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)
Doing up my own indexes back in the 70's & 80's, it became very obvous during the "incentive program" phase when a regular artist would miss an issue at a specific time, in order to get those 6 CONSECUTIVE issues in. I'm guessing George Perez never made it. I used to nag him by fan-mail, but it realy took getting fired by Marvel and going to DC before he got his act together... on TITANS. There was ONE early fill-in (and by Curt Swan, of all people! --I'd never noticed a certain similarity of "feel" between them, which made Swan a good fit for the book). After that, George did several DOZEN in a row without missing on, includng an annual AND a 4-issue mini-series! He was used to doing several projects at once, so when he focused on just ONE, wow-- he said he got 6 months ahead of schedule in short order. I felt so proud for him...!
I'm beginning to feel like I really should dig out these issues. It is rare my such a CLEAR memory of something to be that far off. (If I am wrong, it makes me wonder WHY I was so sure for this many years-- what else might I have been thinking of?)
Here's some samples of RUDY NEBRES...
The first is Nebres on Nebres; the rest are Nebres on DITKO!
I've run across discussion of the Stern-Byrne CAP run before, but I forget if anyone mentioned the incentive program as a reason for them leaving. From the sound of it, the 3-part story WAS approved by the book's editor, before being vetoed by Shooter, which is just WRONG on a lot of levels. Early pages of the story have been printed in pencil form, so John Byrne must have gotten a certain way into the project before the plug was pulled. I can understand the frustratin that would come up on a personal, creative level from something like this happening. If the people involved all LOST MONEY as a result of somethng the EDITOR did, that's wrong on top of wrong. If that was the situation, somebody should have made up the money (and maybe it should have come out of the pocket of the editor who CAUSED the situaion to happen!!!).
Jim Shooter definitely fought like hell to improve the lot of the freelancers during his run as EIC. This only makes so much of his other behavior, and the overwhelming amount of animosity and hatred toward him from SO MANY people all the more sad, as his own personality kept getting in the way of whatever good intentions he had. By the time he was FIRED by upper management, who he had repeatedly alienated (by every single act of fighting to better the lot of the freelancers), he had no friends on either end... except maybe for Vince Colletta, who wrote one of the most scathing, vile-filled letters imaginable aimed at the editorial staff after it happened.
Issue #50 Sometimes the Good Guys Lose!
That's a great title for this issue. Sadly, it has all too much relevance to Mantlo’s own life story.
The basic plot of this instalment is that during the confrontation between the good guys and the bad guys, the Micronauts kill a load of people, but Karza kills just about all the good guys in return! Heavy stuff for a comic starring a line of kids’ toys.
In order to get at Karza, the Micronauts in the arena hack and blast their way through Ampzilla, Battleaxe, Lobros and Centauria – the entire Death Squad, in fact. Rebels on their side kill a load of Dog Soldiers, industrially aided by the Bioships’ Thorium guns.
Karza, meanwhile, kills Slug and Belladonna in their vice versa bodies, not to mention Slug’s would-be lover Prince Pharoid and Pharoid’s faithful lieutenant Margrave, who seemed to speak in an Irish accent, for some reason.
To top it all, Karza then kills every last one of the rebel citizens fighting in the arena, but is unable to prevent the remaining Micronauts escaping on Biotron.
That’s quite a ‘clearing of the decks’, and I was shocked to see Mantlo wipe out so much of his supporting cast. Slug, in particular was quite a major character, and I thought there was some more development ahead in the relationship between her and Pharoid. But “that’s war”, as Nick Fury said after the Micronauts last showdown with Karza.
Beast Devil also dies, as a result of an attack by a single remaining Psychic Vampire who’d sneaked on board. When a Devil dies, we find out, a new Fireflyte comes alive to take his place. We’re told that a Fireflyte is the same size relative to a Micronaut as they are to us, so at least she is more ‘Micronauty’ than Devil was.
