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)
Hey, I loved Buck Rogers as a kid. It was a fun show that, unfortunately, sidestepped any dramatic tension of his being a man out of his time and any romantic tension with Wilma Deering, who wore the tightest outfit on TV until Star Trek: Voyager's Seven-of-Nine! Actually, I feel the same about Buck as the Commander feels about The Green Hornet, with a little effort, it could have been a great show! I remember a two-parter where Buck infiltrated and fought a team of "super-villains" led by Frank "The Riddler" Gorshwin. The second season had a new direction with a new ally, the avian Hawk. One episode guest-starred Mark "Sarek" Leonard as a man who could remove his head!
As for Vance Astro, he and the rest of the Guardians debuted in Marvel Super-Heroes #18 (Ja'69). He was an astronaut sent to Alpha Centauri not at the speed of light on a thousand year journey. To prolong his lifespan, he was encased in copper-lined armor that he could never remove and placed in suspended animation for the majority of the trip. It was when he was revived for brief periods that he went mad and his psychic powers were released.
Unfortunately, during his millenium voyage, faster than light travel was invented though apparently no one thought to intercept his spaceship so when he landed on Alpha Centauri, Terran settlers and Native Centaurians were waiting for him. Disillusioned and discouraged (to say the least!), he wandered around directionless until the Baddoon invaded. Then he teamed with the super-dense Charlie-27, the mercurial Martinex and the Alpha Centaurian archer Yondu as the Guardians of the Galaxy. Then they disappeared until Marvel Two-In-One #5, then The Defenders and then The Avengers.
Despite trying to post here in small manageable chunks, I’m still finding it hard to bring our little review up to the arbitrarily set issue 48. There is only the conclusion of “Team Rann’s” adventures to do before we cycle back and look at how Marionette and her boys have been doing in issues 44-47.
Team Rann – Issue 47.
Once again, I have to admire Mantlo’s plotting in dovetailing concurrent events on Earth and in the Microverse into a narrative whole. It’s not just that Mantlo manages to square the circle of tying the Micronauts into the Marvel U, while still forwarding the rebellion in the Microverse. He manages it with some intriguing unexpected connections and integrates the plotting with the themes he wants to explore. As mentioned above, I originally wanted to just skip over Rann’s adventures, much as perhaps Mantlo himself wanted to do, but I can see there’s an intricate art to how he has constructed the various parts of his story. We start to see this in the short prologue.
Chapter 1 – Discovery!
Microtron and Nanotron find a giant version of their departed comrade Biotron lying at the bottom of the ocean. This is indeed a turn-up for the books! What can this mean? Where did it come from? We are about to find out...
Chapter 2 – Soul Survivors
This chapter is the main body of issue 47. As Mantlo is reintroducing an element from much earlier in his saga, the forward motion of the story here cleverly turns on Rann’s adventures before issue 1, when he was exploring the Microverse in his sub-light spacecraft. Rann discovers how the creepy little Microversians seem to know all about him and the Time Traveller, and how they found their way to Earth. Thus, new readers are elegantly reintroduced in flashback to Biotron, who was Rann’s robot companion during that voyage.
We see one stop Rann made on a planet called Sylos VII, where the primitive inhabitants viewed Rann and Biotron as gods, and continued to worship them after they had left. Inspired by the visit, seemingly within a few hundred years, this people had developed their technology to the point where they were able to construct an interstellar spacecraft in the image of Biotron, except many times larger. Their voyaging is ill-starred, however, as they encounter the Spacewall separating the Microverse from our Marvel Universe and they are horribly altered as they travel through it. They quickly discover, once they encounter an unfortunate marooned pilot in the Bermuda Triangle, that they have become psionic vampires, who must drain the life-force out of other living beings to survive.
At first blush this looks like pretty demented comic-book plotting. How could the Sylosians have gone from Stone Age to Space Age in a few generations after just a short visit from Rann? Why has none of the voyages across the Spacewall we’ve witnessed so far resulted in this strange, awful transformation?
