I thought the behaviour of this evil old aristocrat was much more typical of her class in society than Mari’s royal family, who had spent the previous 1,000 years defying Karza and refusing to avail of his immoral life-extending treatments. We’re told that her line had been put in place after Rann’s parents – then Dallan and Sepsis, King and Queen of Homeworld, had been executed for opposing Karza.

You don’t have to have a degree in history to know that the Duchess Belladonna is much more typical of the values royalty live by than Dallan, Sepsis and Mari’s parents. The British royal family were amongst the main beneficiaries of the slave trade and slave-run plantations during the 18th and 19th centuries, and their fortune was built on slavery. Then the royal families of Europe were happy to let their young subjects die in their millions during the First World War despite the fact that the kings of the warring nations were closely related and had spent holidays together right up to the outbreak of that bloodbath. These are not people in the habit of putting the greater good above their own self-interest.

Still, for some reason, we want our fairy-tale princes and princesses to be charming and noble. That goes back a long way, and both Lucas and Mantlo were tapping into that part of our mass consciousness with their space-opera epics.

For my part, when I read the first page of issue one, where Prince Argon and Princess Mari were being chased through the streets by Karza’s goons, I was cheering on the Acroyears and Dog Soldiers...
Jeff, here is Golden's cover to issue 1

I’ve seen it before, but thanks on behalf of those reading this thread who have not! I think Dave Cockrum’s cover was maybe a little more dynamic, but in hindsight it would have been nice to have the cover of the first issue drawn by the interior artists. Of course, these days they simply release both covers!

There are a few gaps in my collection too so I'd appreciate any and all additional commentary.

No problem. Just let me know when you come to a gap.

Unfortunately my copy of The Micronauts Special Edition #1 ends 8 pages into issue 3 and I don’t have SE #2, so if anyone wants to throw in a paragraph or two on issues 4 & 5, feel free!

Wow, that was quick! (Now’s the time to put Cap’s “If you can’t find it, you don’t have it” rule to the test!) You’d think I’d be able to recap from memory; it hasn’t been all that long ago since I last re-read these.

I hope we explore some aspects of this, especially the 'personal' part. It's quite a trick to put so much of himself into something that was twice removed from him in terms of ownership, and was essentially a very old-fashioned space-opera, with all its pre-established tropes.

That is a dichotomy, but I think it’s true.

As I stated earlier, part of Mantlo's genius was in what parts of the toy-lore to use and what parts to ignore, as well as the parts he chose to use only subtly.

“Genius” is a word not often associated with Bill Mantlo, but perhaps that’s unfair. All one need to see just how imaginative he really was is to compare his work on Micronauts with the more recent Image series. Working from the exact same sourse material (i.e., nothing more than the toys themselves), one series was energetic and bristling with ideas, the other… bleah!

Speaking of the first page of issue one (“where Prince Argon and Princess Mari were being chased through the streets by Karza’s goons”), I am reminded of the first panel of the first page of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant (minus the blasters, of course).

I don’t think I’ve ever heard Micronauts compared to Star Wars (New Gods to Star Wars, sure), but I think it’s an apt comparison. I think there were several archetypes (particularly villainous archetypes) at play in both the movies and comic books of the time, be they of the masked variety [Darth Vader, Baron Karza, Z (from Dreadstar), Redwire (from Scout)] or unmasked [Darkseid, Thanos, Lord High Papal (also from Dreadstar)].

I think these early issues were set on Earth specifically to appeal to the kids who owned the toys. Look at issue #2, literally set in someone’s own back yard! The Microverse became an interesting setting, but as with Thor who had to split his time between Earth and Asgard, would need to be struck between Earthbound adventures and those set in the Microverse. I think the series worked best when it wasn’t set for too long in one location or the other.
"Micronauts" was Marvel's best sci-fi series of the time surpassing their versions of "Star Trek" easily and, debatedly, "Star Wars" as well, though they had more freedom than those two books, I'm sure. It was tied with "ROM" as Marvel's most innovative *toy* tie-in with regards to both internal drama and external ties with the Marvel Universe. They blended super-heroics and space fantasy and were at home with each. It was a great book then and well deserves further study today!

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