The plot seems quite linear, but it works really well in the 30 page format. Everything is given just the right space to develop and unfold. I was completely absorbed in this comic when I reread it on the bus this morning. Guice’s art is great, and it’s obvious he’s deeply committed to the project. This particular issue is hardcore. It’s like the final chapter of Moby Dick. The reader is left kind of gasping for breath at the end of it.
As I mentioned, I was kind of stunned that Mantlo so quickly demolished everything he’d been building up to with Argon’s wedding and Mari’s ‘insurgency’. But I guess we are seeing the fundamental law of superhero comics acted out. We have the build up to grand climaxes, but then the readers expectations have to be moved on to the next climax. It’s this attitude that has left many readers today complaining of ‘event fatigue’ when we are told that this story has a really significant ending, but when we reach that conclusion, we’re told: “Pshaw! That didn’t really count. What matters is what we’re setting up NOW!” and so on.
Mantlo is doing much the same here, with Karza’s sudden appearance and the ante being genuinely upped with the death and despair he brings. However, Mantlo and Guice are doing it with gusto, rather than cynicism.
At least that’s how it appears to this jaded reader.
The other way that this comic reflects deeply ingrained conventions in superhero comics is how the villain keeps coming back. I know some commentators have rolled their eyes at Karza’s comebacks, but I think Mantlo makes hay with Karza’s return here. Mantlo seems to have instinctively absorbed the classical rules of storytelling. Here, he gives weight to how this is their third battle with Karza. Events happening in threes are a very powerful trope in stories. Karza gloats that he is obviously unkillable, having come back for a third round with them, and this adds to the sense that they are out of their depth now, against such an unbeatable and powerful foe, who not even death can stop.
Karza really does seem to be the personification of evil and despair now. As he very eloquently says: “I am the artist of atrocities, the master of disaster!”
As well as the shocking, frankly unexpected deaths, the issue is full of good sequences and some great lines. Such as Rann’s preparation to leave the safety of his Bioship to stand shoulder to shoulder with his Micronaut comrades in what he knows will be a desperate, almost hopeless fight:
Or this prose framing of Rann and Karza’s current grudge match:
All in all, a fine comic, and a great set-up for the final phase of the series.
"a great set-up for the final phase of the series"
It makes me wonder, if that's what Bill Mantlo had in mind when he did this. The sense of things repeating themselves, all too common in comic, was all over this book by the time this happened. This horrific BLOODBATH may have seemed the only way to shock readers out of complacency-- but on the other hand, where do you go from here? The fact that this turned out to be the FINAL storyline made it work, in the long run. I can't imagine what anyone could have done otherwise, if they had decided to bring Karza back for a 4th go.
I think the decision to go on and take the MICRONAUTS in a completely new, different direction could have worked. On the other hand, what Peter Gillis, Kelly Jones & Bruce Patterson did over the course of 21 issues did not feel like "New Adventures" to me. It felt like "long, lingering death throes". (But that's me.)
Gillis was writing 4 long-running storylines at the same time back then (3 for Marvel and 1 for First), and all 4 of them were just depressing as hell and got more so with each passing installment. DR. STRANGE was the only one that "got better" --but he had the guy COMMIT SUICIDE before that happened!!! My thought at the time was... what's WRONG with this guy??? (His earlier one-shot fill-in stories on various series had not been like that.)
I think the decision to go on and take the MICRONAUTS in a completely new, different direction could have worked.
As we are are talking entirely about a hypothetical follow-on series, and not the one that actually came out, I'd agree. I think the wisdom that has developed since 1983, however, is that it's better to wait 5 or ten years before going back to the well again. This is the timescale of the Swamp Thing revivals, and the New Gods revivals to name but two.
That way, the characters get to "recharge", and the context and readership/market changes slightly, so that there is a chance something new and fresh might be done with the property.
I guess Micronauts being licensed meant that Marvel had to 'use it or lose it'. (Or pay for it and not use it...)