On the level of ‘realism’ Mantlo may indeed have questions to answer. However, just as Rann’s unconscious journey to another fateful version of his coffin-like Hibernation Couch in the ghoulish ‘cathedral’ in the previous issue gave us a concrete version of the themes Mantlo has been circling around since issue 1, so too does the Soul Survivors’ plight poetically externalise and bring to life Rann’s inner journey at this point. Better than realism, this is a fine kind of poetic psychological realism.
He is horrified at what he has unwittingly brought to pass, and his final internal monologue of this sequence says it all. When the Sylosians suggest that he will enable them to return to the Microverse, Rann thinks:
“Home? To the Microverse? Where they’d suck the souls out of every living being?
“Even if I could get them back to the Microverse, I wouldn’t. And yet, I am responsible for what the Soul Survivors have become! Don’t I owe them something?!
“Am I fated to lead everyone with whom I come into contact to disaster!”
This is where Rann is at this point in the saga. He is filled with self-doubt and self-recriminations for all his failings as a leader and as a freedom fighter. Being the leader of the group means that he has to bear responsibility for the breakup of his group and their various unhappy fates.
Perhaps Rann is being unfair on himself, as his team knew what they were taking on and had all been volunteers. It’s also true that it was extremely unfortunate that Rann precipitated, however indirectly, the sad fate of the people who would become the ‘Soul Survivors’. Perhaps you might label Rann a self-pitying whiner for the way he is becoming almost paralysed with guilt at this point.
But I wouldn’t. I think there is something very mature about how Rann is starting to feel deeply for those whose fates he is linked to, however indirectly. Rann became a sort of Christ figure in the Golden arc, and sacrificed his mind again to save everyone in the Second Karza War. Here we are doubling back on this notion of Rann as Christ-like saviour and being made to see how someone can come to understand how they are responsible for events that are beyond their control and suffer in sympathy with those they are only tangentially connected to.
It’s not logical, but the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice isn’t logical. Rather than Rann simply suffering and making his sacrifice because he’s the hero, we are shown through Rann’s painful self-negating passion, how suffering and sympathy can be the road to self-sacrifice. We are taken through the internal psychology of it, rather than just shown another comicbook hero sacrificing himself for the greater good.
Poor Rann! Heavy stuff for a little plastic toy to go through!
Chapter 4 – Where Devils fear to tread!
The final chapter of issue 48 shows us Rann’s team coming together again in exciting style. Devil attacks the Soul Survivors and the ensuing confrontation is interrupted by Microtron and Nanotron arriving like the cavalry in the giant Biotron spaceship, guns blazing, to save the day!
Mantlo had hinted that Biotron would be returning, but the manner he does so here is nothing if not unexpected.
As Mantlo’s last comment of the story has it:
I can see the story logic behind the BioShip (and it even replicated the scale of the toys - the Biotron figure towered over the others) but I always saw it as just another forced resurrection.
Incidentally, this has been one of my favorite threads in as long as I can remember. Wonderful insights, Fig, and it's made me go back and re-read a few issues.
Are you planning on reading/commenting on the X-Men Micronauts mini (which takes place between two issues of the series proper),
...or the "New Voyages" series as well?
Back in the day I found New Voyages to be far too slow, talky, depressing, and pretentious. Re-reading a couple just last year, I STILL found them to be too slow, talky... etc. It ran almost 2 years though so someone must have dug it.
So much for morbidly depressed Commander Rann and his sorry team of blow-ins. Let’s get down with Disco-Queen Mari and her boys and see how they are taking the good fight to Argon-controlled Homeworld.
Team Mari – issues 44 - 47
Did you know that J.J.Abrams of Lost and rebooted Star Trek fame is in pre- (pre-pre-?) production for a Micronauts movie? It was announced last September, but things have been very hush-hush since then. A little googling turns up a similar announcement in 2003, which, of course never materialised.
