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.
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)
Team Mari - issues 44-47 Part III
Whether it was because Argon's big pink 'energy sword' wasn't as ...ah... potent as he thought, or for whatever reason, Mari survives her defeat at Argon's hands and her drop from his upper story window to fight another day.
Mantlo might have made a good rebel commander himself, as his plotting involves various groups of the rebels creating credible looking distractions while other units carry out daring raids. There is a lot going on over the course of these 4 issues. A main raid to free the captives in the Body Banks gives cover for Mari's attempt to assassinate Argon and Acroyear and Bug's attempted rescue of Prince Pharoid. 'Attempt' being the operative word at this stage. The rebels are confounded at every turn as Mantlo lays the ground for his exciting final months on the series. These small desperate raids, which will afffect Argon's regime only in a propaganda sense, rather than strike a definitive blow, reinforce the feeling that Mari's side are hugely outnumbered, outgunned and capable only of small acts of defiance, rather than a full-scale attack. Again, it shows Mantlo seems to have a good understanding of how these things work.
By issue 47, Mari breaks into the Weather Control building to arrange 'rain on Argon's parade' for his wedding day, and confronts Huntarr, who hasn't been seen for several issues, whilst Bug and Acroyear are captured by the Death Squad, who have also reappeared.
We finally find out where Slug got her name in a very disturbing flashback to her parents' fate in the Body Banks, where we see human beings treated like only so much flesh. It's really chilling. I don't know to what extent Marvel decided to use sell-through only comics as a de facto 'mature readers' label, or whether Mantlo himself managed to put some quite strong stuff into his comics without Shooter and co becoming aware of it. This goes also for the full-on killing that I mentioned our rebel soldiers doing in my last post.
Issue 45 is Gil Kane's last as artist. It really is a shame to lose such a stalwart of American sci-fi superhero comics at this point. Marvel really should have tried harder to hold onto someone like him. Mari's thrilling confrontation with Argon is in Kane's last issue, so at least he goes out on a high!
So it's cliffhangers all round at the end of issue 47! As telegraphed all over the preceding posts, I don't have issue 48, so I'm depending on a filler-inner here. Perhaps Philip can give us his take on #48 and Earth J's finest can add something afterwards? (It's your first ever Micronauts comic, after all, Jeff!)
Unfortunately I don't have #48 or 49. I do have #50.
Marvel Spotlight #9 - "The Mystery of Mister E!"
I’ve been gearing up to read the final issues of Mantlo’s mega micro-epic recently, and bring these posts up to the end of Mantlo’s series. Just by happenstance, I picked up a little spin-off/tie-in to the series a few days ago.
Marvel Spotlight #9 contains the first appearance outside the pages of The Micronauts of Captain Universe, that entity's original host, Ray Coffin and Ray's son Steve. Written by Mantlo and drawn by Steve Ditko, there’s a very strong Micronauts connection. Cover-dated November 1980, it hit the shelves around the same time as Micronauts #22, and the 2nd Ditko-drawn Micronauts annual. (Sad to say, Ditko still can't get a handle on Muffin the dog!)
The villain here is Mr E, a demonic would-be conqueror from the Shadowverse. He wants to launch a rocket from the nearby NASA base to the Sun in order to turn it dark and use Earth as a beachhead for an invasion of our entire universe! Interestingly, this issue has similar story elements to an earlier story in Marvel Spotlight #4. Starring Captain Marvel, that also featured alien villains who could manipulate shadows and draw powers from them. The earlier issue was written by Archie Goodwin, but as Ditko drew both issues and the shadowy villains are both artistically and philosophically so ‘Ditko-esque’, there’s a strong chance that Ditko plotted both stories to some extent.
For Micronauts fans, the scenes between Ray Coffin and his son Steve are heartwarming, and for this fan, it was a little treat to see some of the characters from the main series get another outing handled by some key Micronauts creators. The action even begins in the very garden where Rann’s Endeavour first arrived on Earth in Micronauts #2. The Uni-Power responds to the cosmic threat posed by Mr E by trying to invest Ray with the Captain Universe powers again, but Ray’s old heart isn’t up to the strain, and he has to be hospitalised. Steve thus gets to be ‘The Hero Who Could Be YOU’ this time out. Ray’s life is in danger throughout, and I found myself genuinely caring whether the doughty old astronaut would make it to the end of the issue.
This was a fine done-in-one story. Artistically, we get Ditko being Ditko, infuriatingly, or wonderfully, depending on where you stand on his style. Mantlo’s engagement with these characters comes through in the dialogue. In one panel Steve/Captain Universe says that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ and in the next he jumps publishing houses, saying ‘With the Uni-power, I believe a man can fly!’
Marvel Spotlight #10 & 11 are the final two issues in the series, presenting two more Captain Universe tales from the same creative team. I’m not sure how much of the plotting would have been Ditko, but they read very like the kind of stark, stripped down, crime-don’t-pay morality tales that Ditko had been doing since the 50s. Mr E’s galactic invasion, improbable as it comes across, does look like the kind of cosmic threat that Captain Universe came into being to fight. However, in issues 10 and 11 Captain Universe gets mixed up in very small-time criminality and gangsterism, and we’ve moved far from the execution of the concept as it first appeared in the pages of the Micronauts.
Marvel Spotlight vol 2 was only 11 issues long, but it contains some interesting little landmarks. For Micronaut fans, the first 3 issues are drawn by Pat Broderick, whilst the 4th contains the Ditko Shadow-villains story already mentioned. These 4 issues all star Captain Marvel, and would seem to be leftover material from that character's own terminated series, which ended earlier that year. Issues 1-3 have the same creative team as the final issues of the original Captain Marvel series, and they seem to tie up a storyline from there dealing with the cosmic gods of Titan. It seems strange to cancel that series and then pick up where it left off in an anthology series later on. Possibly the thinking was that a comic with #1 on the cover would be picked up by more readers than had been picking up the regular Captain Marvel comic.
Captain Marvel returns for one more issue in #8, which is notable both for being pencilled by Frank Miller (in a very generic house style, alas) and for being the last appearance of Mar-Vell before he died in Starlin’s graphic novel.
Issues 6 and 7 seem to continue, and possibly wrap up, the Byrne/Claremont Starlord story, and I’m hoping to grab them next time I’m in the comicshop. I hadn’t realised before I’d done this research that they might be worth picking up.
I really enjoyed reading these old comics from my own personal ‘Golden Age’, even though they aren’t by any means amongst the greatest comics ever produced. Rather than justify my preferences at length, perhaps I’ll just quote a recent post of Jeff of Earth J’s:
Still, these stories do have a certain something. A modern comic can never hope the replicate the storytelling of an earlier decade (and honestly, few try). However, I’m to the point at which I’ve decided I pretty much prefer the comics of yesteryear (the superhero comics, anyway) to the comics of today. Re-reading old favorites is always enjoyable, but the problem is there are no new 1970s comics being produced.
New micronauts toys are coming out by the way: http://www.toymania.com/columns/spotlight/s1micronauts.shtml
No Bug or Marionette though. :(