The other problem was Kelly Jones' art, with detail on top of detail for no purpose at all, and some of the most static, "STIFF" storytelling every seen in the history of the company. No action, no excitement, just dull tedium, on top of the depressing stuff. (And Bruce Patterson is a guy I just can't figure at all. His inks have gotten progressively worse the longer he's in the business.)
I remember once being totaly surprised and delighted when a fill-in issue of THE SPECTRE during John Ostrander's epic run had art by Jim Aparo (who'd drawn the character in the 70's) and inks by Kelly Jones. He hadn't inked in ages by then, and his inks had NOT lost one bit of their stunning quality. Why, I kept wondering, was that guy WASTING his talent and my time by pencilling? (He's got just about the most bizarre sense of anatomy. In my eyes, he completely ruined both BATMAN and, worse, DEADMAN.)
"I think the decision to go on and take the MICRONAUTS in a completely new, different direction could have worked."
I'm watching STAR TREK: VOYAGER right now, and I keep wondering, WHY couldn't they have done this as the 8th season of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION ?
You mean just take the Enterprise D down that huge detour into the Delta Quadrant? Yes, a fun idea from the fan perspective.
But, the crew of the Enterprise D all had their character arcs pretty thoroughly played out. And also they wanted the ship and crew free to appear in movies over the next 7 years.
In retrospect, I think Voyager was a pretty entertaining, occasionally quite smart series, although for various reasons the fans at the time compared it unfavourably to TNG. To continue my point above, though, it probably would have benefitted from a few years hiatus between TNG and Voyager. The creative staff needed a break for those who would be retained, and they definitely needed some more new blood. Voyager would have benefitted from 'feeling' much different to TNG, which it didn't, because it continued on, without any interruption from TNG.
But I will read Micronauts: The New Adventures once I wrap this up and we can discuss it then.
VOYAGER also continued, without a break, sideways, from DEEP SPACE NINE. The opening of the pilot episode was a text block describing The Maquis, which was a major running plot-line that started in TNG and continued in DS9.
This past month or so, I skipped VOYAGER completely (sort of by accident) as I raced thru my re-watching of DS9. So when I got to VOYAGER, a lot of the drama involvoing The Maquis and The Cardassians was already a moot point. I envisioned myself having to give the bad news to the crew members, "Sorry, guys-- The Maquis was COMPLETELY WIPED OUT to the very last man by The Dominion. But don't worry-- by the time the war was over, 800 MILLION Cardassians (mostly innocent civilians) were ALSO exterminated by The Dominion-- JUST to prove a point."
Can you IMAGINE what the "war trial" of the female shape-shifter would go like? GEEZ!!!!
I got about halfway thru the 2nd season (6 tapes, 30 episodes total) before I just gave up on the series. I don't remember if I got disgusted with it, or if it was just part of a general attempt on my part to CUT BACK on my TV watching (and taping). I also stopped watching WALKER TEXAS RANGER, probably about the same time, and always regretted that, as I always liked that show. But I really needed to find more time to do more important things, and something had to give. (I think there was another show I also stopped watching at the same time for the same reason-- but can't remember what it was.)
Voyager and The Sopranos are the only two TV series that I watched week after week, hardly missing an episode, from their first to their last. I hope you enjoy the rest of Voyager. I think I'm looking back on it now with more fondness than I had for it at the time.
Perhaps your Star Trek thread is the place to carry on the discussion about Janeway and co, though...
No, see, I ONLY have 30 episodes of VOYAGER. That's it! When that's done, my STAR TREK marathon is over. (I'm also missing the last 2 TNG movies. Which does bug me, as I LIKED both of them.)
But I do have EVERY TNG and EVERY DS9 episode. And had already watched all 80 episodes of STAR TREK, plus the 22 cartoons, and the first 8 movies. (In between the 60's series and the movies, I slipped in the first 2 seasons of STAR BLAZERS, and the 24 episodes of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. Just because.)
That's a lot of videotapes!
Oh yeah... and I tend to start any "Star Trek" marathon with a viewing of FORBIDDEN PLANET. Because!