A look at Mari’s adventures on Homeworld in these issues illustrates why, 30 years after they peaked in the mass-consciousness, Micronauts should even be considered for this treatment. Mari’s attempts to inspire the people to rise up against tyranny and to confront the evil that has sprung from her own family is the focal point of a timeless story of the struggle against oppression. Humans have been telling each other this story from before Moses led his people out of bondage right up to today’s headlines about the demonstrations in the Middle East. Team Rann’s adventures were episodic and often displayed openly the storytelling strictures Mantlo was working with, like the partly commercial decision to bring back a previous teammate, and the need to set the adventures partly on ‘our’ Earth and involve other Marvel properties. However, Team Mari’s adventures are all part of one overarching story, central to what the whole series is about, building on, and moving forward from, each story beat.
The toys were very popular at the time, but I strongly feel that the movie even being considered is a testament to Mantlo’s great work with the property, which probably has the most bearing on how fondly it is still regarded today. The irony is that should the movie be made, Abrams will not be able to use kick-ass Mari, roguish Bug, Acroyear, in his persona as the exceptionally noble King of Spartakian thugs, or even Arcturus Rann, the conflicted, reluctant, messiah. Actually, the whole concept of the Microverse and its worlds within worlds is a Marvel property that existed long before Mantlo put pen to paper on the project. If the movie producers want to produce a Lord of the Rings scale, crowd-pleasing epic trilogy, they will be doing themselves a disservice by not securing the rights to the concepts in the Marvel Comics series before they begin. The story Mantlo and friends told hits so many universal and timeless chords – as I hope I’ve been illustrating - that trying to make Micronauts movies without Mantlo's concepts means that they’d have to leave out so much that is mythic and universal. A terrible starting point!
That's very funny. Thanks.
I can't believe that as a grown man, I am jealous of the fact that you once owned some real Micronauts. My childhood was wasted! Actually I'd like to own some now! Perhaps I should seek counselling or something?
So it's only the first book of the Trilogy? Have you read the rest? You said that there was the implication that it might be an alternate reality to the Marvel one? ie subtly connected to it? Was that reinforced as you got into the book?
Loved the photo-story of the characters getting divvied up. Were you talking about the Mantlo/ toy characters here, or are the toys now owned by two different companies? I can see how that might happen, as some of the Micronauts were produced by the Japanese company, and then Mego in the US developed some more for their line. Yeah, they'll definitely have to bring all the concepts back together under the one roof to do the little guys any justice.
Team Mari – issues 44-47 Part II
(I’m definitely running out of steam here, but the finish line is in sight!)
As I said above, once you cut poor old Rann out of the narrative, you are left with a single multi-issue story of Mari’s asymmetrical war with Argon’s regime. The development of Mari’s personality has been a great achievement of this series. Not only is she a strong female character, who we’ve watched become an inspiring and cunning field-leader, but Mantlo has been very understated about portraying her as such. He hasn’t made a big deal in the dialogue about how AS A WOMAN there’s no reason she shouldn’t be just as tough and capable as a man, but instead, he has just depicted her as such. Mari is definitely some kind of landmark character.
I’ve been amused to see how Mantlo worked in the heart of the Marvel regime at this time. While the likes of Miller and Byrne were huffing and puffing about how the Marvel brass were stopping them producing artistic meaningful stories, Mantlo quietly went about doing comics his own way, whether they conformed to Shooter’s various diktats or not. We’ve already seen that he produced a few sets of issues that look very like today’s 6-issue Written-for-the-Trade story arcs while Shooter was trying to get his staff to write each issue ‘as if it was someone’s first’.
And then there is the old ‘Marvel heroes don’t kill’ idea. I think it’s laudable enough in itself, especially if we are talking about the old guard of heroes, for whom breaking this rule would be a major rewrite of their personalities and the very characteristics that make them so special. However, issuing blanket rules like this for all properties can only hamper good writing. Mantlo ignores the rule by depicting the Micronauts as soldiers who frequently have to kill enemy soldiers as part of their operations. Of course they are ‘irregular’ guerrilla troops, so in a way they are in an even more morally gray area than regular uniformed soldiers.
How their training and indoctrination allow soldiers to kill is one thing, but there is something chilling about how volunteers like the Micronauts reconcile themselves to the grim business through their own personal self-justifications. In any case, there is something almost scary in how zealously Mari applies herself to her role as revolutionary killer. Here she is killing an unarmed priest, who happens to be wearing robes she has decided to borrow:
She then uses the cloak to get further into Argon’s palace, cold-bloodedly killing anyone who stands in her path:
Mantlo underplays it in the narration, no doubt to stay under the radar regarding Marvel character protocols, but Mari is cold! This was a new kind of Marvel hero, or at least one that hadn’t been seen much before this. It’s clear Mantlo is on her side, and doesn’t seem to be showing any of this as problematic. Fair enough. I have nothing but admiration for Mari myself. If these imperialist toadies are happy to take Argon’s coin and the benefits that go with being uniformed bullies, they have to be prepared to take it as well as dish it out!
I don’t think Mantlo and myself have incredibly different views on these things!
So this is the Mari we see arrive on Homeworld and go about starting the revolution almost from scratch. These asymmetrical military struggles are something I’ve spent half a lifetime reading up on, ever since I started taking an interest in the Irish War of Independence that my own grandfather was involved in back in the 1920s (or perhaps since I watched Star Wars long before I’d heard of Michael Collins!) To this historical dilettante, Mantlo’s grasp of how these ‘wars’ are fought, and the issues that are involved, seems very assured. At least, he gets across the fundamentals in terms that make for exciting comicbook reading.
In strict military terms, the smaller volunteer army can rarely win, so the political dimension has to be part of the struggle too. Mantlo captures this with Mari’s first mission, which is to enter the undercity and bring the masses of the poor over to her side. Just as we saw Karza had made huge swathes of the population complicit in his rule by offering them the chance at ever-longer lives, Argon too has organised his empire so that those who should be opposed to him have some stake in his dispensation. In this case, the poor are involved in gambling their body-parts in the hope of longer lives and a step up the ladder. This is quite clever on Mantlo’s part. Countries are like prisons, in that they are ruled with the say-so of the governed. Once that is lost, you have a tiny minority, no matter how well-armed, imposing the will of the rulers on an overwhelming number of unwilling people. Nightly newscasts from the Middle East are currently showing us what happens when the masses withdraw their consent to be governed.
Not just Mari, but her brother and opponent Argon too, is well aware of the political and public relations aspect of this kind of contest between the strong and the weak. Mantlo dovetails the soap opera and the political allegory beautifully by having Argon intent on marrying Slug in a grand public ceremony. By marrying the famous once-fiery leader of the revolution against Karza, he is trying to co-opt that revolution as his own, and to co-opt the people’s admiration for Slug into consent to his rule. Argon knows well that rulers rule through more than just threat of force. (Though that’s a useful part of the equation too.)
For what it’s worth, the Royal Wedding of Charles and Diana of July 29 1981 may have been on Mantlo’s mind when he was plotting the 1982 issues of Micronauts. Perhaps he had noticed how Royal Weddings tend to wash away criticism of unfair political and social systems in a tide of kitsch, pageantry and sentiment?
When they meet in issue 45, the confrontation between Mari and Argon makes for some powerful comic pages. Their close family bond and all that we’ve seen them share before now adds a tragic frisson to the scene. Mantlo and Kane highlight the Freudian intimacy of their struggle when Argon delivers the blow that ends their confrontation. While Kane’s dynamic storytelling shows us Force Commander stabbing her through the lower abdomen, we are told “Force Commander extends his evil energy through the body of his sister.”
Freudian enough for you?
The political tends to get intimately, horribly personal in the Mantloverse!